FEBRUARY 1, 2023
I just got back from seeing my cardiologist.
A few years ago, I had a heart attack. Subsequent to that, my doctor and I have become “best friends.” He says that my good health is because of my genes, and I say it’s because of Jesus. My doctor has at least gotten to the point of saying, “Well, maybe some of both.”
At any rate, I had a stress test a couple of weeks ago, and this appointment was to discuss the results. I fully expected the news wouldn’t be good. After all, I’m old, and I do very little of what my doctor tells me to do. He reminds me of the doctor who said to his patient after a physical, “There is no reason you can’t live a normal life . . . as long as you don’t enjoy it.” So, when I went in, I expected yet another lecture against smoking my pipe and eating cookies.
To my surprise, the report was over-the-top positive. My doctor said, “Your stress test was really good. You are in excellent health, and that makes me happy.” I thought (but, of course, didn’t say), “I’m happier than you are because I don’t have to listen to another one of your depressing lectures.”
Let me tell you something true. There is a direct correlation between joy and how little we expect it. In other words, joy is magnified to the degree it wasn’t expected. As I’ve said many times, I’m a cynical, old preacher. While I’m not altogether proud of that and often repent of it, there’s an upside to being cynical. It means that I will probably experience more joy. C.S. Lewis titled his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, because that’s what happened to him. His joy was not only surprising, though; it was intense.
The Bible has a lot to say about joy and the Christian. There is a long list of reasons for our joy. Jesus said to his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Jesus had just talked about his own death and resurrection, how he was “the true vine,” the Holy Spirit’s comfort, and his love for them. But what Jesus said applies to all that he accomplished. Christians really do have a long list of exciting things that should give us joy. That goes without saying.
What we often forget, though, is that almost all things that give us joy are unexpected and surprising. The Psalmist wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). That joy comes after a dark night . . . when we thought joy would never come. When joy is unexpected, it can be intense. And almost all of the things that bring us joy are unexpected.
One of the reasons we, as Christians, experience so little joy is that we know the truth, and it’s not very pretty. When John talks about fear and love (1 John 4:18), he says that “fear has to do with punishment.” Christians know exactly what we deserve. (Unbelievers do, too, but they just deny it.)
Why are many Christians down, depressed, and harsh (me, too, on occasion)? While we got saved, we left before we got loved. And that’s because we didn’t expect to be loved.
That may be sad, but it’s not all bad. There is a sense in which our low expectations make “joy in the morning” so wonderful. There was a woman in a church I once served who had been a pastor’s wife and didn’t like me and said so. She came to our church only because her daughter, who had lived a destructive lifestyle, had found Christ there. This mother loved her daughter more than she disliked me. One time she smelled smoke on me and went ballistic, thinking I wasn’t even saved. Nevertheless, the woman kept coming to our church. I’ll never forget the morning she said, reminding me of a little girl with a new bike, “After all these years, I feel like I’m living a brand-new life!”
Her joy was intense because she was surprised by it.
I heard another woman say in her testimony that when someone first told her that God loved her, she thought, “Of course he does. That’s in his job description. And besides, what’s not to love?” It took this woman a long time to realize that there was a whole lot not to love, more than she ever expected. When she honestly looked at herself, this woman’s expectations were very few, and that was the reason her joy was so passionate. It was unexpected.
You can’t hear the good news of the Gospel until you’ve heard the bad news. That’s the reason Paul, in the opening chapters of his letter to the Romans, paints such a dark, negative, and disturbing picture of the world and human beings. The good news is good in direct proportion to how much we have understood and internalized the bad news. Of course, that’s a truism in Evangelism 101, but there is more to it than that. The God of the universe knew that if we lowered our expectations, the surprising and astounding joy would go through the roof. It’s what David, in his confession, pleaded with God to give him, “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. . . . Restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51:8, 12).
I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Jesus loves you. Just don’t let it go to your head.” Whoever wrote that and whoever put it on their car missed the essence of the Christian faith. Jesus loves you really and deeply. You’re forgiven, accepted, and valued forever. So, go on, and let it go to your head! And if that fact was unexpected, you will.
As you know, I have a great speaking voice. It’s kind of like grace. I didn’t do anything to get it. When my voice changed, one of my high school teachers said, “Stephen, you must be careful what you say because people will listen to you.” I’ve sometimes tried to be careful . . . and sometimes not so much.
Last night, we were in a restaurant for dinner. When we got up to leave, a man in the booth next to ours stopped me and said, “You have an amazing voice!” To both of our surprise, I responded, “Thank you for saying that, but you didn’t even notice how handsome I am.” He laughed and said, “You’re right. I didn’t notice.”
If that man had ignored my voice and said, “You look like a movie star,” that would have made my day because unexpected joy is the best kind of joy.
Many years ago, my late brother, Ron, lived with us on Cape Cod for the summer. He got a great job as a waiter in a fancy restaurant. That lasted about a week. Ron kept spilling things and getting orders wrong. The restaurant owner said, “Ron, we love you, and everybody else does, too, but frankly, you’re never going to make it as a waiter.” When I saw Ron that afternoon, he was in a great mood, and I asked, “What’s wrong with you? You were just fired.” I’ll never forget what he said: “Why should I be depressed? The next moment could change my life.” (By the way, it did, but that’s another story.)
I wish I had been in Joseph’s garden when he and Nicodemus buried Jesus. If I had been there, I would have smiled. Nicodemus would have probably and quite harshly said, “There’s nothing to smile about! We’re burying a good man here, and we loved him.”
While I might have apologized, I don’t think I would have told them the whole story. It would have spoiled it for them. But I don’t think I could have stopped myself from saying, “I’m sorry for your loss . . . but, boy, does God have a surprise for you!”
God’s pattern is death, burial, and resurrection because he is the God of surprises.
Maybe you’re going through a tough time right now. Perhaps, with me, you have felt overwhelmed by the darkness in our culture, saddened by the loss of truth, meaning, and hope. Maybe you’re down because of a preacher’s sermon, a doctor’s diagnosis, or a friend’s betrayal. Maybe it’s your sin that’s so depressing. You may even be tempted to give up.
Boy, does God have a surprise for you! There really is “joy in the morning,” and morning often comes more quickly than you thought it would.
Meanwhile, expect the unexpected from the God of the unexpected.
He asked me to remind you.