When 17 missionaries arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii in 1820, Hiram Bingham volunteered to preach the first sermon. His text was the angelic announcement of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds in the fields: “Behold, I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10). It was not Christmas, and it was not a Christmas sermon, but it was a message that the Hawaiian people needed. Trapped in superstition and fear, with nothing in their beliefs that enabled them to know God and have spiritual security, the message of a Savior who is Lord of all was, indeed, “glad tidings of great joy!”
Someone asked Mother Teresa what the job description was for anyone who wished to work with her in the grimy streets of Calcutta. She said two things: the desire to work hard and a joyful attitude. Is there any attribute more appealing than joy?
Speaking of joy, David Brooks, the influential New York Times opinion writer, has been attending a Bible study and reading theology. Jewish by background, he has become enamored with Jesus Christ. He is especially inspired by the authentic Christian joy of what he calls “incandescent souls.” While Brooks has not yet submitted his life to Jesus Christ, he has spoken about the power of Christian witness. In a speech to Christian philanthropists, Brooks was critical of Christians who erect “walls” to separate themselves from the secular world, but he applauded authentic Christian joy which he said could build a “ramp” to the secular world (Mark Stricherz, Aleteia.org, 4/19/15). The sustained joy of true believers has deeply impacted David Brooks and he believes it could impact others as well.
When writing his spiritual autobiography, C. S. Lewis said that he was “surprised by joy” when he came to know God. He titled the book Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, and in it he likened joy to a signpost, pointing the way to God.
“But what, in conclusion, of Joy? To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian….It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the point naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods, the sight of a signpost is a great matter….But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy).
Lewis’s point is that knowing God and walking with Him is what he valued and what was most important to him. The experience of joy served as a signpost that he had found God and His path. Once he knew God, he was no longer interested in the subject of joy, for to know God is to have joy. In another paragraph, Lewis describes his salvation experience in this way:
“I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion. ‘Emotional’ is perhaps the last word we can apply to some of the most important events. It was more like when a man, after a long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.”
Isn’t that a great description of the experience of coming to know God? To know God is to awaken from a deep sleep, with the result that we step into joy. Lewis further describes joy as a “technical term” which must be “sharply distinguished both from Happiness and Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again… I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often is.”
Because joy is “never in our power,” but is experienced in our relationship with God, it is foreign to those who do not know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, to experience joy is a “surprise.” This is why David Brooks believes that joy could be the “ramp to the secular world.” Interestingly, Brooks doesn’t claim to have joy, but he does recognize it in some believers.
Joy is the unique experience of the Christian, but it can be observed in us, at least in part, by the unbeliever. But to see it they must know us. And they must know us quite well. They must know us in our walk with God. True joy is not easily seen from a distance. An exception to this might be extreme incidents of persecution, during which believers suffer uniquely. But joy is most often seen up close, in relationship, as we walk with God.
Are you one of those “incandescent souls” of which Brooks writes? Are you, and is your church, building ramps of joy to the unbelieving world? I used to remind the church leaders where I served as pastor that two things ought always be expressed and experienced when people gather for worship – joy and gratitude. I wanted all in the congregation, and especially guests in our church services, to observe a people who were grateful to God and who had His joy. If we expressed gratitude and joy, we wouldn’t go far wrong. Indeed, we might even be a ramp to God for some joyless soul to cross, much to his surprise.