THE SEARCH FOR JOY
In the novel, The Road, a nameless father and son travel south along a road through post-apocalyptic America. It’s a bleak, colorless world. They do what is necessary to survive, the son needing his father, the father wanting a future for his son.
At one point along the journey, they come across an abandoned shed where they rummage carefully through for something useful. It is then that the father finds some packets of seeds, flowers of various kinds. The story reads, “He sticks them in his pocket. For what?” What about their present life or their current surroundings moves him to carry Morning Glory seeds? Nothing. There was an instinctual response that transcended the circumstances. We could call it the instinct of hope.
Where there is hope, there is joy. Joy is rooted in the hope of a better future. If the future is bleak, you don’t have a lot of joy because you don’t have a lot of hope that things are going to change. But if the future is bright, even in the deepest darkness there’s a light of hope that breaks through and brings joy.
In the New Testament the man who suffered the most outside of Jesus Christ was the Apostle Paul. Yet Paul who suffered the most spoke the most of joy. He encouraged believers in Jesus Christ to “rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). How? Through the God of hope who fills you with joy (Romans 15:13). This joy, Paul knows, is independent of both outward circumstances and inward feelings. Joy is rooted upward in God.
Everyone is looking for a better, more enduring reality. But at the bottom no one has found it. We feel this when what we were convinced would satisfy us, doesn’t after a few days, months, years. So we distract ourselves from this emptiness with other pursuits. We’re happy to be distracted, if only to avoid the gaping hole nothing in this world seems to fill. Paul’s joy, though, is an upward apprehension of a more enduring reality, an attunement to a call that is less like an echo bouncing through a canyon and more like the whisper of a friend close by.
THE STRUGGLE FOR JOY
In order for the father and son to reach their hoped-for reality they must stick to or by the road. But, like them, we have a problem. We tend to wander, to want to blaze our own trail.
Because of sin we go astray in our hearts in a thousand different ways down a thousand different paths. The truth is that when we go astray we’re not creating a better path nor getting closer to what we’re looking for. Rather we’re submitting to a path and wherever it will lead us. We’re always being led or giving dominion to something or someone. We are all, each of us, always worshipping what we believe will give us what we need and/or what we want. The only question is what will really give us what we truly desire?
When Blaise Pascal, a 17th century mathematician and philosopher, had an encounter with God, he seemed to be filled with an inexpressible joy:
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob.
Not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, joy, certainty, emotion, sight, joy
God of Jesus Christ.
But he concludes with penetrating insight: “Joy, Joy, Joy and tears of joy. Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.”
In the 2012 film, The Avengers, Loki matter-of-factly states, “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.” As C.S. Lewis said to a friend, “I was not born to be free – I was born to obey.” Both bondage and freedom are found in surrender. But of all the masters we could kneel to, which one of them has freely died for the sake of your joy? “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) Paul’s struggle for joy, against Joy, ended the moment he gave up his life in surrender to Jesus Christ. It is in following Jesus that we find our freedom.
THE PLACE OF JOY
The father and son are traveling to a place that exists by faith. Everything around them points to more of the same, but in the father’s heart there’s a hope that somewhere something is different. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (Romans 8:24)
God once called a man named Abraham to leave his homeland behind in order to go live in a foreign land that God would lead him to. By faith he obeyed, but even when he arrived he knew he still hadn’t fully arrived. He was “looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:8-10) Abraham’s faith didn’t cause this city to exist, but the existence of this city caused Abrahams faith. Faith is looking forward to.
To pursue something is in a sense to be drawn by something. There is something our heart finds irresistible. But often our desires and feelings change and so we stop one pursuit and begin another. Our heart remains undecided, uncommitted. What if there was Something that never changed and that our heart found always desirable and always beautiful in a way that never exhausted our interest, affection, love, or admiration? This one thing could stand forever as the object of our hope and joy, of our salvation from perpetually desiring to be, yet without hope of ever fully being, satisfied.
Jesus the Son of God came to earth from a place of perpetual bliss and joy. He didn’t come to ask us to choose what place we felt was best nor to let others choose for us. Rather, having loved us from eternity, he came to prepare a place that he chose for us and that he has chosen us for. He has asked us neither to prepare it nor to prepare ourselves – because we never could. By his death and resurrection alone have preparations been made. His joy was an enduring reality with his Father and with us, but the cost of sharing that joy was an unbearable reality without his Father. He gave up his place in heaven to take ours on the cross, so that we could leave our place in sin and take his in relationship with God. He was utterly forsaken by God, so that we could be completely accepted by God.
However, the cross and the grave mark just the beginning.
Down the path comes a new world, a world full of life, love, and joy. It will be unlike anything we’ve ever seen, heard, or imagined, and yet always hoped would exist. This world is like dipping your finger in a cup of water and touching it to your lips, but the world to come will be like drinking from a cold cup and satisfying a long and enduring thirst. The world to come is like the glow of light, or the pleasure of music, or the sound of laughter, or the rich aroma of food, coming to us from the feast down the hall of time. There and then there will be no future loss, only fullness of life, because in Jesus, and from him and through him, we will receive and enjoy everything eternally.
Walk on, he’s coming to meet you.