Joy in the Face of Joyless Situations
Rev. Dr. Zac McGowen
“Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enJOY him forever…” This is the answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and I have intentionally highlighted the J-O-Y of enjoy because there are times I see in myself a lack of God-focused joy.
It’s not that I don’t experience moments of joy; I definitely do. I enjoy my family, dates with my wife, playing in the backyard with my kids, a good football game, the sunrise, the peace of a well-timed run in the morning. Lest you read this and think my moments of joy are overly self-centered, in those moments I will be overwhelmed with gratitude in all those moments to the God who has made each of those moments possible. I enjoy time with the people of God in my home church, or praying with a friend. I am filled with joy at the sight of something inspiring in nature and thank God for his creative artistry.
I don’t believe there is anything wrong with finding and relishing in the joy of those moments, yet sometimes something is missing. I know that because when those moments of blessing pass… well, I’m not joyful. I don’t know about you, but with today’s inflation, social media-based arguments, depressing headlines, and a general sense of national angst, I need to continually be reminded that joy in the Lord is supposed to be my strength (Nehemiah 8:10).
Enjoying God’s Beauty on Its Own
I once heard the Reformed pastor, author, and speaker John Piper say at a conference: “God’s greatest gift to humanity is God’s beauty given to us for our eternal enjoyment.” He added as a caveat that God’s gift was not merely that God had created beauty for us to enjoy (though he has certainly done that), but that God’s beauty was, in and of itself, something to behold and enjoy. In making this statement, Piper unpacked 1 Corinthians 4:4-7, and concluded that “lostness” was a matter of blindness to the beauty of God. Whether you or I totally agree with Piper’s overall conclusion is less relevant than the question posed by it and Westminster: Do I enjoy God, not do I enjoy what God does for and around me? Rather, do I find joy passion, and excitement in the beauty and glory and majesty of God?
This may seem at first a mystery, and admittedly I don’t think I have wrapped my brain around it. But looking at this from the standpoint of worship helps. If we take Christian worship as giving praise to God for who he is and what he has done, this would mean that I tend to focus on worshipping God more for what he has done than who he is. When I pray (using the ACTS) model, I would tend to focus on the confession, thanksgiving, supplication and not so much the adoration.
Posed as a question, I have had to ask myself: would I still worship God and pray if God ceased to work on my behalf and the only option was to worship him for who he is? I know God’s nature would be fundamentally different if he did not work for the good of his people, but from an exercise of faith I think the question is still valid. In the real world, I could ask if I would indeed enjoy God if all the external evidence of “blessing” were gone: Can I worship and enjoy God when things are bad?
The Test of Job
This was, of course, the test of Job. “Take every blessing away from him, and he will curse you to your face!” That was the basic gauntlet-throwing challenge Satan made to God in the opening chapters, and Job lost everything. He was left poor, family-less, and broken from head to toe. To top it off, Job’s friends blamed him for his own plight—“It must be some sin you have committed that brought you this tragedy,” they said in so many words.
But Job stuck by his faith. He had questions for sure, he had moments of deep and profound depression, but the focus of his life remained, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). I have had Christians try to explain that verse away, like what God gives is blessing and what God takes away is the curse. That is not what Job meant. He meant that whatever he had was not truly his, it was a gift from God, and now that he didn’t have it, God is still God.
Over the course of the next 41 chapters, Job’s God-focused joy certainly wavered and faltered, but in the end he was able to praise God even though he never was told about the eternal significance of his ordeal.
He says, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know” (Job 42:2-3).
Would I be able to utter the same?
How to Enjoy the Lord for the Lord’s Sake
Begin with Who God Is
I think to get there, the focus of our prayers should always begin with who God is, regardless of what he gives us, and then move to what he has done. In the preceding chapter of Job, God reminds him over and over about his character, his majesty, and strength and then what he has done. And it’s not enough to remain on the loving and caring and mercy of God. Those are wonderful aspects of God, but they don’t have the impact until we also praise God for his justice, his might, how powerful and holy he is. The grace is far more amazing when you realize it comes from a person who doesn’t have to show it.
Remember Our Place
The other part is remembering how little we deserve. Job’s confession in chapter 42 reveals that he realizes his rightful place before God. He is not on the same level as God. He can’t possibly understand what God is doing or why, and that is ok. That’s good even! Most of us have a very hard time fostering a real sense of humility. We want to be god, we want things our way, and we tend to put the Lord in the box of a bully when we are confronted with the fact that he is the one who is in charge and who makes the rules, and he does not owe us a thing.
We may not like that, yet it is true. We are sinners, and finite, and we cannot possibly think we should be on the same level as the Lord.
That may not sound very joyful: focusing on the justice of God and our rightful place under his heel. And if that were the end of the story it would not be very joyful. But that is not the end of the story. God chooses to show us his love and mercy and kindness. He restores Job, he brings us out of darkness, and more than anything, he has given us salvation through Jesus Christ.
Remember God is Generous
Now this may seem like turning around and just enjoying the stuff God does for us, but when we start with God and move to remembering our rightful place, then we understand more fully and more wholly the wonder of the gifts God has given us. The grace is more amazing, the mercy is more sweet.
The sunsets, the times with our kids, the conversations with good friends, those then point us back to the Lord in a way that is different than just being grateful for the moment itself. It reminds us again of the majesty of God and the goodness of his love for us. We can breathe in and breathe out as a reminder of the Holy Spirit’s refreshment. We can accept the generosity of others as a reminder of the generous salvation given to us by the Lord.
Then the joy of the Lord becomes our strength (Nehemiah 8:10), and that joy is more secure than anything we have in this life.