This week during Advent, we celebrate the JOY of Christ’s coming to earth. We all yearn for joy, especially at this time of year when it seems we should be overflowing with joy. We sing, “Joy to the World” and read about the angels who brought, “good tidings of great joy,” and hang ornaments on our trees that proclaim, “JOY!” We find in Galatians that joy is a fruit of the Spirit. But how do we “keep in step with the Spirit” in a world that pulls us down paths that lead us to what feels like the opposite of joy?
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25
JOY is a present, a gift of the Holy Spirit, born out of relationship. It’s actually the one fruit of the Spirit that I’ve wrestled with the most over the years; mainly because I didn’t understand it. Am I supposed to be happy all the time? If I’m not happy all the time does that mean that I’m not “keeping in step with the Spirit?” How do I make myself more joyful? But as I studied, I realized that joy is more than happiness. And because joy is a fruit of the Spirit, it means it’s already inside me. Staying in relationship or “in step” with the Holy Spirit activates that joy.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23
JOY is an emotion; but it contains more depth than happiness, as joy is not dependent upon circumstances. It’s more of a perspective we acquire as we listen to the Holy Spirit, submit to the will of God, and consider the sacrifice of Jesus. We’re told that we gain joy from hard times. Honestly, when I discovered that verse I reacted the way I did when my mom told me broccoli was good for me. Blah.
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. James 1:2
Really this verse, like broccoli, can be terribly hard to swallow, especially when we’re flailing around in the deep end of life. But, often, it’s when we are “hard-pressed on every side” that we get a front-row seat to witness how great God’s love is for us. It’s during these times that we are pushed to experience the joy that we read about. The joy that’s more than happiness. And we’re pushed to rejoice in the bigger narrative; God’s redemptive story often feels so intangible that we forget how truly miraculous it is. Do you ever get so caught up in your own story that you forget the immense love that prompted the Creator’s sacrifice? I sure do. Those “trials of various kinds” have often pushed me out of my own story and forced me to look God’s love in the face, forging a deeper faith and a hard-fought joy and a truer perspective. What does it look like to, “count it all joy?” Sometimes it seems God just hands us joy out of the blue; other times we must fight for that joy.
There have been a few times in my life where God showed up in a big way right away, just when I needed Him. At the moment of my husband Jay’s accident in Haiti, God spoke so clearly to my heart, promising that He would be with me no matter what and that I’d be ok. This was a gift of joy that carried me through a heart-wrenching event and would be a memory that would strengthen me in the challenging times to come.
However, it has seemed that more often, when life is tough, I have had to lean into my relationship with God to find joy. A strong relationship means talking and listening and doing it repeatedly. So most of the time, joy comes as I talk and listen to God, repeatedly. It takes practice and discipline to look for God’s faithfulness, goodness and love even in the middle of the hard. This is when “keeping in step with the Spirit” looks more like a wrestling match sometimes. Usually, it’s Me (in the Spirit) vs. Me (in the flesh). Me in the flesh wants nothing to do with endurance or character and would rather trade self-pity for hope. Me in the Spirit meditates on God’s Word and is therefore able to accept suffering with joy because I see the bigger picture that God has written and am walking close in relationship with Him. When I am in the place where I am utterly grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice and that He has prepared a place in eternity for ME (even though my flesh my fail), then I can rejoice no matter how rough life gets.
Please hear me: The discipline of choosing a joyful perspective is not easy. And I don’t have to feel happy to walk in joy. There have been seasons where it was only through God’s mercy that I could even say, “God is good.” There have been seasons when I was so angry at God that I didn’t want to talk to Him, much less listen to Him. Seasons when I was too weary to keep myself “in step” with the Spirit. I couldn’t make myself joyful - that’s when my Father in heaven would use the Body of Christ to encourage me, to speak truth to me, to serve me, to hold me up. Because I had surrounded myself with Christian community, help wasn’t far away. Joy comes out of relationship. Relationship with God, relationship with others.
Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope… Romans 5:3-4
JOY is our strength. As we grow to treasure our relationship with God, we gain a joy that strengthens us. In the book of Nehemiah, as the Israelites were working to rebuild Jerusalem, God used Ezra to rebuild his people. As Ezra read and explained the Word that the people had neglected for so long, the people wept. But Nehemiah counseled them not to grieve anymore over their sins, reminding them that the Lord was still their God and that they were still His people. Joy came as they understood God’s Word, rededicating themselves to their relationship with God.
The joy of the Lord is our strength. Nehemiah 8:10
I sat in the counselor’s office one winter, supporting my mom as she grieved the loss of her parents. Because she battled bipolar disorder, it was especially challenging for her to wade through her loss. Her counselor told her something I’ll never forget: that she needed “joy-strength” in her life. He advised her to surround herself with community and family and that the joy that came from spending time with the people who loved her would give her the strength to endure her suffering. I watched the truth of the “joy-strength” concept play out in her life, as she was strengthened by spending time with her grandkids and her family and her small group. She was strengthened by relationships. She was strengthened by joy.
In fact, Jesus himself was strengthened by joy as he faced the suffering of the cross. His joy was the anticipation of a Son sitting right next to His father, the anticipation of a Shepherd spending eternity with His flock, and the anticipation of a Father welcoming His prodigal children home.
… who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Hebrews 12:2
How can we celebrate the “Spirit of Christmas” this year? No matter how hard life gets, we can respond in JOY to the fact that Jesus came to be with us, to save us, and that He joyfully looks forward to eternity together with us. We can be intentional in pursuing our relationship with God and with others. We can anticipate spending eternity with our Heavenly Father. And, as we “keep in step with the Spirit,” we can enjoy our relationship with Him right now.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. Luke 2:10-11