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Our Groaning Joy

Our quest for joy begins at the end of the creation narrative with God looking at all he had created and pronouncing it “very good.” Tragically, this good creation would be radically tarnished with sin given the rebellion of our first parents—a rebellion that replaced God’s blessing with his curse. But even in this darkest of moments, hope rings out. The Apostle Paul assures us that there’s coming a day when God will make his blessings flow “far as the curse is found”:

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved (Romans 8:20-24).

The people of God are living “in this hope”—the time between the advents of Christ when our joy is mingled with the countless “groanings” associated with a fallen world.

So how can we help ensure that our joy is not overwhelmed with groaning?

JOY AND ITS ENEMIES  

Joy has enemies. Ephesians 2:1-3 outlines what we’re up against:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Apart from Christ we willingly followed the sinful pattern of this world, did the devil’s bidding, and lived to serve our lusts. And now, as redeemed sinners, we war against these joy killers.

THE FIGHT FOR JOY

If our joy in the Lord is to increase then the enemies of our joy must be constantly subdued.

First, consider how the world attacks our joy. The world would have us embrace vapid joys. That is, substitutes for Christ that will never satisfy. This idolatry is what David Wells laments when he describes the ‘world’ as “the collective expression of every society’s refusal to bow before God, to receive his truth, to obey his commandments, or to believe his Christ. Further, the ‘world’ is what fallen humanity uses as a substitute for God and his truth.” 1David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 36.

To protect our joy in Christ we shun conformity to the world while being “transformed by the renewal of our mind” (Romans 12:2). This work of the Spirit in our lives is promoted through our diligent use of God’s Word. As we saturate our minds with God’s truth “the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.”

Second, consider how the devil attacks our joy by assaulting our faith. We see an alarming picture of this in Luke 22:31-32 where Jesus warns Peter of Satan’s desire: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.” Satan wants to destroy faith. And if our faith in Jesus falters so will our joy. For who rejoices in a Christ one doesn’t trust?

While we rest in the confidence of Jesus’ intercessory work on our behalf, we combat the devil by feeding our faith the promises of God. This is the line of attack Martin Luther described in his great battle hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” Indeed, “One little word shall fell him.”

Finally, consider how indwelling sin attacks our joy. When we walk according to the flesh we are not walking according to the Spirit. And part of the fruit of the Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22). Therefore, the Christian must mortify the flesh (Romans 8:12-14; Colossians 3:5-10). To adapt a phrase from John Owen, be killing sin or sin will kill your joy.

WOE TO THE JOYLESS PASTOR

A joyless pastor is not good for the church he serves. Indeed, a pastor becomes a burden to people when he lacks joy. This is made clear in Hebrews 13:17 in the context of the congregations’ responsibility to submit to the leadership: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

When a pastor leads with joy this is advantageous to the church. Burdens are lifted rather than transferred to the people. Joy acts as a protection against a pastor’s temptation to be domineering in his leadership. Joyful pastors shepherd “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock (1 Peter 5:2-3).

What we have to remember as pastors is that our fight for joy is also a fight for the faithful care of the church. Our joy, in other words, is not just about us. By cultivating joy in Christ, we are actually caring for the church God has entrusted to us (Acts 20:28).

UNTIL OUR JOY IS FULL

Christian joy is experienced in a world groaning under the weight of sin. But our joy groans “in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). So, until that great day we continue to root our joy in the One who calls us to himself that his joy may be in us, and that our joy may be full” (cf. John 15:11).

References   [ + ]

1. David Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 36.
Filed under: Features, Pastorate, Theology
Michael Pohlman

Michael Pohlman (PhD, Southern Seminary) is professor of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry and chair of the Department of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, senior pastor of Cedar Creek Baptist Church, and executive director of Some Pastors and Teachers.

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