Shout for Joy
In Peter’s first letter it doesn’t take him long to get to the subject of joy. In verses 3-5 of the first chapter he lists the things that God in his mercy has given them – a new birth, a living hope, an inheritance, protection, and a salvation ready to be revealed! Who wouldn’t rejoice at that! In verse 6 he notes that the people to whom he is writing “greatly rejoice” in all that God has given them. Two verses later he writes that the joy they are experiencing is “so glorious that it cannot be described” (NJB). Yet, as Peter goes on to say, the truth is that even in a time of joy they may have to “endure many trials” (NLT). He wants them to know that there is joy in suffering as well.
A good definition of happiness is that it is the result of something that “happens,” like finding a parking place on a busy street. However, joy is an irresistible sense of euphoria that wells up from within regardless of circumstances. Note that while happiness is usually our reaction to something relatively unimportant, while joy requires a context of genuine significance. You shed tears of joy, not tears of happiness, when your beautiful daughter marries a fine young man.
But how does this help explain Christian joy in the midst of difficulty? Consider for a moment how severe trials have a way of bringing us to the end of ourselves. Then, when everything has gone wrong, there is nowhere to turn except to God. And since God is a God of joy, as we draw close to him we can’t help but experience joy. His joy incites joy in us. Misery has a way of driving the beleaguered saint into the presence of God and that is where a jubilant transformation takes place.
There it is! Joy, not in spite of “many trials,” but the result of trials. They turn us to the One who anointed his Son with “the oil of joy” (Heb. 1:9), and will, as Paul promises, “fill you with all joy” (Rom. 15:13). Difficulty in the Christian life is not our enemy, but a friend who drops in occasionally to encourage us in our spiritual growth.
Mark Twain the motivational speaker and author of more than thirty self-help books, has a number of good insights to share, but none better than his observation that "the highest form of ignorance is when you reject something you don't know anything about.” Why this struck me so forcibly is that I have just been reading an account of the life and accomplishments of Francis Collins, the noted physician-geneticist who served as director of the National Human Genome Research Institute. Not only his educational background (PhD from Yale and MD from UNC), but his professional achievements in modem molecular genetics give us good reason to listen when he speaks.
When Dr. Collins was in graduate school he considered him self an atheist, but somewhat later he rather realized that he had rejected the Christian faith without ever having examined it, and that was diametrically opposed to the scientific method that had ruled his life. It was time to examine his religious view of life, which he did with the help of C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. The result was a clear-cut conversion to Evangelical Christianity. What is so interesting to me is that the scientific method, which withholds any conclusion until all the evidence is examined, led a serious and informed intellectual to personal faith in Christ.
It would appear that we are not faced with two kinds of truth: scientific truth which informs us of the universe in which we live, and religious truth that deals with values and other issues that lie beyond our ability to verify. The Christian worldview holds that there is only one kind of truth: what is true in science will not contradict revelation, and what is true in scripture will not have to be set aside due to the advance of science. Since truth is one, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that everything we know to be true will exhibit an inner consistency. Otherwise truth is something less than we have always understood it to be.
So when we are tempted to reject an area of knowledge of which we are uninformed, we should consider with care the possibility that we may be exhibiting "the highest form of ignorance.” This is especially true of the Christian faith, because since the dawn of history the spiritual dimension in reality has played a central role in man's experience. To ignore it or decide against it apart from careful examination could have some serious and eternal consequences.
There is a contrast running throughout Psalm 92 that emphasizes the difference between the righteous and the wicked. The wicked are like grass that springs up quickly, but soon withers and is gone. The righteous are like the palm tree or the cedar in Lebanon in that they continue to grow year after year bearing fruit even in old age. They lift their voices in praise to God, their protector in whom there is no wickedness.
In a previous conversation Solomon pointed out to us that one of the benefits of wisdom is success. Now, in 2:9-11, he cites several more good things that will happen to those who embrace wisdom.
First, they will understand the difference between right and wrong (v. 9). At the very heart of life is the moral obligation to do what we understand to be just and fair. Wisdom encourages us to be sensitive to this “oughtness” in life, which, in turn, helps to keep us on the path that leads to happiness.
