I was reminded of an incredible truth this weekend. In the business of life and living, we can get so bogged down in the muck and mire that we forget the fabric of which we were initially cut. No matter who you are or what you have been through, our Father who loves us dearly wants us to be joyful. He desires to turn tears into joy, He expects us to come before Him in joy, He is a master of freely giving joy when you least expect it, and what attracts people to Him and us as Christians should be joy! As a parent, nothing gives me more joy than to know that my children are happy and healthy and full of joy…so why would it be any different with God? Any loving parent would literally lay their life down in every possible way to ensure that their children are joyful. And it is not some giant leap of faith to comprehend that our Lord feels the same toward us. But why is it that so many of us are suffering and lack the very element that cements us to His Holy Spirit? The reason is simple: if the enemy can steal your joy, then the rest is easy!
I am going to share a personal story with you real quick. I have a very athletic and talented son that plays among other sports, soccer. He loves soccer. When he was old enough to walk, he was obsessed with sports and especially kicking a ball. My wife and I still reflect back on his younger years and marvel at just how much joy he derived from kicking a ball across the living room and letting out a squeal of delight! As he has grown (he is now 16), the level of soccer that he plays is among the highest in all of America. His team is frequently ranked in the top 10 in the nation, and consequently the game has taken on a level of intensity that would appall a casual observer. The amount of time, money, and commitment is almost gosh. However, if it means a lot to him; it means a lot to us. Here is a moment to reflect on a truth: if it is important to us, it is important to God. Just as my wife and I support our son’s passion, God supports our passions as well. We are speaking of passions of the soul here and not passions of the flesh…let’s not confuse the issue. But in our modern theological models, some forget that God is a personal, passionate, and attentive God. He is above all else and by His own definition…our Father!
So as my son has progressed into this high level of play and competitive arena, sometimes the pressure can get to him. Sometimes the goal that is set before him and his teammates is so high that it eclipses the ultimate reality. The ultimate reality is this: he loves to play soccer, he loves to kick a ball, he loves being on the field and competing, and he derives joy from it. The problem, as I’m sure you are guessing already, is that the desire for success can steal that intrinsic joy of playing the game. Well, recently he has had a tough time because the intensity has done just that: eclipsed the joy of the game! This is true for him and I’m pretty sure it is true of most people: that when we try too hard or lose the priority of joy, the performance suffers. My son has always been best on any athletic field when he is footloose and fancy free. Whenever he puts too much pressure on himself (or we inadvertently put too much pressure on him), his abilities and freedom to express himself become hampered. We try to remind him as often as possible, “Just go out there and have fun!” When he does this, he is virtually unstoppable.
We have had two tournaments over the same number of weekends and my son has slipped into what we call a “second-game slump”. Basically, he will play great the first game of the day and then perform mediocre to poorly the second game. We tried not to make it a big deal and only casually brought up the issue and asked him why the phenomenon kept plaguing his game. The worst thing you can do (and this is privy information to those who are not sports families) is to create bad “mo-jo” for a player in a slump. Most of the time, it is best to not mention such things as it can “bugger” your game! But at some point this summer, it became just too obvious and he began to seek answers from us and this weekend it came to a head. I told him, “Son, this is surely a mental thing and not a physical thing. So something is happening in your mental preparation.” He agreed and we decided that we should take it to prayer. Now don’t go all dogmatic on me and think that praying over a soccer game is sin! Remember, if it is important to us, then it is most assuredly important to God. If something is stealing our joy, then the Lord as our Father would love nothing more than to restore that joy. So we decided that prayer before EVERY game is very important, but that in order to break the cycle of the “second-game slump” we must give that prayer a little more intensity. I told him after he came to me almost in tears and asking me for my advice, “Son, I can’t help you…but I know Who can!” His eyes lit up and had an “A-Ha” moment with me. This brings up a second truth: sometimes we are so focused on the problem that we fail to see the solution!
Sunday afternoon, before the said “second-game”, which happened to be the championship game, I went to see some Christian friends and spend some time in fellowship and worship. My wife had some alone time with my son and they had a blast. We are doing some housecleaning and getting rid of some stuff in our overcrowded closets…including my son’s. As they were cleaning out his closet they came across old toys, old soccer balls, and old memories. They reminisced and laughed and joked and had a great time with the whole affair. My wife said it was a mix of happy memories and some teary moments to cherish. After this time of mother-son bonding (I’m so jealous), it was time to head to the championship game. As they drove to the fields, they laughed and joked and had a real time of it (again, so jealous!). Then my wife said something that changed the entire atmosphere: “Son, why can’t you step onto the soccer field with this same attitude of laughter and joy? Remember when all you cared about was playing soccer? It was just a blast being outside on a crisp, fall day and playing a game you love with your friends. I wish you could just go out there and have fun again!” He replied, “Mom, I have to put on my game face!”
She replied, “If you’re having fun, you always play better. So your best game face is a smile!”
