God has given us a gift that he demands we take full advantage of and yet we seldom truly grasp what it is and how to make the most of that gift.
When I was in high school, some family friends took me white water kayaking for eight days on Idaho’s Salmon River, also known as “The River of No Return” thanks in part to the steep granite gorges that it’s carved through the Clearwater and Bitterroot Mountains.
The rugged canyon that this river wound down was ripe wildlife, bears, fox, bobcat, kingfishers and herons, all drawn to the rushing water full of trout, mountain white fish, sockeye salmon, Chinook salmon, steelhead, smallmouth bass and squawfish. Mountain goats clambered far above our heads on the perilously steep canyon walls as we paddled down the river.
As marvelous and memorable as this all was, the first night we slept on the sandbar where we’d pulled up our kayaks stands out starkly in memory.
After dinner was eaten and the campfire was stomped out, we all wormed into our sleeping bags and said good night. The last lantern was switched off, and an oppressive black closed its jaws around us. I brought my hands so close to my face I could feel the heat of my palms on my nose, and I still couldn’t see them. A panic welled up as if someone had suddenly told me I would be blind for life.
Slowly but surely, my eyes adjusted. Dim outlines of trees took shape and fractured glints of light off the river winked back at me. Then I looked up. The sky was so crowded with stars, cold and bright, that I couldn’t make out a single constellation. The Milky Way coiled from horizon to horizon like an albino snake making its way behind a veil of diamonds.
I’d studied stars in school. I knew they were giant balls of burning gas, a pretty unappealing description frankly. I’d looked through telescopes at Saturn once. None of that prepared me for the incredible experience of the stars hundreds of miles from civilization. There, I beheld the night in its full glory, and I was in awe.
Living through the Shipwreck
In Acts 27:9-44 through Acts 28:1-10, under a very different sort of night sky, the Apostle Paul was riding a floundering ship on its way to a watery grave. He was being transported to Rome to stand trial, and his ship sank in a terrific storm near the Isle of Malta.
In his sermon on this passage, David Wilkerson said, “If you just stood on the shore and told Paul and the 250 some prisoners, ‘Hey, by the end of the trip, you're not going to need that boat. You know you're going to get there without the boat?’, they would’ve laughed. That's incomprehensible.
“You know our ministry is the boat. You’d be surprised, when the storm comes, how much you can throw overboard and still survive. I found that out, and you'd be surprised how you can still survive without the boat…
“Now, isn’t it surprising that all through the storm nobody gets saved, but when they lose the boat, everybody gets saved?… We wonder what happens if the total depression comes, we lose all the buildings and we lose all of our equipment? Well, suppose you've got to throw everything overboard?
“That doesn't mean that you change. Paul was still Paul, and they throw everything overboard, and then the boat still cracks. It hits the rocks and sinks, and they all walk ashore soaking wet and cold and rainy. But they have a revival, and all the prisoners get saved, and on the Isle of Malta a revival breaks out. Boy, God just dealt with me this morning. We need not fear the loss of anything because in the Old Testament scriptures ‘We took joyfully to sporting of your goods.’ That means the loss of all things.”
Scripture does provide a seemingly paradoxical contrast of people who followed Christ with passion and rejoicing, and yet they were often persecuted and in some cases killed for their uncompromising stance. The Bible is frank about how this is the fate of many believers and that suffering for our faith shouldn’t surprise us (see 1 Peter 4:12-19). Many believers either ignore this passage and are shocked when they’re hit by trials or resistance. Others fully embrace the verse about ‘fiery trials’ and become rather dour, prepared to endure like Bison grimly facing into the storm. That’s not the approach, though, that the Bible seems to espouse.
When we not only get hit with hardship but also lose everything, does God honestly expect us to be happy about it?
The Commands for Joy
“Ever happened to joy?” David Wilkerson asked. “I believe the Holy Spirit is really yearning to bring us all, the whole church, back to serving him with joy and gladness. I think God is really grieved when he witnesses the wet blanket of despair that's falling over the whole church body….
“When God began to deal with me about the seriousness of serving him with joy and gladness, I thought, ‘Well, what does this have to do compared to all the heavy problems in the world of sex and drugs and alcohol.’ I think it's because I didn't fully understand that time God's attitude, what he thinks about our service to him, with joy and gladness…. The word of God doesn't ask, it commands this.
David pointed to several scriptures that illustrate this command. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!” (Psalm 100:1, ESV).
“The hope of the righteous brings joy, but the expectation of the wicked will perish” (Proverbs 10:28, ESV).
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3).
“But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy, and spread your protection over them, that those who love your name may exult in you. For you bless the righteous, O Lord; you cover him with favor as with a shield” (Psalms 5:11-12).
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:4-5).
David pointed out that Jesus even stated to his own disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:27-28).
Scripture never shies away from the brutality of life and suffering of people, but it also tells us over and over to have joy, to rejoice in God and worship.
One Great Gift to Us
On how having joy practically looks in life that’s not always easy, David Wilkerson noted, “I do my writing at night, and I wake up with a long drawn tired face. If you saw me, you'd say, ‘There's a very sad man.’ That's not true because you can have an inner joy and still not be always carrying a Colgate grin.
“On the other hand. It's impossible, absolutely impossible, to hide the genuine joy of the Lord. If it's real, it's going to show in your countenance. In the Old Testament, when there was anointing, the Bible said their faces did shine. There was a sign on their face that exemplified the anointing within.”
One of the most interesting cases of this in the Bible is with Stephen when he was testifying about the gospel in front of the synagogue who were persecuting the church and falsely accusing him. “Gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15). Stephen had no reason to be ‘happy’ at this point; his life was on the line, and he would ultimately be killed by this group of people.
His joy in the gospel was so intense that it visibly changed him in some way that the onlookers recognized, in spite of his deadly circumstances. True joy is a deeper emotion than happiness, something that coexist alongside grief and stress unlike happiness. The gift of joy is always powerful expression of trust in God.
I wonder if Paul who stood and watched Stephen die was remembering that moment when he wrote to the Galatian church, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
A natural outworking of the Spirit’s presence and business inside of us should be this joy that transforms and illuminates. With God’s joy in us, we will shine like stars in the night.