Joy in a Minor Key

If Christmas is supposed to be a season of great joy, what am I to do when I don’t feel very joyful?

At our church this past Sunday, we sang Chris Tomlin’s chorus to Joy to the World:

Joy, unspeakable joy

An overflowing well

No tongue can tell

Joy, unspeakable joy

Rises in my soul

Never lets me go

I struggled to sing that. I didn’t feel like unspeakable joy was welling up in my soul. I knew there were no rivers of joy overflowing to those around me. I just felt tired. And sad.

But I still sang. And in the act of singing I did what Pastor John Piper speaks of so often–I fought for joy. I believe joy can be–and should be–fought for. Joy is not the same as happiness–it does not originate in circumstances but in truth.

When we speak of joy, we usually imagine a big smile and feelings of happiness. When we sing of joy, the music swells with an upbeat, excited air. A doleful song in a minor key would not seem fitting for a song of joy.

Yet sometimes Scripture pairs joy with sorrow. The apostle Paul wrote of joy in the midst of affliction: “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy.” (2 Corinthians 7:4) How can that be? It seems contradictory.

But maybe joy truly is different from happiness. My friend Jeff and I spoke about that difference in our co-valedictorian speech at the end of high school. I delivered my part of the speech, but I had no idea of the significance of that point. I certainly could not have imagined that 29 years later I might have to fight for joy.

“Happy” comes from the same root word as “happen,” a root which means “luck or chance.” Happiness is connected to circumstances that constantly change, or to emotions that fluctuate up and down. Thus happiness is fleeting and elusive–it comes and goes like a breeze in summertime.

Joy–at least the joy that Scripture speaks of–is a settled assurance based not on human circumstance but on God’s unchanging truth. Joy is the confidence of knowing that God is on His throne and that one day He will make all things right. Joy doesn’t ignore the sadness and pain of this world, nor does it merely try to medicate the sadness away; rather, joy looks beyond the sorrow to the end of the story when everything sad will come untrue. Joy clings tightly to that hope and sings in the midst of the sadness.

So if this Christmas is not a happy season for you, or if you also feel a dissonance inside as you sing Joy to the World without a big smile on your face, know that you are in good company. For even Christ Himself experienced joy in a minor key as He endured the torment of the cross for the joy set before Him (Hebrews 12:2).

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Trudging Along in Triumph

Advent is about waiting…and waiting is often hard.

One day our Savior will return in triumph and our waiting will be over. But for now, in the midst of the waiting, we keep trudging along in faith and hope.

Sometimes that faith is strong and Christ’s imminent triumph brings a spring to our step. But other times, hope fades in the dark valley and we trudge as though in a foot of snow.

If you, like me, are in a season of trudging, may your heart be encouraged and your step lightened with the words of this Advent devotional (by Jessica Snell, in Biola University’s The Advent Project):

Behold, Israel’s king rode to His death meek, and on a donkey. Surely there is no road harder to walk willingly than the one you know will lead to your death.

But He walked that way: to death.

And then through it.

And that is the reason we willingly walk after Him. Because our King has led the way—more than that, He has made the way. There was no way through death until He burst death open from the inside. Death swallowed Him, but it was like swallowing the sun: He was a burning light that could not stay obscured. Not even by the darkest thing we know.

And so we walk after Him. And though the road is uphill all the way—yes to the very end—our trudging is still a triumph. Though we cannot see the host of heaven that marches alongside us, though we cannot hear the trumpets during these dark and dreary days, we are still a part of the great and cheering and singing crowd that the prophet Zechariah saw: laughter on our tongues and a song in our hearts [Zechariah 9:9-17].

Because our King has gone before us, and He has made a way for us through death.

And He will meet us with a feast at the end.

Come quickly Lord Jesus, and bring our trudging feet home through Your triumph!

Eyes to See

When we read in the Gospels of Jesus’ encounter with a man who had been lame for 38 years and it says that “Jesus saw him lying there” (John 5:6), we might read it as simply stating a fact. But it is actually a very significant statement: Jesus saw him. And when Jesus saw him, it was not merely a quick glance acknowledging that someone was there but it was a penetrating look that discerned much about both the outward and the inward condition of that man.

For that man, and for most people in his condition, being seen in the way Jesus saw him was a very rare occurrence. Far more common was either the staring look of disgust or the looking away of awkward indifference. He was used to being invisible.

But Jesus saw him. Saw him enough to perceive the deeper need of his heart. Saw him not with mere pity, but with compassion. That is how Jesus sees.

In the 5+ years since Anah joined our family, we have experienced something of what the lame man in John 5 experienced–we have received rude and awkward stares, and we have often felt invisible. But at the same time, through those experiences God is opening our eyes to see others who previously were invisible to us–and not just to see them, but to see them with a bit of Jesus’ compassion and mercy.