Secondly, we discover that wisdom is not merely external guidance, but it is something that will “enter your heart” (v. 10). It helps one develop what in recent years is called emotional intelligence (EQ), the ability to recognize and manage one’s emotions as a help in problem solving. To know something intellectually is helpful, but when wisdom “enters the heart” it is far more likely that something will be done about it. It is when information is internalized that we have the necessary stimulus for change.
A third result pointed out by Solomon is that when information is made relevant by personal involvement, the person discovers that it is “pleasant to one’s soul” (v. 10). It is unfortunate, but true, that in my own case the discovery of how exciting learning could be took place after, not before, my college education. Like it is to so many, learning was a bit of a chore instead of what it really is, a unique and exhilarating experience. My grandmother, who taught in a one room rural school for over 40 years, was convinced that heaven was the joyful privilege of being able to learn without interruption forever. I’m inclined to think those who might ask how that could be, haven’t yet begun the wonderful journey.
And finally, with the entrance of wisdom, “discretion will protect” and “understanding will guard” (v. 11). As in the days of Solomon, so also today, the most effective way to remain safe is to understand and be aware of what it is that threatens and what can be done about it. On a material level this runs all the way from taking a sharp knife away from the baby, to heading to the shelter as the tornado approaches. But there are other kinds of dangers as well, such as the danger of a toxic ideology, an unrestrained life-style, an uninformed world-view. In every case wisdom will warn you that there is danger down this road. It is the rebel mind that chooses to stride ahead ignoring the clear signs of danger. Wisdom is the close friend of all who prefer not to gamble with the one thing that cannot be replaced — time.
“Everybody talks about priorities and very few do anything about it.” Who said that? The answer is - I did. It is simply an observation on life as I have watched it being lived out now for over ninety years. There is a huge gap between profession and what actually happens in life.
Now that’s a rather dreary way to begin. What I had in mind when I sat down was to share what several well-known individuals have identified as the most important thing in their life.
John Wayne said it was “tomorrow”
Audrey Hepburn wanted “to be happy”
The Dalai Lama desired “harmony”
Maya Angelou said “courage”
John Kennedy said it was “physical fitness”
For Tim Tebow, it was his “relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Not a bad collection of goals. Some of them are achievable, others less so. However, the question that seems always to come up is, “Why do people so regularly fall short of their aspirations?” How often is a New Year’s resolution kept? Is it due to some basic flaw in human nature or are the goals too high?
The former suggestion reflects the historic view of the Christian faith, that while man was created to mirror the nature of God (we are “his image”), sin entered the picture at the inception of history and crippled man morally so that our essential concern is for self rather than for God and others. And I believe that to be true because it is so clearly taught in scripture.
However, that’s not the entire story. It is also true that people regularly fall short because the moral expectations of scripture are incredibly high. Let’s look at a couple from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. It says that we will inherit the world if we are “meek,” be blessed if we “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” and see God if we are “pure in heart” (Matt. 5:5-8). How are we doing on these basic requirements? Has anyone mastered meekness? Do we hunger and thirst for righteousness (that is, to always do the right thing)? And what about purity of heart? The honest people I know acknowledge defeat. But then what? Does that mean we won’t make it?
Another answer is, “Well, Jesus didn’t mean what he said.” But that is unacceptable because if he doesn’t tell the truth then he is not the one we believe him to be.
One group within the Christian faith says that the level of living of which Jesus speaks is not intended for the present age but for some future period in time. This “dispensational” approach doesn’t enjoy the status it once had.
The “reformed” school of thought holds that Jesus’ goals are intended to be unreachable; you do your best and when you fail you have to throw yourself on God’s mercy, that’s what he wanted in the first place.
I believe there is a more satisfactory answer. The ethical goals of Christianity are not intended to be reached in some quantitative way, but serve as guides to a more effective Christian life-style. To be sincerely headed toward the kind of life that pleases God is to have “achieved” it. As a parent you wouldn’t punish a child who was doing everything they could at their current stage in life to become all that you would ultimately want them to be. Only a radical legalist would require perfection in a process toward something that is impossible given our human nature.
