Our joy is inextricably tied to our hope. The source of deep rejoicing is ultimately whatever we have set our hope upon. At times this is in the anticipation of the thing hoped for, at others it is in experiencing the actual substance of the thing hoped for. The betrothed bride hopes in the day of her wedding, but begins to drink of the joy of that day even in the waiting through her certain expectation of what is to come.
Understanding this brings us into the ‘logic’ of New Testament thought. Our hope is to be set fully on the day of the Lord when He alone is exalted in the earth (Is. 2:17, Rom. 5:2, Titus 2:13, 1 Pet. 1:13). Jesus is the promised Seed of Abraham, and the consequences of His coming as they pertain to the earth and its inhabitants are summed up in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gal. 3:16). It is this hope that is to be the anchor of our souls (Heb. 6:13-20). Before allowing the implications of this to unfold, it is important to see how this differs from where our hope typically lies. Biblical hope is focused primarily (not exclusively) on what happens to Jesus (i.e. His glorification) in the future (i.e. His return and kingdom). I find that my hope, on the other hand, is primarily oriented around what happens to me (i.e. my fulfillment) in the present (i.e. the next month and year).
Seeing this beautiful foundation of biblical hope unravels the staggering enigma of apostolic joy. If the soul has fixed its hope on seeing Jesus exalted, then rejoicing can thrive even in affliction as long it is bringing that Man pleasure and honor. And if the heart has hurled its anchor of hope beyond what it can see and into the age to come, then the suffering of this present evil age cannot choke the springs of its joy. The faint glimmer of the dawn of that Day can cast its pale glow across the soul even in the darkest prisons of this life. The certainty of one day being conformed to the glorious body of Jesus can weigh so heavily upon us that the inescapable wasting away of our bodies through weakness and infirmity can seem light and momentary in comparison (2 Cor. 4:16-18, Phil. 3:21).
In 1 Corinthians 15:19 Paul says, “If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” Modern preaching is often guilty of inverting the entire statement to instead read, “If in this life you only hope in Christ, you will be the most blessed of men.” This shift of hope away from Jesus and His day and toward me and my day renders us incapable of finding real, deep joy in the midst of pain. As much as I desperately want to “consider it all joy” when I encounter trials (Jas. 1:2) and “rejoice in [my] tribulations” (Rom. 5:3), my affections are paralyzed because my hope has been chronically misplaced. The root system, so to speak, of my joy has been decades in the making and its countless tendrils have become deeply entrenched in the wrong place as they have burrowed for sources to nourish self-gratification.
As I read the New Testament, I can’t escape the feeling that instead of meeting Jesus and having my ‘tree’ of hope uprooted and planted in entirely new soil watered by different streams altogether, Jesus was presented in a way where He was just the river that my root system of self-fulfillment could never find. In other words, the basis of my joy was still ultimately what happened to me, and Jesus just became the best thing that ever happened to me. In fact, it is enormously difficult – even as Christians – to conceive of joy in a way not based on us, because that is how it has been unrelentingly defined in the depths of our soul by everything around us.
Trite rhetoric about the glory of God and a fairy-tale eschatology will never produce the upheaval in our interior landscape necessary to change this. Our hope will never actually be bound up in the beauty of Jesus and His return until it becomes devastatingly real to us. Such reality can only be fashioned by availing ourselves to the work of the Spirit through prolonged and adoring attention to what Scripture reveals about Christ and His glorious Day. Apart from this, the process will breakdown and all good intentions will end in ruinous sentimentality.
Even once our hope has actually been realigned, a long process still remains. To return to the analogy of a tree, uprooted and replanted, it may take months and years for the root system to be strong enough to allow the branches to flower and bear the fruit of joy. Yet these barren, vacuous seasons are not in vain. So much is happening under the surface, beyond even our own observation, and the result will be a well-watered tree that does not wither in hardship and drought (Ps. 1:3, Ps. 92:12-15, Jer. 17:7-8).
The reason I care so much about remedying this, and writing about it, is not merely so my emotions can fare better on difficult days. This motivation only leads back to the root of the problem (don’t worry – that was the last use of the arboreal metaphor). When we can joyfully face (and even choose) profound loss in this life, it demonstrates how unspeakably precious and exceedingly worthy Jesus truly is (Phil. 3:7-8). In this age, trials of many kinds are simply unavoidable (Jn. 16:33). I don’t want to just survive these. I want to overcome them by magnifying Jesus in the midst of them. He is worthy of that, and that is His design for suffering.
Yet there is another reason why this is important – a more specific context. It has been ten years since the conviction first settled in my soul, but I still believe that there are people on this earth right now whose ears will hear a deafening trumpet blast and whose eyes will see Jesus in the sky. This means that at some point in the next decade or two, the world (including the Western world) is going to topple from the precipice of mercy upon which which it stands and descend into an abyss of tribulation. Describing those days, Isaiah 24:11 says “…all joy has grown dark; the gladness of the earth is banished.” God is going to banish all joy from the inhabitants of the nations. Why? The way the earth presently finds gladness is by inordinately exalting and esteeming things that are not God – namely ourselves. God is going to reduce everything and everyone to nothing – shaking all that can be shaken – so that He alone will be exalted (Is. 2:11-12). There will be absolutely nothing to rejoice in unless our joy is in Jesus and His exaltation. Every song of mirth will be quieted as the entire earth wails and rages. What would it be like if in that hour, those betrothed to Lamb are the only ones singing? What a stunning testimony to the glory of Jesus if His people have a song of joyous worship in their mouths, even as their eyes shed tears and their body sheds blood? May we truly set our hope in Jesus and His Day, so that the earth may see the miracle of joyful suffering for the sake of His name.