“You are blessed when they insult you and persecute you and falsely say every kind of evil against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, because your reward is great in heaven. For that is how they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
People don’t like it when you’re happy at times they think you shouldn’t be. There’s a great scene from the classic baseball movie Field of Dreams when Kevin Costner’s dad tells him how he hit when he played. He would look the opposing pitcher in the eyes, and just before he threw the ball, he would smile and wink at him. He said this would get in their head and make them think he knew something they didn’t know. Of course, when he actually got to put this into practice in the ghostly game near the end of the film, the pitcher threw the ball at his head in retaliation, but it worked. As followers of Jesus, we get to be like that batter. No matter how bad things may get in this life, we can smile and give a little wink because we know something the world doesn’t know. This is what Jesus tells us joy looks like.
It’s easy to be happy when things are going our way. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. If we’ve learned nothing else from this year alone, it should be that. Life doesn’t go how we planned. Sometimes it goes much, much worse. And when this happens, most folks don’t handle it very well. Now, on the one hand, that’s to be expected. But it doesn’t serve us very well.
This isn’t just empty talk or mere theorizing either. The Gallup organization recently did a survey of American’s mental health ratings. This is something they’ve done every year in the post-9/11 era. And over the years the numbers have been fairly consistent. Until this year. You can see the first chart in the article. Things track along fairly smoothly and then suddenly tank when you hit 2020. Their analysis is more detailed than that. They break it down by categories as well. And as you look at that second chart you can see that nearly every category of people report lower mental health ratings this year versus last year; some of them significantly so.
But there’s one exception there. If you’ve seen the chart did you catch it? There is one group of people whose mental health rating from last year to this year not only didn’t go down, it actually went up. Want to guess which group it is? If you answered “Christians,” you’re not quite right. Simply reporting oneself as a follower of Jesus is not the secret. The secret is being an active part of a church which a great deal of survey data over the years suggest is a strong indicator of someone who takes her faith seriously enough for it to impact her entire life outlook. In fact, people who would identify themselves as followers of Jesus but don’t attend church at least weekly reported the one of the greatest declines in their mental health rating. Professing Jesus, but not really following Jesus not only doesn’t help someone have a happier, more joyful life, it actually makes it worse than not bothering to claim Him in the first place. That’s a sermon for another time. The point here is that the one group of people who reported a greater mental health rating are folks who attend church at least weekly.
Can we carefully draw a conclusion here? The more seriously one takes a relationship with Jesus, the greater one’s experience of the real joy of salvation will be. And when we really, deeply know the joy of our salvation, the hard times of life just can’t get to us the way it can to other people. This is the case whether we’re talking about hard generally like we’ve experienced this year, or the kind of personal hard Jesus mentions here.
And this isn’t just Jesus blowing smoke at us either. This was something He lived. Listen to how the author of Hebrews put it: “Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us. Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping out eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” That’s prologue. Here’s the key: “For the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Think about that. Jesus endured the cross and all its pain and shame because of the joy He knew was coming His way. If He endured that for the sake of joy, I would have to say we can endure whatever it is life throws at us with the same spirit. If the joy of the Lord is that strong, it can carry us through the season we are in.
It can only do this, though, if we are willing to give ourselves to the one who makes our joy complete. If you are wondering where this joy is, give yourself to Jesus. If you’re protesting that you’ve done that, then perhaps it’s time to get a whole lot more serious about your commitment to Him than you’ve been lately. Remember: it’s the weekly churchgoers who have not just survived, but thrived through this season. It’s not the church itself that explains this trend. It’s the commitment to Christ demonstrated by how actively a person lives life through the community of faith. My friends, the joy of Jesus can be yours; and it can hold you up through all of life’s storms. Will you embrace it, embrace Him, and have this prize as your own?