Psalm 87 celebrates Jerusalem as the city that God has founded on the holy mountain. In the coming age, Zion will be the spiritual home not only of those who were born there, but people of every nation as well. They will all join in celebrating God with song and dance. God began his story of redemption with a single man, Abraham, but it ends with a vast group of the redeemed from every nation. They are celebrating all that their God has accomplished. The psalm concludes with a picture of everyone in Zion “making music and singing.”
Acts 7 is a record of Stephen’s masterful defense before the Sanhedrin. He had been thrown into jail for his involvement with that “scraggly group” that was going around telling people a fanciful story about a Galilean carpenter named Jesus who claimed to be the Son of God. The disquieting thing about Stephen was that when he was defending himself before the council, “his face was like the face of an angel” (6:15). Scripture records Stephen’s lengthy presentation of the history of the Jewish nation along with its many failures, closing with his severe accusation of their failure (7:51-53). This “stiff-necked” (sklerotraxelos, only here in the NT) bunch reacted severely against the charges, and in their hatred, stoned Stephen to death. He, on the other hand, was given a beatific vision of heaven and prayed to God not to hold their sin against them (v. 60).
Little wonder then, that a great persecution broke out against the church. Saul (who became Paul) had been standing there watching the brutal stoning of Stephen. That sight probably strengthened his reserve to bring this movement to a stop. His reaction was so strong that soon he was going house to house in search of “believers” to imprison (8:2). But persecution was unable to stop the growth of the early church. Quite the contrary, the reaction of those who did believe and experienced the new birth was nothing less than “great joy.” Rarely does persecution create joy! Why did it here?
From the very beginning, persecution has been the reaction of the world to those who take the gospel message with all seriousness. Early on, in the third century, Cyprian, the Bishop of Carthage described Christians as "people who have learned a great secret of life" and care not when they are “despised and persecuted." Throughout history Christians have suffered the opposition of secularism. Oswald Chambers, the Scottish evangelists and teacher wrote that "suffering and persecution are the very things that produce abundant joy in us." The question, of course, is, Why?
While I am no authority on the subject, I believe that persecution brings a person face to face with their core beliefs. They find themselves pressed to make a crucial decision: If they don't really believe what they have been saying, they are apt to deny any involvement in the "heresy." On the other hand, if their faith is real, and even though it could cost them their life, they openly acknowledge it and the true joy of authentic belief rushes in – there is no way to stop it. Truth is a healing power that emboldens the believer. It removes the hesitation of indecision. I believe that in every segment of history, God has given the joy of authenticity to those who are called on to face death for their allegiance to Christ.
The other evening Dr. Phil reminded one of his guests, “You can’t unwring a bell.” Once the clapper hits the bell, that’s it; there is no way to stop the ring. Actions inevitably have consequences. We all recognize the truth of this in our everyday world. Touch a hot stove and you burn your finger. But when it comes to the world of relationships, we tend to act as though consequentiality doesn’t exist.
Why is that? Why do we keep doing what experience has clearly shown to produce the same unwanted result. Do we hope that next time it will be different? Perhaps 2 + 2 will = 5 . . . after all. I don’t think that’s the answer. We know that excessive speed will in time end up in an accident or a traffic fine. But we exceed the posted speed limit anyway.
I think we ignore the law of cause and effect because we want so desperately to do whatever we want to do. Consequence doesn’t matter.
“Go ahead and have the extra drink; don’t remind me how gruesome an accident on the road can be.”
“Pass on the bit of gossip you’ve heard; don’t make me think about integrity being undermined by passing on information that may be damaging to another.”
“Check out the questionable picture on the internet; at the moment I don’t care about the life-destroying power of addiction. I’m going to go ahead and do it because I want to.”
