I was out for a walk with Sherry and our new dog Magnolia on Monday (Cash the wonder dog is on the left in the picture). You might remember Monday. It was a beautiful, spring day. Glorious. But Monday was also the day that TN got the order from Governor Lee as well as our city and county mayors to “shelter safe.” The VA governor gave the order to shelter at home as well – but it was more of a mandate. A lot of us knew or at least felt that order was very soon to be upon us. You’d have to be living under a rock (which may be a wise move) to be unaware of the rising concerns and rising numbers of cases associated with COVID-19. These are uncertain times indeed and they are times that raise not only anxiety levels but they raise questions. In fact, there are all sorts of articles floating around right now about how the church – how Christians – should respond.
Well, that was the topic of conversation as Sherry and I walked our neighborhood: COVID-19 and being Christian. Before long, the question of joy entered our conversation. That may seem like a strange topic to talk about given our current situation, but I have to say it started with Sherry because that’s how she rolls. She’s an incredibly smart lady and a deep thinker with a huge streak of kindness and empathy for others and a truly joyful person at heart; all of those things have been impacted by our situation – and so – the question on her heart had to do with joy during uncertain times.
At any rate, our conversation got me to thinking and studying and reading about joy again. You see a few years ago, our family went through a pretty rough season – nothing like a pandemic – but a tough time for the Hutton crew. At any rate, Sherry and I decided that through that time we wanted to understand joy amid uncertainty, joy amid chaos. So, we studied it and tried to practice having joy amid chaos. But that was years ago, and, to be honest, I had mentally put that aside but Sherry remembered. You see that’s why a friend of mine has reminded me over and over that I outkicked my punt coverage when I somehow won Sherry’s heart. But that’s another story for another day – it’s a very good story – but I’ll share that later.
But now is a very good time to reflect again on the notion of joy in uncertainty. Of course, as you’d expect, I turned to the Bible – to the biblical story. As you may know, joy runs through the Bible from cover to cover – from the Old Testament to the New Testament. In fact, there are several different words in both Hebrew and Greek (the original languages that the Bible was written in) that express joy and or rejoicing (which is usually an outward expression of being joyful). And there are a variety of reasons for joy and or rejoicing. People throughout the Bible are joyful because of God’s provisions, creation, marriage, children, and a whole host of reasons. But to be truthful, that’s what we’d expect – right?
When things are going right, we’d expect people in the Bible to be joyful and to rejoice. But that’s really not what we are interested in. We are interested in the complexity of handling uncertain times as people of faith, as Christians. The good news is that the Bible relates to accounts where God’s people were joyful in times of uncertainty and chaos.
In fact, in the Bible, joy is often associated with times of uncertainty even in times of lament and grief, in times of trouble when the outcome is almost certain death. In other words, the Bible makes it clear that a person whose faith is anchored in the Lord can be joyful amid chaos and they can do so without neglecting the fact that the situation is bad and they are joyful while also grieving or lamenting. That’s the sort of complexity of emotion that we need to understand because that is exactly what a lot of Christian folks are going through right now. So then, how does the Bible speak into it?
Well first, it doesn’t try to answer the question of why – which frankly is a silly question to be asking. N.T. Wright has a profoundly beautiful article in Time that came out a few days ago. In the article, Wright (who is both a scholar and a minister) talks about the sort of people who are going to blame this pandemic on God by saying He’s punishing humanity. Don’t listen to those sorts of people. First of all, I don’t think they are right and second I don’t think they are helpful. Instead, as Wright points out, the real question is what do we do? Well, as Wright suggests – we understand that part of what it means to be Christian is to lament. That’s not something that Christians often talk about but the Psalms are filled with examples of lament – and yet – the overwhelming majority of those Psalms of lament end with elements of joy.
How? How can it be that a person can both lament the difficulties – the challenges of uncertainty and at the same time be joyful?
Well, within the Bible, expressions of biblical joy are almost always tied to something God has done or is going to do. The Bible Project (see website) highlights joy as “an attitude God’s people adopt not because of happy circumstances but because of their hope in God’s love and promises.” In fact, throughout the Bible, the people of God call to mind evidence of God’s love and promises repeatedly in order to remain joyful even in uncertain times or even in times when death is imminent.
