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).


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.

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!”

Crunch Time

It’s crunch time, and I’m feeling the stress of it. Multiple papers for my classes at Talbot have been due in the past week. My final exam is tomorrow and I haven’t started studying for it yet. There are several big events happening in my pastoral ministry, which I am responsible to oversee. Even a couple of new responsibilities that I had no way of anticipating are converging on these same couple weeks. Despite my best efforts to plan ahead and avoid a crunch like this, here it is. Maybe you can relate?

So a couple verses of Psalm 22 resonated deeply with me as I read it today. In verse 11, the lament and plea of David is this:

Be not far from me, for trouble is near, and there is none to help.

David’s troubles were far greater than my own, but I can certainly relate to the cry of his soul that God would come close. Help is far away. Trouble is near at hand. “So God, don’t also be far from me!”

He repeats a similar plea in verse 19:

But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid!

In place of the despairing groan of “there is none to help,” here David pleads with faith and hope. God alone is his help, therefore he is not left to flounder on his own. “So God, come quickly and be the help I need!”

David’s song ends with a note of hopeful praise: what will be “told of the Lord to the coming generation” is that “God has done it!” (vs. 30-31) When trouble is near and other help is far (or nonexistent), God is our “very present Help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1).

Come quickly to our aid, God, in whatever crunch time we are facing!

Adopted, yet Waiting for Adoption

Romans 8 has long been a favorite Bible passage of mine, because of the strong undercurrent of HOPE that runs through it. Hope, for me as a Christian, is not merely a nice-sounding wish that maybe things will get better someday, but it is a certainty of glory that will surely come but is not yet. Because that hope is certain but yet future, we as Christians live in a tension between what is already true and what is not yet realized fully.

Spiritual adoption is one aspect of this already-not yet tension. Human adoption–to the extent that it mirrors this same tension–gives us a more tangible picture of this spiritual reality.

Romans 8:15-17 says that we “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons,” and therefore “we are children of God” and “fellow heirs with Christ.” We have received adoption–it is past tense, completed…already. Adoption gives us a new status as children of God and heirs with Christ. That is what we are–present tense…already. But then just a few verses later, in Romans 8:23, we see that we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” That’s something we’re waiting for and hoping for…it’s not yet. So we are adopted already, yet we’re waiting for adoption. How can that be?

Adoption changes our status. God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). That is the already part. But adoption doesn’t immediately change our situation. Our status has been changed to son/daughter and heir, but we have not yet received the inheritance. Whether a child enters a family biologically or through adoption, they are still a child and do not receive their full inheritance until adulthood. And therefore we groan and wait and hope (Romans 8:23-25).

ice-cream-for-anahI see this same already-not yet tension at play in my family’s adoption of my daughter Anah. This Saturday will mark 4 years since her status changed from a ward of the state in China to the daughter of Daniel & Vera Christian. All the mounds of paperwork have been completed. She is officially ours…already. And yet in many ways it feels as if nothing has changed. We still can’t have a conversation with her–only scripted lines that we tell her to say. We don’t really know her–we don’t have any clue who she really is as a person because she’s lived her whole life letting others think for her. And we’re no longer sure if any of these things are going to change…certainly not yet. Her family naimg_0364me has changed to ours, but inside she seems to still be the same little girl that marched into our room–and into our lives–four years ago. Already…but not yet.

And so we groan, and we wait, and we try to hope. But we are realizing more and more that our hope cannot be in what we will do to train her and help her to grow. No, the only real hope we have is that God also will adopt her into His family. Because then–and only then–will there be the certainty that her broken mind and body will one day be redeemed and made whole (Romans 8:23). And then we will know her for who God has made her to be, in all her sweetness and silliness and creativity, without the dull mindlessness that now remains as a frustrating reminder of her pre-adoption life.



This year I had the privilege of sharing a devotional at my church’s Christmas Eve cantata. The theme of the cantata was “Light and Life to All He Brings” and I shared the following reflection titled “Jesus With Us in the Darkness.”

