It was a Thursday, the 4th of April in 2013 to be exact. Matthew went to visit his mom and dad. Mom had fixed dinner for her son as she had done so many times during his 27 years of life. After dinner Matthew laid his head down on the table and said, “I’m just so tired.” The kind of fatigue Matthew was describing wasn’t from digging ditches or heavy lifting, but it was a mental and emotional fatigue that comes from a lifetime of battling mental illness that was wearing him out.
When Matthew left his mom and dad’s house, his mom continued the conversation by texting Matthew. Eventually the text conversation turned to Matthew wanting to end his life. His mom knew that he had a gun, but she had told her son in times past, “I will do anything to help you stay alive, but I can’t help you end your life.” Suddenly, the texting stopped. Mom continued to text Matthew, but there was no response. She went in and got her husband, who was suffering from pneumonia, out of bed. They drove to Matthew’s house, but there was no answer. They found out later that Matthew had shot himself. He was dead.
I was talking to a friend of mine this past week about a situation he and his wife are going through with one of their children. He said, “I use to see kids who were struggling and think, ‘I wonder what their parents did or didn’t do,’ but then the trouble came to my own child.”
The young man who shot himself at the age of 27 was Matthew Warren, the son of Pastor Rick and Kay Warren. Rick Warren wrote to his church staff following Matthew’s death. He wrote,
Only those closest knew that he struggled from birth with mental illness, dark holes of depression, and even suicidal thoughts. In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided. Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life. (Rick Warren)
This past week, Kay Warren wrote an article for Christianity Today magazine called, “Stop Sending Cheery Christmas Cards.” It wasn’t a “bah humbug” Christmas article, but a call to be sensitive to people’s sorrow and grief at Christmas. Kay said that she got to the point, after opening card after card which included all of the wonderful accomplishments of the children of their friends, vacation pictures with smiles filling the frame, and notes which read, “Hope you have a great Christmas!” that she let Rick open the cards. In the article she also suggested sending grieving families a plain Christmas card with a note acknowledging their loss and the offer of prayer for God’s comfort. Kay ended her article with these words.
There are those who enter fully into our tears when we need to cry, who make us laugh at ourselves and at life, who gently inspire us to keep seeking beauty from these ashes, and who point us—with their lives more than their words—to our eternal hope and home. It may seem counterintuitive, but it is possible to be in deep grief and yet experience the joy of the Lord. In fact, it is the Lord’s joy that enables me to keep choosing to engage life and ministry even as I live with a broken heart. (Kay Warren, Stop Sending Cheery Christmas Cards. Christianity Today. December 10, 2014)
When I read the article I stopped and reread again and again these words: “In fact, it is the Lord’s joy that enables me to keep choosing to engage life and ministry even as I live with a broken heart.” It is the Lord’s joy…not my joy, not joy found in the happenings of life, not joy found in people, not joy found in the accumulation of wealth, prominence, or prestige, but the Lord’s joy that keeps us. The illustrations of the inability of experiences, people, or things to satisfy are countless and yet we ignore the facts and continue our search.
I can still remember all of the talk about Christina Onassis when I was a kid. Her father, Aristotle Onassis, was a billionaire before there were billionaires. In William Wright’s 1991 biography, All the Pain That Money Can Buy, he tells stories about Christina’s incredible wealth, sorrow, and lack of happiness. The girl who would spend $30,000 to send a plane to the United States to keep her supplied with Diet Coke and who once sent a helicopter from Austria to Switzerland to get a David Bowie cassette she had forgotten couldn’t buy happiness with all of her money. Christina, who died at the age of 37 from heart failure caused from years of abusing tranquilizers and diet pills, said, not too long before her death, “Happiness is not based on money, and the greatest proof of that is my family.”
