Advent: The Greatest Joy

Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.  And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

James 1: 2-4

I am going to share with you a personal wrestling match with the topic of joy as I sought to write about it this week. In an earlier post, I talked about a friend who was diagnosed with sarcoma cancer. All cancer is bad, but this type of cancer is typically incurable. I was talking to her on the phone this week, and she was describing some symptoms that were causing her a great deal of discomfort. She also talked about taking a girls trip, going to the beach with her daughters, and making memories. When our conversation was over, a wave of sorrow billowed over me. I cried out to the Lord saying, “how do you have joy in the midst of sorrow?”

The dictionary defines joy as a state of happiness evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune. Certainly we have all experienced this kind of joy. It’s quite easy to be filled with joy when things are going our way, but do we have this sense of joy when it is going all wrong?

I like John Piper’s definition of joy. He says, “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world.”

The Lord took me on a journey through Scripture, seeing the beauty of Christ in the word, showing me that it is in Jesus that I have joy, even in the midst of my sorrow. Let me take you on this journey, too and allow God to speak to you this Advent Sunday about the true definition of joy.

In Christ Alone

There is a proclamation of joy that comes with the arrival of Jesus, “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people,” (Luke 2:10).

At the triumphal entry of Jesus the crowd expressed joyful praise when He entered Jerusalem a week before He would be crucified, “When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen,” (Luke 19:37).

The height of joy is seen at Resurrection Sunday, when the disciples of Jesus were filled with grief and confusion. It was the faithful women who made the journey to the tomb to anoint the body of Christ, who wouldn’t find Him lifeless and lying in the tomb, but instead they would find joy.

“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to view the tomb. There was a violent earthquake, because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and approached the tomb. He rolled back the stone and was sitting on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was as white as snow. The guards were so shaken by fear of him that they became like dead men.

The angel told the women, “Don’t be afraid, because I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. For he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has risen from the dead and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there.’ Listen, I have told you.”

So, departing quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, they ran to tell his disciples the news. Just then Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” They came up, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus told them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to leave for Galilee, and they will see me there,” (Matthew 28:1-10, emphasis mine).

In the fourth gospel, we hear the word “joy” from Jesus Himself, “I have told you these things so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete,” (John 15:11), and “So you also have sorrow now. But I will see you again. Your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy from you,” (John 16:22).

Fruit of the Spirit

Joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The law is not against such things,” (Galatians 5:22-23).

In 2 Corinthians 6, the apostle, Paul, goes into great detail to describe the character of his ministry. It is the stuff of life:

  • “Great endurance”
  • “Afflictions…hardships…difficulties”
  • “Beatings…imprisonments…riots”
  • “Labors…sleepless nights…times of hunger”
  • “Purity…knowledge…patience”
  • “Kindness…the Holy Spirit…sincere love”
  • “The word of truth…the power of God”
  • “Glory and dishonor…slander and good report”
  • “As unknown, yet recognized…as dying, yet see—we live”

And “as grieving, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet enriching many; as having nothing, yet possessing everything,” (v. 10). He experienced highs and lows, and everything that this world sees as well-being, success, and good fortune. His gains and great losses could have stunted or even prevented the fruit of the Spirit in his life, but instead Paul’s perspective was shaped by the Spirit.  Paul saw it this way:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead,”

Philippians  3:7-11

Joy In the Midst of Sorrow

When I look back to the dictionary definition of joy and think about “well-being, success, and good fortune,” it’s really all about perspective. Piper correctly points out that our perspective is through the Holy Spirit. Well-being, success, and good fortune are not the words I would use to describe my friend battling cancer. You probably wouldn’t use those words to describe the dark times you have experienced either. It is only because of Jesus, through the lens of the Holy Spirit, that we can experience all of the difficulty, and “consider it a great joy,” to consider it well-being, success, and good fortune.

“Bear your sorrows bravely, for they are appointed of your Heavenly Father in supreme wisdom. Bear them joyfully, for they will bring forth to you the peaceable fruits of righteousness.”

C. H. Spurgeon

Instead, we face our difficulties with joy, despite our difficulties, not on our own, but because we have the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit cultivates joy in us through our knowledge of Christ in the word, but also seeing the works of Christ in the world. We feel a sense of joy in the beauty of the sunrise, the birth of a child, the laughter with friends, or cheering on our children at a game or a band concert. But also in loss, pain, struggle, and trials, because we know that God is working all of this into something for our good (Romans 8:28). We have Someone who is worth it all…Jesus. Do you have the surpassing worth of knowing Christ as your Lord?

Let me leave you with these words from my friend, when I asked her the question that I asked God, “how do you find joy in the midst of sorrow?” She told me, “Relying on Jesus – moment by moment. Putting my faith and hope in Him alone because without Him there is no joy.”

Light the candle of joy, and rejoice in Christ alone! 

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