A Fight Worth Fighting
Just last week, around 2am I awoke to an unexpected jolt of joyful pleasure. Outside my window, a Texas-sized thunderstorm was working its way through my neighborhood. The thunder boomed continuously and mightily for over 30 minutes. I love thunderstorms, I love their majesty and power and unpredictability. I love the way they light up the sky at will. Thunderstorms remind me of my smallness, they give me a pure and humble joy.
The joy that a thunderstorm gives me, waking me in the middle of the night, is not something that I have to fight for. I can only receive joy from the thunderstorm when it decides to show up, when God appropriates its thunderous bolts of electricity to strike somewhere within a few miles of me. I can’t control the thunderstorm, it is not always available to me.
Too often I assume my joy as a Christian is like the thunderstorm – it comes and goes, uncontrollable and sometimes elusively unavailable. It’s nice when it arrives, it’s majestic and powerful when my soul is happy and peaceful, but when it leaves… well then I suppose I have to just trust and have faith that it will return.
But that’s not how joy works.
Joy is not superficial, it is not fleeting or elusive. Joy is central to the Christian life, it walks hand-in-hand with faith. The faith we have in the steadfastness of our God, no matter our circumstance, should lead us to rejoicing, to joy. It is God’s will that we should rejoice (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Joy is our command (Philippians 4:4, Romans 12:12), a result of our love for Christ (1 Peter 1:8-9), it is inherently present in our suffering (James 1:2-3). Joy makes up the very Kingdom of God (Romans 14:17).
Joy is something we must fight for. It’s essential and necessary to living as a Christian, and no passive attitudes towards joy should be tolerated. Joy does not have to be something that catches us off guard or seems to disappear as easily as it appears. Joy is always available if we fight to take hold of it. It’s promised that in the presence of God there is fullness of joy, that the joy of the Lord is the Christians strength. Just as we must “fight the good fight of faith” (1 Timothy 6:12), so we must also fight for joy in Christ. Big things, eternal things, are at stake, if we let ourselves be robbed of our joy.
Joy is not only something we must fight for, it is also something that is worth fighting for. C.S. once told a friend in a letter that “one second of joy is worth 12 hours of pleasure.” Pleasure may come easy, but joy does not. So how do we fight for our joy?
1. Call Sin What It Is
When we refuse to find joy in Christ, freely offered and available to us, we sin against God. It is easy to attribute our lack of joy to our circumstances, to a “bad day” or even to great sorrow and great loss. I am not saying we do not have bad days, that we cannot be sad or mourn or weep. What I am saying is, that in the midst of our circumstances, we must choose to be “sorrowful yet always rejoicing”. We must choose to fight for joy, no matter what kind of day it is, no matter how hard it may seem. This is what sets us apart, this is the great “secret” Paul speaks of in Philippians 4. Possessing this secret of unending joy in Christ no matter our earthly lot, and yet refusing to believe it or fight for it, is committing the sin of unbelief. When we refuse to fight for joy what we are saying at minimum is “I do not believe that joy in Christ is available to me right now”, or worse “I do not believe there is enough joy in Christ to compensate for my joyless circumstances”.
Christian, do not let yourself become a helpless victim of your unbelief. The moment you become a victim of sin instead of an aggressor against it is the moment it begins to erode your soul and kill any lingering joy you may have. Sin has no pity for your self-pity. Stand up and fight! Why are their so many dismal, joyless Christians? Because so few call the joyless life what it is: sin leading to death. Failing to fight for joy is sin, failing to fight against sin means failing to see God. When we realize the seriousness of our unbelief, when we call sin what it is, then we take the first steps in fighting for our joy.
2. Savor the Sweetness of Christ
The other day I saw the film Risen, a a fictional account based on the Biblical narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The movie had its strengths and flaws, but what struck me most is the way Christ and his disciples were portrayed. The disciples, particularly Peter, were filled to the brim with joy. They exuded it, even in their less than ideal situation. The Roman government was after them, they were forced to hide in the upper room, and they were no doubt uncertain about what would happen to them next, where they would go or how they would live. What gave them such joy? They rejoiced in their circumstances because they had seen the face of Jesus. They saw him conquer death, they felt his scars and heard his words. They trusted him, his character and his nature and his kindness. The sweetness of Christ to them was a deep well of pure joy. They walked with Jesus, talked with him, were held by him. Jesus listened to their troubles and spoke comfort, he healed their fear and worry. Every time they came in contact with him, they laughed and skipped and cried powerful, joyful tears. The disciples were able to face the troubles and dangers of the world with confidence and joy because they KNEW Christ and adored and enjoyed him more than any other pleasure. They looked upon him and judged him sweeter than any taste of bitterness life gave them. Listen to Spurgeon speak about the character of Christ:
“Whenever the Great God contemplates His own dear Son, He feels an intense delight in surveying His character, and in beholding His sufferings. You and I, so far as we have been taught of God, must find infinite and unspeakable delight in the person and work of Christ.. when you contemplate the Savior, you find all the virtues enshrined in Him. Other men are stars, but He is a constellation, no, He is the whole universe of stars gathered into one galaxy of splendor; other men are gems and jewels, but He is the crown imperial, where every jewel glitters; other men finish but a part of the picture, and the background is left; or else there is something in the foreground that is but roughly touched; but He finishes the whole, not the minutest portion is neglected; His character is perfect and matchless.”
