by Rev. Matthew C. Harrison
Several years ago at the advice of a dear friend I took a hard look at what might seem for me a rather unlikely topic: joy in the Christian life. “So many pastors and Christians have so little joy today,” my friend observed. “These are difficult times.”
At first, I scoffed at the prospect. Isn’t joy a topic reserved for the slick TV preachers? Isn’t it the domain of the “prosperity preachers” who get virtually every chief part of the Small Catechism wrong? Isn’t joy more the mere foam on the beer rather than the tasty draught itself? But against my dour and better judgment, I determined, with a decided grimace, to open a Bible.
Soon I was racing through the pages, text to text to text. My memory was bolstered by concordances and commentaries piled about my Christmas vacation easy chair. I was dumbfounded to find the topic of joy shot through the Bible. I found joy and rejoicing pervading the Psalms (4, 5, 16, 30, 51). I found joy in the Prophets (Isaiah 35) and in the Gospels (John 1516). I found joy on the lips of Jesus (Luke 10:20) and in the lives of the people He touched (Luke 2:10). I found joy on the lips of Mary (Luke 1:47) and Zechariah (Luke 2:67ff.), in the womb of Elizabeth (Luke 2:41ff.), on the lips of angels (Luke 2:10). I found joy at the manger. I found joy at the resurrection (Luke 24:41). I found joy over life (Ecclesiastes 9), joy in the midst of death (John 11:1415), joy in worship (Psalm 100). I found joy amidst persecution and suffering (Luke 6:23; Col. 1:24). I found Paul’s letters packed with joy (Gal. 5:22). There is even joy in repentance (Ps. 51:8). I found joy in references to faith and hope and love. I found joy over the gifts of friends, work, family, food, children and marriage. I found joy over new believers! And more important than anything else, I found reference after reference to the Lord’s joy over me, sinner that I am (Luke 15:2024). And guess what? I began to rejoice over it all!
If you, dear reader, are anything like me, you recoil at the tiniest whiff of compulsion, of a forced and coerced approach to joy. For Pete’s sake, if I lack joyand we all do in one way or anothersomeone telling me to be more joyful is about as joy-inducing as a dental drill! Inspecting the Word of God on the topic, however, is quite a different matter. You see, the mighty and active word of God actually delivers what it talks about. Its Law actually damns (Jer. 23:29). Its forgiving Gospel actually forgives in the reading and hearing and preaching of it. “For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit” (Heb. 4:12). And the very Word of God can create and sustain a joy the likes of which we’ve barely conceived. That’s why it’s vital for this life that we let the Word of God have its way with us, that we “buy while the market is open.”
In the Bible, joy is much like faith itself. It flickers and wavers. At times, it appears to be snuffed out altogether. And yet through every storm and trial, the very things that threaten it actually kindle it and bring it to a blaze. Joy may be a simple smile at the blessing of another sunrise, a profound happiness at a family reconciled or a belly sore from laughing over an evening with old friends. As joy is tested and grows, we even learn to “rejoice in our sufferings,” because we know they produce great things in our lives.
The Lord has created us for joy and has provided His Word to give it to us no matter what we face. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
“Let’s go!” Mark 1:38
> For more on Christian joy, see A Little Book on Joy: The Secret of Living a Good News Life in a Bad News World (St. Louis: CPH, 2011). Go to cph.org.