Months ago, as the idea of truly studying the fruit of the Spirit was germinating and growing in my heart, I began reading A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson. The book is on the Psalms of ascent. When I got to Psalm 126, his exposition struck a deep chord with me, and I’d like to share it with you.
Eugene (do you think he’d mind me calling him that?) says:
Joy is a characteristic of Christian pilgrimage. … That is not to say that joy is a moral requirement for Christian living. Some of us experience events that are full of sadness and pain. Some of us descend to low points in our lives when joy seems to have permanently departed. We must not in such circumstances or during such times say, “Well, that’s the final proof that I am not a good Christian.” … Joy is not a requirement of Christian discipleship, it is a consequence. It is not what we have to acquire in order to experience life in Christ; it is what comes to us when we are walking in the way of faith and obedience.
We come to God (and to the revelation of God’s ways) because none of us have it within ourselves, except momentarily, to be joyous. Joy is a product of abundance; it is the overflow of vitality. It is life working together harmoniously. It is exuberance. Inadequate sinners as we are, none of us can manage that for very long.
We try to get it through entertainment. We pay someone to make jokes, tell stories, perform dramatic actions, sing songs. We buy the vitality of another’s imagination to divert and enliven our own poor lives. The enormous entertainment industry in America is a sign of the depletion of joy in our culture. Society is a bored, gluttonous king employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal. But that kind of joy never penetrates our lives, never changes our basic constitution. The effects are extremely temporary–a few minutes, a few hours, a few days at most. When we run out of money, the joy trickles away. We cannot make ourselves joyful. Joy cannot be commanded, purchased or arranged.
But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. On of the certain consequence of such a life is joy, the kind expressed in Psalm 126.
It is clear in Psalm 126 that the one who wrote it and those who sang it were no strangers to the dark side of things. They carried the painful memory of exile in their bones and the scars of oppression on their backs. They knew the deserts of the heart and the nights of weeping. They knew what it meant to sow in tears.
One of the most interesting and remarkable things Christians learn is that laughter does not exclude weeping. Christian joy is not an escape from sorrow. Pain and hardship still come, but they are unable to drive out the happiness of the redeemed.
A common but futile strategy for achieving joy is trying to eliminate things that hurt: get rid of pain by numbing the nerve ends, get rid of insecurity by eliminating risks, get rid of disappointment by depersonalizing your relationships. And then try to lighten the boredom of such a life by buying joy in the form of vacations and entertainment. There isn’t a hint of that in Psalm 126.
Laughter is a result of living in the midst of God’s great works (“when God returned Israel’s exiles we laughed, we sang”). Enjoyment is not an escape from boredom but a plunge by faith into God’s work (“those who went off with heavy hearts will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing”). There is plenty of suffering on both sides, past and future. The joy comes because God knows how to wipe away tears, and, in his resurrection work, create the smile of new life. Joy is what God gives, not what we work up. Laughter is the delight that things are working together for good to those who love God. (Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, pp. 96-97, 100.)
1. Have you ever come to a momentous occasion in your life where you should feel joy and … not felt it? Please share. Why do you think this dissonance?
2. Eugene says that, when joy trickles away, “We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs.” What abundance of God exists in your life? How can you better live in it?