That Three Letter Word
Joy is a three-letter word. Around mid-July, on ranches, farms, and arenas, 4 letter words are far more common. Rarely has that three-letter word come to mind in haylofts, stacking alfalfa bales when the mercury in the thermometer is boiling. Or when your good heading horse decides one day that the roping box is the last place it wants to be. When your dog pretends to go deaf in the middle of chores or when the lead cow doubles back just as she enters the gate taking the herd with her. It doesn’t come up when the baler, which you affectionately refer to as “el diablo”, is broke down yet again or the trailer blows another tire. For certain, that three-letter word wasn’t found on my lips today as barbed wire was taking off strips of my flesh and then a chunk of my tire. It wasn’t found this weekend as my cell phone went missing due to my own stupidity and my i watched a box of fencing staples glisten in the sun as my dog knocked them off the bed of my truck. These were minor things compared to other joy stealers. When the diagnosis of cancer comes, or the layoff that was rumored becomes a reality; when the stack of bills keeps getting higher or your kid hits the rebellious phase; when loneliness takes over and despair becomes entrenched. These things make joy nearly impossible.
All too often we confuse joy and happiness. Happiness is the good feeling you get because things are happening right because of circumstances where as joy is the good feeling you get despite of the circumstances. Happiness comes and goes, but joy is constant. I am ashamed to say that joy is not something that I exude a lot of, nor is it something that I see a lot of in Churches. Apparently, there are a lot of people like me who fill the pews every Sunday with their hearts devoid of joy. This was not the case with the Macedonian churches.
Paul brags about the churches of Macedonia in the middle of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians. Paul, in trying to pick out what makes the Macedonian Church so special, highlights among other things, their “overflowing joy.” Where does contagious joy come from? How does joy become someone else’s bragging point? It goes hand in hand with another one of Paul’s points in 2 Corinthians. Not only were the churches praised for their joy and their generosity, but the severe trial they were under. Paul is seeing firsthand the severe persecution in Macedonia because he is writing 2 Corinthians from there (Acts 20.2; 2 Cor. 1.16, 23). He sees the trials and the persecutions, the threats from outside the church and the fear from within (2 Cor. 7.5). He brags about their perseverance under these trials at other times. (2 Thes. 1.4) Their joy was being tested everyday.
Just imagine the situation: rumors running around Philippi and Thessalonica about who the authorities were questioning now; wondering whether someone was just late for worship or whether they found themselves in chains; a simple knock at the door during prayer or dinner sending chills throughout the room. It was real life in Macedonia. People were imprisoned, beaten, or even dying, in Macedonia. Paul was well acquainted with their suffering even to the point of sharing in it (Phil 1.29-30). Yet their joy despite the circumstances would forever make its impact on Paul and find its place in scripture.
How did they do it? In spite of the every watching eye of the Roman authorities, the suffering at the hands of those opposed, the suffering in poverty, the fear, and the trials, how did they maintain their joy? I believe it has to do with the word joy. In the original greek, the word for joy is chara. This word is a cognate of the word charis, meaning grace. The Macedonian church understood joy because they understood what grace was. They knew that death was the punishment for sin, yet they were still alive…that is grace. When there is starvation and death surrounding them, yet the are still being provided for by God…that is grace. What is the only appropriate response to life where there should be death…joy. That is what the church at Macedonia understood and what I fail to understand often.
I am joy impaired. I struggle to put off a joyful vibe. When its too hot, too cold, too windy, too rainy, too expensive, too lengthy, too poorly constructed, or too difficult, my mood suffers. When I am hungry, thirsty, tired, exhausted, stressed, over-committed, underfunded, weak, or just apathetic, my mood suffers. My attitude is a slave to my circumstances, the exact opposite of joy. Joy is free, unbound, and liberated from the confines of circumstances. Joy transcends situation and condition. Joy sets the temperature in the room, it dictates the feel and refuses to acclimate itself to its environment. Joy is a direct reflection of my proximity to the Holy Spirit (1 Thes. 1.6) and a response to the grace given to me by God through Christ. John Ortberg, in his book The Life You’ve Always Wanted, says: “Joy is at the center of God’s plan for humanity and the center of who He is as a community!” (61) I need to have more joy!
Joy is cultivated by reacquainting ourselves with the grace that God has given us; reconnecting with the Holy Spirit that animates us; and by learning to embrace and utilize the gifts that God has blessed us with. The life we have in Christ, the breath in our lungs, the community we share, and our relationship with Him are all things that give root to our joy. Eternal perspective is what kept the church at Thessalonica and Philippi joyful, make it a point today to embrace the view from a heavenly perspective and watch your joy increase. As for me, I have a lot of work to do that involves me using a lot more three letter words.