By Pastor Glenn Pease
Edna Ferber makes a character in one of her novels say, "I like people with a splash of splendor in their makeup." Many people would be surprised to know that this is what should characterize every believer in Jesus. The world often gets a perverted concept of Christ just because Christians themselves are victims of false concepts. So many Christians are brought up to believe that godliness is such a serious matter that it is incompatible with a life of laughter and happy delight. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
John Wesley knew what he was saying when he stated, "sour godliness is the devil's religion." The facts of life will back that statement up, as well as the judgment of Henry Van Dyke who wrote, "The lack of vital joy in the church is the chief cause of indifference in the world. The feeble energy, the faltering and reluctant spirit, the weariness in well-doing with which too many believers impoverish and sadden their own hearts, make other men question their reality and value of religion, and turn away from it in cool neglect." Joy is the missing ingredient.
The Biblical ideal of godliness is, in both the Old and New Testament, a life of joy. I counted 187 references to words like joy, joyful, and joyous. Haufman Kolher in the Jewish Encyclopedia says there is no language that has as many words for joy and rejoicing as does the Hebrew. In the Old Testament there are 13 Hebrew roots found in 27 different words for some aspect of joy. The book of Psalms alone is a treasury of joy and rejoicing, often even in the midst of great trial and sorrow. There is not the slightest hint that God has any pleasure in the a gloomy soul. God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all, and the more we become partakers of the divine nature the more we will be completely free from persistent sadness and depression. Jesus told His disciples to keep their faces bright and alert even when they were fasting, and not sad and stern like the Pharisees.
The New Testament has even more words for joy. There are 326 terms for joy in the Greek N.T. Paul who suffered great sorrows and hardships uses 132 of them. He practiced what he preached and rejoiced in the Lord always, even when he was miserable. Joy does not depend upon circumstances like happiness, for it goes deeper and is based on what circumstances can never change. Aldous Huxley said, "If he were a millionaire, he would finance research for the ideal intoxicant that would abolish inferiority, fill us with love for our fellow men, make life seem divinely beautiful, and enable us to wake up the morning after without any hangover or damaged constitution." The N. T. says there is not a need for such research for it is available if we just see it. Paul urged, "Be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit." The fruit of the Spirit is joy, and this joy which comes from the Spirit of Christ will enable us to be joyfilled as was our Lord.
Christians seldom recognize that pessimism and sadness can be sinful. Robert Louis Stevenson was an incurable optimist in spite of his constant suffering, but sometimes even he could not escape the snare of depression. But listen to the way he referred to this state when in 1884 he wrote to his father: "I fear I have been a little in the dumps which, as you know, Sir, is a very great sin. There is no more abominable sin then this gloomy, this plaguey peevishness."
There have been many famous Christians who have been plagued with a nature easily depressed, but they never accepted it as anything but an obstacle to be overcome. Charles Spurgeon, the most famous Baptist preacher, for example, was preaching to his people on the need for Christian joy, and he made this confession:"I am the subject of depression of spirit so fearful that I hope none of you ever get to such extremes of wretchedness as I go to, but I always get back again by this--I know I trust Christ."
I know that safe with Him remains
Protected by His power,
What I've committed to His hands
Till the decisive hour.
In spite of their depression, men of God have known the joy and peace of believing. They have never accepted their infirmity, but fought it with joy.
Pessimism is never an option for the believer. It is of the kingdom of darkness, and must be recognized as such. Spurgeon could say after his confession, "There is an obligation upon a Christian to be happy. Let me say it again: There is a responsibility laid upon a Christian to be cheerful. It is not merely an invitation but it is a command. "Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, ye righteous." "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice." In spite of the one thousand and one things that drag us down and seek to crush our cheer and silence our song, we owe to God and this sad world a radiant life.