In fact, Psalm 94 takes the reader through a prayer that is asking God to strike down those who are oppressing His people. We don’t with full certainty the historical circumstances surrounding this Psalm but we can tell by reading it that things aren’t good. It is clearly a time of uncertainty. The Psalmist lays out his case to God about the wicked and all they are doing and then he starts to speak of ultimately how God will “not forsake his people” nor will God “abandon” them. Ultimately, the Psalmist says, that if God had not been the Psalmist’s help, he would have “lived in the land of silence.” It doesn’t take a seminary degree to know what that means. But then the Psalmist says, “ When I thought, “My foot slips,” your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up.  When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.” To cheer one’s soul simply means to bring him joy. The consolation of what God has done and what he’s promised to do bring the psalmist joy.
The psalmist’s circumstances haven’t changed but his attitude has. There are still issues with those who are oppressing God’s people but can remain joyful in his concern because his hope is in what God has done and what he’s promised to do. But that’s not the only Psalm where that happens. There are a ton of those – but let me just provide one more.
Psalm 118 is one that talks about the goodness of the Lord that leads to joy amid troubles. From the beginning, the psalmist says, “give thanks to the Lord for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!” Then the psalmist calls to the people to repeat that, “His steadfast love endures forever!”(2-3). There is a lesson in that reminder that God’s love endures especially since the psalmist goes on to recount that in times of distress, he called on God and God heard his cry and delivered him (5-6). Then he recounts being “surrounded” by troubles – by enemies; they were like bees swarming but God heard him in his anguish and helped him (vs 10-13). Again, the circumstances that surrounded the psalmist hadn’t changed but his attitude did. In fact, in Psalm 118:25 he again cries out for God to save them.
Nevertheless, during the time of uncertainty, the troubles, the psalmist recounts evidence of God’s love and promises. Even in troubles, the psalmist can speak of joy because God is his salvation. That gives him joy – so much so that he points to the future – a future that speaks into our own circumstances. The psalmist writes, “ I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.  The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.  This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.  This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:21–24 ESV).
One of the greatest aspects of Psalm 118 is that it is considered a messianic psalm because it points to the coming of the Messiah. The psalm points to God’s promise of salvation that will come through the messiah and it is “marvelous” which leads the psalmist to a joyful response even in uncertain times and days filled with trouble. The greatest expression of God’s love and the greatest fulfillment of His promises is anchored in the promise of the coming Messiah and the psalmist expresses that joy; but in the New Testament, joy in the midst of uncertainty is assured in the fact that the Messiah has come.
One of my favorite times of year is Advent / Christmas. I love that season and the fact that right after Thanksgiving the church begins to remember Christ’s advent – his first coming with the same sort of anticipation that Christ will come again that the psalmist and wrote about. And it seems fitting that right now in our own time of uncertainty and just days before the start of Holy Week, that we turn to a text that is most often associated with Christmas / Advent – in order to discover how we can have joy during uncertain times.
The first century was anything but smooth sailing, especially within Judea. There was a lot of political and social upheaval. Plus, it was an age of subsistence living and high infant mortality rates. In other words, it was an age rife with uncertainty. The Gospel of Luke conveys a story that I think is one of the most profound and beautiful accounts in the entire Bible. It starts in verse 8 and goes to 21.
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,  ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.  And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.  And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.  And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:8–21 ESV).
The part I want to draw your attention to is that phrase in verse 10 – when the Angels fill the night sky – they speak to the shepherds about two things. First, they tell them not to be afraid. Now I know that the shepherds were probably shaking because it isn’t every day that the night sky is filled with a host of angels – at least none that I have ever seen. But they are speaking to the shepherds about fear – and they give them a reason not to fear. They need not fear because of this great news of joy – joy for all people.
And that great news of joy was that the promised Messiah had come at last. They need not fear anything at all because the angels had come to proclaim this great news that God’s love was being made known to the world through the fulfillment of His promised Messiah – Jesus. Into uncertain times, God’s love and promises continue to speak through the person and work of Jesus. The greatest expression of God’s love for the world, God’s love for humanity is made evident through Jesus.
