Joy In Our Discouragements
Luke 1, Psalm 13
Eric Wilson was a professor of English at Wake Forest University, and he wanted to become a happier person. He at least wanted a smile on his face, rather than the scowl people were used to seeing. Friends urged him on to a sunny disposition. He purchased books to become happy, watched only uplifting movies, and inserted “Great!” and “Wonderful!” into his conversations. But none of these things helped, and he went back to being his usual melancholy self. Turning against what he calls “the happiness movement,” he wrote the book Against Happiness. He believes Americans are fixated on happiness – going so far as to show what he calls “a craven disregard” for anything that shows a mere hint of melancholy.
The happiness movement bloomed in the 1990s, motivated by scientific studies on the brain and the rise of “positive psychology.” But now there’s a backlash against a philosophy that says “normal sadness is something to be smothered, even shunned.” Further study has actually discovered that “being happier is not always better.” Those who know some discontent are motivated to improve their lot in life and the condition of their community.
“If you’re totally satisfied with your life and with how things are going in the world, you don’t feel very motivated to work for change,” says Ed Diener, an author who has written a book similar to Wilson’s. Deiner notes that when experiencing a negative mood,” you become more analytical, more critical, and more innovative. You need negative emotions, including sadness, to direct your thinking.”
All of this seems to echo something Solomon wrote long ago: “There’s a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” The greatest teacher of them all – Christ – was also quick to point out that those who mourn are those who are blessed indeed.
Happiness has its place, as does sadness – and they both have a place in the wider sphere of joy.[i]
Joy is, perhaps, the most misunderstood concept in the Bible. And I think that’s because we’ve conflated joy with happiness, assuming they’re the same thing. And to be fair, the Bible doesn’t typically distinguish between the two. Joy can certainly include happiness, but it isn’t exactly the same thing as happiness. It’s deeper.
Joy is second only to love in St. Paul’s “fruits of the Spirit” recorded in Galatians 5. And we read verses like James 1:2-3, which says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Or 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, which says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” And we think that as followers of Christ we’re supposed to be happy and smiling no matter what happens to us. But when we do that, we ignore scripture that tells us clearly that there is “a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecc. 3:4), or to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15).
You see, joy is much wider, and comes from a much deeper place than happiness. Happiness depends on happenings. So does sadness and grief. Joy is a much deeper sphere of being that recognizes our standing as followers of Christ, citizens of the Kingdom of God. And because of that, joy actually has the room to contain both our happiness and our tears, both of which are simply our responses to the things that happen in our lives day to day. Joy doesn’t insist that life must always be happy, it doesn’t deny the pain and struggle of life. In fact, the joy that Christ gives to us is born in the difficult times of life. Turn with me to Luke 1:5-25.
“In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” Those words are ripe with meaning to those who know the times to which they refer. They’re akin to someone writing a story set in Germany saying “In the days of Adolph Hitler …” Those words in themselves tell us a ton about what’s going on.
The reign of Herod the Great, Rome’s puppet king in Judea, was a time of great political and cultural tension. The Jewish elders in Jerusalem wanted nothing to do with Herod, and they resisted him in every way they could. To be honest, Herod wasn’t even a Jew. He was Idumean, a descendant of Esau, not Jacob. He had married into the Jewish Hasmonean “royal family” to gain power. But even the Hasmonean family shouldn’t really have been in power. They traced their roots not to the ancient royal line going back through King David, but to the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. And one thing that was absolutely clear in the law was that there was a definite separation between the family lines, and the tasks and duties of king and priest. King Saul’s final act of rebellion against God was to offer a sacrifice on the altar before a battle because Samuel, the one who should have offered the sacrifice, was late in arriving. The blurring of lines between priest and king was a definite no-no, and the Hasmonean’s were of priestly blood, not royal blood. But they were the family in power, and Herod, a non-Jew, had married into that family to gain power.
And his reign was marked by political intrigue and dominion and by social oppression. He engaged in extravagant building programs, building a magnificent palace for himself and making the temple in Jerusalem absolutely magnificent. But he build the temple not out of any real sense of worship of or devotion to God, he did it to try to win the hearts of the people. He was using faith for political gain. And the extravagant building projects were funded by additional taxes, above and beyond the taxes from Rome, on the Jewish people. The priests themselves were corrupt, and Herod had them in his hip pocket, controlling the temple and the high priesthood for his own purposes and agenda. The common people had no one to speak out for them or defend them. Those who did speak out were ruthlessly silenced.
