Saturday, August 22, 2015

Cultivating the Fruit of Joy

If you were to look up the word joy in Webster’s Dictionary you would find these definitions.    1 joy 1: the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires, 2: a state of happiness or felicity, 3: a source or cause of delight  2 joy to experience great pleasure or delight.  Other words that convey the meaning of joy are: contentment, satisfaction, fulfillment, and bliss.

Typically when people talk about having joy (or not having joy) they will refer to their circumstances.  If their circumstances are favorable then they will claim to have joy.  If their circumstances are not favorable then they will often claim to be struggling with their joy.  I am not here saying that it is wrong to have joy in our circumstances.  It is ok to take pleasure in a job, a relationship, a hobby, buying a brand new car, or living in a nice home.  I find joy in many things such as: helping others find peace and freedom in my practice as a counselor, reading a good book, playing ice-hockey, anything outdoors, and spending time with my family.  I am also not saying that it is wrong to feel down or anxious when we are going through a tough situation.  However, when it comes to cultivating the fruit of joy the question to consider is, “Can we still have joy even when our circumstances are not favorable?”

Probably the best definition to ponder above is 1 joy 3: a source or cause of delight.  An important question for all of us to personally address is, “What is the source or cause of my joy?”  Is my joy dependent on my circumstances, or is my joy ultimately founded on something else.  In the end, whatever you base your joy on will be the determining factor of whether you have joy or not.  A word that is closely related to joy is contentment.  In his letter to the Philippians the apostle Paul writes of himself, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:11-12)  Here we see the apostle Paul making a claim that his circumstances have no ultimate bearing on his joy and contentment in life.  Paul informs us that he has learned the ‘secret’ of being joyous (internally at peace) and content whatever circumstances he might find himself in.  This does not mean that Paul never had a bad day or got frustrated, but that nothing could rob him of the inner sense of contentment and joy that he experienced in life.

James, the brother of Jesus, writes that we should, “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)  Here James is telling us that we should actually find joy in the trails that we face in life.  Not many (including me) will tell you that they are experiencing tremendous joy when they are in the middle of a challenging situation in life.  We are usually prone to despair and depression when we face trails.  However, what James is referring to here is that trials serve the purpose of sharpening our character and working out spiritual maturity in our lives, which has eternal value.  Whatever we might have here on earth is temporal.  In the end it will not last.  One day when we all come to the end of our lives and stand before God, the only thing we will take with us is our character and what has flowed out of it here on earth. 

So what is the fruit of joy that we are called to cultivate?  Firstly, true joy is not living in a perpetual state of feeling ecstatic and happy.  We live in a fallen world where things are bound to go wrong and affect our moods and, at times, our outlook on life.  Secondly, having true joy does not mean that we never feel downcast or disheartened over our circumstances in life.  The truth is sadness is a god given emotion and at times an appropriate response to our circumstances.  Experiencing true joy is one that learns to be satisfied and content in all circumstances of life.  Cultivating this kind of joy is significantly linked to growing in spiritual maturity and maintaining two foundational principles in life.

1.      Having a personal relationship with the God who is, and trusting in him for all your circumstances and very life itself.  In Proverbs 3:5-6 we read, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.”  Elsewhere in Psalm 9:10 we read, “Those who know your name will trust in you, for you, Lord, have never forsaken those who seek you.”  This knowledge of God implies more than a simple intellectual assent.  This kind of knowledge is an intimate knowledge that personally experiences God’s nature and character in its fullness.  It is a heartfelt knowledge that truly believes and embraces what God says concerning his people, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

The more we learn to trust in God’s sovereignty and providence over our lives the more we can have peace and joy in the midst of any circumstance we face, knowing that an omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnipresent (universal) God is in the midst of it.  With God there is no ‘comedy of errors.’  Everything that comes our way has a purpose and God is working out his eternal plan for our life, even if we cannot even begin to understand it.  Some of the most difficult circumstances that I have personally faced have become the most positive and monumental experiences of my life.  This is why the apostle Paul so confidently asserts, “And we know that in all things God works out for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Right off the heels of having a personal and intimate relationship with God is:

2.      Maintaining an eternal perspective and focus on life.  To have an eternal perspective means that we spend more time living for and thinking about the life to come rather than our existence here on earth.  I would venture to say that most of us spend about 2% (or less) of our time thinking about eternity, and 98% (or more) of our time worrying and fretting over the things of this world.  Being overly obsessed with our lives, our current circumstances, and our future will certainly rob us of joy and contentment here on earth.  Keeping our hearts and minds focused on eternity and the bigger picture of life will enable us to find joy and contentment in whatever comes our way.  Everything we face here on earth has eternal value according to God's perfect plan if we are willing to look for it.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, when the apostle Paul writes about experiencing severe persecution and suffering he has this to say, “Therefore we do not lose heart.  Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.  For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.  So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.  (II Corinthians 4:16-18)  This I am convinced was a significant factor in Paul’s ‘secret’ of being content.  Paul was not obsessed with this world, his circumstances in this world, or what this world had to offer.  Paul was more obsessed with living out his life for the glory of God, the benefit of others, and one day spending eternity with God.

Concerning our relatively short time here on earth Jesus encourages us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-22)  What Jesus is not saying here is that it is wrong to have nice things here on earth, or that material things are evil and should be avoided.  What Jesus is saying is that our time here on earth is relatively short and that we would do better to be living for eternity rather than simply for what this world has to offer.  It seems that the more we have the more we worry about maintaining what we have and the less we are satisfied with what we have.

I will close with the question I suggested we all ponder earlier, “What is the source or cause of my joy?”  The only way to cultivate the fruit of joy is to learn contentment in all of our circumstances in life, and learn to put our hope and trust in God who is greater than our very life and any circumstance we may face.