What child has not been coaxed to eat their carrots with, “They will give you good eyesight!”
Have you considered that the fruit of the Spirit we call “joy” can improve your spiritual eyesight? Consider this story.
When Gerald Coffee was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, he and his fellow prisoners were given candy bars at Christmas. The foil around the candy was red on the outside and silver on the inside. Coffee shaped one piece of foil into a swan. The second he folded into tight little pleats. He tied the pleats in the center with a thread and fanned the edges to make a rosette. The remaining piece of foil ended up looking like a star. How fitting, he thought, the star of Bethlehem. He pulled three straws from the broom in his cell, attached the ornaments and jammed the straws into a crack in the cell wall. He sat back and watched them reflect light from the single bulb in his cell.
It was Christmas, and Coffee thought about Christ’s birth and what it meant to his life. Slowly it dawned on him that as lonely as he was, frightened and hurting, this was one of his most significant Christmas moments.
Have you known that kind of joy? Have you tasted the joy that seeps into your soul when everything around you seems wrong, yet in your heart everything seems right? I suggest that is a unique joy that can only be known in Christ.
Thinking of this reminds me of the paradox that unfolded in the Palestine village of Bethlehem when Christ was born.
• The nation of Israel lived under Roman oppression.
• Roman rulers, the Caesars, would soon declare themselves gods, deity to be worshiped.
• Mary and Joseph were some of the poorest in the land, peasants really.
• Mary’s pregnancy was unexpected, embarrassing and certainly confusing.
• Travel during Mary’s pregnancy was risky and the timing unfortunate.
• Accommodations in Bethlehem were disappointing, even disgusting.
And into that miserable setting, an angel announced to lowly shepherds, “I bring you good news of great joy!”
Our book of joy
Joy! How out of place it must have sounded at Christ’s birth, yet it reminds us that in the end, God’s story is always one of joy. His book, our Bible, is a book of joy. In the Jewish encyclopedia there are 27 different words that express some aspect of joy. One is connected to an image of something bright and shining while another means to leap and jump. One of the words for joy refers to shouting while another refers to someone running around in a circle. For the Hebrew people, joy was a powerful and many-sided idea.
The New Testament is hardly different from the Old Testament as John Drescher writes, “Although the New Testament centers on the cross, is bathed in the blood of the martyrs and filled with the fires of persecution, a note of triumphant joy rings throughout. ‘Joy,’ ‘joyful’ or ‘rejoice’ are found more than 160 times in the New Testament, and the connection to Jesus and joy is profound:
In a world of darkness, he came as light.
In a world of despair, he came as hope.
In a world of doubt, he came to give faith.
In a world of disappointment, he brought joy!”
The joy of the Lord
Do you know the joy of the Lord—the kind announced at his birth? If your situation is remotely like that of Mary and Joseph, with so many things wrong and the odds against you, then you, my friend, are a candidate for joy. Many years before Christ, Nehemiah, a captive in the capital of Persia, rallied his fellow Israelites with the call, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Have you discovered the great secret to joy—the joy of the Lord? Here are three sources of joy.
There is the joy of forgiveness. We will not have lasting joy until we deal with the “sadness” brought on by our sin. But forgiveness is a great source of joy. In Matthew 9, when a paralyzed man was brought to Jesus, Jesus looked at him and said, “Cheer up! Your sins are forgiven.” That reminds me of a chorus we sang over and over in my youth: “If you want joy, real joy, wonderful joy, let Jesus come into your heart.”
There is the joy of fellowship (the presence of God). Gerald Coffee, in that Vietnam prison, knew God was with him, and it was a source of joy in the middle of his misery. In Mark 6:50, when the disciples were out on a stormy sea at night, amid the howling wind, and when they were more frightened than exhausted, Jesus appeared to say, “Take courage (cheer up)! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” A deep sense of God’s presence has cheered many a sad and frightened heart. His presence brings joy.
There is the joy of victory. In John 16:33 the disciples are confused at Jesus’ words about his leaving. They cannot wrap their minds around the thought of his death. But his words to them speak of the assurance of victory that can usher in a spirit of joy. He says, “In this world you will have trouble, but take courage (cheer up), I have overcome the world.” In the shadow of the cross, Jesus extended his joy to weary disciples.
The joy of Jesus shapes my vision
Realizing the various ways Jesus offered people joy, it just makes sense that on a dark night outside Bethlehem, an angel announced, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” This is the joy that improves our sight.
Joy in my life alters the appearance of ordinary things. Joy can transform the ordinary into the wonderful. The most common occasions look different to a person flooded with joy. Small things of nature, ordinary people, even mundane events, can appear special when viewed through the lens of joy.
Joy in my life alters the appearance of extra-ordinary things. The adventures of life can seem purposeful, and the mountains of crisis seem climbable to the person with joy. Suddenly God’s view becomes ours. As we take the eternal view all things look different.
Joy in my life alters my view of self. So often I have taken myself too seriously. Before joy I rarely could laugh at my mistakes—they seemed more like final sentences than momentary failures. Joy helps me take God more personally and myself less seriously. With joy, as Evelyn Underdall writes, “We shall no longer strive for our own way, but commit ourselves simply and easily, to God’s way.”
Galatians 5:22: “But the fruit of the Spirit is joy!”
Dennis Fast is currently part-time associate pastor of care at Hope Kingsburg, a Mennonite Brethren church located in Kingsburg, California He is also the chaplain at Palm Village Retirement Communities in Reedley, California. He has served lead pastor roles in Hillsboro, Kan.sas and Reedley and was interim pastor at Hope Kingsburg. He has also served as the interim Pacific District Conference minister and was the MB Foundation church relations director. Dennis and his wife, Connie, have three adult children and 15 grandchildren.