My book The View From Down in Poordom includes a chapter titled “Regarding Joy and Happiness in Poverty.”
Here’s an excerpt for your consideration on this day in which Jesus remains in the tomb–and the disciples surely feel entombed themselves!
Imagine how the eleven apostles felt after their teacher and healer, Jesus, who so often confounded them with his teachings while also instilling hope in their dreary lives, died and was entombed. Imagine how entombed they must have felt in their sorrow, some of them with a twinge of cynicism thrown in perhaps (the doubting Thomas), some entombed by nagging guilt and shame (Peter), and all in fear of an uncertain future without that charismatic man around. Imagine how anguished they felt with all those raw, dark emotions to process.
Of course, we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story, which they didn’t see coming despite the clues and forecasts that Jesus gave. We know how these pitiful, guilt-wracked men were transformed by an event that lifted them so high out of the pit of sorrow and guilt and shame that they were overwhelmed by joy—so much so that observers wondered if they were drunk! (See Acts 2:5–21.)
It’s a hard thing for us to know sometimes that God is with us in those cheerless times when we’re so entombed by the darkness that it feels like God has left us. But let’s consider how our deep-seated joy that comes from our Lord endures through our times of great sorrow.
Of the nine fruits of the spirit cited by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23, joy is second only to love, which understandably comes in at number one, since love and joy are so closely connected. Jesus himself mentions the connection between love and joy when, in speaking of himself as “the true vine,” he notes, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be made in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10–11 NRSV).
It makes still more sense that joy would rank near the top of Paul’s list of fruits when we consider that the first miracle Jesus performed was his turning the water into wine (and the finest wine at that!) at an event as joyful as a wedding (John 1:1–11).
Jesus frequently enjoyed a good meal with good wine, more often than not with sinners and outcasts who took such joy in His having liberated them from the sickness of sin. The reason Jesus drew such massive crowds was that joy is contagious—the joyless people slugging through miserable life conditions wanted to see this man who had had such a transformative effect on people who had previously known only misery.
Paul’s epistle to the Philippians is sometimes called “The Joy Book.” It includes the words “joy,” “joyous,” or “rejoice” sixteen times. That is all the more extraordinary because Paul wrote it while chained in a cheerless Roman prison. People can chain you, beat you, and hurt you, but they can’t snuff out the joy within you. That joy abides within anyone who loves God and others as himself or herself in good times and horrendous times, in all circumstances and in all kinds of places—even in the grim poverty of a jail cell.
Yet joy is not the same as happiness. It’s been said that happiness is external, subject to situations and circumstances, while joy is internal and abiding, a gift from God. Joy is God’s Spirit planted and rooted deep within us, regardless of situation or circumstance. Joy, unlike happiness, is the flip side of sorrow; the two are always connected. Without experiencing sorrow, we could never know joy. Happiness is fleeting, never quite filling our cup to the level of contentment.
Money ensures us a certain amount of happiness, but how easy it is to get stranded on the merry-go-round of desire and dissatisfaction. The more money we make, the more we want. The more we want, the more we spend.
Round and round we go, never satisfied with the thrill of more money coming in, new and cool stuff being acquired, and the fleeting happiness that comes with every new dollar made and spent. Enough is never enough. The thing about the fast-moving merry-go-round of desire is that there’s no way to step off and settle down and rejoice.
Joy is that warm, deep-seated glow of a heart at peace with itself. That’s what Paul implies when, after imploring the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” he goes on to say, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4, 6–7 NRSV).
In the purity of their spiritual poverty, the poor know what real joy is about and often gladly express it—even when their underlying sorrow is not so obvious.