So I am deeply encouraged when my 9-year-old son comes home from a field-trip and tells me not only about the field-trip itself but also about the people he saw there whom he thought “might have had Down Syndrome too, just like Anah.” What blessed me was the genuine kindness in his voice as he mentioned seeing those people–that it was not something weird or unusual, but was actually meaningful to him. And that was not the first time he has noticed and made mention of people with special needs. God is giving my son eyes to see like Jesus.

For my older kids too, though there may still be some internal discomfort or awkwardness, they are able to interact graciously and comfortably with others they encounter who have special needs. It is not something they avoid or shy away from. God is giving them eyes to see and a heart to respond like Jesus.

For my whole family, we are no longer “weirded out” by strange mannerisms or a lack of social graces–that is our everyday experience with Anah, so we can just smile and shrug our shoulders when we see those behaviors in others too. God is giving all of us eyes to see the person not just the mannerisms–the person created by God who reflects something of His image, no matter how broken or “strange” the exterior appears to be.

What about you? Do you have eyes to see–really see–those around you who are perhaps different than you or awkward to be around? Ask God to give you eyes to see like Jesus…

 

When Giving Thanks Is a Sacrifice

I don’t feel very thankful right now. The smile that almost always characterizes my countenance feels forced lately, while the sinister pull of cynicism darkens my mood. So as a Christian who is called to “give thanks in all circumstances” (I Thessalonians 5:18), what am I to do when thanksgiving is not bubbling out of me, especially when this is the season of Thanksgiving?

Psalm 50 gives me a helpful perspective: thanksgiving can be my sacrifice of obedience and trust.

In the psalm, God is indicting Israel, reminding His covenant people that He does not need their animal sacrifices–after all, every beast belongs to Him already and He does not ever get hungry. But then He tells them what kind of sacrifice He does desire. In verse 14, He says “Make thanksgiving your sacrifice to God, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble…” God is not interested in empty, religious sacrifice, but He cares deeply about thankful hearts, obedient hearts, and dependent hearts. Thankfulness, obedience, and trustful dependence are sacrifices that glorify Him.

The second half of the psalm shifts to God’s indictment of the wicked, but there again He repeats this idea of thanksgiving as a sacrifice: “Mark this, then, you who forget God… The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to the one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!” (Psalm 50:22-23) Thanksgiving and obedience are sacrifices that bring glory to God.

So how is thanksgiving a sacrifice? How does giving thanks even when I don’t feel thankful or happy bring glory to God? I can think of a couple reasons…

Sacrifices by definition are not random acts but are intentionally chosen. Certainly there is much thankfulness that spontaneously erupts in favorable circumstances, and when that thankfulness is directed to God it brings glory to Him. But to choose to give thanks in the midst of circumstances where an angry outburst would come more naturally, that is an intentional sacrifice. I believe that kind of intentional choice glorifies God because it is an act of faith in what I know is true, despite what I feel in the moment.

Sacrifices by definition are very costly. If it costs me nothing, it is not a sacrifice. Thus giving thanks instead of nursing a grudge is sacrificial. Giving thanks instead of dwelling in self-pity or self-blame is sacrificial. Giving thanks to God instead of congratulating myself or idolizing another person is sacrificial. Costly thankfulness may not feel tremendously thankful, but it is that very costliness which brings glory to God.

So if life is good and thankfulness comes easily to your heart this season, may God receive much glory from your spontaneous expressions of thanks. But if life is hard and complaining or bitterness is what comes most easily, then may God receive great glory from our intentional, costly sacrifices of thanksgiving as we walk in obedience to what we know is true rather than being dictated by our fluctuating emotions and circumstances.

 

To Love Is to Lament

Have you ever been shocked by what is written in the Psalms?

Arise, O God, defend your cause;
    remember how the foolish scoff at you all the day!  (Psalm 74:22)

O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
    you have been angry; oh, restore us.  (Psalm 60:1)

Have you ever wondered how the psalmists dared to speak like that to God? In fact, why in the world are prayers like that included in God’s holy word as examples of how we should pray?! They seem rather presumptuous, or at least a bit disrespectful.

I certainly have wondered those things before, and just as certainly have struggled to pray in that way. So Paul Miller’s explanation of Hebrew laments in his new edition of A Praying Life is very helpful for me:

Laments might seem disrespectful, but in fact they are filled with faith–a raw, pure form of faith that simply takes God at his word.

There is no such thing as a lament-free life. In fact, if your life is lament-free, you aren’t loving well. To love is to lament, to let your heart be broken by something.

If you don’t lament over the broken things in your world, then your heart shuts down. Your living, vital relationship with God dies a slow death because you open the door to unseen doubt and become quietly cynical. Cynicism moves you away from God; laments push you into his presence. So, oddly enough, not lamenting leads to unbelief. Reality wins, and hope dies. Put another way, the reality of a broken world triumphs over the new reality of a redeemed world. You miss resurrection and get stuck in death. 

