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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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!

 

A Lament for the Weary

My wife and I have had the joy of attending a national conference on Biblical counseling, put on by CCEF, for the past couple years, and this year’s conference in Frisco, Texas was our favorite so far. One of the biggest highlights for me at each conference has been the time we spend singing in worship, and this year was no exception.

I learned a new hymn there, which ministered deeply to my soul. The hymn is a lament song, written by Anne Steele in the mid-1700’s, as a hauntingly beautiful expression of her deep trust in God in the midst of weariness and doubt and struggle. I love how she addresses God as the “dear refuge” of her weary soul. In my own weariness and pain, this honest lament points my longing soul to the ever-open mercy seat of God as my sure and constant hope. Here are the first and the fourth stanzas:

Dear refuge of my weary soul,
On Thee, when sorrows rise
On Thee, when waves of trouble roll,
My fainting hope relies
To Thee I tell each rising grief,
For Thou alone canst heal
Thy Word can bring a sweet relief,
For every pain I feel

Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet,
Thy mercy seat is open still,
Here let my soul retreat
With humble hope attend Thy will,
And wait beneath Thy feet

You can listen to the hymn here, or read more about the writer, Anne Steele, from the musicians who are attempting to bring it back into circulation, Indelible Grace.

Comfort is Contagious

In 2 Corinthians 1:7, Paul connects hope with suffering: “Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort.” Because Paul believes that God comforts us not only for our own well-being but also so that we can pass that comfort on to others (2 Cor 1:4), then he does not fall apart when those he loves experience suffering. Instead, he rejoices in hope, knowing–from his own experience–that God’s comfort will come to his brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering. And in fact, Paul knows that there is a depth of comfort that only comes to those who are suffering.

Those who are comfortable need no comfort. Thus to some extent, when we avoid suffering at all cost, we miss out on experiencing a particular depth of comfort that only comes to those who suffer. I don’t believe this means we are to seek out suffering in a reckless manner. But I do believe that the reality of God’s presence and comfort means that we can obey Him in faith, even in areas that will likely lead to some degree of suffering. We can obey, knowing that in our suffering we will surely experience the mercy and comfort of Christ, and through His comfort we will be enabled to offer greater comfort to others.

I’m not much of a poet, but I was reflecting on this passage at a recent time of solitude, and God brought the title of this post to mind and then prompted me to make this attempt at expressing what I’m learning:

When suffering comes my way, God’s comfort will surely abound;

Thus suffering can be a gift, for in it true comfort is found.

When mere comfortableness is my goal, God’s comfort will not astound;

But when God’s comfort meets my suffering, then that comfort is spread around.

So God, in my suffering,

        let Your comfort to me

                 spread contagiously

                           so that others may see        

                                    Your all-sufficiency.

Strength for today–Hope for tomorrow

I love the hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness (by Thomas Chisholm). This weekend I was at two different gatherings of ministries who were celebrating major milestones and we sang this hymn at both events. Even though it is an old and familiar hymn, as I sang it again tears came unbidden to my eyes. God used one line in particular to minister deeply to my heart in that moment, primarily because of how that line connects with my own story, but also because it connected with the stories of the ministries we were celebrating.

This great hymn praises God for His faithfulness, while expounding many of the ways we as His people experience that faithfulness. In the third stanza, the fruit of God’s faithfulness that grabbed my heart was the line “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” Strength is not something I must muster up or produce, but it comes because God is indeed faithful. And hope is not merely an elusive emotion that comes and goes with the circumstances–it is a solid and constant reality because God’s faithfulness is solid and constant.

Life with a child with developmental disabilities quickly drains today’s strength and clouds tomorrow’s hope. And the more todays and tomorrows that come and go with seemingly little change can make it very hard to recover strength for yet another day, or to keep hope alive for yet another tomorrow. Add to that the ongoing battle with the sin of my heart, and strength and hope threaten to disappear altogether.

It’s one thing to sing that line in the hymn when you are feeling strong and when hope abounds–then you sing with great enthusiasm. It’s quite another thing to sing that line when your strength is failing and your hope is fading–then you sing with a deep gratitude borne out of desperation because you know that apart from the faithfulness of God, you will not be able to keep going.

And yet, God is truly faithful! In Him there IS strength for yet another day, and there IS hope that all these todays are not the end. Therefore I can sing (and so can you):

“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
  Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
    “Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!”