THE MINISTRY OF JOY IN A HURTING WORLD
Paul asks us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” and, as if to give special stress to this imperative, he repeats it by saying, “…again I will say, Rejoice.” (Phil. 4:4). Does this mean that we can rejoice while faced with the serious injustices in this world, and the immense pain, failure, disappointment and sorrow that people face? We respond with a, “Yes, but…” answer.
INSENSITIVE REJOICING BY CHRISTIANS.
Sadly, some Christians have given joy, and the praise that arises from it, a bad name by a kind of rejoicing that separates them from hurting people. While people are suffering they seem to be quite oblivious to these sufferings and instead seem to be relishing their joy in a way that suggests to the suffering that they do not care. In fact suffering people sometimes feel inferior in front of them. They testify to the goodness of God to them when they should be listening and weeping. God ends up getting a bad name because of these followers of him. People think that God is insensitive to their sorrows, and that he favours people who are his “special” children while being callous to the needs of others.
This is not the attitude that should characterise the representatives of the one of who it was said, “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). Jesus took upon himself our pain. Of him it was prophesied, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isa. 53:4).
SHARING IN DISAPPOINTMENT
A theology of joy is basic to the Christian approach to life as we pointed out at the start of this article. A necessary part of this theology of joy is a theology of lament in the style of the psalmists and prophets of the Old Testament. Many of the laments in the OT end with praise and thanksgiving as the light shines through. But that is light as it shines through convincing us of God’s love and sovereignty in our lives. We may not be able to extrapolate that joy to our attitude to the sufferings of others.
A Biblical theology of joy must not only include a theology of lament as a means to joy but also it must share in the disappointments that people face on earth. Paul was the great advocate of constant joy in the life of the Christian. But as he contemplated the lostness of the Jews in their rejection of Christ, he said, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh” (Rom. 9:2-3). He said of his pastoral concern for the churches: “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Cor. 11:28-29). It seems that the joy of the Lord gave Paul the strength to accommodate “unceasing anguish” in his heart.
- We must continue to be angry at the injustice that is rampant in our nations and the lies and false values peddled in the media.
- We must be hurt over the pain of our people—in my case because of the terrible abuse (especially sexual) that a lot of our youth have to endure, especially because mother is working abroad.
- We must mourn with the families of many who have met untimely deaths or the loss of limbs and mobility in our unending war.
- We must be disappointed over the temporal failures we or those we love experience on earth.
- These days every day I live in fear that a colleague will be arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist or spoken to as if he were sub-human simply because the address on his identity card is in a town from which many rebels have come.
Yet there are Christians who are moving along happily in their Christian life quite oblivious to the needs around them. To be sensitive to our people’s needs we need to know them. We need to get close to people so that we get to know their needs and we need to listen to people. This is a messy, uncomfortable, inconvenient and costly commitment. We need to read the newspapers or watch the news or listen to the radio so that we are aware of what is happening in the world to which God has sent us. When we get close to people and their needs we are affected by it. We develop anger, hurt, sorrow and disappointment.
It is this anger, hurt, sorrow, disappointment and fear that motivate us to leave our cosy places of comfort and safety to drive us to costly servanthood. This may mean highlighting the unjust things we see as journalists or advocates for justice. It may mean taking legal action. It may mean being involved in the alleviation of the conditions that are causing such pain. The fear of arrest and humiliation causes me to do all I can to rescue, attest to and be a guarantee to my colleagues For all of us it would mean doing something about the horror of the lostness of people without Christ. Also for all of us it would mean bearing the burdens of people we know (Gal. 6:1). Some may be called to go into vocations that directly meet these needs such as social work, teaching, welfare work, banking for the poor, journalism, politics, law, counselling and evangelism.
