I belong to a small home group, which currently is studying The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), an amazingly exciting and thought-provoking document issued by Pope Francis in 2013. Let me quote from the Introduction:
The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus… With Christ joy is constantly born anew.
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent and covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, the voice of the poor is no longer heart God’s voice is no longer heart, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades away
I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them: I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day.
Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved… I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely well all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive ass a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distresses.
Side by side with The Joy of the Gospel we are looking at what the Bible has to say about joy. So last night we began our study of the document by looking the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, often termed The Epistle of Joy. .Although it is one of his shorter letters, the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’ occur fifteen times. For instance in 1.4 Paul speaks of the joy of prayer; in 1.18 he speaks of the joy of seeing the Gospel preached; in 2.17 he speaks of the joy of Christian service; in 2.18 & 3.1;he urges the Philippians to rejoice; and in 4.4 he twice more urges the Philippians to rejoice: “‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice”.
When Paul was writing to the Philippians, he was not a ‘happy bunny’. Life was not going well for him. He was in prison (1.13) – no doubt chained to a Roman soldier, he was facing imminent execution. To make things even worse, not all his fellow Christians were sad about his plight: rather they were happy “to make more trouble” for him while he was in prison (1.17). Life was not good, and Paul would have had every reason to complain against God: ‘God it’s not fair. Here I am – I have given my life to you. I have sought to serve you faithfully – and yet what do you do? You allow me to end up in a prison cell.’ But instead of complaining, Paul was full of joy. .
In our conversation together we reminded ourselves that joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is what ‘happens’ to us when life goes well, whereas joy is something much deeper. Happiness is dependent upon circumstances, but joy is independent of circumstances.
The story is told of a Jew who went to a rabbi and complained: ‘Life is unbearable. There are nine of us living in one room. What can I do?’ The rabbi answered: ‘Take the goat into the room with you’. The man was incredulous, but the rabbi insisted: ‘Do as you are told and come back in a week’. A week later the man came back, feeling half dead: ‘We cannot stand it. The goat is filthy’. The rabbi told him: ‘Go home and let the goat out – and come back in a week’s time’. A week later the man visited the rabbi, and he was over the moon. ‘Life is beautiful, rabbi. No goat, only the nine of us!’
What the man in this story experienced was happiness. By contrast when Paul urged the Philippians to rejoice, it had nothing to do with something as mundane as not having to share a bedroom with a goat, but rather everything to do with the Lord Jesus. Indeed, we can say that Paul’s joy was rooted in knowing Christ, experiencing “the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings” (3.10). As Gordon Fee, an American Pentecostal New Testament scholar, commented:
Joy, unmitigated, untrammelled joy is – or at least should be – the distinctive mark of the believer in Christ Jesus. The wearing of black and the long face, which so often come to typify some later expressions of Christian piety, are totally foreign to Paul’s version; Paul the theologian of grace is equally the theologian of joy. Christian joy does not come and go with one’s circumstances; rather it is predicated altogether on one’s relationship with the Lord and is thus an abiding, deeply spiritual quality of life.
Jesus is the root of our joy. So Henri Nouwen, an American Dutch Jesuit wrote: “Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved”. Or as Pope Francis put it: joy is “born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved”. What an amazing difference Jesus make to our lives. To quote the 16th century English Bible translator, William Tyndale: the Gospel is “good, merry, glad and joyful tidings that makes a man’s heart glad and makes him sing, dance and leap for joy”. Not surprisingly our Bible study that night was an uplifting experience, as we sensed our need to discover afresh the joy of the Gospel.