December 17, 2017

Consider It All Joy

My family and I were missionaries in Kyrgyzstan for some years.  Our furloughs in America were busy and tiring.  We had to pack too frequently, try to keep the children sane, and say the same things a hundred times to people we’d mostly never see again.  The summer I’m thinking about was a particularly difficult one.

I was asked to speak to one more women’s group at a church that supported us.  They were lovely people.  They all wanted to know about my work overseas and my spiritual life.  Many of them presumed my spiritual life was triumphant – I was a missionary, after all.  I spoke about the struggles of Christians in Kyrgyzstan and the challenges of our work.  Afterwards they went around the circle and told what they thought about my message.

Again and again they spoke of joy – how joyful I seemed, and how joyful they felt listening to me.

Joyful?  Not me.  I’m often impatient, discontented, and critical.  I was not aware at that time of feeling joyful.  My first (silent) reaction was, “These women have no insight or are just lying to be polite.”  (I said I was critical.)

But then a blinding realization occurred to me.  Maybe they were right and I was wrong.  Maybe they saw joy, if not in me, then through me.  Perhaps God was working through me in a way that others were more aware of than I was.  If so, what they saw was God’s joy, not mine.

Then joy must not be just a feeling, since I wasn’t aware of feeling it.  What was joy?

The common understanding is happiness, expressed as cheerfulness.  But most of the holiest people in the Bible and in Christian history don’t seem to be unflaggingly smiley.  Joy is mentioned in the Bible many times, but it doesn’t seem to be equated with comfort or happiness or freedom from troubles.

In the days following that meeting, I considered if there was anything genuine I could claim, if not joy.  Only one thing occurred to me.  Those years in the mission field, when I felt uncomfortable, frustrated, overworked, and isolated, when I had rocks thrown at me and the windows of my house smashed, my goal was at least obedience.  I was told to die to myself daily, and God provided me with daily opportunities to do that.  It didn’t feel joyful to me at all; it felt, in fact, like death.

But what if obedience is the same thing as joy but only looks different from the inside and outside?  I started flipping through the concordance to see how obedience and joy were related in Scripture.

“If you keep my commandments,” says Jesus in John 15:10 and 11, “you will abide in my love; just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.  These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.”

In Matthew 25:21, Jesus concludes a parable with “Well done, good and faithful slave.  You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your Master.”

The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “. . . run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.” (Hebrews 12:1b-2a)

And James says, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (James 1:2-3)

I concluded that joy isn’t a feeling or a thing we have; it’s almost more of a place, one that we’re invited to enter into and abide in.  Joy is the keeping of God’s commandments; it is faithfulness in discharging duties.  It’s the result of endurance, and also the reason for it.

Many of us are suffering these days; Jeff Dunn has had the honesty to express what a lot of us are feeling.  We struggle with families, jobs or lack of them, church, health – you can add your own list.  The happy-clappy Christian culture tells us to be joyful.  Are we supposed to be hypocrites?  We can’t always be cheerful.  But we can obey.  We can be faithful.  We can endure.  And we can remember this:

“Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.  He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” (Psalm 126:5-6)

Comments

  1. I have an assistant pastor who is probably my best friend (or in the top three 🙂 ) he has been deeply discouraged lately, so he gets THIS post, and maybe a gift card, to lift him up. Your words are so on target.

    Greg R

  2. SottoVoce says:

    C.S. Lewis’ autobiography “Surprised by Joy” described his own experience of joy as a deep longing for something that nothing in the world could satisfy–a desire almost painful in its intensity, but which he longed to recapture once it passed. He came to understand it as the desire for God. I’ve found that helpful in learning to distinguish joy from happiness–I am often unhappy, but even in my sadness I can anticipate the day that I will see Him. In fact, this desire is usually stronger when my circumstances are bad, which means that joy in the midst of suffering is not as nonsensical an idea as it is at first glance. The “feeling” called joy is the occasional overpowering desire for something beyond that I get when I listen to certain music or read certain books. The “state of being” called joy is not seeking this feeling above all else or denying my pain, but remembering God’s transcendence and looking forward to the day when He will make all things right.

  3. Lisa Dye says:

    “But what if obedience is the same thing as joy but only looks different from the inside and outside?” Damaris, this is beyond insightful – it is revelation. You have given me a new perspective. Thank you.

  4. Scott M says:

    Most Christians think that missionaries are more holy than they are. So they assume that since you are a missionary overseas, and God knows THEY wouldn’t do it, then you must be super Christian.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Most Christians think that missionaries are more holy than they are.

      And within missionaries, where the missionary is posted to determines holiness/rank, Africa being the most prestigious posting, with Melanesian or Amazon jungles second. (Never mind that with current demographic trends, the USA might soon be a mission field for missionaries from Africa…)

      In the Middle Ages (and Renaissance Spain) it was Cloistered/Contemplative Monks and Nuns instead of Missionaries who were “more holy than the rest of us.” But the Clericalist attitude was the same.

      • Damaris says:

        Strangely, when I had to listen to the “Oh, I could never do what you do” comments, they felt more like insults than compliments — as if I were a freak of some sort. But I just liked the travel and the challenge; not everybody has to.

      • Scott M says:

        I would think that Africa would be least prestigious.
        What is really funny is the growing amount of missionaries to Europe. Part of the “glamour” of missionaries is the perceived hardship level.
        Like Greece and France would really be mission work. 🙂

        • Why is that?

          At any rate, what Americans in general don’t quite realize until they run into someone is that a lot of of non-U.S. Christians send their missionaries here.

  5. Denise Spencer says:

    Thank you so much for this essay. I had never connected these two thoughts together this way before. But it’s so true! I have definitely experienced joy from obedience…and we certainly won’t experience His joy unless we are obedient!

