Life is temperamental. The things that happen to us, the things we bring into it, the way we perceive its intentions and course make us shift nervous in our seat as it takes us on its rugged, uneven ride.
I've been in a place where driving was perhaps the most dangerous thing a person could do, where people were not protected from the element of surprise, where laws couldn't defy the press of culture and desire. Driving in India was breathtaking and daunting and a little glorious. It was actually a very real depiction of life.
Here in America with our yellow lines and traffic cams and cordial intersections, we think we can control everything and we put on good airs toward that end. In India, however, the sorrows are on display in the streets. The weeping and grinding, the fear of scarcity, the assaulting and toiling was all there played out between the rickshaws and tire trucks and motorcycles. There was no pretending that we were anything other than sown right into the palm of God's ruling hand. Nothing was ours to control.
In our first days there it was hysterically hot, Dad was dehydrated, we didn't speak the language, and we were exhausted. We took an overnight train to a different city and met a man who would take us to a different village and while we were on the way, in the car with the driver and a/c, we talked about where we were headed. Through the fields of lush green on ill-patched roads, past cows and dogs and peddlers and bicycles piled with branches we talked about the church planters we were going to meet and teach. We learned of the needs, the habits, the vision and the church in that place. And we heard tell of their determination into a life of joy.
We had been given the charge to teach about a hundred church planters from the book of Philippians. Between Dan, Dad, myself and the local pastor, we taught the entire book in three days. It was a challenge and a delight. We didn't know we'd be doing it with the intensity that was needed and we didn't have adequate study materials to prepare, but it was a delight to be a part of their formation and of their journey further into Christ.
I had the pleasure of teaching to them about joy, which is a primary theme in the book of Philippians. You see, the Bible doesn't just give instructions about what to keep away from, what to expel from our lives. It dives into the deepest parts of our human experience. It addresses both sorrow and joy, the training we all get across continents and cultures and crowds and class.
During my time in India I saw suffering. There were times when I was in the middle of deep poverty, when I walked past a brothel and felt the looming force of that simple wall that kept girls trapped inside, when I was asked for money by children beating on the car window, when I smelled the funeral pyre, when I was denied entrance to a holy place. There were times of deep disconnect because I was a woman, an American, a Christian. But it is into suffering that joy finds its strongest hold.
At the end of the second chapter of Philippians, there's this little sandwich of anxiety. Paul laments a little over the fact that his friend Epaphroditus almost died. He imagines what life would have been like without him and he feels his breath stop in his chest, his face like stone, his imagination taking him to that place of great loss. It's just for a moment, but you can feel the sorrow in his "what-if" words. Quickly though, he remembers to rejoice but then he just as quickly moves on to worry and he warns his readers about evil people that could cause trouble. He jumps from lament to worry -- just like you and I do -- but right in the middle, as if to save himself from truly falling, he pauses to rejoice.
Paul practiced something important. He practiced joy.
The praise of God can turn our troublesome days into hopeful days. When we are reminded that we serve a God of resurrection -- of truly coming back to life from death -- we, too, can stand up to what comes next. It's not that we wash all of our sufferings away, that we push them into annihilation as if they never happened. No. It's our sufferings that actually draw us closer to Christ, the giver of our joy. We identify with him in his death. We taste it, see it, know it well, and in that place of deep sorrow and loss, where we can't carry ourselves, we turn our minds toward him. In that kind of moment the power of his resurrection surges us through our sufferings. And so it is that if we didn't have the intensity of suffering, we wouldn't know the depths of joy.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul rejoiced in several ways for different reasons and we can imitate him to find our footing on our path toward experiencing joy:
- We can experience joy when God gets the glory for his work that we never could have dreamed up. He'll talk to us, change our friends, move in our government and open up roads when we least expect it. He'll use people that don't even profess to know him. He'll heal us of things that won't seem to let us go. He'll show up with power and love and we call it miracle, marvel, wonder.
- We can experience joy when we are given the opportunity and the circumstances to be changed. The hard things we experience can move us into bitterness and fear or they can move us into a new kind of life. Hardship, fear, anxiety, worry, lament -- they're all his invitations to be made new. When we choose to be changed we have the joy of a new freedom and we're not wasting that hard thing for a minute.
- We can experience joy when others are given the opportunity and circumstances to be changed as well. The Christian movement doesn't stop with our own transformation. It has to affect us all. That's the very place where we once again pick up that hard thing, that death, that health issue, that failure that we had in our past and we pull it back out so we can help others through theirs as well. When we walk through our difficulties together we have the joy of knowing that we were used by God to restore faith and life for someone else.
- We can experience joy when he answers our prayers for others. When we constantly look for God to work in the lives of others we can more readily spot him. We just have to be looking. When we see him, even though there's chaos all around, we can point out to others the oasis of love that he is.
- We can experience joy when God meets our own needs. Our relationship with God is intimate. It's personal, but it's never private. He knows the needs that we can't even express and when we become aware of them ourselves, he's there waiting for us knowing that's where we'd need him to be. That's his comfort. That's his cure.