On Sunday, I found myself grasping for words as I stood before my congregation trying to hold out one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life, namely, that our suffering is filled with joy. We are a people who are always “sorrowful, yet rejoicing.”
My words seemed to fall flat, or at least short of this incredible, indescribable reality. So here I am, trying again to explain the unexplainable. I want to take a couple of blogs (who knows how many) to dive deep into how and why we are a people who rejoice in suffering.
Romans 5:3 says, “…we rejoice in our sufferings…”
Before we can talk about how and why we find joy amidst suffering we must talk about what joy/rejoicing is. What is joy…true, biblical joy?
Joy is easy and difficult to define. It is easy because we all have a sense of what joy is through our own experience. We know what we mean when we use the word “joy.” But, it is hard to actually express that known meaning with words because our experiences of joy are wordless movements of the soul. Joy is something that happens within our hearts more so than our heads.
As soon as we attempt to describe joy…we feel as though we are doing a disservice to what our heart has felt and known. It is like trying to describe a sunset…even the most beautiful words cannot replace the experience of the eyes beholding the final moments of a day’s end.
Due to this difficulty, many people try to define joy by saying what it is not. In my experience, this typically leads to contrasting joy with happiness…usually by saying something like this: “Happiness is an emotion based on external circumstances, but joy is a reality based on eternal truth.”
I get what is being said and I do not totally disagree, but I do think pitting joy against happiness is problematic because they are both felt and often they are felt together to the point that they really cannot be distinguished.
Again, I get what is being expressed by this sentiment, primarily, that there is a flimsy-surface-level-self-centered-happiness that depends on things going my way. I don’t want anyone to confuse that with biblical joy! But, I also don’t want anyone to confuse that with biblical happiness!
The Greek word makarios is most commonly translated as “blessed,” but it just as accurately means “happy.” Reread the beatitudes of Matthew 5:1-12 to get a biblical description of happiness.
My point is simply this, I don’t want to pit joy against happiness in such a way that people think joy has nothing to do with happiness. Nothing could be further from the truth…joy has to do with real-true-deep-eternal happiness!
So what is biblical joy? If it cannot really be defined in words, but only experienced…how shall we get at its meaning? Perhaps pointing at biblical pictures/experiences of joy is the best place to begin. There are many, but I will simply go straight to my favorite…
Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
Jesus is showing us what the kingdom of heaven/God is like. So what is it like? His answer…supreme joy!
In this story, Jesus makes no bones about the fact that joy is stirred up within us by things outside of us. Whether that is possessions, people, experiences, or whatever…certain things move our heart and soul toward this thing we call joy! And in this passage, we encounter a man that finds a treasure… a treasure that is so joy producing, he is willing to sell everything… everything else that has ever brought him any sense of joy… he sells it all so that he may own this treasure. This treasure is worth more than all of his previous possessions put together, and the joy it produces is more than if you added together all the joy he’d previously experienced.
Jesus reveals to us that joy and value/worth are connected. Things our heart values produce joy…and the more something is worth to us, the more joy it produces. When your heart finds something beautiful, glorious, amazing…the response of the heart to perceiving such things is to feel what we call joy!
And Jesus’ words in Matthew 13 beckon the eyes of our heart to see that nothing is of more value than God himself! Therefore, nothing produces joy like God! He is the buried treasure that we are willing to sacrifice everything to possess! When our hearts behold the beauty, the wonder, the majesty, the supreme value of God, they swell with the indescribable response of ultimate joy!
Much like the man in Jesus parable who joyfully gives up everything because he has found a superior source of joy…so too the Christian is willing to suffer the loss of anything for superior joy in God.
Herein, we begin to glimpse how joy amidst suffering might be possible in the life of the believer… because the source of our joy is God who is supremely worthy! Suffering cannot remove God as the source of our joy! Nor can suffering subtract from the value of God and make him less enjoyable. If anything suffering highlights the value of God! In Matthew 13, does not the man’s willingness to sell all he has highlight the superior value of the treasure he discovered and his superior joy in it?
This is the picture of ultimate biblical joy, namely, that joy is the response of the heart to seeing glory (value, beauty, majesty) and there is nothing more glorious/joy producing than God. When you posses God, you posses supreme joy. This is the starting point for understanding joy amidst suffering.