God rebukes his people and his priests because “they did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?'” (Jeremiah 2:5-8) A sure sign of their wandering hearts is that no one is in God’s face. No one takes hold of God and pulls. This idea is so strange to our ears that I must repeat it: God is upset with Israel because they are not lamenting. We think laments are disrespectful. God says the opposite. Lamenting shows you are engaged with God in a vibrant, living faith.         [pages 173-175]

I need to lament. Life in this broken, sinful world is not as it is meant to be…and not as it one day will be. I need to lament over the childlike creativity and initiative that died in my daughter during her years in an orphanage. I need to lament over the inabilities to love that I find in myself and see in others. I need to lament the senseless devastation taking place in our own country and around the world.

“Where are you God? When will you answer these cries of my heart? Let me not give way to hopeless cynicism. Come and help me!”

 

[sigh]

I feel like I’ve been sighing a lot lately.

I sigh in frustration when my daughter forgets how to say the word “Daddy” (which she has been saying for 5 years) and I wonder if the hours and hours of teaching her to speak are doing any good.

I sigh in weariness as I force my eyelids to open this morning after another late night of work that never ends.

I sigh because the kitchen drain is clogged, and I sigh because even after spending an hour snaking it out (an hour I didn’t really have available to spend on that) it is still clogged and I have to call a plumber.

I sigh with the pain of seeing those I love struggle with sin, and I sigh with the realization of my own sin and brokenness, and I long for the day when sin and suffering will finally be no more.

In all the sighing, I am grateful for Psalm 38:9, which says:

O Lord, all my longing is before you;
    my sighing is not hidden from you.

I sigh when change seems hopeless and far away, but my sighing (and yours) is not hidden from God, and He is able to bring the change that my heart longs for but is powerless to produce. So I direct my sighing to Him in lament and prayer, and I wait in hope for Him to respond. And I hold on to the certainty that one day (as God promises in Isaiah 51:11)…

…the ransomed of the Lord shall return
    and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
    they shall obtain gladness and joy,
    and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Until that day, I sigh…and I long…and I wait. Come quickly Lord Jesus!

 

Now or Later?

My temperament is such that I am usually quite content to be in the background doing all the little (or big) unnoticed tasks that keep things running smoothly, whether with my family or at my workplace or in my home. But sometimes it’s really nice when someone actually notices and appreciates that I’m doing all those things. In fact, when people take it for granted that of course those things will get done, without acknowledging the corresponding fact that my time and my energy (and maybe my leisure or my sleep too) are being expended to make it happen, I tend to get a bit irritated.

For me as a follower of Jesus, though, the reality is that loving people well inevitably entails sacrificing time and energy (and sometimes leisure and sleep) in ways that never get noticed or appreciated. Even more so, as the father of a child with special needs, there are daily sacrifices God calls me to make, which may never be seen or acknowledged, even by my family. And so I find great comfort in Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter six.

Jesus warns us as His followers not to do our acts of righteousness for the sake of being seen by people. Then He gives three examples of when that might happen: when you give to the needy (vv. 2-4), when you pray (vv. 5-6), and when you fast (vv. 16-18). Instead, He says we are to do those righteous acts in unseen ways, and then here’s the clincher: what makes it possible for us to do these things in secret is the fact that our “Father who sees in secret will reward” us (vs. 4, 6, 18).

Often we use this truth as a scare tactic for children: “You better watch out, because God sees everything you’re doing, even when no one else sees it!” But that is totally missing the point. What Jesus is saying here is not meant to scare people into obedience, but to comfort people who are already obeying with a promise of delayed gratification.

Notice the word “will” in that phrase: “your Father who sees in secret will reward you”. “Will” implies two different things, both of which I believe are true here. It implies a certainty–it’s not that God might reward you, or that you hope for a reward; no, the reward is certain–it will happen. But “will” also implies future–it puts the verb in the future tense. This reward is not immediate. It will certainly come, but it is not yet. We have to wait for it.

And so, as I walk in to my daughter’s room, to do again what I have to do for her every day because she does not have the mental capacity to do it herself, I know I have a choice. I can grumble in my heart (as I often do, to my shame) at how much I am sacrificing and how little it is noticed or appreciated. Or I can rehearse this wonderful truth that my heavenly Father does see what I do, and that one day all of those little (and big) unnoticed, unacknowledged, unappreciated sacrifices will certainly be rewarded.

This promise is for you too, friend. If you also are a follower of Jesus, your heavenly Father sees all that you do to love others well, even if no one else sees or acknowledges it.  And He will certainly reward you–not immediately, but it will come. You can count on that!