(In a sermon on this blog I wrote about joy and how it differs from contentment, happiness, and pleasure. That sermon is entitled “John 15:1-11 Rooted in Joy.” I would ask the reader to read that sermon first to appreciate what follows below. In this article, I will look at some quotes from the New Testament with various comments which I hope will help us understand the paradox of joy within authentic Christian faith and experience. I begin with a profound insight from Archbishop Tutu.)
Discovering more joy does not save us from the inevitability of hardship and heartbreak. In fact, we may cry more easily, but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreaks without being broken. (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
The Third Sunday in Advent is traditionally associated with joy. Luke 2:10 reads, “And the angel said to them (the shepherds), ‘Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall come to all people.’” On the last night of Jesus’ life, he said to his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” “These things I have spoken to you” refers to Jesus’ teaching comparing God as the vinedresser, himself as the vine, and his disciples as the branches stemming from the vine. Jesus said that he abided in God and his disciples abide in him. A mutual abiding in deep love is the overall context of the Christian faith. So, the good news begins with great joy at the birth of Jesus and Jesus’ life ends with a promise that his joy will become his followers’ joy. Jesus’ life is bracketed by joy.
However, Jesus’ life was a paradoxical mixture of joy and sorrow. He could party, and he could weep. He could comfort, and he could confound. He could affirm, and he could denounce. He was met with admiration and devotion, and he was met with slander and condemnation. The early church theologians maintained that while Jesus was the Word, he was also fully human experiencing glories and defeats, hopes and despair, approval and opposition. Those theologians taught that in Jesus, God experienced the whole of humanity and creation and took it all into the Divine Self for healing and redemption. In Jesus, we see a Crucified God who has cast the Divine Lot with our common lot. God’s joy is directly related to God’s compassion and solidarity with Her creation. For us humans, hope is anticipated joy. We “hope against hope” even in the worst of situations because we trust that God has the last word in our lives and in Her creation. And that last word is and always will be love—love that achieves its goals through patience and never-ending faithfulness. The angel was correct on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Good news of great joy shall come to all people”. Because love is eternal and is the very essence of God, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All will be well. And all manners of thing shall be well.” But in the meantime (and we all live in the meantime), such joy at times seems paradoxical at best and a fool’s fantasy at worst. We live daily in that tension, a tension our Lord also experienced during his life on earth. I’m sure he had his struggles and could not always understand the events surrounding him and plaguing the multitudes. But he trusted the very good news he incarnated—that God is love, is for us and not against us, and would be faithful to Her promises. According to the Gospel of Luke, he ended his life with this prayer: “Abba, into your hands I commit my spirit,” even after quoting the opening words of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
In the remainder of this article, I want to look at certain passages from Paul’s letters which affirm and bear witness to the paradoxical nature of Christian joy. But first, I ask your indulgence in allowing me an excursus which, of course, you are free to skip.
I have often lamented the fact that Paul has been terribly misunderstood and unappreciated. Paul was not misogynistic. (All New Testament scholars agree that the words “Let women keep silent in the church” in I Corinthians 14 are a scribal addition to Paul’s letter. Those words interrupt the context of this passage, and elsewhere in that very letter he affirms women speaking within congregations. Many New Testament scholars also doubt Paul wrote Ephesians where women are told to be subject to their husbands.) Neither was Paul the homophobe he is often accused of being. His reference to homosexuality in his letter to the Romans must be interpreted in light of the overall context of the letter. Furthermore, the best Greek scholars are unsure how to even translate words in other letters which some versions assume refer to homosexual behavior. Also, for the past five-hundred years, Paul’s letters have been mistakenly interpreted through the lens of Reformation Theology. Paul was neither a Lutheran nor a Calvinist. He should not be blamed for the ignorance, theology, and misunderstandings of later generations. The man was simply writing letters to congregations he knew and loved. I’m sure he would be flabbergasted to know that two thousand years after his death, Christians would view these letters as a part of the Holy Bible. And he would be shocked over the ways the church has misinterpreted his radical message of good news to all people—a message he saw as an alternative to Caesar’s bad news.
The passages I want us to consider regarding the paradoxical nature of joy come from two of Paul’s letters, Philippians and II Corinthians. Philippians is often referred to as the “epistle of joy.” Paul founded the congregation in Philippi (Acts 16) which was probably his most beloved church. Many in the church were poor, but Paul saw them as “rich” in the Lord. They were generous, loving, faithful, and supportive of the apostle. When Paul wrote Philippians, he was once again in prison. He did not know whether he would be liberated by Roman officials or by execution. He found uncommon joy and encouragement from the little house church in Philippi. (We do not know where or when during his ministry Paul was when he wrote his letter to the Philippians.)
On the other hand (and in sharp contrast to the Philippian church), the church in Corinth was a constant pain in the rear for Paul. They were afflicted with pride, greed, immorality, divisiveness, and doubts. In the passages we will consider from the Corinthian correspondence, Paul is defending his ministry and his right to be an apostle. In both of these letters, we will find references to joy and its paradoxical nature.
