Thursday, 29 December 2011

Joyful Living - a sign of Godly Character

Tom Wright has done a new translation. It’s called the New Testament for everyone. Take a look at these familiar scriptures from his fresh perspective.

The result is this: since we have been declared ‘in the right’ on the basis of faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Through him we have been allowed to approach, by faith, into this grace in which we stand; and we celebrate the hope of the glory of God. That’s not all. We also celebrate in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces patience, patience produces a well-formed character, and a character like that produces hope. Hope in its turn, does not make us ashamed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts thorough the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Rom 5.3-5

My dear family, when you find yourselves tumbling into various trials and tribulations, learn to look at it with complete joy, because you know that, when your faith is put to the test, what comes out is patience. James 1.2-3

I’m speaking the truth in the Messiah, I’m not lying. I call my conscience as witness, in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and endless pain in my heart. Left to my own self, I am half inclined to pray that I would be accursed, cut off from the Messiah, on behalf of my family, my own flesh and blood relatives. Rom 9.1-3

There is no doubt in my mind that Joy is both a means and a goal in expressing Godly character. It is second in the list of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal 5.22. Thus it is intrinsically part of the character of God. He is a joyful God. The Old prophet Zephaniah said that God would ‘joy over us with singing’, Zeph 3.10..

The apostolic writers were clear that joy was a means of developing character. Paul said he gloried or to use Wright’s translation he ‘celebrated’ tribulations. This was because he understood that something was going on through the process of every trial. Each trial was designed to produce perseverance in us and this helped to create, ‘well formed character’.

This in turn led to a genuine hope in God that did not lead to disappointment. Rather it led to largeness of heart because of the Holy Spirit poured out into our hearts. The danger with every trial is to react in the wrong way; to become bitter, angry, disappointed. So James agrees with Paul, ‘Count it all joy when you stumble into various trials’.

Like Paul, James knew that something precious or of value was happening in this process. It was producing patience so that we could be ‘complete and lack nothing’. Wow. What a goal. God is in the business of forming and shaping us so that we are ready for anything He has for us.

Now the danger with any teaching on joy is that we bury or ignore our times of sorrow. Sorrow, like joy is a powerful emotion. It is a natural part of life and often precedes real joy. Jesus spoke of the woman who travails in birth pains but then forgets her sorrow because of the joy of giving birth, John 16.21. As the Psalmist put it, ‘weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning’, Psalm 30.5.

In Rom 9 Paul speaks of his continual sorrow of heart for the nation of Israel. He is emphatic. Three times he emphasizes that this is how he truly feels. This is from the same man who penned, ‘rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice’, Phil 4.6. The one who celebrated, ‘tribulations’. What is going on?

The truth is that many of us, like Paul, carry a secret sorrow. A loved one who is not yet saved; a son or daughter who is no longer walking with God; a yearning for pregnancy after so many miscarriages; a desire for healing, but carrying pain; a longing to provide well for your family but facing unemployment. All these are genuine sorrows.

And just to remind us, Jesus felt sorrow – even to the point of death, Mark 14.34. But neither Jesus nor any of the apostles allowed themselves to be overwhelmed with sorrow. Rather they chose to rejoice and exalt the greatness of God even in their time of sorrow and pain.

We see this a lot in the Psalms. In Psalm 50.23 God speaks to His people and says; “Whoever offers praise glorifies me and to him who orders his conduct (Literally, Journey in the Hebrew) aright, I will show the salvation of God”.

To praise God is to glorify Him. It is in effect saying, through our worship, that He is bigger than our problems. This kind of response positions our hearts to be able to discern the right road to take. We are all on a journey but we are not all on the right road; we are not all heading in the right direction.

Joyful praise has a way of impacting our conduct. We don’t react the way others do to disappointment or trials. Rather we seek to cooperate with God to bring about His purpose, even in the midst of distress and pain. This is the journey of seeking the Kingdom first. It’s the journey of faith. We believe that things will be different.

I have a friend who has conducted hundreds if not thousands of funerals. He has covered the full gambit from the young to the old; those who have died through natural causes to those who have died violently or through suicide. He has done memorials for believers and unbelievers alike.

What is fascinating to me is that in the twenty something years he has been providing this service he claims that in his experience there is no discernable difference to the way believers and unbelievers react to grief. This is tragic. Paul is explicit. We don’t grieve the way the world grieves. We have hope, 1 Thess 4.13. The resurrection makes a difference for us - today! The resurrection is God's vindication that He can bring life out of death. Death can give way to a new creation!

Weeping is an appropriate response to grief but remember, joy comes in the morning, Psalm 30.5. In other words we should expect to pass through the grief and come to a place of genuine heartfelt rejoicing. Neh 8,10 says that ‘The joy of the Lord is your strength’. Imagine that! Of all the qualities that Nehemiah could have chosen in the character of God he highlights God’s joy as the source of our strength.

This is not difficult to grasp. Happy people are energized people. They are motivated people. They see life as a gift and enter each day with a sense of wonder and expectation. Something deep within is then source of their strength – the joy of God.

Listen to the prophet Habakkuk on this subject:

Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labour of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls – Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. Hab 3.17-18.

You couldn’t paint a bleaker picture in an agricultural society. Crops and livestock alike fail. It looks grim. It looks hopeless. It’s a depressing scene. But Habakkuk makes a decision. He is not looking at the temporal he is looking at the eternal. He is focusing on God.

Consider Isaiah in the 6th chapter of his book. In the year that King Uzziah died he saw the Lord high and lifted up. He went from a place of grief to a place of worship and awe. That’s what Habakkuk was doing. He wouldn’t let the grief overwhelm him. God is bigger. God is greater.

Psalm 98.4 says, 'Make a joyful noise to the Lord all the earth. Make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praise'. Everything in creation is designed to rejoice in the Lord and one day it will. In the mean time we can be the vangaurd of God's creation that chooses to rejoice and praise Him because we understand what He has achieved in Christ for us!

Jesus has been exalted far above principalities and powers, thrones and dominions. He truly is Lord and as we worship and rejoice in Him He can change any situation. Think of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail. Despite their beatings they were praising God. They were joying in the God of their salvation and He sent an earthquake that loosed their chains and set in motion events that would change the city by establishing a worshipping community - a church.

This ability to joy in God is a fruit of the Spirit. We can cultivate it by choosing to rejoice in all the circumstances of life. Ask yourself this question: “What is the one thing that could happen to me that would silence my praise and rob me of joy?” Whatever it is, it has power over you until you release it to God and choose to worship and joy in Him.

That’s what Habakkuk did. For a farmer failed crops and sick livestock was the one thing that could rob them of joy. But Habakkuk is hopeful because he serves the God of Hope – the God of Joy. Listen to his closing words from his short prophetic book;

The Lord is my strength’ He will make my feet like deer’s feet. And He will make me walk on my high hills. This is a song! It’s a hymn of praise to the God who never changes no matter what happens in life. This is where our real strength lies.

Take time this week to cultivate a spirit of joyful thanksgiving every day. Your name is written in heaven and Jesus said this is to be a source of rejoicing, Luke 10.20. It is true every day. Focus on eternal realities and your life will be like a thermostat not a thermometer. You will change the atmosphere around you instead of being changed by it!