Emmanuel means “God with us.” Jesus came, not only to reveal our darkness, but that He might be with us in the darkness. And it is in the darkest places that His light shines the brightest. As an old Puritan prayer says, even in daytime stars can be seen from the deepest wells, and “the deeper the wells, the brighter thy stars shine.”

So the hope of Christmas is found not in the absence of sin and suffering, but in the very midst of our own darkness and the darkness of the world around us.

God with us. We find comfort in that reality that indeed God IS with us in our times of difficulty and sorrow and suffering. But sometimes we forget that God was with us in an even deeper darkness first. We were enemies of God, opposed to Him, our hearts and our minds set on being little gods ourselves—masters of our own destinies. And in that condition, the condition into which every one of us was born, we were destined for God’s wrath, deserving only to be separated from Him for all eternity. That is what it means to be lost, to be completely unable to make ourselves right with God, incapable of even seeking Him, much less pleasing Him. As the worship song says, we were “lost in darkest night,” self-deceived in thinking we “knew the way,” captivated by “the sin that promised joy and life” but only led us to the grave. Ephesians 2:12 tells us that we were “without hope and without God in the world.” There is nothing darker than that—that is complete darkness.

But it is into that complete darkness that Jesus came to be Emmanuel, God with us. He did not wait for us to mend our ways and clean up our lives and get rid of our sin, and we were helpless to do that even if we had wanted to. No, He did not wait for the light to dawn in this dark world or in the deep darkness of our hearts. He IS the light, and He entered into our darkness in order to bring us out of the darkness and into His light.

God with us in the darkness of our sorrow, and God with us in the darkness of our pain, and God with us in the darkness of our suffering would have no meaning apart from God with us in the deepest darkness of our sinful determination to live life autonomous from Him. But Jesus stepped into that darkness, and took that darkness upon Himself, suffering the wrath of God that we deserved, even to the point of death, death on a cross. Because He initiated, He came to us to deal with that deepest darkness of our sin, we who trust in His salvation now walk in great hope. Because no matter how dark the circumstances are around us, no matter how dark the valley of suffering that we face, we have in Jesus “God with us” and He has vanquished the greatest darkness we could ever face—the darkness of our sinful hearts—therefore we need not fear even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

He is with us—Emmanuel. That is great hope, even in the darkness.

Hope + Tribulation = Constant Prayer

Romans 12:9-21 lists a long string of concise commands depicting the kind of life that characterizes one whose mind is being transformed through the Gospel (Rom. 12:1-2). Though all of those commands do not necessarily have an obvious connectedness and flow, one verse in particular (verse 12) jumps out at me because of how the 3 commands in that verse do seem to fit together.

Verse 12 reads: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”

When I have no hope, I am not patient in tribulation, but instead, I all too easily succumb to sin and self-pity and despair. And when I have no hope, prayer goes out the window with a cynical shrug of my shoulders…”Why bother–nothing ever changes anyway.” So hope is vital to patience and to prayer.

When I have no tribulation, I do not find much joy in the great hope that I have in Christ, because life is comfortable. And when I have no tribulation, I may pray half-heartedly for that which I’m “supposed to” pray for, but I’m certainly not constant in prayer. So tribulation is vital to hope and to prayer.

When I am not constant in prayer, I find myself pursuing false hopes and human solutions for happiness. And when I am not constant in prayer, rather than patiently enduring tribulation as God’s means of refinement, I am looking for the easy way out. So prayer is vital to hope and to patience.

So these three commands are deeply intertwined:

Hope + Tribulation = Constant Prayer

Tribulation + Prayer = Joyful Hope

Prayer + Hope = Patience in Tribulation

I like hope, and I don’t mind prayer, so I’m glad those are vital components of a life that is being transformed. But I don’t really care for tribulation (or patience either, for that matter), so I’m a little less enthusiastic about that also being a vital component. But it is. God in His mercy and wisdom ordains that suffering and hardship are part of our experience as His children, in order to teach us to pray, and in order to increase our hope. And so let us pray–constantly–and let us hope–joyfully–in the midst of the suffering that God allows and brings into our life, so that, as James says, the testing of our faith would produce steadfastness in us, and when that steadfastness has its full effect, we “may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)