When you think about suffering, what comes to mind? Do you envision bedraggled children with distended stomachs, a hospital patient hooked up to life-sustaining medical equipment, or a courageous veteran dealing with the aftermath of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Adversity seems to be a common denominator to human existence, but what does the Bible have to say about suffering?

Jesus spoke to His disciples about suffering. One of the most well-known verses reads, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24 ESV). The Greek word for cross in this verse is staurós. It refers to the crossbeam which the lowest criminals carried as they trudged toward their execution. The cross symbolized degradation and indescribable pain as well as sacrifice.

While the invitation to eternal life is free, it comes at a price–certain suffering.

9 Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” Luke 1:39-45

Sermon Outline

References

Luke 1:5-7
Luke 1:24-25
Matthew 1:20b-23
John 3:16-17
Joshua 1:5
Psalm 23:4
Isaiah 7:14
John 1:14
Matthew 28:20b
Mathew 4:19
Matthew 11:28
John 6:37
John 14:3
John 15:10-11

Weekly Study Guide

We are journeying through the season of Advent and looking at the amazing themes that arise when remembering Christ’s first coming, as well as the feelings that arise as we anticipate His return. Last time, we explored the idea of hope and how foundational hope is to our very being. We cannot exist without hope. Therefore God, in His infinite wisdom, designed life—and all of history—around two promises. First, the promise that Messiah was coming. This was the hope to which mankind clung. This was the hope that sustained God’s people through their seemingly endless trials. Next, after that hope was finally fulfilled in the coming of Messiah, God then promised that Christ would return. This renewed and reimagined hope has carried us on ever since. Christ will return to make all things right. Hope truly is the currency of the soul. And hope is the first of the amazing themes that the Advent of Christ lays before us.

The next picture that Advent paints for us is that of Joy. This second theme of Advent prompts us to ask: what is joy and how can we experience it? One dictionary definition of joy is: “…the emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying.” But what the world thinks of as joy—as reflected in this dictionary definition—is actually more precisely the definition of happiness. The source of happiness is happenings or happenstance. It is transitory. It is temporary. The book of Job says, “…the mirth of the wicked is brief, the joy of the godless lasts but a moment” (Job 20:5). Contrasting this with a biblical picture of joy, happiness is momentary and fleeting, because it is focused on our circumstances and the world around us. It comes and goes depending on the situation. As circumstances change, often so too does our sense of happiness. This happiness is but a cheap imitation and a dim reflection of true joy. The Bible defines joy in a very different way.

Happiness can be described as an outward expression of elation, whereas joy is an inner sense of peace, contentment, and trust. The source of joy is God. It is founded upon His goodness, His promises, His faithfulness, and His love. Joy is not temporary because it is grounded in who God is. Joy is a bold declaration that regardless of circumstances, our hearts can rejoice. It is the jubilant cry of the heart that we are blessed and that God is good.

Joy is a topic that radiates forth from the writers of scripture. The terms “joy”, “joyful”, and “rejoice” seem to ring out from just about every page. A key component of God’s perspective on joy is highlighted for us in the book of John: “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love…I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10–11). Joy is intimately tied to our relationship with Christ—and our obedience to Him. According to philosopher/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.” Joy is not just a random experience of happiness or bliss. It is inseparable from, and a byproduct of, a relationship with God.

We can actually use joy to gauge the state of our walk with God. If your soul is satisfied in Christ, you will rejoice in Christ. If you take your eyes off Christ, you’ll invariably lose your joy. It has been said that Christian joy is a barometer of our spiritual life. When the needle dips, we should take note.

Besides teaching us that the source and foundation of joy is Christ, what else does the Bible say about joy? First it says that joy is a gift from God. It is a gift to those who belong in Jesus. The word gospel can be defined as “good news” or “a message bringing joy.” What did the angel say to the shepherds? “…I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10). What was that good news? It was that true joy had now come into the world.

Secondly, joy is a fruit of walking in the Spirit. Paul says in Galatians 5:22, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…” and so on. Walking in the Spirit can be defined as: a moment by moment choice to submit our will to the will of the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit, or “walking in the Spirit,” is not an ecstatic experience. It is an act of the will. Since joy is a fruit of that relationship, we must choose to walk in the Spirit to be connected to the source of joy. This highlights that joy is a choice. We can choose joy.

