Content note: This story concerns miscarriage.
Ayear ago, we knew we needed joy.
Now we know only God produces it.
As 2021 ended, my wife and I were convinced of our need for joy. It was not a New Year’s resolution but a conviction of something unsettled in our spirits. The fatigue and discouragement that accompanied the pandemic years had fostered a lack of joyfulness in our home.
I don’t think we were alone. Pastoral ministry provides insight into the emotional and spiritual state of others, and I know a general discouragement has plagued many saints. My church, I believed, needed joy as well. Beyond that, they needed a joyful pastor. Grumpiness, no matter how well-hidden, does not lead to fruitful service. And I don’t recall grouchy being listed as a fruit of the Spirit. I was convicted of the need to model joyfulness.
Our non-pursuit of joy
So, my wife and I prayed for joy. We made a commitment that in 2022 we would pursue joyfulness. We asked a few others to pray as well.
We then proceeded to do nothing to intentionally cultivate joy. We did not hang joyful slogans on our walls. We did not sing hymns about joy. We did not read any of John Piper’s many books elaborating on the theme of joy. We did not memorize or study Zephaniah 3:14-17, which contains eight different Hebrew words related to joy and rejoicing. Shamefully, we mostly neglected our commitment to joy.
Yet, I believe we are more joyful now than we were 12 months ago. The pressing question, then, is not “How did we do that?” but “How did that happen?” Because we essentially did nothing.
Insofar as we have truly grown, it is not due to anything we did, but only because of what God did. The impetus to any legitimate change has not been our dedicated effort but his sanctifying work. His grace alone has grown us.
Our efforts were dedicated to getting by and hanging on, in large part due to another failed pregnancy. After being greatly blessed with four healthy children, we experienced three successive miscarriages; the third falling in the summer of 2022.
The first miscarriage was difficult. But it happened early in the pregnancy, and we had already beaten the odds with four healthy deliveries. The second miscarriage hit harder and was a greater immediate shock. The sorrow of the third miscarriage, however, has endured in a unique way. Naturally, the culminating losses made the last the most difficult. Our third was also the furthest along, at nearly 14 weeks.
We were able to hold our 14-week-in-utero son, whom we named Job. (“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” Job 1:21 (ESV). That experience marked us. It was a day of profound sadness and nearness to the Lord and each other.
In a strange way, I am thankful for the singular experience of holding a human at that early stage of development. It galvanized my already firm convictions (better yet, knowledge) of when life begins. More importantly, it brought healthy closure and instilled anticipation of the resurrection. That day seems ages ago, and yet as I write this, Job’s original due date is still ahead (late December). We will remember and grieve again, then happily look to our eternal reunion.
Job’s death triggered a series of medical tests. Three failed pregnancies established a trend. Bloodwork and additional testing were needed to determine a potential cause, such as an autoimmune disease in my wife. No such condition has been found, for which we give sincere thanks. Very practically, however, these tests drained us of time, money, energy and emotion.
God’s grace and a good church—and the ongoing delights and challenges of life, family and ministry—carried us. We did not take time to actively develop a sense of joy. Our energies were devoted to faithfully and imperfectly living and serving. In the background, God was doing the work of producing joyful hearts.
The foundation of joy
The Lord used our experience to instruct us in biblical joy. The first lesson lies in its definition. In God’s economy, joy is not tied to circumstances. I have heard it said that joy runs deeper than pain or pleasure. It is a happiness that is not tied to fortune or favor. It is an orientation of the heart that can thrive even in difficulty.
If joy is not bound to circumstance, then what is its foundation? Jesus has our answer. He once commissioned 72 disciples to heal and to preach the gospel of the kingdom’s arrival. They returned with joy. The cause? Their great success! The mission could not have gone better. Even demons were subject to them. We can assume they had never experienced such spiritual victory.
Surely this was a cause of rejoicing! How many of us pastors, missionaries and ministers think the same? We place our joy on the fickle foundation of ministerial success. Is the Lord “blessing” our work with great apparent fruit? Rejoice! Are our ministry efforts frustrating and seemingly ineffective? Despair! Like the 72, our hearts are too easily yoked to the wild swings of success and failure.
Jesus establishes a surer foundation in Luke 10:20, “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Here is joy secured. Not in ministerial (or familial or financial) success but in the certainty of our eternal union with our Father in heaven.
Joy is found in the Lord and his salvation. This never changes, never ends, never fades, never fails. It endures in every season, because the seasons have no bearing on our standing with the Lord if we are truly in him. Psalm 16:11 says the same: “in your presence there is fullness of joy.” Joy isn’t found in the circumstances of life, but in union with God in Christ.
The gift of joy
Like this salvation, joy is a gift given. This has been our second lesson on joy. It is a fruit of the Spirit, not a product of our will. Our wills had no great ability to produce joy. If we were to have it, God needed to give it. We couldn’t grow it.
Surely, there is an element of effort in Christian growth. We are called to “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling. Effort is involved. Ultimately, however, we are not only justified but also sanctified by grace. In our spiritual growth, “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing” (A Mighty Fortress is our God ).
The Lord worked joy in us. Not by our effort, but by God’s grace. And not despite our difficulty but through it. Our trials and pains are how he produced joy because these are the very things that brought us to him (Romans 5:3-4). Joy is found in dependence on, trust in and union with Jesus Christ. Our trials and challenges have been the tools God used to bind us to him and therein cultivate joy. We would not have chosen this. His wisdom exceeds ours.
We prayed for it, God provided it. We rejoice in his holy name.
Aaron Halvorsen has been the lead pastor at Community Bible Church, Olathe, Kansas, since 2015. Halvorsen currently serves on the Multiply Board of Directors. He and his wife, Maggie, have four children.