We know it will never bring any lasting satisfaction, but we do it anyway. Desire dominates and we lunge forward. However, there is an alternative to failure. The bell won’t ring unless it is struck. The unwanted consequence won’t happen unless the action is taken. We understand that intellectually, but insight seems always to be trumped by desire. The missing ingredient so far is volitional – nothing less than the internal strength to say No. For the Christian, that strength is provided by the abiding presence of the Spirit. However, even then his help must be requested.
“I love those who love me, and whoever searches for me can find me” (Prov. 8:17).
The first clause is a clear statement that God does not withhold his love from those who love him. In ancient days, many tribes and cultures thought of god as aloof and under no obligation to favor those who claimed him as their deity. To get god’s approval required a significant effort on the part of the worshipper and even then it might not be enough, or offered in an unacceptable way. The God of the Old Testament, however, was a God who could be counted on to return the love offered by his chosen people. So Solomon makes it clear that God loves those who love him.
Now in New Testament times one might question the same statement as not representing the God revealed in his Son, Christ Jesus. Didn’t God say through John that he “loved the world” and that “whoever” believed would not perish (John 3:16)? That sounds like a pretty extensive and all-inclusive kind of love. Theologians will argue whether God’s love can or cannot be considered “sufficient for all, efficient for some,” but would it not be better to let it say what it says without undue concern for theological undertones? I know I am loved by God simply because I love him. My love doesn’t make him love me; it is just a simple way of emphasizing the mutuality of true love.
It is the second clause that reminds me that God is available for those who are serious about establishing a relationship with him. Those who “search” will “find.” Here again, meaning can be diminished by losing focus in the pursuit of subtle nuances. Some might say, “But I thought that man, the sinner, doesn’t search for God, but spends his life trying to get away from him. Isn’t God the father of the prodigal son and in that role watches expectantly for the son to come to his senses and return home?” The answer is Yes, God “searches” for us in the sense that he took the initiative and in the incarnate Son made a sacrifice that allowed all prodigal “sons” to return and be reunited with him. But in a slightly different sense, man “searches” for God. Deep in the heart of every person is a longing for something from without to come and fill the vacuum resulting from our being created in the image of God. That man is not aware of that for which he longs is but another aspect of the sinful nature.
So I would argue that God is searching for us and we are searching for him, although in different ways. To think seriously about the condition requires an openness to all that scripture teaches and a willingness to accept the fact that language is a less than perfect instrument for transferring information. Rejoice in the fact that God loves you and however it happens, you are enabled to get what you really want.
Although Jesus spent so much of his time ministering to large crowds, from time to time he kept slipping away to some quiet spot where he “could be alone” (Mark 9:2). On one occasion he took three of his disciples (Peter, James, and John) with him and went up a high mountain to pray. God the Son needed some time to talk it all over with his Father. I can see the three disciples as they watched their master in prayer. Gradually his face began to glow and everything around him became increasingly bathed in light. We call this remarkable moment the transfiguration. Not only did his face begin to shine like the sun, but his clothes turned a dazzling white. Suddenly Moses and Elijah were there, discussing with Jesus his coming death and resurrection. You will remember that the face of Moses was radiant as he came down the mountain with the Ten Commandments, and that Elijah was the prophet who went to heaven without dying.
This experience of the coming glory was more than Peter could handle. Not knowing what else to do, the impetuous fisherman blurted out something about erecting some shrines to commemorate the experience. But that wasn’t what God had in mind. A luminous cloud came over them and the voice of God spoke: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased!” (Matt. 17:5). They were to pay attention to what he had to say. The disciples fell to the ground, Jesus laid his hands on them and suddenly the heavenly visitors were gone. The disciples had experienced the glory of the coming age to help them understand that although Jesus would be put to death, he would rise again to the glory of the eternal state.
Apart from the transfiguration itself and the grandeur it promised, what can we learn from it for today? What immediately comes to mind for me is the certainty of life beyond death. Not only does it truly exist, but it will be a time of glorious celebration in the presence of God along with his family throughout time. The radiance of Jesus’ face promises a complete change for us from the darkness of sin in this limited world to the brightness in which God dwells. The transfiguration was a brief experience in time that revealed an eternal state of glory. Just think of it! We his children get to be a part of it all!
Robert H Mounce