Tag Archives: Joy

Finding Hope and Joy at Christmas

I have many fond memories of past childhood Christmases as well as those spent with our own children (now grown and on their own).  Children possess both a joyous anticipation and an enduring sense of wonder over the Christmas season.

Of course, not all this wonder and anticipation grows from the soil of pure motives.  Getting as many gifts as possible always lurks just below the surface.  And yet, many much more important things helped point our hearts in the right direction, bringing a genuine sense of joy and true anticipation: the spiritual rhythms of advent season at church, the Christmas eve candlelight service, the singing of carols, rituals of tree acquisition and decoration, special indoor and outdoor ornamentations, extended times of fun and fellowship with family and friends, cookie baking and eating, special meals, foods, and movies, the reading of the Christmas story, and so much more.  These holiday traditions afforded a deep sense of Christian grounding and identity in a world filled with bitterness and fear.

Too often in my adult years, however, the only sense of anticipatory joy is born of the hope that Christmas will soon be over so a “normal” pace of life can be restored.  Somehow in the rush to make Christmas memorable, I often forget to make it meaningful in all the right ways.  That sense of wonder and hope, so prevalent in childhood, is often nearly lost.

Not only this, the challenges of life in a fallen world keep forcing me to come face-to-face with the realities of living a world marred by sin.  More importantly, they continually reveal the many ugly and dark aspects of my own soul.  I find it harder and harder to escape the obvious sins, scars, and dysfunctions that seemed much easier to brush aside in youth.  But while the demands of the Christmas season can easily make us jaded and cynical in ways that push away any deep sense of joy, wonder, or hope, it is still possible to experience these things once again.

When Simeon took eight-day-old Jesus in his aged arms, he offered thanks to God this way: “My eyes have seen Your salvation that You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.”  Simeon’s faith-filled and joyous hope helped him see that God’s coming salvation for the whole world was somehow bound up in this holy Infant.  Reading the rest of the astonishing story, we see this truth ever more clearly, that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us.

Hope and joy may be in short supply these days, but when we take Jesus in our arms and gaze amazed upon Him once again, we can recapture that sense of joyous hope that our gracious God will wondrously save and restore all who hope and trust in Him.

The Happiest Place on Earth

In a recent study (and contrary to the hopes and claims of the Disney corporation), Finland was recognized as the “happiest place on earth.” It is, incidentally, also one of the least religious places on the planet. While nominal Christianity is widespread at around 70%, only 8% of the population attends church services on a monthly (or more) basis and only 3% attend weekly.

When I began walking more closely with Christ in college, I was told that people without Jesus were, deep down inside, unhappy. It didn’t matter how easy their life was, how much money and things they possessed, or how happy they appeared on the outside. If they didn’t know Jesus, they had to be miserable. Perhaps they were dishonest about their misery, rushing to allay and cover over the existential sadness with money, sex, fame, power, experiences, and relationships. Or perhaps they were somewhat unaware of and blind to their inner turmoil, needing to be shown the bankruptcy of their life apart from a right relationship with God. Regardless, they simply couldn’t be happy without Jesus.

I believed this assessment largely because it was true in my own experience: When I wasn’t walking with God, I was deeply dissatisfied with life. The longer I’ve lived, however, the more I’ve come to realize that while there are many unhappy non-Christians in the world, there are also a fair number who appear to be genuinely happy and self-satisfied.

Does any of this fundamentally challenge the significance, truth, and power of the Christian gospel? In fact, in some ways, it reinforces it, because it demonstrates sin’s blinding power and how the world can deeply deceive those who love it and want nothing more than what it has to offer. As Lennox and Gooding point out in The Definition of Christianity, people who have worldly power, wealth, and respect have a strong vested interest in maintaining their place in this world. In short, “The world, as it [is, is] good enough for them. They [cannot] see all that much wrong with it.” This also shows how much human beings can put their hope in vain and worthless things, oblivious to or in direct denial of the dangers that await when their lives are ultimately called to account by a holy, just, and all-knowing God.

For struggling Christians, it can be easy to forget the fate of unbelievers, particularly when their lives seem filled with joy and ease, when they appear to be in control, and especially when they arrogantly and openly deny and disdain the God who made them. But as Asaph points out in Psalm 73, there is more to the story than first meets the eye. After seeking the Lord and regaining his perspective, he concludes, starting in verse twenty-five, this way: “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.”

To be sure, there are many unhappy pagans in the world searching high and low for something or someone greater, better, and more meaningful. May they find the one and only God who can bring true joy and satisfaction in their quest! But for those like the Finns who seem genuinely satisfied with their life apart from God, the real reckoning may not come in this life.

One day God will judge the living and the dead and inaugurate a new heaven and a new earth. All who trust in Him will know and experience the everlasting hope of being intimately loved by the One who gave Himself as a living sacrifice. Only then we will live in the fullness of joy. And only then will we realize that all other so-called felicities pale in comparison. On that day, and forevermore, we really will be living in the happiest place in heaven and on earth.