They laughed and he got the joke. He also took it to heart. I met them at the fields and he was already warming up and game time was only 5 minutes away. I found my wife and asked her how it was going and she had that look. All husbands know “the look”; the look of “I just ate the canary and I’m not telling you squat”. I cautiously found a seat next to my fellow soccer-dads and began to watch an incredible display of beauty. My son played with a gun-slinger mentality and was so confident that the other team just couldn’t figure him out! He was slashing, dodging, juking, and most of all dominating with a huge smile painted across his face. It wasn’t 10 minutes into the match when he faked a shot, slipped by a defender, faked another shot that committed the goalie to one side, and casually laid the ball into the net on the opposite side. The rest of the game was one of complete domination by our little soccer team from Knoxville and all of us parents just watched in amazement as the kids put on a display that we haven’t seen in a long while. It was a moment I will never forget. Not because the team won, not because we won the championship, not because the team played well, but because I saw my son’s return to the initial joy of the game.
That really got me reflecting upon my own life recently. I was in a slump; I have been too focused on the problems; I have lost some of my “mo-jo”; and I have lacked true joy for a while. Well, if it worked for my son then it should work for me! I got up this morning and found a couple of Bible verses that “sealed the deal”. I will share a couple of those verses at the end of this post, but I want to point out to you and myself the real human aspects and realities of what joy can do.
I have to ask this question first: “Is there anything worse than being in a room full of joyless Christians?” I’m not trying to be harsh or critical here because too often I am part of the problem! Have you ever noticed that it takes only ONE person full of joy to change the atmosphere of a place? Do you know people who regardless of their circumstances at the time just seem to exude a positive vibe? Have you ever noticed the raw, awesome power of joy as it lights up a gathering? Have you ever noticed that laughter, even in the darkest of circumstances, can completely obliterate darkness?
One thing I noticed in my Christian walk early on was this: I wanted what others had in that they were joyous people. It didn’t matter what the occasion was. I have sat in rooms full of alcoholics, addicts, and people who have suffered much pain throughout their lives and regardless of how life had kicked their collective butts, they were able to laugh at themselves! I thought to myself, “Whatever they have…I’ve GOT to have!” This is what healed me, this joy is what attracted me to sobriety, this joy I saw in Christian people was something not to be missed, and this ability to laugh at life’s nastiest curve-balls is what attracted me to Christ in the first place! How on earth could these people have such joy when according to their circumstances, they should be “washed-up” by the world’s definition of happiness? What we easily forget sometimes is that a Christian life is above all else, a life of joy! This is not some notion that I am making up; this is written in the Word and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
Our God expects us to “enter His courts with praise”, and as I write this I wonder if it is demanded and expected by God for His glory or whether it is for our own good or, ironically…both! As I mature as a Christian man, I am finding that virtually everything God has asked us to do is for our own benefit. What we think of as laws, and mandates, and rules to live by, more and more become a list of things designed for our own benefit and joy! How awesome is our God that He sets up His entire kingdom for our enjoyment…because our joy brings Him joy! This is an amazing and powerful truth, my friends. I know at first glance it seems selfish and self-serving, but why wouldn’t it be that way? I just stated earlier that a loving parent’s ultimate joy was in knowing that their children were full of joy…so why not extrapolate the thought and take it to its natural conclusion? God truly wants us to be filled with His joy, so we can love Him joyfully; because without joy, love is a shallow counterfeit and a shadow of what it really means to be fully alive and loved.
So my mission today is to ask for joy, my goal today is to pray that the Lord “restore unto me the joy of Your salvation”, my task is to not feel guilty about my lack of joy but rather seek it where it can be found. We struggle sometimes as to what a true and honest prayer sounds like. We often wonder, “Is this a prayer that God will answer?” Well, let me tell you this: some things are questionable and some things are NOT! God will always, without exception, answer the prayer to be filled with His joy. Why? Because without joy, we become dry, thirsty, fake, religious, and less than spiritual children of God! If the Lord asks us to enter His courts with praise, then who am I to change His mind?! I pray, “Give me Your joy Holy Father, grant to me what You paid such a high price for, allow me to enter into Your presence so we can spend some quality time together.” God only wants to have a relationship with us, we are His pride and joy, we have been bought with a price, and we are the desire of His heart…so He is more than thrilled to answer a prayer that ushers us into His presence! That isn’t too hard to understand, that is simple, that is a prayer that pleases Him…just as we all enjoy the company of our own children and love to play with them and love on them, so our Father desires the same thing. Oh, how I love my God! How I long to be held in His arms! Oh Jesus my Savior and glorious King, let me just be joyful in Your laughter and song!
Final thoughts and Bible verses: we are to be strong as Christians, we are to be a light and salt to the world, we are engaged in an epic spiritual battle, and we are to stand for justice, mercy, love, and hope. But where do we find the strength for such a high calling? God says in Nehemiah 8:10, “Do not sorrow, for THE JOY OF THE LORD IS YOUR STRENGTH.” So our strength is His joy. I love when some intellectuals point out that “the Scripture is subject to interpretation”; I laugh out loud and reply, “Is there any other way of interpreting the obvious?” I mean, yes there are parts of the Bible that ARE subject to interpretation…but those instances are actually quite rare. The majority of POWERFUL Scriptures are “in your face” simple! I challenge my readers to grab a concordance and look up every verse in the Bible that speaks of joy and come to your own profound conclusion. But I will leave you with this: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you; ABIDE IN MY LOVE. 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. These things I have spoken to you, that MY JOY MAY REMAIN IN YOU, AND THAT YOUR JOY MAY BE FULL.” John 15:9-10 (emphasis mine).
Be joyful my friends and abide in His love,