Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 08/16/1998
1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth. 2 Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers. 3 For I was very glad when the brethren came and bore witness to your truth, that is, how you are walking in the truth. 4 I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.
John's message in his epistles can be summarized in three words. First is Truth: that which is so, real, solid, good, right, summed up in the person of Jesus Christ; therefore that which abides in us as a dynamic principle transforming us, by which and in which we walk. The second word is Love: the practical outworking of indwelling truth, also ultimately summed up in the person of Christ, who gave us the new commandment that we should love one another as he had loved us, gave us his commandments as the handbook of true love, and commended his love to us in this, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Finally today we come to the third word, Joy. In i Jn. 1:4 the Apostle that Jesus loved says he is writing "so that our joy may be made complete." And here in 3 Jn. he says he has no greater joy than to hear of his children walking in the Truth. What is this thing he is talking about?
The Question of Joy is, "How is joy possible?" And it is made a question by the nature of Christian joy. For surely joy is an emotion, and emotions are responses that by their very nature come and go and cannot be coerced. To force them is to destroy them. And yet Christian joy seems almost obligatory. It is part of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22. Must we be happy in order to be spiritual? And the Apostle Paul goes so far as to make it a command in Phil. 4:4. "Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!" How can you make an emotion a commandment when our emotions are not at our command? Believers with a superficial understanding of these things, who try to follow these passages of Scripture without ever having asked these questions, sometimes come off as infuriatingly glib. Some of our choruses capture that glibness all too well, to the point that they are guilty of false advertising about the Christian life. "I'm happy all the time, / Got true peace of mind / Since I found the Lord." "Now I am happy all the day." The implication is that if you are not--if you are, say, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief--there must be something wrong with you spiritually. So there must be something more to Christian joy than simply a glib and superficial lightness of spirit. It must be something different from simple happiness. But what?
How is it possible to have joy amidst all the struggles, sorrows, and pressures of life? The wrong kind of exhortation to joy, the wrong kind of application of Paul's commandment to his readers and John's desire for his, can simply add the burden of guilt to all the other burdens we carry. Or it can tempt the non-believer to dismiss us as unreal. So before we preach on Christian joy, we must face the reality of the Christian life in this fallen world in all seriousness. What if I were going through some of the things that people in my congregation have gone through at one time or another? If I had seen several of my loved ones die over the last couple of years, and the ones left were fighting over the estate, could I have joy? If my home had been destroyed by a tornado, could I have joy? If my parents were in a nursing home and did not even recognize me, could I have joy? If I lived alone in precarious health, could I have joy? If I had a young son living in another state under less than ideal moral influences and the courts wouldn't let me do anything about it, could I have joy? If I were unemployed with no prospects and an uncertain future, could I have joy? Or what about the Apostle Paul himself? If due to the rejection of my message I was on the floor of a dungeon with my back raw from the scourge, could I have joy? If I were in exile on a desert island like the Apostle John, separated from my home and my friends, could I have joy?
Do you want an honest answer? No, I could not! But let's rephrase the question once more. Can God give joy even in these circumstances? In worse ones? In yours? Now the answer is yes. Unless all of Scripture is a lie, yes! So today I would like to share with you what John can teach us about how.
In 1 Jn. 1:4, John tells us that the fullness of joy is the ultimate goal of his whole teaching. Therefore, we may surmise that the key to Joy may be what he has to say about Truth and Love. If you can remember what we have said about Truth and Love, I think we are ready for a summary statement that relates those two concepts to Joy. It would go something like this:
As Love is the practical outworking of indwelling Truth, so Joy is the emotional residue left behind in the psyche by the spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love. Let me repeat that: As Love is the practical outworking of indwelling Truth, so Joy is the emotional residue left behind in the psyche by the spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love.
John's concept then is very much parallel with Paul's metaphor of the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, when Truth in the person of Jesus Christ indwells you through his personal representative the Holy Spirit, when it transforms, redirects, and empowers your life, the result, the natural--or supernatural--fruit of this process is Love, Joy, and Peace. That explains how Joy can be a commandment. One cannot obey this particular commandment directly, but one can understand it as a command to cultivate the conditions in which Joy naturally grows. If we walk in the Truth, which means walking in Love, then we will know a deep joy that does not have to be forced, does not depend on outward circumstances, and gives us the strength to stand in all the tragedies of life. That is what we mean when we say that happiness depends on our circumstances, but Joy does not. As Love is the practical outworking of indwelling Truth, so Joy is the emotional residue left behind in the psyche by spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love.
How does Truth working through Love leave behind the track of Joy? Well, the Truth is a joyful thing in itself. Good News is a joyful thing. What did the Angels say to the Shepherds? "Behold, we bring you good tidings of great Joy." And what were those tidings? That unto them was born a savior. In other words, that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life. That is Good News indeed! What could be more joyful than that? The Truth also gives us a stable place to stand amidst all the changes of life. It tells us that this life is not eternal but is a place of trial and testing--but it also tells us that another Day is coming in which we will find our ultimate fulfillment and that it will last forever. Truth reorders our priorities. If the things that are unseen are eternal, then the souls of men are eternal and people are important. Truth thus turns us outward, causing us to love God and our neighbor rather than being preoccupied with ourselves and our troubles. Truth is bracing and imparts strength to deal with those troubles while they last. And if we walk in the Truth, if indwelling Truth is indeed finding expression in outworking love, then we are experiencing the fulfillment of our natures as created in the image of the God who is the source of that indwelling Truth and outworking Love. That is a dynamic that makes possible an unshakeable joy that transcends whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in. We cannot make ourselves be joyful, but we can plant the seeds of Joy by walking in the Truth.
How then do we find this Joy amidst the trials of life? There is no formula, no quick fix, no crisis experience at the altar or any other short cut that can be the answer to that question. We must first know the Lord, the source of Truth, and be committed to him. Then we must let his Truth saturate our minds, permeate our spirits, and inundate our hearts until our attitudes and our actions begin to take on the character of Truth. This is not just a matter of studying texts or doctrines, though of course such study is involved, is in fact indispensable. It is not less than that but more; it is a matter of living in relationship with the Christ who is the source of Truth and Love. Do not take the short cut of denying the troubles and sorrows of life. It is unbiblical, it is unrealistic, it deprives us of the support of Christian brothers and sisters. As in salvation, so in the Christian life, we must begin by admitting our need. And here is another short cut that will deprive you of Joy. Because we must walk in the Truth, i.e., walk with Christ, we must study the Scriptures looking for the right things: not Joy itself but the Truth and Love which are the source of Joy; not comfort but God; not a blessing but marching orders. Then we will not just mouth the Truth but walk in it; then it will begin to indwell us. And we must not short circuit the process by taking in the Truth but not giving it out, in both word and deed. As Love is the practical outworking of indwelling Truth, so Joy is the emotional residue left behind in the psyche by spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love.
Can we have Joy in the presence of death, loss, suffering? Yes--if we know Jesus Christ and in him the Love of God; if as the Truth he indwells us and transforms us through his Spirit; if Joy is the emotional residue left behind by indwelling Truth and outworking Love. May it work thus in us, for the glory of our Lord and Savior. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams