Embracing Joy in the Waves of Life’s Circumstances

As I look back on my journey as a fledgling pastor, I remember the day when my spirit was low, and an understanding church elder offered me some wisdom: “It will look better in the morning.” This counsel has served me time and time again. I’ve realized that sometimes, a restful night and a reinvigorating run can bring back God’s reassuring presence, minimize the size of my troubles, clarify the path to solutions, and brighten the horizon of my future.

By shifting my circumstances, I found an increase in joy. Yet, often we find ourselves being corrected by others: “Your happiness increased, not your joy. Happiness relies on circumstances; joy does not. Happiness is the experience of the world, but joy is the unique gift to Christians.”

This delineation between joy and happiness hasn’t been a longstanding tradition within our faith community. As Randy Alcorn wisely argued, both of these biblical terms can be used interchangeably. Either joy and happiness are both circumstantial or they are both independent of our circumstances. What is true for one, holds for the other.

To understand this better, picture “circumstance” as standing in a circle with various factors surrounding you. Imagine being in the center of the circle with four things around you: a rejuvenating sleep, a strong cup of coffee, your child’s excellent academic performance, and a recent raise at work. Naturally, these factors evoke a feeling of genuine joy. This kind of happiness can be experienced by anyone, Christian or not.

But consider a different scenario where you’ve been up all night due to allergies, spilled coffee on your drive, received news of your child failing a class, and were just dismissed from your job. It’s natural to feel genuine sorrow under such circumstances. This is a sadness that anyone might experience, irrespective of their faith.

As believers, we share these experiences with non-believers. Due to our shared human frailties, children of God are not spared from the sorrows of life’s trials. However, through grace, even those who do not believe in God are allowed to experience joy in the image of God. Unbelievers also experience genuine joy when they receive the blessings of creation, even if they don’t attribute these gifts to the Creator.

Moving beyond these immediate surroundings, there exists another circle – a realm of ultimate circumstances. For a non-believer, these ultimate circumstances spell a bleak reality. God’s all-knowing nature means every sin is seen; his righteousness ensures inevitable judgement; his omnipresence makes judgement inescapable. But the believer finds joy in these ultimate circumstances. God’s omniscience means he knows our needs; his power ensures he can meet them; his compassion ensures he cares about them; and his providence confirms that all our unmet needs serve a loving, albeit hidden, purpose.

To put it in the words of Milton Vincent, “The gospel is the great, unchanging circumstance within which I live and move; all my life’s difficulties are allowed by God only because they serve His gospel purposes in me.”

Indeed, as believers, we often find joy in the pleasing realities of our immediate circumstances. These are the gifts ordained by God, allowing us to revel in the beauty of life. However, when our joy is challenged by painful circumstances, we lean on hope. It is this hope, this conviction that no matter how difficult the present might be, it will get better, that carries us forward.

The narrative of Jesus praying in Gethsemane, despite the despair of his immediate circumstances, is a perfect example of this. He endured the cross for the joy set before him, displaying the ultimate instance of hope triumphing over immediate sorrow.

As has been said, for the non-repentant unbeliever, this world’s transient joy is the closest they’ll get to heaven. For the believer, this world’s temporary sorrow is the nearest they’ll get to hell. It’s through this lens that we understand how Paul could rejoice in prison, recognizing that it served to advance the gospel.

Therefore, joy and hope stand together, bolstering one another. When our joy falters under the weight of immediate circumstances, hope stands ready to lift us up. Until the day when our ultimate circumstances erase all immediate ones, and every tear is wiped away, let us continue to pursue joy by changing whatever circumstances we can, and accepting those we can’t. Always remember that while sorrow may come with the night, joy returns with the morning.