Paul begins his letter with gratitude for the Philippian church: I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. Philippians 1:3-5
In spite of Paul’s current condition (imprisonment), he takes great joy in this Philippian church which he extols as being in partnership in the gospel with him from the beginning of the church’s formation. He found in them kindred spirits which served as an encouragement to him in his own dangerous mission. He was well aware of their poverty and vulnerability. But he also knew of the strength of their faith, the constancy of their love, and the daily discipleship which characterized their lives. He shared with them both the cost and the joy of good news for all people.
In our second passage from Philippians, Paul freely admits to the church in Philippi the gravity of his present situation. He doesn’t know what his fate will be. Roman prisons should not be compared to “white collar” facilities for the rich and famous. Treatment was harsh and abusive. Paul has even heard that some of his questionable colleagues are disparaging of him even as they preach the gospel. Paul pours out his heart to his true partners in the gospel in this little house church. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I shall rejoice. For I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I shall not be at all ashamed, but that will full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Philippians 1:18-21
Even in his vulnerable situation in prison and while he is being slandered by colleagues, he still rejoices that Christ is being proclaimed. He trusts that even presentations of the good news by questionable preachers will in the end be fruitful. Why? Because he believes that the Spirit of Christ will lead those hearing such proclamations to a true understanding of the faith. I can’t begin to imagine having that kind of faith and joy if I were in circumstances similar to those of Paul. His trust and joy are so deep that he will rejoice whether he is allowed to live or if he is executed. He fully understands what Jesus meant when he said, “Those who seeks to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for my sake and the good news will save their lives.” He trusts that whether he lives or dies, he is in the hands of the same God Christ committed himself to as he took his last breath. And that trust, in spite of trying and deadly conditions, allows him to rejoice.
Paul knew that those Christians in Philippi understood and possessed the kind of joy which emboldened and inspired him. The following two passages further reveal the paradox of Christian joy.
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of 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 2:1-2
These two verses precede Paul’s great Hymn of Christ which profoundly and poetically communicates the nature of the Incarnation. Paul has so much confidence in the Christians in Philippi that he can teach them the “meat of the gospel” in all its depths. (Paul said to the Corinthian Christians they thought they were mature in Christ, but all they can digest is pablum! They are, at most, babes in Christ.) He invites the Philippian saints to have the same mind that Christ had as he gave himself through love. And he writes that their faithfulness in partnering with Jesus in that love will “complete my joy.” The fulfillment of others in Christ (the kind of Christ he writes about in the Philippians 2:3-11) is the source and completion of Paul’s joy.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice. Let all people know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds safe in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:4-7
Paul entreats the Philippian Christians to find their peace in Christ which alone can free them from anxiety and give them joy regardless of their daily struggles and suffering. Only those grounded in Christ and his ways can know at the deepest level a peace, joy, and gratitude which defy the logic and reasoning of the world.
I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me; you were indeed concerned for me, but you had not opportunity. Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:10-13
This final quote from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi reiterates the secret he has learned to be content regardless of what comes his way in life. He once again expresses his gratitude for the concern this little house church has for him. Their prayers, support, and love give him comfort and great joy in spite of his present circumstances.
The passages I want us to consider from II Corinthians give us some idea of the trials, difficulties, and suffering Paul faced in his ministry. I would ask you to consider how you would respond if you had to face the tribulations and hardships Paul endured as he followed his calling. Would any of us be able to know joy, gratitude, and contentment in the midst of such conditions?
Paul defends his apostleship and ministry saying that he has endured “far more labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods, once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; at night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. II Corinthians 11:23-28
Paul also writes the following in defense of his ministry: We put no obstacle in any one’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watching (sleepless nights), hunger; by purity, knowledge, forbearance, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left; in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. II Corinthians 6:3-10
These passages provide an excellent testimony and example of the paradoxical nature of joy in the Christian faith. Archbishop Tutu’s quote at the beginning of this article (which I encourage you to read again) is perhaps more understandable in light of the incredible example of the Apostle Paul. II Corinthians 6:3-19 in particular expresses that paradox. I would draw your attention to the last words in this passage: AS SORROWFUL, YET ALWAYS REJOICING; AS POOR, YET MAKING MANY RICH (in the things that really matter in God’s world), AS HAVING NOTHING, AND YET POSSESSING EVERYTHING. These words define the discipleship not only of Paul but also of such saints as St. Francis, St. Clare, William Wilberforce, John Wesley, George Fox, Margaret Fell, John Woolman (my favorite saint), Clarence Jordan, Dorothy Day, Mother Teresa, and many others whose names have been forgotten but chose to live “in Christ.” They have known the blessings and the cost of a faithful following of a Crucified Lord. In Galatians 5, Paul lists the gifts of the Spirit. Joy is the second gift mentioned, sandwiched between love and peace. I suggest that such a placement was intentional.
If you are like I am, you may realize how shallow and trivial our understanding and experiences of joy are in our Christian faith. Advent and Christmas are excellent opportunities to recover the deep and costly nature of a joy which can be good news to all people.