I’ve referenced the above painting before by my friend James Winn – it’s one of my favorite possessions. While the bleak mid-western Winter imperceptibly creeps slowly, oh so slowly toward Spring, it takes a lot of faith to believe that things will ever look differently than they do in this painting. Winter is long and hard – brutal at times – on the plains.
Intellectually we know that Spring will come – it always does. But there are days, cold, dark days, when it is difficult to believe it.
I don’t live on the Plains anymore. In comparatively balmy Delaware, Winter just isn’t that bad. But the painting continues to lift my thoughts to higher things.
Some days – weather aside – that long-endured battle to be warm grips my soul. The grass is green, the humidity and temperatures are high, and flip-flops are still the norm, but lurking in the corners of my mind are the dark days of endless, frigid, face-numbing cold and the struggle against it when feeding animals out in our barn or shoveling 4-ft snow drifts just to go to work.
As I struggle to replace that feeling of dread with truth I am reminded how easy it is to believe a lie.
It’s all too easy to believe my emotions, or gut, or whatever you want to call it, and dread the coming months, believing they will be filled with hardship and struggle – simply because that’s how they have been for so long.
My experience wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.
Faith is the same way.
Sometimes what I have lived wants to dictate what I believe.
Experience tells us to look at a certain set of circumstances and presume the outcome:
“This will always be this way…”
“She’ll always do these things…”
“He’ll never change…”
“This is what I can look forward to…”
But faith says,
“Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow has enough care for itself.”
“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord, ‘plans for a future and a hope…’”
“For I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard until that day that which has been entrusted to me.”
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good…”
I’ve been kicking around the phrase “The Joy of the Lord is my strength” for the past few months and have been wondering, “What does that mean – really?” What does the Joy of the Lord look like? Is it the happy “season’s greetings” kind of “joy” that tv, or hallmark, or Hollywood puts forth? Is it supposed to be that 30- or 60-minute contrived, happy-ending kind of gladness, that is somehow meant to mysteriously last longer… if you just get a few things right? I don’t know anyone who really lives like that – do you?
As is often the case for me, turning the phrase around a little bit has helped me to think about joy from a different angle. Rather than a church-y cliché that people sometimes use to mask the struggles they are really having, the Lord’s Joy is something altogether deeper and more meaningful than silly jingles or whatever dumb choruses might conjure up for us.
The Lord’s Joy is my strength.
Think about that. The Lord’s joy – not mine, or yours – is given to us. Far from the “find it inside yourself” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of joy that we try to manufacture, the joy of the Lord isn’t something we come up with at all!
The perfect, full, rich, abundant, and over-flowing joy that the Lord possesses has been given to us. How much joy does God possess? Infinite amounts. What kind of joy does God have? The very best of perfectly complete joy – and nothing less. What is he joyful about? In a word, Christ. And, inconceivably, that includes you and me. We are his and he delights in us. All of creation has been racing toward one fantastic fulfillment – redemption! That is you and me living for eternity in sweet, joy-filled fellowship with the Father because of the Son. Wake up! That is the great news! We get to be there. FOREVER. If that doesn’t fill you will the Lord’s Joy, what can?
What is meant by joy strengthening us? If all this joy is ours, why do we need to be strengthened at all?
Because sometimes, often times, My experience wants to rule, which is understandable, but false.
Life can be unimaginably hard. We have trials. We have pain. We have searing disappointments and heartaches. These things can threaten to undo us. They can cause us to want to give up. They can cause us to question the goodness of God and the purpose of his will. They can gnaw at our confidence in Christ’s work on our behalf and they can attempt to grind our faith into dust.
The Lord’s Joy is our strength. It’s there. It’s already been freely given. But sometimes it is so buried under our circumstances that we have to fight to hold onto it the way Jacob clung to God in the wilderness and would not let him go until God blessed him.
Sometimes we have to fight for the joy that already belongs to us. We have to tell ourselves the truth – that we don’t know what the future will look like, but that we can trust the One who loves us and gave Himself over for us. That we can depend on him for everything we need in the face of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. And that, in the end, everything, he puts before us is both for our good and His glory – even the trials.
The world may be looking a bit like that painting above – bleak and cold and dark. But that is not the whole story. Strength is growing under those furrows. Perseverance and character and hope are being produced there. Hope for the things that we know but remain as yet, unseen.
And just as winter always yields to spring and reveals what has been covered under cold and dark layers, the seen will yield to the unseen and we will see what we already know to be true: that every hardship, every tear, every lament has a purpose for good. Nothing is aimless, nothing is a waste. It is all making us fit in ways we can’t imagine, so that through them we will be made like the One we love. Perfected. Righteous. Pure. And most of all ready. Jesus is gathering his people to himself and preparing us to live forever with him in beautiful, wonderful, perfect joy.
In the meantime, fight for joy. It is already yours.