Herod also jealously guarded his throne. He destroyed anyone who might even consider staking a claim to his power. When he heard, through the magi, that the Messiah, the one who would sit on the throne of David, had been born, Herod had all males two years of age and younger killed to make sure the one he saw as a usurper to his throne was destroyed. Including his own son. This is why Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt shortly after the birth of Christ, and remained there for some time. These are the actions of a despot, a madman, an evil murderer, in power. All of this contained in the words, “In the days of Herod.” It was under his rule that Zechariah, a priest, and Elizabeth, his wife, also of priestly lineage, lived.
Zechariah and Elizabeth, parents of John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for Jesus in the hearts and minds and lives of the people of Israel. Luke tells us that both of them were “righteous and blameless” under the law. While Herod had the high priest in his hip pocket, there were thousands of priests who served in the temple for a week at a time, twice a year, and then returned to their homes throughout Judea. Zechariah was one of those priests. And he was a good and godly man. His wife, Elizabeth, was a good and godly woman.
So is comes as a shock that they were barren, had no children, and were now beyond the age of childbearing, because children were a sign of God’s blessing, and not having any children was a sign of God’s curse upon your life. They were godly and righteous, but not blessed. And that didn’t compute. Over time, as Zechariah and Elizabeth went about their business, with no pregnancy, no children coming into their home, they would have started receiving sideways glances. And the glances would have become whispers. And the whispers outright gossip. Something wasn’t right. They appeared righteous, but something must be wrong, because clearly God’s blessing wasn’t upon them. Imagine the heartache. The pain. The questions. The soul-searching. What is keeping God’s blessing from us? Why God? What have we done to deserve this curse? Why no children for us? Herod has children. The high priest has children. Our neighbors have children. We’ve done everything we can to live rightly before you. Why God? Why?
And then it’s Zechariah’s time to serve in the temple again. And he is chosen by lot to be the one who went into the Holy Place, just outside the Holy of Holies, to burn incense on the altar of incense, the closest one could get to the Holy of Holies without being the High Priest. It was something that a priest got to do once in a lifetime, if at all, because there were so many priests. And when he entered the temple for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it quickly became clear that Zechariah’s service on this night was orchestrated by God, because there, to the right of the altar, in the place of honor, was an angel. And the angel told him that he and his wife, both well past the age of childbearing, would conceive and have a son, who would be the one to prepare the way for the Messiah.
Sound familiar … a child born to an aged couple? Zechariah’s mind would have immediately gone back to Abraham and Sarah. And when Zechariah didn’t believe the angel standing in front of him, “I am old man, and my wife ain’t no spring chicken,” the angel identified himself as Gabriel, whose name means “God’s Valiant One.” As a priest, Zechariah would have known that name too, because Gabriel appeared to Daniel in Daniel 8 and 9. Abraham and Sarah. Gabriel. Clearly something big was happening.
Now, look at Vv. 24-25. Elizabeth’s suffering was over, and her righteousness vindicated. And her heart was filled with joy. But Gabriel’s work wasn’t done, and as Elizabeth’s suffering was ending, someone else’s was just beginning. Look at vv. 26-37. Elizabeth was old, beyond her childbearing years. Mary was young, not married yet. She was betrothed to Joseph. They were considered married enough that it would take a certificate of divorce to separate them, but the marriage had not been consummated. The period of betrothal typically lasted 9 months, but could last up to a year, and existed so that the husband could prepare a home for himself and his bride, and so that the bride could be proven to have not been with a man. Nine months with no pregnancy would do it. Except, Mary found out that she was going to be pregnant during this time. A husband whose wife became pregnant during this time could divorce her publicly and even have her stoned, or he could divorce her quietly. It was his choice. Joseph was a good man, and he decided to divorce her quietly, assuming she’d been with a man, so Gabriel had to intervene again, appearing to Joseph in a dream instead of in-person, (maybe he was getting tired of making the trip, I don’t know), told Joseph that Mary’s story was legit, and Joseph decided to see it through. He stayed with Mary. Elizabeth was pregnant, and her shame was over. Mary was pregnant, and her shame was just beginning. The sideways glances that became whispers that became gossip. The stigma.
