By Brianna Heida
One of the most miraculous things about our God is that we are invited to accept joy whole-heartedly, to live in it and bask in its warmth…no matter what our circumstances happen to be at any given moment. Joy is not dependent on our mood. It doesn’t even require the absence of sorrow. Somehow, God has seen to it that we can be imprisoned like Paul, persecuted like Peter, and still find joy within the muck. God had the foresight to understand that joy isn’t something we can generate on our own, and much like peace, patience, or self-control, we gain it in God’s presence — or God’s presence in us.
If we want to see this up close, we can look at Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. When he wrote this, he was in chains, imprisoned for his work proclaiming the Gospel. The letter even states that he’s not sure whether he’ll be set free or killed at this point, and yet this letter is known for being his most joyful.
Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. (Philippians 2:17, ESV)
In other words, even if I’m going to die here, I will do so with joy.
Paul is able to say this — and mean it — because he has his eye on a bigger truth. His faith reassures him that while he may be suffering now, he won’t be in the long run. And the fact that he is suffering is also being used for good.
I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. (Philippians 1:12-14, ESV)
Paul sees that these things are coming to fruition only because he is imprisoned. If he were free, the imperial guard would have no concern with him or this Christ nonsense. He seems practically giddy that he’s seeing the word of Christ carried throughout the prison and beyond.
It’s not a stretch to see in much of Paul’s writing, here and in other letters, that he is able to stay full of joy no matter what his circumstances — and sometimes he even seems to brag about it. Shipwrecks, imprisonment, beatings, floggings, you name it … none of it dimmed his joy.
My grandmother recently passed away, and as I reflected tearfully on her life, one theme really permeated my memories of her: joy. She lived a hard life, born into a family of seven children at the end of the Depression. She and one of her sisters were raised by a childless aunt and uncle to offset the costs of her large family. She married my grandfather at age 20 and had seven kids of her own over the following 10 years.
As I sat with my family receiving condolences at the funeral, I was struck by all the joyful memories that were shared. My grandparents had little to spare, but held it all with open hands. Now-grown neighborhood kids remembered always being welcomed in, and counted my grandparents’ house as something of a second home. One woman confessed that Grandma had made her childhood bearable. Grandpa tended to rule with a heavy hand, but Grandma’s gentle joy always prevailed. I heard about time after time that — despite her circumstances, and thanks to her fierce faith — joy was ever-present.
In her final years, Alzheimers had set in and robbed her of her memories and kept her from recognizing most of her family. Even then, we have photo after photo of her grinning and laughing. Even as she lost more and more of her brain to the disease, she made jokes and never really lost her playfulness.
What did Paul and Grandma have in common? They accepted God’s invitation to live in joy.
Let joy be your continual feast. (1 Thessalonians 5:16, TPT)
This verse implies that joy is always available, a smorgasbord that we can revisit over and over to remain full and satisfied. It also implies that joy is not a one-and-done deal, that we will need to revisit this buffet repeatedly in order to stay full. We are given access to this feast because we dwell in God’s kingdom. Imagine if you saw the “food” in front of you (your circumstances) — pain, suffering, grief, loneliness — and believed that was all you had to eat, your only option. Hopelessness and despair would consume you.
If, however, you have a faith that gives you access to the endless feast of joy, the food in front of you is no longer devastating. It can be challenging, to be sure, but it’s not all you get.
Originally published in Gritty Faith Volume 15. Written by Brianna Heida.
Brianna is a chronically-ill mama to four kiddos in the beautiful chaos of a blended family with her husband, Dustin. She's an artist, writer, and pastor, and her latest adventure is planting a fully digital church, Painted Prayers Church.