Next, joy is independent of circumstance. In James we read, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…” (James 1:2). And Paul said, “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you” (Phil 2:17). Peter adds: “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13). These passages highlight the truth that even when we find ourselves in the midst of genuine sorrow or pain, the joy we carry inside of us can never be touched. Our confidence in the sovereign hand of God—which filters everything that happens to us through His watch-care—that gives us the perspective we need to remain joyful. Keeping in view the eternal weight of glory that awaits us outweighs and gives context to the momentary light affliction we experience (2 Cor 4:17).

Finally, joy is a result of thankfulness. Paul ties joy and thankfulness together when he admonishes us to, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:16-18). It seems Christians are always looking for “God’s will” for their lives. How often in scripture do we see it laid out as plainly as we see in this verse? Paul tells us that joy, prayer, and thankfulness is God’s will for your life.

One question that we can ask ourselves to refocus our hearts toward joy through thankfulness is this: “What if I woke up tomorrow and the only things I had left were the things I thanked God for today?” When we live in a constant state of gratitude, what we are doing is acknowledging the source of our blessings, and voicing that gratitude in praise. And according to how God designed us, when we voice our appreciation, admiration, and praise of something, we actually experience the joy of that veneration all the more. Our joy grows as our thankfulness—and the expression of that thankfulness—increases.

There are so many more facets of this rich topic of joy we could explore. Yet there is a misunderstanding of joy we need to address as well. Unfortunately, despite all the good that the Bible says about joy, an idea has crept into our Christian ethos which purports that seeking joy, benefit, or reward from serving God somehow runs counter to the self-denial and ascetic kind of life we have been taught that we’re called to. A couple of erroneous teachings highlight this idea:

Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher, taught the notion that the moral value of an act decreases when we aim to derive any benefit from it. Acts are good only if the doer is “disinterested”; that we should do the good only because it is good. According to this argument, any motivation to seek joy or reward corrupts the act.

Atheistic philosopher Ayn Rand pointed back to Kant when she noted, “An action is moral … only if one has no desire to perform it, but performs it out of a sense of duty and derives no benefit from it of any sort, neither material nor spiritual. A benefit destroys the moral value of an action.” (For the New Intellectual)

This wrongheaded idea has wound its way into modern Christian discourse. Much of what we Christians hear regarding the motivation we ought to have when doing good or seeking rewards is based on this idea. While it is true that self-denial is taught in scripture, its purpose is so that we might find our ultimate satisfaction and joy in God. We must not give in to the notion that it is somehow selfish to seek joy in our lives. Joy is commanded by God. Joy is a good gift from a good God who wants good things for us. Since joy is, in essence, a byproduct of being in a relationship with God, to deny ourselves the benefits of that relationship—in any respect—is an assault upon our very reason for being—namely glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.

There is a quote from C.S. Lewis that is often cited that illustrates this idea well:

If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses)

This idea from Lewis is that the paltry little thrills we so often seek after, pale in comparison to the magnitude of joy God has in store for us. Yet he is also saying that God that has given us good things to enjoy, precisely because He wants us to enjoy them. Seeking the enjoyment of those gifts is a good thing.

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and take up our cross in order that we may follow Christ; nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do, contains an appeal to desire.

God promises us rewards as benefits of being His children. One of these rewards is joy. To ignore this reality is myopic and unbiblical. Denying ourselves the enjoyment of these rewards undermines the purpose of God giving them in the first place. There is nothing wrong with seeking the joy that comes from being in relationship with God. In fact, there is everything right with it. God is a God of joy. He created us to revel in that joy. Heaven is all about the full and unhindered celebration of God—a celebration that is nothing if not completely full of joy.

The world-renowned evangelist and founder of orphanages George Müller also saw this was true. He said:

The point is this: I saw more clearly than ever, that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was … how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit. (Autobiography of George Müller)

Many modern believers have inherited this false idea of what holiness really means. Perhaps this is a vestige of monasticism, and the weeping and wailing that asceticism encouraged. But it is a false dichotomy that does not appear in scripture. Joy and holiness are not pitted against each other. In fact, joy is so much more than just a wonderful promise for those who decide to take advantage of it. Seeking joy, both as a gift from God, and as a benefit of being in relationship with Him, is actually commanded of us by God.