Kierkegaard, the great Danish theologian said to the dead state church of his day, "Everybody is too serious for me, at heart the religious man is humorous." The New Testament supports his conviction, for it is the most joy filled book in the world. Someone wrote, "It opens with joy over the birth of Jesus, and it ends with a superb picture of a multitude which no man could number, singing Hallelujah Choruses. No matter where you open it, amid fortunate or discouraging circumstances, you always hear the note of joy. Even when a company of friends gather at a farewell supper, before their Leader is crucified, he says to them, "These things have I spoken unto you that my joy might be in you, and that your joy may be made full." Even when their best friend had gone, the mourners 'take their food with gladness, and with singleness of heart, praising God.' If they are flogged for their faith, the disciples depart from the council, 'rejoicing that they are counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the Name.' When an apostle is put in jail overnight he passes the time singing, and if you listen to him in his Roman prison, you will hear him dictating, 'rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say, rejoice.' There is enough tragedy in the New Testament to make it the saddest book in the world, and instead it is the joyfulest. The religion which expresses itself in this book and which issues from it, is the most joyful religion on earth."
If you don't enjoy your faith there is something wrong with your faith or with you. It is hard to sell anything by exhibiting a poor example. It would be hard for a dirty bum to sell soap, or for a bald man to sell hair tonic, and it is hard for a joyless Christian to sell people on the joy of salvation. Paul Tournier, the famous Christian psychologist says many Christian people have come to a life of sterility because of false concepts. He writes, "All joy has been replaced by the pursuit of duty. They have come to the point of doing nothing that gives them pleasure, as if God, who loves us never required any but disagreeable things of us! They make incredible efforts, but win no victories. They are always comparing themselves with those they look upon as their betters."
But some may be objecting in their minds, you can't be joyful all the time, for even Jesus was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. This only leads to further confirmation of the truth that the believer must always be joyful. Jesus said that when we are reviled and persecuted we are to rejoice and be exceeding glad for great is our reward in heaven. The Christian is to look always beyond the sorrow of the present to the glorious reward of the future, and, thereby, be joyful even in sorrow. Jesus was no less joyful as a man of sorrows, for we read in Heb. 12:2, "Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross." Jesus was the most joyful man that ever lived, for He was joyful even as He went to the cross.
One of the most laughable perversions in the history of the church is that which gives us an image of Christ as one who never laughed or told funny stories. The way some artists picture Jesus you would think He was a sour and solemn Pharisees rather than a radiant redeemer who walked among men sharing His abundant life. He was a center of many a banquet; the common people heard Him gladly; the children flocked around Him and sat on His lap. Wherever He went He saved and healed and left people with hearts overflowing with joy. From His birth to His death the good news of great joy was the major theme of His life. One of the fruits of the Spirit is joy, and Jesus was filled with the Spirit, and, therefore, was filled with joy unspeakable and full of glory. Jesus wept with those who wept. Can we imagine that He did not rejoice with those who rejoiced? There was no mere splash of splendor in Jesus for He was splendor incarnate. To be more like Christ is to be more joyful.
Henry Van Dyke wrote, "Every great revival of Christian power-like those which came in the times of St. Francis of Assi, and John Wesley-has been marked and heralded by a revival of Christian joy." John tells us in verse 4 that the second basic reason for his writing this book was that believers might have fullness of joy. In other words, joy is a very important quality in a believer, and this part of the Bible exists for the purpose of increasing this essential quality. If the truths John writes of in this book do not add a splash of splendor to our makeup, then we are failing to listen to the voice of God speaking through this book. The first thing we want to look at about Christian joy is that-
I. CHRISTIAN JOY CAN BE COMMUNICATED.
Christian joy is not a matter of mere feeling, but is a matter of fact. It has its basis in knowledge that can be communicated from one person to another. It all begins with Jesus Himself on the night of His betrayal. In the upper room that night Jesus taught His disciples much valuable and eternal truth, and He said in John 15:11, "These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full." That is a source of all Christian joy. Jesus said that by His communicating these truths to the disciples they would share in His joy, and their joy would be complete. Now John is saying that I am now relating to you what we heard that these some truths that gave us fullness of joy might be yours also, and that you too might have fullness of joy. John is being a channel by which the truths of Christ can be communicated to us.
The important thing for us to see here is that this process of communication must go on. No link in the chain must be broken. Jesus shared His joy with the Apostles; the Apostles shared them with the believers of their day, and believers of every age through their writings. Now, believers of every age must continue to share with those of their generation. Witnessing is not trying to persuade people to join a society for the promotion of solemnity, and the prevention of hilarity. On the contrary, we are opening up the very road they are searching for-the road to joy and happiness and abundant life. The catch, of course, is we must have fullness of joy ourselves if we are going to communicate this message to others.
