Thursday, March 10, 2016

Making Room for Joy

christian joy

Tell me you have seen Inside Out. It's nothing short of brilliant.

Matt and I laugh through the entire thing, ever time. All 53 times that we have seen it.

But as some introspection started, a concern grew in me, as I began relating way to much with this lady:

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Sadness. The nemesis of Joy.

Oh Joy, Amy Poehler-in-cartoon-form, how I fear that I would frustrate you.

The realization that I have to regularly fight for joy surprises me. How IN THE WORLD can it still be difficult to smile big and brave and be an optimist?

How is it that I hold up the cup of my life and often see it as half empty?

Like so many of you, I live the good life. I am blessed with a godly, gooooood-lookin' husband, healthy children, a great home, and a purposeful job. Yet I still find that if I don't fight for joy, it doesn't come.

Is the same true for you? Do you find the battle for joy an arduous one?

I wonder, if maybe, I have approached this all wrong. I have often thought joy is about being filled up. Filled up with optimism and happiness.  And even if I don't feel joyful, if I simply fill up a list of things I'm thankful for, that joy will be mine.

Like stuffing happiness into that half empty cup, willing it full.

But, I'm starting to believe there is more to it. As if surrendering, I turn that cup on it's head, spilling out it's contents. Because joy begins not with a filling up, but an emptying.

Whether you know the Bible inside and out (get it...?) or have never read a Bible in your life, we all long to feel joy. As I study a missionary named Paul, a Jesus-hater turned Jesus-lover, I see that his battle for joy began with this emptying.

Paul writes a letter to a church in Philippi while he was imprisoned for preaching Jesus. From house arrest Paul smiles big and brave and commands his readers to "Rejoice!" After years of fruitful  adventures of planting churches across Europe and Asia, he is now in chains. He is tethered, and seemingly limited. His pace had been slowed, and humbled. It is during this season of limitation that we hear him say "Rejoice!"  Paul claimed that to live is Christ, therefore life's goodness couldn't primarily be found in "being in his element", doing what he did best. Paul found joy because he learned to treasure Christ, not his career, his ministry, or his ability to feel success. I wonder, perhaps, if we can be filled with joy, after we are emptied of lesser purposes?

And to my young mom-friend, I know this is you. I see you, with a herd of sticky children at your ankles, and another on the way, and I see your humble position.  I know that you are reading this from your own version of house arrest. Maybe you are remembering your years of productivity, making money, climbing the corporate ladder, or just brushing your teeth before 1:00 nap time. Is the battle for joy strenuous because you feel tethered down, or slowed? Do you feel that your work is unseen, and thankless?

Friend, let me believe for you, that God is inviting you to greater joy as he empties you of other purposes. Could you believe that your position, however humble it may be, is a strategic placement, by a God who loves you? These years in the trenches, when surrendered to God, are indeed on task, on pace. Maybe not on pace for the kind of productivity of years earlier, but on pace for a joy that digs much deeper and much wider than any happiness this life offers us.

I see ways that God has lovingly limited me, that he might teach me about himself, and about the joy that he gives. I see the fetters he has placed on my ankles to ensure that I don't run off, galavanting about doing great works, when my greatest purpose is to first treasure him. In a peculiar way, these chains around my ankles and wrists provide for me, as they give me the opportunity to ask "Do I want Christ more than I want the freedom to do life my own way?"

Secondly, as Paul is telling us that joy is possible, he is being bullied by some other preachers. There were some men who were competitive with Paul, and jealous of his gifting. And while Paul is imprisoned, it seems that they rub salt in his wound and want to use this time to get ahead. While his competitors move about freely, with the freedom that he used to have, preaching and gaining converts, Paul was in the more humble of positions. Perhaps Paul was emptied of the fullness that we feel when we are on top, when we are enjoying success.  And as he prized Christ, he was filled with joy. 

Beautiful friend, I know that this is you.  I know you look out and see the people who have everything you wished you had. Their lot in life is what you desire- they have the job you wanted, the kind of husband you desired. They have the freedom and the success that you used to have, that you thought you would have by now. You wonder when it will be your turn to shine, your turn for life to ease up.

I have been there too. Looking around will never bring us real joy. But looking up, and treasuring the God who loves us, and sees us, will create a greater capacity for joy. Your God has not forgotten you, friend, the empty ache you fill is nothing short of an invitation to drink deep of his love for you.

And lastly, as Paul is commanding us to rejoice, his future is unknown. There sat on the horizon a consuming question mark. What did God have for him? Deliverance from his current circumstance or execution? Could it be that Paul was so full of joy because he was emptied of a planned out future? Was his strategy that he treasured Christ more than answers from Christ?

Oh long suffering friend, I know this is you. I know that prayers for a baby in your womb have been lifted up for years. Will you be delivered from this waiting, or will it continue? Oh how I want your circumstances to change.  How I want God's answer to be yes.

But even if not, how I believe that your empty space could be filled to overflow with joy.  I believe in you, and I believe in your God, that you will advance bravely in the battle for joy as you create this empty space. Oh friend, as you wait to see how God's promises will play out for you, may joy surprise you.

When the battle for joy is backbreaking, perhaps we are working too hard to fill up our cup? Could it be that we are filled up with a love for productivity, being loved by the masses, or the security of a future plan?

Are those lesser pursuits curbing our appetites for a heavenly joy?

In a moment of valiant belief, could you take the cup of your life, no longer half empty, but poured out empty and barren, and lift it up to Jesus? And as grace teaches us this art of emptying, may we learn that to live is Christ. As John Piper says, "We glorify Christ when he is better than all that life can give, and all that death can take."

When we embrace that his love and grace are truly greater than all else we could pour into, our cup overflows.

When all else begins to pale next to Christ, we can find the strength to humbly serve, to wait with hope, and to honor Christ no matter our circumstances.

Friend, look at your grace chains and rejoice in them. Whatever steps backwards, whatever quiet position, whatever circumstance that has an unknown future. Study those chains of grace, they are like a diamond solitaire on your hand, a proof of how loved you are.

You are largely loved, by a God who is working in your life. He desires to bind you to himself, that you may be filled to overflowing, with joy.

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