Where's Your Joy?

Two years ago, I saw the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen in church.  I was completely taken aback.  It was after the service.  I had decided to stay a few minutes and say a few prayers, to spend some time with the Lord.  I was sitting about halfway up on the left hand side of the church.  When I turned to leave, I noticed that there was only one other person in the church at that moment, a young woman who was sitting on the right side of the church toward the back.

She was completely lost in prayer.  Her eyes were transfixed on the crucifix hanging over the altar in the front of the church.  Walking down the aisle toward the exit, I couldn’t help but notice that, as this young woman was completely lost in prayer, she was also smiling from ear to ear.  From time to time, she was even giggling.  Laughing.  While praying.  It was as if she was actually happy to be there.  It was as if she was actually happy to be praying.  It was as if she couldn’t contain the joy she felt being in the presence of her Lord.  It just radiated out of her.

I had never seen anything like this before.  I had never seen someone so happy, so full of joy, while praying.  Whenever I’d seen other people lost in prayer; whenever I’ve been lost in prayer, the look on our faces has been sullen, serious, solemn, intense.  Which is really sad.  Because, next to love, joy is one of the two marks of the Christian life.  Radical, Christ-like love and radiant joy are the two things that are supposed to distinguish Christians.  Our love and joy are supposed to set us apart.

Houston Smith is widely regarded as the preeminent modern scholar of world religions.  Even though he passed away a few years ago, his book, The World’s Religions, is still the classic text on the subject.  When he comes to Christianity, he talks about how these two marks of the church distinguished the early church in the Roman Empire.  Those early Christians stood out because of their profound love for one another and radical love for those outside the church, especially the most marginalized.  And they stood out because they radiated an unshakable joy. 

They weren’t joyful because of their circumstances, because all the stars were aligning for them—joy that depends on circumstances isn’t joy, anyway.  It’s happiness.  Happiness depends on our circumstances working out.  No, their joy didn’t depend on circumstances; their joy defied their circumstances.  Of all the groups in the Empire, their lives were the hardest.  They were a persecuted minority, the most marginalized of groups.  They faced far more difficulty than most.  Yet, they radiated joy.  Despite their circumstances, they seemed to have found the secret to living.  Success at the greatest venture of all, life itself.  This caused those around them to wonder what the source of such joy was, to want what they had, which is what many scholars believe accounts for the unexpected growth of such a tiny outlier group.

And what was the source of their Joy?  In Christ, they knew that nothing could separate them from God’s love.  In Christ, they had discerned that they were destined for an eternal glory no person or circumstance could ever take away.  In Christ, they were transcending all that this world could throw at them. 

Don’t get me wrong.  They still experienced frustration, fear, disappointment, discouragement, and even depression.  But underneath it all, they had a constant source of joy that was unshakable.  Paul is a perfect example.  Paul was being fiercely persecuted, constantly on the verge of death—shipwrecked, stoned, flogged.  His life was as hard as anyone’s.  And he alludes to feeling dejected and depressed at times.  Yet, joy unspeakable was his constant refrain.  In Galatians 4:4 he says: “Rejoice always in the Lord.  I say it again, rejoice!” 

This week, many Christians will celebrate Ash Wednesday.  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent, a period of preparation for Holy Week and Easter.  It’s tradition for many Christians to “give something up” for Lent. 

The best Ash Wednesday sermon I ever heard, I happened to be the lector, the one who reads the scripture readings.  So, I was sitting on the altar and could see the congregation from the Priest’s vantage point.  It wasn’t pretty.  As he got up to speak, they looked miserable.  Sullen.  Even angry.  

What made his homily so memorable was that, instead of exhorting us to give something up that Lent—like chocolate, a Lenten sacrifice favorite—which would only make us more sullen and miserable—who can be happy without their chocolate?—he encouraged us to smile more.  Like we mean it!  He encouraged us to let the joy that was in us radiate out.

Joy unspeakable.  If you’re a Christian, if you really believe that nothing can separate you from the love of God you have in Christ Jesus your Lord, you have every reason to be joyful.  For God’s sake, then, let your joy shine.  As Houston Smith put it, for the Christian, life is no longer something we just have to cope with.  It is glory discerned. 

Joy unspeakable.  If you’re not a Christian and the Christians you’ve encountered have been anything but joyful, please forgive us.  Far too often, we haven’t faithfully represented or expressed the joy that is available in Christ.  But know that for the person who puts their trust in Christ, life isn’t any longer just a matter of coping.  It truly is glory discerned. 

Have the Christians you’ve known been radiant with Joy?  I’d love to hear any comments, questions, or feedback you have.  You can go to the “Contact E.J.” page and leave them there.  If you haven’t had a chance, please like our Facebook page and subscribe to our YouTube channel.  Thank you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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