Thy soul must overflow if thou another soul woulds't reach,
It takes the overflowing heart to give the lips full speech.
We sing, "If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy-let Jesus come into your heart."But before the unbeliever will respond, he wants to see this wonderful joy in us who have let Jesus into our hearts. If you exhibit the joy of the Lord in your life you will need little else to convince the lost you possess what they want. G Cambell Morgan told of a Yorkshire girl who gave her life to Christ and became radiant with His joy. As she was waiting for a train, she walked back and forth on the platform and several times passed the window of a wealthy and cultured lady. The lady called the girl and asked her what made her so happy? The girl told her simple story of her faith in Christ, and the lady who would have likely resisted other approaches was melted by the reality of joy and received Christ as her Savior. You cannot argue with joy.
"Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." Joy is the fulfillment of both of these goals at the same time. Christian joy can be communicated, for its basis is in the reality of the historical Christ, and it is our highest obligation to the world to share this joy by communicating it in our lives and with our lips.
The second thing John tells us is-
II. CHRISTIAN JOY CAN BE COMPLETE.
This follows as a natural result from the first point. If Christian joy is a matter of facts, and a matter of knowing the truth in Jesus, then once one has all the available knowledge his joy is complete. In other words, our joy in Christ is only as complete as our knowledge of Christ. Little knowledge means little joy, and fullness of knowledge means fullness of joy. John is writing in this book to give Christians the additional truths they need for completeness of joy.
We see then that Christian joy is not a matter of feelings, but a matter of fact. Feelings can change like the wind, but the foundation on which our joy is based is unchangeable and remains the same regardless of circumstances. Let the Sun be put out and the stars cease to shine and it will not effect our joy, for God is still light and Christ is still Savior, and sin can still be forgiven and we still have an advocate with the Father. John has recorded for us truths that cannot help but give fullness of joy for they are eternal and absolute. Young wrote, "Beware of all joys but joys that never can expire." The joys that John writes of here are joys in Christ and they have no expiration date on them.
These truths bring us into fellowship with the eternal and thereby produce completeness of joy. Joy is the other side of the coin of fellowship. You have both if you have one. He who has fellowship with God and His children has fullness of joy. He who has fullness of joy has fellowship with God and His children. If we lack joy we can trace the reason to either a lack of knowledge of what God has revealed to us in His word or to a lack of fellowship. John wrote this book to fill up both of these lacks that Christian joy might be full. This ideal is possible to attain in this life. We can be as joyful as our finite nature is capable of being. The world offers only fleeting joy that soon burns out and leaves nothing but ashes. Byron wrote, "There's not a joy the world can give like that it takes away." Man cannot be satisfied until he has a joy that is complete, and this can only be found in Jesus Christ.
This completeness of joy does not mean the Christian will never feel sorrow and depression, and never have bad days. We still live in a fallen world where we have to endure much that is out of God's will and is the result of sin and folly and ignorance. I think it is well for us to consider seriously the thinking of this author: Leo Rosten in Passions and Prejudices writes, "Once upon a time(oh blessed time!) sensible men simply knew that life, even at best, is beset with difficulties, that frustration or disappointment or defeat is natural and as inevitable as changes in the weather.
There was a time, in short, when we all had the good sense to realize that discontent, despair, even failure are normal, that squabbles--between men and women, parents and children-- are unavoidable; that not everybody was intended by God, or fate, or biochemistry to be contented all of the time. We even had the good sense to know that anyone who is happy all the time is nuts. One of the marks of good sense and good health is precisely the capacity to be unhappy when reality warrants it--to be unhappy soundly, without apology or rationalization.
All the people of joy in the Bible also had their sad times and felt negative emotions. This is legitimate and inevitable. This does not rob us of joy, when we know in our sadness that weeping last for a night but joy comes in the morning. In other words bad and negative feelings are real and we should feel them, but we sin if we let these feelings become a hindrance to our unchanging joy in the solid rock that we have in Jesus. The N. T. is filled with Christians who had terrible times yet always had joy because they had faith and hope in Jesus, and they believed that in him they would always come out winners in the end, and often in a short time even.