Several times in the book of Philippians, Paul goes beyond just encouraging the choice of joy, and actually commands it—using the imperative mood. In Philippians 4:4 he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” This is not a suggestion. It is a command we are to obey. Again, this reminds us that we can choose joy. If it is commanded of us, then it cannot simply be a result of feelings, related to circumstances. This joy is not some sort of fake smile we paste on our faces in the parking lot as we arrive at church. It is an inner conviction, a rested assurance, a confident trust in the One from Whom joy overflows.

Joy, in addition to being a gift from God, a fruit of walking in the Spirit, a state that is independent of circumstances, and a result of thankfulness, is a choice we can make—and are actually commanded to make. Our lives are to be reflections of the character of God. As such, our lives ought to accurately reflect God’s joyful heart. We have a calling, and even a duty, to be faithful representatives of our joyful God to the world.

Trials and suffering cannot touch that rested assurance deep within our souls. Paul says that our momentary light affliction is producing for us an absolutely incomparable, eternal weight of glory. Our joy now, even in the midst of suffering, anticipates the complete satisfaction and pleasure of that day when there will be no more tears…forever.

The reward for following Jesus is Jesus. Jesus really is the definition of joy. Our connection to Him—our relationship with Him—grounds us in the foundation, origin, and basis for joy.

Devotional Questions

Joy is the jubilant cry of the heart that declares that we are blessed and God is good. Joy is not only an incalculable blessing that God pours out upon us, it is also commanded of us. After reading the introductory notes, take some time this week to meditate on the idea of joy, and how perhaps you can reorient your thinking on this important idea. Talk and pray with your family or small group through these questions on joy:

  1. How is joy different than happiness? What is happiness based on? What is joy based on? Describe a time when you felt true joy, even though circumstances around you were less than ideal. Ask God to open your eyes to what He wants you to know about Him through this experience.

  2. What is the connection between joy and having a relationship with Jesus? What is the relationship between joy and obedience? Why do you think this connection exists? What does a lack of joy say about our relationship with Jesus? When have you experienced the most joy (not merely happiness)? When have you had the least joy? Take some time to pray about what God is saying to you about choosing joy.

  3. How can an understanding of the sovereignty of God affect our joy? What does it mean that God is sovereign, and what are some real-world examples that affect your daily life? What does God’s sovereignty have to do with your well-being and your destiny? Do you regularly praise God for His sovereignty? Talk to God about how His sovereignty makes you feel. Praise Him for His power, control, and authority—all within the context of His goodness. Try to incorporate this into your prayers this week and see what effect it has on your joy and your peace.

  4. How do you think thankfulness can affect our joy? How can a thankful heart change us? How can voicing our appreciation of something increase our joy and enjoyment of it? Why do you think rejoicing is God’s will for us? What does it accomplish in us? How can you choose joy today?

  5. How can joy be a measuring stick for the state of our relationship with God? What does our joy say about our relationship with God? Why would God want us to be joyful? What does a Christian who is joyful communicate to a watching world about who God is? When has a lack of joy been a stumbling block for you? Tell God what you are learning about joy and the part it plays in your life.

Going Deeper

  1. What role does self-denial play in the Christian life? What role ought the promise of rewards play in the Christian life? Is it wrong to be motivated by rewards? Why or why not? What are the eternal rewards scripture refers to?

  2. What do you think Paul means when he speaks of “an eternal weight of glory” in 2 Corinthians 4:17? Describe what “momentary light affliction” means, and how can it be eclipsed by this “eternal weight of glory?” How is suffering now a needed preparation for the glory that is to come? What does it mean to have an eternal perspective?

Transformational Activity

Community

Joy is experienced most fully when we are in community. When we share our joy with others, that joy is consummated and completed. This is why God can command us to praise Him. When our praise of Him is expressed, we experience it most fully. And we are thus exposed to the wonders of God in increasingly powerful ways. This week, think about how you might share your joy with others. It might be the joy of a beautiful sunset, or a favorite piece of music. It might be a video of a child’s laughter or an anecdote of the work of God in your life. Whatever the source of joy, find a way to share it with someone and see what God does in you to compound the joy you feel—as well as the delight you have in Him.

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