And yet, in her heart, joy. She goes to visit Elizabeth, because, to be honest, Elizabeth was probably the only person on earth who would understand what Mary was going through. Two women who shouldn’t be pregnant, but who are, and when they come together, the 6 month old fetus inside Elizabeth leaps with joy in the presence of the days old fetus inside Mary. In the midst of shame, and embarrassment, and humiliation and pain … joy. Why? Because the joy of Christ is born in the midst of pain. The joy of Christ comes from our realization that even when life sucks, and it often does, even in the midst of our suffering and pain and grief, our lives are in the hands of a grace-filled, loving God, and death itself cannot stop his love for us.
And to really understand this, I want to take you to a Psalm. It’s a rather short Psalm. Just 6 verses. Turn with me to Psalm 13. Luke tells us that when Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, he told him “your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth with bear you a son.” We don’t know exactly what prayer Zechariah was praying, but we do know the shame and stigma associated with being childless, and we do know that the Psalms were Israel’s prayer book. So perhaps Zechariah was praying a prayer like this one. It is a psalm of individual lament. And it teaches how to pray during the painful and confusing, even devastating times of our lives. In this psalm, we see crisis’ complaint, crisis’ request, and crisis’ faith.
“How long, O Lord?” those words, that complaint, is repeated over and over again. Four times in the first two verses. How long must I suffer. The complaint of a person in crisis. Facing tragedy. Suffering deep, deep grief. How long? How long? How long? How long? And in that question, we see the three people blamed for the suffering. That’s what we do when we’re suffering, don’t we. We blame. Who are the targets of the complain? For starters, God. “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” He accuses God of both kinds of sin, sin of omission, and sin of commission. “How long will you forget me?” That’s a sin of omission. Something left undone. A passive sin. Inaction. “How long will you hid your face from me?” Now God is accused of actively hiding from the person in pain. Where is God when we’re suffering. That’s what we want to know, right? Where is God when I’m hurting? Why aren’t you doing anything about this God? Heck, you aren’t just forgetting about me, you’re hiding from me.
I’ve worked with many Christians to whom I’ve said, “I think maybe, in your heart, you need to forgive God,” and they’re aghast. “Forgive God?” they yell. “God is perfectly righteous. He never does wrong. How dare you say I need to forgive God.” “You’re right,” I always reply. “God is perfectly righteous and does nothing wrong, but in your eyes, he has. And you’re holding that against him. Have you taken your complaint to God, like Job, and the Psalmists, and St. Paul, and countless others. Or are you hiding your pain from God? Because the truth is, you think God is hurting you. You can tell him. Not one person in Scripture who complained to God, about God, was ever punished. This isn’t cursing God. It’s simply saying, “God, from where I sit, you are hurting me, and I don’t like it.”
But the psalmist also blames himself. “How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart?” I’ve made a mess of things myself. And he blames others. “How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” Blaming God, self, and others. Not only is that what we tend to do, even if we won’t admit it, it is what we need to do when we are in pain. In is normal and healthy to cry out in pain.
But the prayer doesn’t stop with the complaint. It makes a request. The request in the midst of the crisis. Answer me, God, or I’m dead. It’s a desperate request, the request of a faithful follower of Christ at the end of her rope.
But look at how the psalm ends. Look at Vv. 5-6. The declaration of faith and trust in the midst of the crisis. These two verses differ sharply from the first four. They are verses of trust and praise. They are filled with joy. But we cannot get to these verses without first walking through the crisis, and the ensuing complaint and request for God to act.
When we talk about joy in the church these days, we go right to the last two verses, without even recognizing the first four. We ignore the desperation of complaint and real request and lunge right for joy, and because of that, our joy comes across as no deeper than a plastic mask. Like crying clowns, we paint our faces to look joyful, but below the surface we’re filled with pain. Pain that we refuse to recognize and deal with. And when we ignore it, we wind up cheating ourselves out of the joy that Christ has for us. Not joy that is really just fake happiness no deeper than the skin, but authentic joy welling up from deep within, from the seed of faith that has been planted in your heart and is now growing stronger, filling out with blossom, and bearing fruit. We cheat ourselves out of authentic joy that has room enough for tears of happiness, and for tears of heartache.
As we move through this advent season, inching closer to our celebration of Christmas, may our hearts be filled with real joy, flowing from a place of real relationship with God and deep trust in his goodness and love. A joy born in struggle. Let us pray.
[i] Sharon Begley, “Happiness: Enough Already,” Newsweek magazine (2-11-08), pp. 50-52