Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again, rejoice! – Saint Paul from a Roman prison cell.
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.
– Jesus on the night he was betrayed.
She is leading worship. She sings off key. She sings her guts out unashamedly. She is poor by every worldly measure. She lives in a Brazilian slum dominated by crack, alcoholism, the sex trade, and violence. But she has something that 95 percent of us privileged adults in Silicon Valley lack—and we cannot buy it at any price. She is possessed of joy in God. It oozes out of her. She has a past that one could spend years in counseling to come to terms with. From a human viewpoint, her future and that of her children is far from hopeful. But, somehow, the new life she and her husband found in Jesus after giving up alcohol and drugs two years ago have filled her with faith, hope, love, peace, and joy instead of the chronic negative feelings of addicts living in a slum. She is “saved” in the fullest sense of the word.
My Jesus, I hear you speaking to me through her: “Rejoice in me! Choose joy. I am coming to you through her. Forget your anxiety about speaking through an interpreter in a slum church. I am worthy of joy. Joy is my gift to you. Why do you still resist?” This is the conversation my soul has been having with God since I traveled to Brazil for a short ministry trip a few weeks ago.
Why do I still resist joy? Well, to be fully honest, I am not sure all will turn out well. Deeply imbedded in my body from childhood is the belief that, in the face of uncertainty, the best armor is vigilance, hard work, a measure of anxiety, a bit of outrage at injustice, urgency in life that often verges into hurry, and the “inner coach” voice that always has a checklist of improvements I need to make. This armor grows joy like asphalt grows orchids. I thought sacrificing joy was necessary for success, but my armor instead became my prison.
In his book Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ, philosopher and author Dallas Willard has a great definition of joy: “Joy is the pervasive sense—not just a thought—of well-being; of overall ultimate well-being.” He contrasts joy to pleasure: “It is deeper and broader than pleasure. Pleasure and pain are always specific to some particular object or condition. . . But for joy, all is well, even in the midst of specific suffering and loss” (133).
I am capable of pleasure—in sunrises, in a dog’s joy at catching a Frisbee, in a great meal, in friends, in the power of Scripture, in seeing people grow spiritually and emotionally. But each day is filled with pleasure and pain, and the pleasure somehow never cascades over into joy except on rare occasions—a wedding, significant life events in my family, a perfect Sabbath or retreat day. And then it is gone the next day.
So, my good Father, I hear your Son’s invitation, his strong command to learn joy in you alone. “Rejoice in me. I died and rose again. Look at my wounds. Nothing they did harmed me. These wounds are treasures for eternity. What can harm you? Can my resurrection life not transform your wounds, your frailty, your inadequacy?” My good Jesus, you are so patient with me and my self-protective armor that blocks pain poorly but has stifled joy really well for forty-plus years.
So, haltingly, with the icon of the slum worship leader of Brazil drawing me on, I am practicing joy in my God—in who my God is, in what he has planned, in his goodness to sinners like me. I am finding joy is the bread he leaves by my bed every morning. It is the marrow I chew out of all his Word. I am more aware of the times when I have the armor on and joy is blocked. I have friends and a loving wife to help me take it off. How long will it take to live in joy without this armor? I don’t know. It’s not my job to figure that out. All I can do is choose joy this moment.
Do you resist joy? If so, what's holding you back? What can you do to connect more with the soul-deep joy that God offers us?
Mark Phifer-Houseman has been married to his best friend and hero, Gayll, for thirty years. He has been enchanted by Jesus since sophomore year in college. That pursuit led to twenty-four years of ministry to college students before he became The River’s staff director in 2008. Notable accomplishments include clinging to Jesus while being disabled on and off for fourteen years with chronic neuropathy and following Gayll’s leadership in adopting their four children from Ethiopia in 2003. He loves seeing young people come alive to God, anything related to living out the Bible, and families and churches thriving. He is glad to no longer be a sports parent so he can play tennis and hike again.