Money, fame, the lack of problems, excitement, the right person, experiences…none of these can bring what we long for in life. That is, what the world calls “happiness,” but what the Bible calls “joy.” We are now in our third week of spending time looking at the four themes of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. I’ve spent the past week studying every verse in the Bible I could find that talks about joy and I’ve learned so much. As I’ve been spending time in God’s Word this week the question has come to mind again and again, “How can we experience joy in the midst of such sorrow?” For those of you who think my description of life as being filled with sorrow is morose, pessimistic, or too depressing, I want you to know that I didn’t come to that conclusion on my own. In Psalm 90, Moses wrote,
10 Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10 NIV)
I thought about that verse, about those 70 or 80 years as I was leaving my friend’s house this past week. As I got ready to leave him I asked, “How can I pray for you and your wife?” He didn’t hesitate. He pulled back the sleeve of his shirt and showed me a wristband he was wearing as he told me about Garrett, a 7 year old boy with an aggressive brain tumor. We’re not promised 70-80 years. We’re not promised tomorrow. Life, the days we are given, are filled with challenges, sorrow-filled moments and seasons that drive us to our knees, and yet I find in God’s Word this sparkling jewel, a promise of God that joy awaits those who will trust in Him, cling to Him, and rely upon Him in all of the ups and downs and twists and turns of life. For those of you who are going through difficult days right now, the experience of joy may not even be on your radar. That’s why I want to devote the rest of our time in trying to understand the difference between joy and happiness and the “where” and “how” of experiencing God’s joy.
The word, “joy,” “????????” (simchah) in Hebrew, appears in 89 verses and 22 books of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the Greek word, “????” (chara) appears 57 times. What is really interesting about these words is that they carry a sense of appreciation with them. We’ll talk about that later. The happiness that the world longs for is far, far different than the Bible’s teaching about joy. So many people live waiting for their circumstances to change so they can experience happiness. John Ortberg writes,
We all live with the illusion that joy will come someday when conditions change. We go to school and think we will be happy when we graduate. We are single and are convinced we will be happy when we get married. We get married and decide we will be happy someday when we have children. We have children and decide we will be happy when they grow up and leave the nest–then they do, and we think we were happier when they were still at home. ‘This is God’s day,’ the psalmist says. It is the day God made, a day that Christ’s death has redeemed. If we are going to know joy, it must be this day—today. (Ortberg, John. The Life You’ve Always Wanted. pg. 68.)
Does that sound familiar to you? Joy, real joy, lasting joy, oftentimes thought of as “being happy” seems so elusive to us. Just when we think we’ve arrived something happens, someone dies, a relationship falls apart, what we hoped for never materializes, and we are right back where we were. I want to read you some verses from God’s Word and see if you can identify a common denominator among them.
7 You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound. 8 In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4:7-8 ESV)
11 You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11 ESV)
In John 15, Jesus was huddled up with His disciples. The time of His arrest and crucifixion was drawing close. He was telling them how important it is that they remain in Him, keep His commands, and love one another. Then He said,
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11 NIV)
Did you notice any common theme while I read the verses from God’s Word? Let me give you a hint: Where does joy come from? Joy doesn’t find its place of origination in this world: in people, things, or experiences. Joy is generated, originates, in God alone. In Psalm 4, David said, “You have put more joy in my heart…” and he compares what he’s experiencing “in the Lord” to what others experience with great prosperity. Then, in Psalm 16, he said, “in your presence there is fullness of joy.” These verses speak of the joy of God the Father. Then, we read from John 15:11 where Jesus, God the Son, said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” God the Son makes His joy available to His followers. In the words of those late night infomercials, “But wait…that’s not all!” In Galatians 5:22-23 we can learn about God the Holy Spirit when we read,
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23 ESV)
Joy originates in the Godhead, the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and flows into the lives of those who surrender their lives to Jesus as Lord and Savior, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Joy doesn’t originate in winning the Lottery, it isn’t experienced by those who are famous, it can’t be found in finding the “right” person you’ve always dreamed of finding who will make you happy, and it doesn’t come to those who are free of problems.
Now, let me show you something really amazing. The word, “joy,” and the word, “grace,” share the same root word in the Greek New Testament. We’ve already taken a look at the word “????” (chara), which is translated as “joy.” The word for “grace” is “?????” (charis). “Grace” is the unmerited favor of God. That means we didn’t earn it, we didn’t deserve it, we’ve done nothing to cause God to shower us with His grace, but He chose you and me, He has saved us, redeemed us, restored us, and claimed us as His own because of His grace. Paul wrote in Romans 3:22-24.
