"Joy inexpressible" a is term out of Scripture. In his first epistle, Peter commends folk who have been run out of their homeland for having embraced Jesus. It's obvious from Peter's wording that his audience are second generation followers of Jesus. Like us, they lived after Jesus ascended to heaven. So Peter writes, "Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls." (I Peter 1:8,9)
Here I am writing about something the Bible calls inexpressible. A fool's errand? It would be if I claimed to know and to write all there is to experience about joy. I don't. When the Bible calls something inexpressible or beyond understanding it means that there is something mysterious about it. But while we may not fully fathom joy or love or peace, helpful things may be said about them. I hope you find this helpful.
Home Depot strikes again
"BIA Frank to the conference room!" After two and a half years at Home Depot I still freeze when I hear my name over the speaker system. BIA describes my position. I'm a Bay Integrity Associate, Home Depot speak for a high tech stock boy. There across the table is the store manager waiting to engage me. "I called you in to tell you that as of August 26 your BIA position is going away." Rumors of this disaster had been flying around the store for over a year. I'd blown them off as just that, rumors. But now I was hearing it from the manager himself sitting less than three feet away from me. Don't know what my face looked like, but I gamely squeaked out a response, "OK."
What came after stunned me. "The position may go away, but I don't want you to go away. I'll do my best to keep you and Darlene in the store." Darlene (not her real name) is the other BIA hired about the same time I was. A few days later at a store meeting Darlene and I were called up and presented with Homer Awards (little patches that signal someone at HD likes you). There in front of 150 HD associates the manager announced the demise of our position but assured us publicly that he'd find something for us to do. Over the next few day numerous associates ask me, "So what will you be doing?" "He's going to give me your job" I'd tease. The appliance department supervisor took me aside to tell me he'd asked to have me in his department. The scheduling administrator told me of a 20 hour a week job that was mine for the asking. When I told her I needed more hours she assured me she'd find extra hours for me if at all possible.
So I said to self, "I like this! These people really want me. I feel important to them." There was a bounce in my stride as I made my way across the parking lot to my car. Can't quite describe the feeling. Might it be joy?
There is more
The Sunday after all this happened I was scheduled to preach for a vacationing pastor. The title of the sermon? God's Idle Look. Yes, I have a hub by the same title. It's about how the prophet Habakkuk called God out for sitting by idly while the wicked prospered. At least that's how he was seeing it at the time. By the end of the three chapters Habakkuk has had an attitude adjustment. The uppity prophet now humbly declares, "I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation." (Habakkuk 3:18) A congregation, which on previous times had seemed cold and unresponsive to me now hung on every word and offered genuine appreciation for the sermon on their way out. It felt good. Might it be joy?
A few days later I lead a Bible study for folks in our community. It usually draws ten to fifteen people of many denominational labels. We've been at it for two months. This time folks seemed to loosen up a bit and shared more freely their own insights and experiences. A couple of days later in the middle of a pool game one the participants got up in my face and said earnestly, "I really enjoy that Bible study." I missed my next shot. Still basking in the a feeling I couldn't quite label. Might it be joy?
I tun in around 8 or 9 p.m. so I can get up at 2:30 a.m. for work. My wife, Joy, often stays up another two or three hours. At first I felt bad that in our retirement years she was spending most of her evenings alone. After all, as a pastor I had to be gone many evenings and there would be times when that troubled her. But when I kiss her good night she has a way of saying, "Good night sweetie, sleep well" that makes me feel that the whole world is OK. Can't explain why. Might it be joy?
"You're just a people pleaser!"
Can't remember the exact context, but it was early on in my pastoral career. I remember someone I respect dismissing me with, "You're nothing but a people pleaser!" It stung. Could it be that I'd been strategizing to gain accolades and finding false pleasure in them? So over time I developed the habit of blowing off all compliments. Heaven forbid that I should ever be accused of people pleasing again! But heaven wasn't on board with that sentiment. In fact, I've come to regard that comment about people pleasing to be straight from hell.
Consider this. Paul refers to the Philippans as his joy and urged them, "complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind." (Philippians 2:2) He wrote something very similar to the Thessalonicans. Then you have this comment to the Corinthians. "And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all." (I Corinthians 2:3) Finally, to Philemon he writes, "For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you." (Philemon 1:7) It seems clear that Paul's personal joy rested, in part at least, on the responses of people he loved and served.
Would my friend charge Paul with people pleasing? I hope not. Here's the difference. In people pleasing there is a conscious effort to say and do what will please others in order to gain their approval. That approval is so desperately needed that other important responsibilities are allowed to slide or to be ignored altogether. For instance, looking back on my pastoral career there were times when my desire to please the leadership of my church trumped being at home with my family. Shame on me.
True God-given joy rests only in part on the respect and approval of others. The person experiencing this joy understands deep down that deserved human commendations are a reflection of God's own approval of us. Confident of God's approval, we accept with grace and gratitude whatever accolades people may offer. But if those are absent it doesn't destroy us.
Jesus told several parables to teach that God finds great personal joy in the repentance of sinners. "So he told them this parable: What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance." (Luke 15:3-7)
Why would our repentance bring such joy to God? In repentance we acknowledge that God is holy and that we are undeserving of his approval. Further, repentance leads us to thankfully accept the means by which we may be restored to friendship with the Almighty. We recognize that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died to bear our just condemnation; and lives now to usher us into the presence of God, the Father, where we find love and approval as children of God. God's joy rests on the vindication of his eternal love and absolute justice.
God's joy is not merely the abstract satisfaction of having reclaimed what He'd lost. Why does He even care? God's core longing is to be related to a people who enjoy his presence before his presents. "I will make my dwelling among you, and my soul shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people." (Leviticus 26:11) Having redeemed us, God enjoys hanging out with us.
Here's how the prophet Zephaniah put it "The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing." (Zephaniah 3:17) Isaiah adds, "as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you." (Isaiah 64:5)
That approval from God offers inexpressible joy. Without it, all other joys are mere mirages.
Human commendations bring true joy only if you already live in the joy of being accepted by God in Christ. In fact, apart from joy in the savior, one may easily miss the secondary joys of this life.
I could have walked out of Home Depot the other day quite irritated with a system that rewarded with termination two and half years of employment in which I had garnered top performance reviews. Sure they'll find another position for me, but it's only to avoid having to pay me unemployment. Besides, whatever other position offered won't be as good as the one they are terminating. A pox on their house!
The next Sunday I might have responded to an appreciative congregation as follows. "If I was so good why don't they double my honorarium? They're just buttering me up!" And the guy who made me miss my pool shot by telling me how much he'd enjoyed my Bible study? Well, what else do retired people have to do? He was probably just happy to get out of the house.
As for my wife's good night comment? Of course she wants me to get a good night sleep. If I don't get up in the morning to go to work, she doesn't get her toys!
Without inexpressible joy I become an irascible cynic. "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Romans 7:24)