Every year Sherry and I try to set a theme for the year. The last two years we kept the same theme (we liked it so we kept it). So 2009 and 2010 were the year(s) of laughter. That was born out of the fact that almost every thing we encountered when it came to TV or movies seemed to be obsessed with death in some form. It isn’t like we watch a lot of TV – or movies. But we do enjoy a few programs (especially Master Piece Theater on PBS – don’t mock me – they are really well done programs). So, we made sure that we watched TV shows and movies – as well as focused on laughter – and we laughed a lot. That was good.
This year we went a bit more spiritual – which is something you’d expect from a pastor his wife and kids. We decided that 2011 was going to be the year of joy. The end of 2010 we talked about it – and tried to think of what that would look like. We told a very good friend of our decision to declare 2011 the year of joy. He smiled (he may have actually laughed – it still being 2010 and all) and politely reminded us that joy is often something we have to struggle for. “You’re right,” we said. Nevertheless, joy is something worth struggling for – we just were not sure what sort of things we’d have to struggle to have joy.
Have you ever given that much thought? Have you ever thought about the place of joy in your own life? Perhaps you have. Joy is a funny thing in many ways. It is one of those things that we most often notice when it seems to be missing from our lives. The Bible speaks a lot about joy.
One place in particular draws my attention to this notion of struggling for joy. The Psalmist, in Ps 30:5 wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And Psalm 126:5 says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”
Those Psalms make me think about this notion of joy coming on the heals of struggle. That seems to be a pretty consistent picture throughout the Bible and it is consistent in terms of being an accurate portrayal of what it means to be human. Joy is often related to struggle. In fact, we may not even be able to fully appreciate joy until we have struggled.
The struggle for joy is real – very real. There are all sorts of things that come up that create a challenge for us to have joy. That became clearer to me as the subject of forgiveness occupied a huge chunk of the day. If there was ever anything that could cause a person to have to struggle for joy – it would indeed be forgiveness. Think about that for a moment. Think about times when you knew that you had to go to someone who you had wronged. Think about the times when you knew you needed to forgive someone else. Think about the struggle that you may have accepting the fact that God – through Christ – moves toward you to forgive you and draw you to Himself.
There is a tremendous scene in the book Les Miserables (if you’ve never read that book – believe me – you are missing out – again don’t mock me for reading French literature – I’m smarter than I look). Jean Valjean is one of if not the main character. He is a convict whose life was “redeemed” by Christ through the life of a priest (Bishop). But Jean Valjean was never really ever supposed to know forgiveness or redemption or restoration according to the culture of the day. Throughout the novel he is tormented, chased by his past and by Inspector Javert. Javert will not rest until Valjean is punished forever. He is zealous for the law. Valjean has experienced grace.
There is a powerful scene where Jean Valjean has a chance to escape forever. A man is arrested and the authorities think he is Valjean. Valjean can keep his mouth shut. He has lived a good life. He had done loads of charity work. He has totally changed his life. Helped the poor. He was a well-respected mayor. He was a good man. So one night he comes to terms with himself. He goes back and forth in this great scene wrestling with the notion of forgiveness. It is a powerful scene as good and evil wrestle within the heart of this man. In the end though, I’d have to say that it was as much as struggle for joy as it was about good and evil and his sense of forgiveness.
I will not spoil the end of the novel for you (the movie doesn’t include it – sorry you’ll have to read). But the picture of Jean Val Jean struggling for joy even in his own soul is a profound picture to me. Especially because so many people have to wrestle with the notion of what it means to both forgive and to be forgiven. Many of us think often of the people who have wronged us in some ways. We may mouth the words, “I forgive you” but in our heart of hearts there is still a very deep burn. Many more of us can read or hear these words, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We may nod, say amen, but we still walk away from those words with a lump in our throat – wondering, could it be true.
Forgiveness contributes to the struggle joy. Of, sure, there are other things that add to that struggle. But today, as I thought about forgiveness and thought about joy I could not help but think about the intersection of these two things.
I know people who feel deep joy – inexpressible joy – each time they take the Lord’s Supper. They are overwhelmed because they have tasted – not just the bread and wine – but God’s forgiveness for them. As their pastor – serving them – I’ll tell you there is nothing more electric than seeing the anticipation in their eyes as they take the bread and cup in their hands.
There are others who hold such animosity in their hearts that joy is foreign to them. What they have tasted, even as they often take the bread and cup, is not forgiveness and joy but bitterness, regret and perhaps as a result apathy.
As the discussion of forgiveness came up I wondered aloud about the starting place of forgiveness. Some theologians would argue that it begins with reconciliation – I’m pretty sure that’s missing something theologically. Some would say it begins with hell and we work our way out from there – I know that’s missing something. Some would say it begins with the cross – and I think they are right. It starts where we start – as human beings – in light of our creation as God’s children and in light of God’s move of love toward us. We see that best in light of the cross.
But, when I think about the ways in which I have to struggle for joy when it comes to forgiveness – when it comes to think about who wronged who (or whom), or how I see myself in light of being forgiven (or not) – it seems too big – too grand of thing to think of the way that God has forgiven us (and me). But when I think of what it means to be human – and the deep desire that God has created within my heart for joy – and what a challenge forgiveness is in the struggle for joy, then I think, maybe the starting part of forgiveness is joy.
What I mean the starting point for forgiveness may be that God intended men and women to be people of joy. The whole notion of being restored by the gospel is seen in the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5). “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…”So perhaps the place for “us” to begin when we think about forgiving or being forgiven is with joy. We were made for joy but we may have to struggle for it. We may have to wrestle with forgiveness. But I think in our heart of hearts we want joy. As human beings the motive to move through the process of forgiveness is in the end because we know we have to struggle for joy.
When Sherry and I thought about this being the year of joy – well – we intended it in some ways to fall right along with the year of laughter. It does not work like that. Joy is more than happiness and it is certainly more than just laughter. It is something that we were made for but it is also something that we often have to struggle for. But I’m confident the struggle is worth it – at least the proverbs seems to imply that, “A joyful heart is good medicine” (Pro 17:22).
Next year, however, it might just be the year of BBQ – that’s probably good medicine for my heart too.
This is the best BBQ I know of…and I’ve eaten some great BBQ – but this takes top billing in my book.
If you ever want to try it – it is in Bluff City, TN. Not far from the Race Track. It will make you slap your granny it is so good.