My friend Steve Gates sent a sobering Thanksgiving message a few days ago with an incisive look into the lives of some of his friends. They’re wealthier than he can even imagine, yet not free to choose their own life paths. They’re accomplished, yet not free to challenge any aspect of their government. They’re comfortable materially, yet have no concept of joy.
“My family does a lot with Chinese students who are studying in America,” Steve wrote. “They are a joy to us and certainly open our eyes to so many things, especially our freedoms.”
Steve’s insights remind me of how some cultures have almost nothing for which to be thankful, at least not when contrasted to the wealth of blessing and freedoms we still enjoy in the U.S.
I confess, by most of the world’s standards, I am wealthy, and I’ve been free for 70 years to plot my own course in life. I am accomplished, in the sense that I have enjoyed a lengthy career doing what I love to do without fear of government, and all in the context of Christian ministry. I am comfortable – economically, professionally, personally, socially.
And I know what joy is. So it’s a challenge for me to understand a Christless culture that has no frame of reference for the things I too often take for granted – joy, for instance.
In various versions of the Bible, I’m told that the word joy appears from 165 to 180+ times. The Bible tells us about the certain existence of joy, the event that undergirds all joy, and the evidence of joy in the believer’s life.
The existence of joy? Psalm 16:11 says: “In [God’s] presence is fullness of joy.”
The main event? The promise of the Messiah in Luke 2:10: “[T]he angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people.’”
The evidence in today’s believer? First Peter 1:8 tells us, “[T]hough you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory.”
God intends that our lives be marked by joy.
While Steve finds joy in his faith as I do, he finds it a challenge to explain that joy to the Chinese students. “We ‘sell’ the Christian faith in the U.S. with the promise of joy,” he said. “But in China, joy is not even a concept they can grasp.” Even so, he cited one ray of hope, one positive outcome from these relationships.
“When these students go home for the summer,” he said, “and they talk about us, their family and friends ask, ‘Why are these people being so nice to you?’” The only answer they can give is, “They are Christians.”
Thanks, Steve, for challenging me to try once again to articulate the things I’m thankful for. Through the years, I’ve tried to do this, but as a writer, the words just never seem adequate, so all too often I don’t put much effort into it, and in recent years, I’ve just abandoned it altogether.
But today, as I began to compile the tried-and-true list – faith, family, freedom, friends, a roof over my head, indoor plumbing, heat and AC, a trustworthy car to drive, a good job, a beautiful and loving church family, music, good books, travel – I just ran into the same old obstacle: No words can convey what they mean to me. All of those people and those things add meaning, fun, and joy to my life. And strength.
Wait ... what was that last thing? They give me strength. And that brings me back to joy. Finally, it hit me: the overarching element that encompasses all of the items on my list is the joy of the Lord, and therein lies strength for my faith journey. Now, I’m praying with Steve for his young friends to discover the joy of the Lord.
The prophet Nehemiah expressed it very succinctly: “[T]he joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). And that’s what I’m thankful for.