It’s a conundrum. Paul said part of the fruit of the Spirit is …joy. So if we we are filled with the Spirit we will live with and exhibit joy. But we recognize living with consistent joy is not easy. Just how could Paul say this?
His letter to the Philippian church provides the key. In prison, awaiting a verdict on his life, Paul wrote “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4) In fact 17 times in this letter he mentions rejoicing and joy. We can safely assume he was serious about living a joy-full life. As Karl Barth postulated, ‘joy’ in Philippians is a defiant ‘Nevertheless!’ ”—nevertheless “Rejoice.” It is clear that for Paul our circumstances alone need not determine the condition of our hearts.
But how then do we condition our hearts? “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (4:6) An attitude of thanksgiving activates a spirit of joy. An attitude of thanksgiving is a two-sided coin: giving thanks and thanks giving.
Giving thanks is one of the most important and creative capacities of the human mind. If we utilize this capacity to the fullest, if throughout the course of each day we focus on the art of giving thanks, we will experience joy. We can give thanks in at least two ways. First , we can give thanks to others. We’ve been created in such a way, and the Holy Spirit functions in such a way, that giving thanks to others produces joy. There is something inherent in the giving of thanks to others that fosters joy in return. The Holy Spirit unleashes joy in our hearts when we give thanks to other people.
To whom should you express thanks? Who has been important in your life that should be thanked? A spouse, a parent, a child, a sibling, a teacher, a friend? It is in giving thanks for others that we begin to experience a sacred joy.
Secondly we can give thanks to God. The Psalmist exemplifies the pattern: “Praise the LORD, I tell myself; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Praise the LORD, I tell myself, and never forget the good things he does for me. He forgives all my sins and heals all my diseases. He ransoms me from death and surrounds me with love and tender mercies. He fills my life with good things. My youth is renewed like the eagle’s!” (103:1-5 NLT) The Psalmist does not express material and physical things nor list what God has given to him. Rather he expresses thanks for what God has done for him – forgiveness of sins, healing of diseases, redemption, the outpouring of love and mercy, the provision of what is good, and the rejuvenation of spirit. The Psalmist thanks God for what He has done inside of him. The Holy Spirit unleashes incredible joy in our hearts when we give thanks to God.
The other side of the coin is thanks giving. God has so constructed life that we always receive more than we give. We cannot out-give God! In Deuteronomy 26 God, in essence, told the Israelites that if they gave him the first 10%, He would guarantee the other 90%! Proverbs 19:17 states, “He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” In Acts 20:35 Paul quotes Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” And when he wrote the Corinthian church Paul stated: (2 Cor. 9:6 ff):
“Remember this–a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each make up your own mind as to how much you should give. Don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. For God loves the person who gives cheerfully. And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others. For God is the one who gives seed to the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will give you many opportunities to do good, and he will produce a great harvest of generosity in you. Yes, you will be enriched so that you can give even more generously. And when we take your gifts to those who need them, they will break out in thanksgiving to God. So two good things will happen–the needs of the Christians in Jerusalem will be met, and they will joyfully express their thanksgiving to God. You will be glorifying God through your generous gifts. For your generosity to them will prove that you are obedient to the Good News of Christ. And they will pray for you with deep affection because of the wonderful grace of God shown through you.”
Note the cycle: God gives; we give away; God gives more; we give away; there is joy.
Mark Tidd shared an experience from his college days.
“An old man showed up at the back door of the house we were renting. Opening the door a few cautious inches, we saw his eyes were glassy and his furrowed face glistened with silver stubble. He clutched a wicker basket holding a few unappealing vegetables. He bade us good morning and offered his produce for sale. We were uneasy enough that we made a quick purchase to alleviate both our pity and our fear. To our chagrin, he returned the next week, introducing himself as Mr. Roth, the man who lived in the shack down the road. As our fears subsided, we got close enough to realize it wasn’t alcohol but cataracts that “marble-ized” his eyes. On subsequent visits, he would shuffle in, wearing two mismatched right shoes, and pull out a harmonica. With glazed eyes set on a future glory, he’d puff out old gospel tunes between conversations about vegetables and religion. On one visit, he exclaimed, “The Lord is so good! I came out of my shack this morning and found a bag full of shoes and clothing on my porch.’ ‘That’s wonderful, Mr. Roth!’ we said. ‘We’re happy for you.’ ‘You know what’s even more wonderful?’ he asked. ‘Just yesterday I met some people who could use them.”1
Amazing, isn’t it? We give; others thank God; we thank God; God receives the praise and the glory; we experience joy. It all happens by thanks giving.
It all works, says Paul, because we rejoice “in the Lord.” As someone once said, “Joy is the flag which is flown from the castle of the heart when the King is in residence there.”
Jesus affirmed it (Jn. 16:17 ff. NLT): “Truly, you will weep and mourn over what is going to happen to me, but the world will rejoice. You will grieve, but your grief will suddenly turn to wonderful joy when you see me again. It will be like a woman experiencing the pains of labor. When her child is born, her anguish gives place to joy because she has brought a new person into the world. You have sorrow now, but I will see you again; then you will rejoice, and no one can rob you of that joy. At that time you won’t need to ask me for anything. The truth is, you can go directly to the Father and ask him, and he will grant your request because you use my name. You haven’t done this before. Ask, using my name, and you will receive, and you will have abundant joy.” Joy comes from an intimate relationship with Jesus Christ. When filled with His Sprit, the joy will flow into and through us.
An old poem, THE DEACON’S THANKSGIVING, pictures it well:
Old Deacon Bedell was the cheeriest man
You’d meet within many a day;
He ‘lowed that the Lord had a pretty good plan
For running the world, and he’d say:
“I’m thankful things are about as they are, They could be a mighty sight worse –
An’ the things we’ve complained of the loudest so far
Have proved to be blessings to us.”
When other lamented the drought, he’d reply:
“It’s better than having a flood,
An’ we ought to thank God when the weather is dry
That we don’t have to waller in mud.”
Yet, when it was stormy, he’d never complain,
But say, with immutable trust,
“The Lord in his goodness has sent us the rain,
To lay this discomfortin’ dust.”
When adversity smote him it fell like the dew
On a mountain’s impervious crest;
For his simple philosophy held to the view
That everything worked for the best.
And for others’ misfortunes he always could find
Such sweet consolation to give,
It seemed that he envied the halt and the blind,
The lives they were destined to live.
One day he was caught in s threshing machine –
It cost him a leg, but he said:
“That’s getting off cheaper than some I have seen,
I’m thankful it wasn’t my head.”
And always thereafter he stumped on a peg,
Or patiently went with a crutch,
Declaring, “I’m savin’ a lot on that leg –
My socks only cost half as much.”
When his end was approaching, he said with a smile,
As they folded his hands on his breast:
“I’ve worked pretty hard a consid’able while,
An’ I’m thankful to get a good rest.”
So he went through the world strewing smiles on his way,
And the neighbors surviving him tell
That, no matter what happened, it seemed every day
Was thanksgiving for Ezra Bedell.2
1Leadership Magazine, Fall 1990 – http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/1990/fall/90l4048.html