Holiness as Joy
Have you ever been in a deep, prolonged sadness? How did you feel when someone said, "Don't worry, you'll feel better soon"? Were those words comforting or did they feel callous and insensitive? Though we know in our mind there probably will be a light at the end of the tunnel, recognizing the distant light in the middle of a crisis can take every ounce of mental strength—and may not even be possible. It's easy for Paul to say to the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!" But how can we be joyful in the midst of despair?
Jesus understands. He begins his Sermon on the Mount with full recognition of the state of mankind and the depth of our misery.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
The irony in what we call the Beatitudes is in verse 12 when he commands us to "rejoice and be glad." How can we rejoice in the middle of sadness, mourning and persecution? Jesus explains that we are not alone. We are with the prophets and all who suffered for God. Despair is a dark tunnel—a place of isolation. But when we realize that we are with the prophets and all the other "children of the light," the tunnel becomes illuminated with the light of Christ and is no longer an isolated tunnel after all. The place becomes bright with Kingdom light. We move out of a state of isolation and into a state of fellowship. We are truly "surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses," as the writer of Hebrews explains.
Do you think that the Christian hymn writers were in the middle of happy lives when they wrote all the wonderful songs that we sing in church. Many of the songwriters were invalids, were afflicted with illness, suffered depression, or wrote their songs during wars and othe great personal tragedy. Horatio Spafford wrote the joyful hymn It Is Well With My Soul after his wife and three daughters drowned in a ship wreck.
One way out of the darkness is music. Psalms and hymns have comforted Christians throughout the ages. I can't count the times, I've shed tears of joy while singing one of the church's many songs. They strike so deep that we can be enrapt in joy while being on the edge of despair. It's a mystery, but the cross of Christ teaches us that joy accompanies suffering closely in this age—the joy of resurrection follows closely the suffering and passion of Christ on the cross. The Beatitudes teach us that one day joy will be revealed after all the suffering has been shed from the world, and even can be experienced now.
Another way out of the darkness is to preach the reality of Jesus Christ from our lives. In John's first letter to the churches, he testifies to the work of Christ in his life and the fellowship that he has with the Father and Jesus Christ. His testimony, he explains, "makes our joy complete." Likewise, when we testify to others about Jesus in our lives, we become joyful because we are doing the will of the God and shining the light of Christ to others.
Not only does our testimony about Christ brighten our tunnel, but it also helps to make us "complete." The Gospel—the Good News—makes us whole in Christ. John continues in his first letter to explain how the message of God brightens us and purifies us.
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
1 John 1:5-7
God's message makes us holy when we speak it to others because we allow the Holy Spirit to drive our will. By "walking in the light," we are conformed to Jesus. While we are in step with him, our communion allows his sacrifice to cleanse us. We become holy through his sacrifice only when we are in fellowship with him and with his church. John also emphasizes in the third chapter that "All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure." We are purified by the hope we have in him. We are made holy by our hope, our fellowship, through his death and resurrection.
We are children of the light and we must walk in that hope. Living with the Holy Spirit as an active participant in our daily walk does make us holy. In the letter to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that we must live a joyful life, "Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer."
Chistians can "rejoice in the Lord always," but sometimes we do it amid great suffering. When we can't hear it, we rejoice through our testimony of Christ. When we can't see it, we rejoice in his fellowship. When we can't feel it, we rejoice through hope and by pondering the goodness of God.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.