Clinging to your enjoyment of the perfect sweet character of Christ is a formidable weapon against any sin or circumstance trying to destroy joy. When you “taste and see that the Lord is good”, then all lesser flavors lose their attraction. Christ is the reason we have joy, he purchased it at the cross. Learn to love him not just for his gifts but for his character, remember and smile upon his own act of fighting for (and securing) your joy, and you will find strength in your fight.
3. Treasure Future Glory
Hebrews tells us that “For the joy set before him he endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). What was the joy that Jesus saw before him, that allowed him to endure the pain and the spiritual darkness of the cross? Firstly, Jesus was joyful in hope that his death would bring about the salvation of many. He saw with joy the future homecomings of the prodigal sons, the lost sheep returning to the good shepherd, the new birth of those dead in sin, the adoption of sons of God, and the sanctification of the bride that would be prepared for him. Secondly, Jesus was joyfully looking forward to being fully united with the Father in heaven. Jesus left his seat on high to condescend and save sinners, but he also longed to return to the joy of the Father. This longing for the joy of heaven pushed him to endure the cross on our behalf, so that we might share heaven with him.
The cross is a gateway to promised eternal joy for all who believe. If you fix your eyes on this future promised joy, made possible by the cross, then the weight of the world lightens. Paul exhorts us to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3). This is a vital key to fighting for joy, that our hearts and minds are set on eternal things, not earthly things. If we want to be filled with joy, we must hold the things of the world loosely and the things of the Kingdom tightly. We must treasure future glory much more than we treasure the fleeting things of earth.
What does this look like? It looks like realizing your job, your spouse, your boyfriend/girlfriend, your house or family or friends or kids or car or education or hobby or future; understanding that food, sex, entertainment, adventure, pleasure – none of it will provide you with lasting joy. Eternal joy is found in heaven alone. Take hold of the good things in your life, your little earthly joys, but hold them loosely. Be unafraid to lose them or tear them down if they become idols. Enjoy the earthly pleasures that point you towards heaven, where they will be even better, but don’t pretend that you can find everlasting joy in them.
Hold fast to eternal things. Don’t just enjoy the thunderstorm that comes and goes, but learn to enjoy the things that don’t come and go – God and his promises. Find joy, like Jesus, that your suffering will work for the glory of God and his purposes in the world. Learn to “joyfully accept the plundering of your property”, because property is temporal but for the Christian there is a “better and abiding possession” available (Hebrews 10:34). Don’t live like the earth will satisfy you. Look towards heaven and the joy of being seated with Jesus; let that hope of joy satisfy you. Fight for hope in future glory and you will find strength in your fight for joy.
4. Make Use of Your Weapons
We are in no way alone in the fight for joy. If we want to learn to fight well, we must learn to use the resources given to us. We have been given weapons, so let us use them to fight.
God’s Word is our mighty weapon to kill unbelief and protect our joy. His promises sustain us. Read it and find joy in exploring it and believing it. Use it as food and fuel, understand that without it you cannot sustain a life of joy.
Remind yourself of the Gospel: hear it preached as often as you are able, revel in its deep glories, mysteries, and comforts. The joy of the great work of Christ needs to hit our ears and pierce our hearts regularly, reigniting our joyful passions.
Pray for joy everyday, when you wake up and when you sleep, as often as you are in need. Echo George Muller in saying “The first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day is to have my soul happy in the Lord.”
Don’t fight alone. Lean on the body of Christ, the Church. Serve the church, love the church, gather with the church, pray for the church, and find joy in belonging to the church. Long to meet and talk and pray with believers. You are the bride of Christ – cherish that communal joy, hold onto it and make it your weapon in the fight for joy.
There will be days when joy seems fleeting and distant, a flash in the pan or a clash of thunder – there in an instant and then gone. You will face circumstances that will rob you of your joy. When that happens, don’t lie down in apathy, stand up and fight! Don’t forget that you have a sweet and precious Savior to look upon. Remember that the “unsearchable riches of Christ” are yours to be had, that the perfection of heaven is a sure promise. Fight for joy, because a joyful Christian is a God-exalting Christian. Fight for joy, because it is worth the fight!