They believed the promise of Christ to be with them always.
"Yea, I am with thee when there falls no shadow
Across the golden glory of the day,
And I am with thee when the storm-clouds gather,
Dimming the brightness of the onward way;
"In days of loss and loneliness and sorrow,
Of care and weariness and fretting pain,
In days of weakness and deep depression,
Of futile effort when thy life seems vain;
"When Youth has fled and Death has put far from thee
Lover and friend who made the journey sweet;
When age has come with slowly failing powers,
And the dark valley waits thy faltering feet.
"When courage fails thee for the unknown future
And the heart sinks beneath its weight of fears--
Still I am with thee--Strength and Rest and Comfort,
Thy Counselor through all Earth's changing years.
"Whatever goes, whatever stays,
Lo, I am with thee all the days!"
The goal is not to be joyful because you have no troubles but to be joyful in the midst of all your troubles. This is what we see in the N. T. Paul writes in IICor. 7:4, "I am greatly encouraged; in all our troubles my joy knows no bounds." And it was not just him, but ordinary Christians did the same, for he wrote of the Macedonian Christians in IICor. 8:2, "Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity." They did not have it made at all. They suffered and were poor, yet were filled with joy and were generous even in their poverty to help other Christians.
Joy and deep poverty! Truly strange blending.
Fullness and emptiness! Contrasting themes.
Spiritual richness and temporal leanness!
None but the Spirit could wed such extremes.
J. Danson Smith
Completeness of joy does not depend upon life being free of troubles and trials and a host of things you wish were different, but on your trust in Jesus.
Oh Christ, in Thee my soul hath found,
And found in Thee alone,
The peace, the joy I sought so long;
The bliss till now unknown.
I sighed for rest and happiness,
I yearned for them, not Thee;
But while I passed my Savior by,
His love laid hold on me.
I tried the broken cisterns, Lord,
But ah! the waters failed.
E'en as I stooped to drink they'd fled,
And mocked me as I wailed.
Now none but Christ can satisfy,
None other name for me;
There's love, and life, and lasting joy,
Lord Jesus, found in Thee!
This is what happened to the once famous atheist C. S Lewis who found Christ and wrote his autobiography calling it Surprised by Joy, for in Christ he found the joy he could find nowhere else though he searched the world over. Only in Him is there completeness of joy.
This then is to be our goal for the coming year: to aim for completeness of joy that we might communicate more effectively the joy of salvation to a lost world. The Westminister Shorter Catechism has this interesting remark. "There may be orthodoxy, rectitude, heritage and tithing in the church, but if the note of joy is not present it is no true church." We want to be a true church and be authentic Christian witnesses in the coming year and this means we must grow in our joy. Billy Graham's wife Ruth urges Christians to enjoy God more and quotes Ps.37 where we are told to delight ourselves in the Lord.
Ray Ortland, a well-known pastor of our day writes, "We Christians are abnormal and disobedient if we are anything but joyous people. We must never think of God as rigid and emotionless. He has feelings, sorrows, and the Scriptures tell us He gets angry, has pleasure, and also rejoices. Zephaniah illuminates the heart of God Almighty to us: "The Lord they God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing" Zeph. 3:17 Here God is breaking forth as a God of song, our singing Lord, the God of melody. So few really know Him as this. Do you think of God this way? Many times our guilty hearts put a stern face on God. We do Him a disservice, God is not unfriendly and austere. It takes a glad God to give us glad tidings. Our Father is a God of joy."
The Bible clearly supports his view, for we read in Ps.16:11, "Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence is fullness of joy, in they right hand are pleasures for evermore." Ps. 68:3 says, "Let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God; yea, let them exceedingly rejoice." In Rom 14:17 we read, "For the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."
There is much more of joy in both testaments, but these are sufficient to make it clear that it is a Christian duty to be joyful, and it is a goal we should all aim for to be more joyful until our joy is complete, making us better witnesses of the Gospel of joy we are to communicate to the world. May God motivate each of us to make the coming year, regardless of its troubles and trials, a year of joy so that in our lives this will not be a missing ingredient.