22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:22-24 NIV)
When we fully take in the grace of God and what He has done for us then there is no other response than to be overwhelmed by His goodness and mercy. Our appreciation for what God has done and continues to do in our life is an expression of joy. Someone once said, “When grace is experienced, joy is expressed.” Someone is thinking, “Yes Mike, I believe it with all of my heart. God’s grace and God’s grace alone has saved me, but what about all of my problems, what about this sadness that sits like a cloud over me, what about my son or daughter that I haven’t talked to you in months, what about my husband who is wasting away, what about…” Let me read you some more Scripture and then let’s talk about it. Paul wrote to the people in Thessalonica,
6 You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. (1 Thessalonians 1:6 NIV)
The same Paul who wrote about the brothers and sisters in Thessalonica receiving the Word of God while in the midst of a severe trial with joy given to them by the Holy Spirit also described himself in a letter to the people in Corinth as,
10 sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:10 NIV)
Peter, who was describing the glorious mercy of God which has given us new birth into a living hope, wrote,
6 In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. (1 Peter 1:6 NIV)
Habakkuk 3 is one of my “go to” sections of God’s Word to draw me back from despair and into the joy God’s provides for all of His children regardless of our circumstance or situation. Take a look at Habakkuk 3:17-18 with me.
17 Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:17-18 NIV)
Even if the bottom drops out I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be full of joy in God my Savior. That’s what Habakkuk is saying. Another verse that takes this same approach to the troubles of life, but with a slight twist is James 1:2-4. The slight twist comes into play when we realize that James is doing more than choosing joy, he is urging his brothers and sisters in Christ, that’s you and me, to choose joy as well. Listen to this.
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4 NIV)
That just seems simply impossible considering some of the trials that we go through in life doesn’t it? Before we get out of here I want you to “consider” something. I want you to consider the word, “consider.” The Greek word that is translated, “consider,” is “???????” (hegeomai) and it means “to deem, to think, to rule, to have authority over,” or “to govern.” It doesn’t mean that we deny the facts, quite the opposite; it means that we think long and hard about the facts of our situation and in full view of the facts we render a decision—I choose God. “This” is what I’m facing and in the midst of this challenge, trial, and sorrow, I am choosing God’s joy. I’m not delighting in my circumstance, they are more than I can bear by myself, but I choose to delight in God and His provision for me in this trial.
In John 15, Jesus said that He is the Vine and we are the branches. He urged His followers to remain in Him and then He said, “…apart from Me you can do nothing.” Our joy is His joy and we can never experience it if we refuse to cling to, abide in, and choose Him each moment of each day. Oh my friend, there is a Fountain for the weary, those worn out by the cares, heartaches, and sorrow of life. There is a Fountain, but to be nourished and nurtured by that Fountain we must come and drink. The provision is certain, there is irrefutable evidence found in the pages of God’s Word as we read about those like Habakkuk, the Apostle Paul, Job, Hagar, Leah, and others who found God to be a Fountain of joy in a dry and arid time of life.
We can dismiss this lesson and continue to try and find joy in things, experiences, and people, but they will always fail. It’s like dying of thirst and frantically opening bottle after bottle of saltwater looking to it to quench our thirst. It may come in a thousand different looking containers, but saltwater can never quench our thirst. And so it is with the search for joy. There are a million different options which look like they hold great promise, which others might tell us will deliver, but in the end they are empty and unable. God alone can satisfy. He alone is our joy in each and every season of life.
Before Kay and Rick Warren ever lost their son, Matthew, they had already experienced Kay’s battle with cancer and her ongoing battle with depression. Kay wrote a book called, Choose Joy Because Happiness is Not Enough.” In her book she says,
Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation. (Kay Warren)
I know some of your stories. We’ve talked together. We’ve prayed together. We’ve put our arms around one another. We’ve encouraged one another to keep choosing God, keep trusting God in the midst of sorrow. There are others of you that I don’t know your story, but if I did I would do the same. I want to encourage you to keep trusting God, keep reaching out to God, shed your tears and share your heart with Him. I would encourage you to stay beneath the Fountain my friend because it is there, in His presence, that the fullness of joy can be experienced even in the most trying of times.
I want to ask you to do something this morning. I want to ask you to spend a few moments with the Lord, just you and Him, right here in this sanctuary. Pour your heart out to Him, be honest with Him, and choose Him in the midst of your sorrow this morning. Stand beneath the Fountain and allow His joy to be your strength.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
December 21, 2014