  6. Another Mary says:

    I so appreciate your candid observations. It lifts me up and is comforting to know that even though some days when it feels like I’m doing my best just to hang on, that it matters and it’s okay. No shining, shouting ‘victory’ but Obedience. Yeah, I can be at peace with that..

  7. I don’t know what to say other than I resonate with what you are speaking to and pray we may all learn to receive and abide in the joy of Jesus, however he comes to us.

  8. Thank you from the bottom of the heart of one who (with his wife and kids) was an overseas missionary for a many years. Much of what you expressed is what I have felt. Many times I and my family were stressed out. So many times we did not “feel” joyful. But, we certainly obeyed.

    Again, thank you.

  9. Wow.

    The story’s great–joy seen and not felt; the conclusion’s great–obedience is the source of joy that may not be even felt …

    I think I get it.

    I agree with Lisa above. This is real revelation.

    One disagreement with Scott. France would have a very high perceived hardship level in my eyes. The unbelief is rife there.

    • Damaris says:

      There’s the difficulty of simply living — shelter, food, fighting disease, dealing with attacks — that people in places like central Africa or the muslim world face; then there’s the fruitfulness or not of the work, which is an especial issue in some European countries. I admit I have mixed feelings about missionaries going to Europe (or maybe not so mixed). First a lot of Americans who go tell me that their goal is to convert Catholics to Protestantism, which makes me mad; then, even though many Europeans are apostate, nonetheless they have the resouces to re-evangelize themselves. Where we were in the muslim, post-Soviet world, I met countless people who knew for a fact that Christians were cannibals and cast the evil eye. One guy — okay, he was drunk — insisted that Jesus and Alexander the Great were the same person. My point is that nothing true about Christianity is known or available to be known in many places. However, living there is for many missionaries less attractive than living in Spain or France, for obvious reasons. There are many great people in the mission field, but there’s a lot of self-delusion as well. It’s a good thing that it’s really God’s work, not ours.

      • “nonetheless they have the resouces to re-evangelize themselves”

        I’m not so sure this is the case. My parents were faithful missionaries in France for many years. They gave up a very comfortable life in the USA to be obedient to their call.

        It is true that they were not in fear of their lives, nor did they want for food or shelter. However, it is hard to convey just how dark it is there. As Mr. Pavao just said above, the level of unbelief is staggering. They country is so anti-religion that I’m not sure they really have the ability to re-evangelize themselves. There is simply nothing there anymore to start with. The country desperately need missionaries. The work is grueling, and the fruit comes in trickles.

        My parents had no desire to convert those of any church persuasion. Though I find the desire to convert Catholics to Protestants in France a bit suspect, due to the inability to actually find any self-labeled Catholics to “convert” even if they wanted to!

        In spite of all this, my parents did see fruit, and they did minister to their neighbors, and the obedience did manifest itself in joy.

        Thanks for some great insight.

        • Damaris says:

          That’s excellent. I’m glad to hear that they had some fruit. I understand what you’re saying about spiritual darkness. I really don’t think we can compare mission fields, since everyone’s experience is both unique and limited. There’s darkness everywhere. The small town I live near in the Midwest is as dark as anything gets, really.

        • Tom Huguenot says:

          Just my point of view as a French Christian.
          I honestly do not believe that we need more US missionaries coming here or, for that matter, in Europe.

          I have worked with American missionaries for many years when I was an Evangelical. Some of them are still dear friends, but I clearly saw the inefficiency of the whole system in terms of human and financial resources.

          I have heard for years and years my own culture being harshly critized (to say the least) because it was “anti-religious” or “dark”. (or “immoral”). First of all, this is extremly discouraging when you are a national believer.
          Second, if the place is so dark, why not send the money to those who have the best results, that is, national workers (I’m not speaking for myself, as I am now salaried by a local church)
          Third, I realized that if by being “anti-religious” you mean opposed to the religiosity promoted by much of evangelicalism, it’s maybe not such a bad thing.

          I know from first-hand experience that it can be extremly difficult for someone who grew up in the comfort of the US Evangelical cocoon to survive in Western Europe. I think this is also because many missionaries I have dealt with were just not intellectually prepared to face the challenges of ministry on the other side of the pond. Feelings of inadequacy are extremly common among missionaries in such a context, and after comes discouragement, and after discouragement the purchase of a plane ticket to go back to Dallas or Colorado Springs.

          As an ex-Evangelical, I am still grateful for the time I could spend with my American friends (and even happier I could marry one). I am also glad I went back to my roots, without feeling the need to compare what I am or who I am with anybody else, free at last to be a witness of Christ in my own culture.

          • Damaris says:

            Thank you, Tom. This is excellent. It’s very useful to hear comments from a different perspective from the American Christian one. I agree that many missionaries are naive and unprepared for the challenges of another culture.

  10. JoanieD says:

    “I concluded that joy isn’t a feeling or a thing we have; it’s almost more of a place, one that we’re invited to enter into and abide in. Joy is the keeping of God’s commandments; it is faithfulness in discharging duties. It’s the result of endurance, and also the reason for it.”

    That’s great, Damaris. Thank you.

  11. Christopher Lake says:

    This is very helpful indeed. Joy in, and through, obedience to God– somehow, I think that this is the very simple (though not always easy, to be sure) “key” to the Christian life– *not* the key that will “make everything work,” i.e. manipulate God to persuade Him to make life more pleasant for me, but rather, the key to simply having joy in Him and in the fact of being His adopted child. Obedience leads to joy. Sometimes in the moment, sometimes not, but ultimately, the joy will come. Thank you, Damaris.

    John Piper also has many great insights in this direction. Even though I’m not a Reformed Baptist anymore, I still love the brother. 🙂