Thursday, March 3, 2016

How To Get Spiritual Joy

WHAT WOULD MOST Americans pay for joy? What price would they give? Modern
pharmaceutical companies know the answer. In 2010 Americans spent 16 billion on antidepressant drugs. If we add to that the amount spent on vacations and new toys, (activities pursued to amplify joy) the cost is incalculable.

In light of these facts, Christians are the most blessed of people. For joy is a fruit of walking in the Holy Spirit. Galatians five lists the first three fruits of the Spirit. They are “love, joy, and peace.” I want to focus on the second—joy.
By joy I do not mean a 24x7 cork-popping effervescence. Sometimes spiritual joy feels like happiness but at other times it flourishes even when circumstances are bitter and we don’t feel good. For example, the death of a loved one, war, or a collapse of the stock market.

In fact, the Bible regularly connects joy with the strange bedfellows of trials, sorrow, and affliction. For example, James 1:2 exhorts us to “count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds.” And Paul described himself as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). How does that work? Then, in the next chapter, he says that he was “afflicted” yet “overflowing with joy” (2 Corinthians 7:4). For most, the words “trials,” “sorrow,” and “affliction” don’t go with “rejoicing” and “joy,” but for those “living in the Holy Spirit,” they are increasingly and intimately entwined. “For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).

How can I get this joy? Spiritual joy is like a heat-seeking missile.  It pursues those who “walk” in the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16). “Walking in the Holy Spirit” involves many spiritual disciplines, but foremost amongst them is the discipline of gratitude or thanksgiving. No one “walked” in the Holy Spirit like Paul. New Testament scholar Peter O’Brien, notes that Paul mentions gratitude or thanksgiving “in his letters more often, line for line, than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian.”[1] Why? Paul knew what he deserved. He deserved crucifixion and the eternal damnation that was his rightful inheritance. That is the message of the cross, but because Jesus died in his place, he knew that he would never get what he deserved, or anything akin to it. Because of this, no matter how bad his circumstances, the apostle, Paul, was always thankful.

How about you and me? Is this real to us? Here is death to grumbling, self-pity, and temper tantrums. Here is the secret of spiritual joy.

Despite seriously adverse circumstance, Horatio Spofford (1828–88) found this joy. In 1870 his only son died of scarlet fever. Then in 1871 the great Chicago fire destroyed much of his wealth. A few months later Spofford sent his wife and four daughters ahead of him to Europe while he stayed in Chicago to wrap up some business affairs. The ship carrying his family collided with another vessel and sank. All four daughters died. Only his wife, Anna, survived. From Europe she telegraphed her husband these terrible words, “saved alone!” Grief-stricken, Spofford quickly sailed for Europe. As his ship passed the area where his four daughters had drowned he penned the lyrics to the famous hymn It Is Well With My Soul.  The first verse captures the essence of spiritual joy.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Despite sorrows that “like sea billows roll,” Spofford knew what the apostle Paul called the “peace that passes understanding.” It is inseparable from spiritual joy. It is the deep, quiet confidence that God loves me, that I deserve much worse than I am getting, but, because of the cross, I will never get it. It is the conviction that God has everything under control, that he works all of life’s events together for the good of those who love him. When faith clings to these as its present possession, despite unpleasant circumstances, the fruit is tangible, spiritual joy.




[1] Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Hawthorne, Martin, and Reid, “Benediction, Blessing, Doxology, Thanksgiving,” Peter Obrien  (Downers Grove, IVP, 1993), pg. 69 

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