In fact, Jesus’ disciples went about the work of the kingdom during uncertain times. They often faced opposition, persecution, and even death. And yet, while they expressed sadness at times, and while they dealt with grief, they nonetheless balanced it with a sense of joy because of God’s love made evident through Jesus. Acts 13 tells the story of Paul and Barnabas – and others – facing persecution – even physical abuse – and yet they were “filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” Paul’s entire letter to the Philippians is devoted to joy and Paul wrote that letter from prison. And in 2 Corinthians 6, Paul reminds those folks that in all sorts of uncertainties – afflictions, hardships, sleepless nights, hunger, beatings, imprisonments, etc., etc., even in his sorrow, he is still joyful.
If I have learned anything from my study of the Bible, I have learned that the Bible never glosses over the reality of human experience. Nor does it gloss over human failings and faults. It tells the story with accuracy. And even here, with the subject of joy, the Bible doesn’t avoid the fact that a great deal of the time when joy is mentioned it is mentioned in connection with uncertain times – with chaos – with trouble. And yet, the overwhelming lesson to be learned is that the circumstances did not give shape to the faithful. No, they were able to be joyful because their hope, their assurance, their lives – even in uncertain times – even when death was imminent – their joy was rooted in God’s love and promises made all the clearer through the person, word and work of Jesus.
The biblical reality of joy is one that underscores the complexity of the circumstances because it allows a person to lament and be joyful at the same time. Biblical joy recognizes and freely admits that the road we are on is a tough one and it grieves me but I can still be joyful because I trust in God’s love and His promise of salvation through Jesus.
I do like the way that Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, defined joy. He said, “joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.” I like that because it resonates with the biblical idea that joy is not rooted in circumstances but rather in the fact that God loves us and has promised to see us through – no matter how uncertain things may be. So it is that those who belong to Jesus – when we go through uncertain times – even times when death is imminent – can approach it with joy, not because of inner strength or because they don’t care – but because out of their assurance in what God has done in Christ and the promises of what He will do and the assurance that their future – both here and now and beyond – is secure in Christ.
I’d like to wrap things up today by asking you to take a little time over the next few days to work on being joyful. Again, one of the great things about biblical joy is that it acknowledges the uncertainty of our days. But it also focuses on the ways that God loves us and has made his love known to us through Jesus. So, I’d like to ask you to do some “homework” to remain or even become joyful during these uncertain times.
First, I want to ask you to first consider the greatest gift that God has ever given to us. Go back to Luke 2 and read through the angelic proclamation of Christ’s birth. How has Christ’s coming into your life brought you great joy? How does the promise of Christ’s second advent bring you joy? Spend some time reflecting on the way Christ’s coming has given shape to your life even in times of uncertainty.
Second, take a walk through the Bible and look at all the verses that have to do with joy. You may need to open up your Bible’s concordance to do a quick search – or – do a Google search if you can. You may want to use an online Bible for that search, too. I often use the ESV.org site or NETBible.org. I have also included a list of verses at the end of this devotional.
But as you go through, take a look at the situation of the text. See if you can trace the way the verse turns toward God’s love and promise during those uncertain times. What promises from God are evident in that passage? How does it give shape to joy or rejoicing? In what ways can you incorporate that into your life? What does joy look like to you from the passage?
Finally, I’d encourage you to pray the way the Psalmist often prayed. He didn’t hold back what was really going on in his heart, nor did he deny the circumstances. Instead, he spoke with God about all of it. But very often, as he prayed, he reflected on God’s love and promises. Take some time to pray about the current circumstances and talk to the Lord about your concerns but don’t forget to thank God for His promises. Ask the Lord to help you to be able to grieve as you should for what we are dealing with but also to remain joyful because of who HE is and His promises to us.
Here are a few texts that deal with joy. There are tons more, of course, but these might help to get you started.
- Proverbs 17:22 A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
- Psalm 94:17–19  If the LORD had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.  When I thought, “My foot slips,” your steadfast love, O LORD, held me up.  When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.
- Psalm 118:24 This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
- Psalm 119:111 Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart.
- Ecclesiastes 9:7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.
- Jeremiah 15:16 Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.
- Romans 14:17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
- Philippians 2:1–2  So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,  complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
- Philippians 2:17–18  Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.  Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.