Joy – Missing, Presumed Lost In Action

How to manage your stress books are two-bob-a-dozen. It’s a big business saving one and all from crashing and burning. Stress is “in,” centre stage, the flavour of the month, lapping up all the publicity it can get.

But what help is there for those inundated by joy, swamped by the good feeling that life is going in the right direction, marvellously at peace in a messy and confusing world? How do we save the joyful from losing touch with reality, from floating off the planet through sheer satisfaction with their lot? Imagine there being no apparent strategy to keep them at least moderately panic stricken from time to time. Who will rescue these strange people from surfeits of unbounded joy? We desperately need help to manage our joy levels.

Why was Jesus a Joyful Person?

Of course, the leading question is: whatever happened to Christian joy? Who has made off with it? Was Jesus slightly light headed when He proposed that His joy would be in us and that our joy would be complete? Did Paul have a touch of the sun when he proposed the idea of being constantly joyful? Are we really joyful people? Not the back slapping extroverts with the pub laugh, or the mindless purveyors of shaggy dog stories, but people who really do seem to be genuinely joyful?

It’s time for a little bit of amateur definition. Joy is apparently not diminished by hostile circumstances, personal pain or intransigent people. Jesus and Paul between them would have lost out in the joy stakes right away if that were the case. Joy does not hinge on ideal conditions, or sweetness and light in the absence of trauma. Rather, the more the life of Jesus is contemplated, the greater the mystery of His joy. He had every reason to go to bed in bad grace and be thoroughly turned off with life. His own colleagues were slow learners, ambitious and often at odds with each other. His critics could spoil a good day by getting upset at the sight of handicapped people being healed. That’s enough to bring on more than passing depression.

Perhaps our mind’s eye view of Jesus is a bit off target. We tend to think of Him as being mostly serious and solemn. He was, after all, carrying the weight of the Kingdom and the cross was looming up before Him. But who of us like to spend time with the serious and solemn folks? The common people listened to him eagerly. He was a great raconteur. They loved His stories and He clearly loved the people. But He was also described as the Man of Sorrows acquainted with grief. Yet, the life destroying formula of pain, rejection, misunderstanding and suffering did not eliminate His joy.  Indeed, it was for the joy set before Him that he endured the cross and despised the shame.

The Genius of the Joyful Church

If Jesus, as Head of the Church, knew deep joy why are many of our congregations seemingly joyless places? Our ability to fall out of fellowship with each other, engage in petty criticism and act with a stultifying lack of imagination means that we have missed out badly somewhere. All the evangelism programs in the world will not bring people into a church which feels like a graveyard on a winter’s afternoon. Indeed, a joyful church probably would not need such programs anyway.

Just why do we surround ourselves with strategies, action plans, short and long term goals with a bundle of fall back positions if we are devoid of joy? If the best we can offer is a pious pessimism, a romance with routine and a I’m-blowed-if-i-know-how-this-church-can-make-it spirituality, then we are up the creek without even a hymn book. Perhaps it’s better to be bumbling, disorganised, joyful saints madly in love with God and people than highly scheduled go-getters bringing in the Kingdom at high speed. Who we are is much more important than what we do.

Jesus connected love and joy. One led to the other. There is, therefore, the dreadful possibility that the absence of joy may be nothing more than the signal of absent love. The joyless person may be a loveless person and, by the same equation, the joyless church might be one where genuine love has been cancelled out by studied intolerance, emotional distance and cosmetic camaraderie. All the hype in the world, even if it is packaged with a Holy Spirit tag, is a cheap delusion without the sustaining qualities of love and joy.

Now all this has the potential to upset the congregational apple cart. Maybe we should be running How-To-Love-Your-Problem-People Seminars, or conducting Joy Workshops, or Let’s-Do-Away-With Programs-Until-We-Really-Enjoy-Each-Other Conferences. The loving, joyful church probably won’t have time to tinker with victorious Christian living schemes since it will be bowled over by people who have suddenly discovered, perhaps to their surprise, that they are welcomed and accepted without having to master the jargon, put on the mask and be overly serious.

It’s time, friends, it’s time. Time to quit the self-defeating games which put people off-side. Time to stop the petty quarrelling and graceless score keeping which demeans and discourages. Time to embrace the long view of life which is untroubled by passing reversals and the inevitable grinding of the gears which is all part of ministry. Time to be generous and forgiving. Time to remember that life is too short for unrelenting heaviness of spirit.

Reasons for Joy in Pastor and People

So, what should bring joy to a pastor and congregation? Joy hovers around when:

  • You see a much prayed for person finally coming to faith in Christ (followed by prayers of praise)
  • There is a baptismal service (with much celebration)
  • Visitors drop in to a service for a look-see and the warm welcome brings them back next Sunday (to another warm reception)
  • Numbers hold up and increase even in small ways (and you know that this is God at work)
  • Some of your ideas finally stick and are implemented (even if you are surprised)
  • Appreciative comments reveal you hit a home run with that sermon you were actually wanting to forget (God still moves in mysterious ways)
  • You call in to see someone just at the right time (and sense that the Holy Spirit pulled this one off)
  • With your encouragement and support a troubled person passes through a crisis and emerges at the other end with their faith in even better shape (while you heave a sigh of relief)
  • You see your people becoming more open to each other, to fresh attitudes, to challenges and growth (which raises your excitement levels no end)
  • People who have been upsetting each other and everybody else in the congregation break into genuine caring and understanding (yes, miracles still happen)
  • You sense within yourself an increasing ability to cope with difficult situations and you don’t get rattled when the self-appointed church pessimist gets on the phone (again)
  • In the middle of a long, dark night of the soul, you feel strangely secure (and know that someone somewhere is praying for you)
  • You are totally seized by a passage which bursts into life for you and you can hardly wait to preach on it next Sunday (how will I keep this one to twenty minutes?)
  • Your leaders start to show a deep concern for the health of the church and really pray, talk and work to that end (and you begin to feel a bit redundant)
  • Fringe people in whom you have invested enormous amounts of time decide to pitch in and start attending regularly (and while glad, you still wonder why)
  • Your own kids tell you that they are proud of what you are on about in the church (and you quietly thank the Lord)
  • You are frequently aware of your own failings and limitations (and wonder with awe at the magnificence of the God’s grace)

Joy? There is No Shortage!

Joy? It’s there in abundance actually. Heaps of it. Reasons to believe that God is outrageously at work are all around us. It has to do with focus. If we are always looking for trouble and disappointment, we will surely find it.  If we want a diet of serious pills, so be it but it does not have to be that way.  Let’s pray for a new view of what’s going on.  Let’s see all the little, imperceptible movements of the Spirit of God. They might be the size of a hand now but they will become a downpour before too long if we can just hang on.

Now for the sting in the tail! Just who is going to dare to live the life of love and joy? How will our people ever grasp what this new focus is all about unless it is modelled for them? It is the privilege of leadership. Joy is simply the PIN number of the Lord’s overflowing provision for us. We need to tap into it a little more frequently.

Rev John Simpson