Building Walls, but Opening the Gates of Joy

Building Walls, but Opening the Gates of Joy

We say we want Jesus to be our example. The problem is, when many read the gospels they see Jesus as morose, humorless, and stern. He walks from place to place placidly, unflappably, spouting kernels of wisdom and truth to his listening followers. But when we picture him this way, I think we lose sight of who really is.

One of the examples I find most compelling is from the Sermon on the Mount. As he moves towards the finale of the sermon, he includes this discussion about judgment:

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matt. 7:1-2)

But then Jesus—the trained carpenter from Nazareth—follows it up with this doozy:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (7:3-5)

The idea of a two-by-four jutting out of somebody’s eyeball—and it still being overlooked by the afflicted person—is one that sets me to giggling every time.

Jesus was a person who enjoyed life.

  • He was criticized for enjoying great food and drink (Matt. 11:19, for example) and his first miracle took place at a party (John 2).

  • Jesus invited children to come and sit with him; indeed, he said that God’s kingdom belonged to such as these and his followers would do well to have faith like little children.

  • Many of his parables would delight Mel Brooks: the poor come out on top, the lowest classes become the celebrated stars, the rich are shown to be wealthy in foolishness, a man entrusts his slaves with sums worth millions of dollars for investment. His illustrations often bordered on the absurd!

  • He was witty and fast on his feet; who else would show an imperial denarius as a detriment to his detractors or tell Peter to find the temple tax in the mouth of a fish?!

Although Jesus could be firm when needed (he did take time to fashion a whip to drive out the moneychangers, after all!), I think Jesus was more jovial and joyful than we often give him credit.

The Bible is full of calls for joy in the lives of believers.

Rejoice in the Lord always; I will say it again, rejoice! (Phil. 4:4)

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music. (Ps. 94:4)

Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy. For the Lord Most High is awesome, the great King over all the earth. (Ps. 47:1-2)

Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts. Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice… (1 Chron. 16:8-11)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Rom. 15:13)

Rejoice always; pray continuously; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess. 5:16-18)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)

Rejoice. Always. Not because life is always easy; it isn’t. Not because the promise is that things will always go well for you; they won’t. Not because following God will make you healthy and wealthy; it doesn’t always work that way. Instead, we rejoice because of who God is, what he has done, and what he continues to do in us, with us, and through us. Joy becomes the hallmark of a life lived with God.

But joy has, in many ways, disappeared from Christian expression. Yale Divinity School conducts ongoing research about the Christian life and joy. They state, “Joy is fundamental to human existence and well-being, yet it is an elusive phenomenon that resists definition.” The cultivation of joy is at the center of Jewish and Christian Scripture, theology, and practices, and yet “the very idea of joy has all but disappeared from modern theological reflection, is all but ignored by the social sciences, and is increasingly absent from lived experiences.” [1]

Listen to that statement again: It has disappeared, it is ignored, and it is “increasingly absent from lived experiences.” That is how many of my friends feel in life. And it is how many of my friends feel in ministry. Ministry can be tough. Anytime you are dealing with people in the midst of their brokenness, it comes with sadness, pain, frustration, and fear. Ministry requires us to build some walls in order to survive. (See last month’s post.) But one of the walls we must build is that of joy.

Joy has less to do with what we have in life than the attitude we have in life.

And it isn’t just the experience of joy, but the active expression of it. Joy is a decision we make, an active attitude we adopt in spite of the circumstances, and a response to what God is doing in us.

Joy becomes the “best medicine” we need in tough times of ministry. It’s why I think Jesus told funny stories. Why Jesus pokes fun at the circumstances. Why he chose to call a wishy-washy disciple “The Rock” [2] and another who made fun of Jesus’s hometown “a true Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” [3] Jesus found joy and humor in his daily life and ministry. And in order to survive, we must do the same.

So find a favorite joke. Go spend time with a kid and see the world’s delights through their eyes. Sit down and watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Three Amigos or whatever else makes you laugh. Drink good coffee, plant some flowers, sit down with a friend, do something you enjoy.

Karl Barth once stated, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” In joy, laughter, and humor, we find hope, levity, and love. And those of us in ministry could always use a little more grace, couldn’t we?


[2] John 1:42

[3] John 1:47

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