SOMETHING DEEPER THAN DISAPPOINTMENT
When Christians get involved in such servanthood there are factors driving them to service which are deeper and more basic than the anger, hurt, sorrow, disappointment and fear. They have the joy and peace of the Lord. This is an inner conviction about the sovereignty of God and the experience of his super-abounding grace which is greater than all sin, pain, disappointment and fear. They have battled with God until they can say that he will produce good out of everything they experienced (Rom. 8:28). They also can say, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). When God’s love has “flooded” (REB) their hearts like this it combats and defeats their bitterness. This takes away the bitter edge from life. This is what gives us the grace to endure the painful blows that come to us from the people we serve without being overwhelmed by hopelessness and bitterness.
One of the saddest features about the church today is the phenomenon of the angry Christian leader. These are people who have encountered painful experiences but who have not battled till they can truly say that the sovereign God achieved a good end through the experiences and that his love is deeper than all the pain experienced. When we complete this battle victoriously our attitude to life is one of gratitude to God and the deepest emotion in our lives is the joy of the Lord.
Angry leaders may be motivated by their anger to fight for justice, to take up the causes of people whom they feel have been treated unjustly or unkindly, and to “clean up the church.” But their attitude of anger causes them to be erratic and do unloving things in their battle for justice. The end result of their service may be the redressing of injustice without the healing of people’s wounds by the love and sovereignty of Christ. Bitter people cannot help others to lose their bitterness. If we have lost our bitterness through the healing of Christ’s sovereignty and grace, we have joy in the midst of our pain. We are rich, contented and complete people!
HEALING FOR THE ANGER OF THE POOR
Our ministry has been primarily with youth from very tough socio-economic backgrounds. Many of our staff workers come from those backgrounds. Their lives have been extremely bitter and their wounds extremely deep. Strangely, sometimes the bitterness finds greater expression after they become Christians. Before they came to Christ they had no identity to give them significance. Now they realise their worth and that opens up unhealed but submerged the wounds in their lives. They cry, “What we went through was wrong.” Before they knew that they were God’s children they accepted their fate with dumb resignation, or they became alcoholics or drug addicts to numb the pain of their emptiness. Now that they have discovered their identity in Christ, they lash out in anger over what they have experienced.
And we leaders are the ones who have to bear the brunt of their bitterness—for we are the ones who make ourselves vulnerable by getting close to them. When the people we helped so much hit out at us angrily, we too could end up bitter or give up helping these people. But if our lives are overwhelmed by grace, then our dominant attitude is one of being thrilled by God’s care for us. This joy of the Lord gives us the strength to persevere even after receiving blow after blow.
As we persevere in loving these people they find us to be a sure place of rest that they can come to in the midst of their turmoil. They may come to us with anger—but we can serve them by being the ones to whom they can unburden themselves of this anger. The anger surely must be expressed in some way if there is to be healing for them. The anger may be directed at us, but we persevere believing that this expression of it will be therapeutic to them.
Then we teach them the Word. Our loving care fore them helps create an environment for the Word to go in and influence their attitudes. Our love for them and the importance we give to them makes them realise that they are lovable and are being treated as significant people. This makes them to become open to receiving love and significance—both of which must be received to be experienced. Their heart is ready to believe that God loves them. They believed that in their minds, but it had not travelled to their heart. As they relish God’s love, little by little their anger leaves them, and they too come to experience God’s Shalom.
JOY AS MEDICINE
So anger, hurt, sorrow, disappointment and fear drive us to service in a broken and angry world. But the joy gives us the strength to persevere in it as a constructive presence. Once, after hearing a lot of griping within the YFC family, I was really discouraged. It so happened that the very morning when I was feeling really down I read Proverbs 17 for my devotions. Verse 22 hit me with great force: “A joyful heart is good medicine.” People gripe because they do not have a sense of the sovereignty of God over their lives and the situations they face and because they have not sense of the love of God being poured into their hearts (Rom. 5:8). God used this verse not only to comfort me but also to give me the desire to have a kind of joy that serve as a medicine to unhappy people by directing them to the love and sovereignty of God.
So we live with anger, hurt, sorrow, disappointment and fear which drive us to a battle against injustice and those things which prevent people from experiencing God’s wholeness. But it is the joy of the Lord springing from the experience of his super-abounding grace which gives us the strength to go on without being consumed by bitterness ourselves.