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Finding Joy in a Broken World
I confess that consistent joy in the face of brokenness is hard for me.
This past weekend I had a rare experience. With my colleague in ministry, the Rev. Matt Dampier, I walked the neighborhood surrounding Christ Church of Austin, Texas. Matt has befriended many of the unhoused people in the encampments near the church. Each Sunday after worship, Matt takes communion to the baptized who live nearby without homes.
Following Matt around, I relearned something: People covered in problems unnerve me. I feel impotent in their presence. All my inadequacies come to the surface. I have a hard time accessing the joy Jesus carried in his soul as he engaged in healing.
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In a particularly famous healing, Jesus’ reputation attracted one of society’s most stark outcasts. The biblical text (Luke 5:12-16) describes a man as covered with leprosy. Such persons were dehumanized and rejected as outcasts with the simple descriptor: a leper. This man, covered with ugly, glaringly obvious sores, begged Jesus to be healed. Though desperate for relief from his sores, he probably wondered if Jesus would be willing to heal, or even come near, an outcast like himself.
Jesus did not hesitate—his answer was immediate. From the breath of his being came Jesus’ eternally held commitment: I am willing.
The heart of Jesus is the hope of the world. When Jesus says, I am willing, we get a glimpse into the core of the eternal purposes of the Trinity. He was revealing deep things to the man with leprosy:
“Healing you is why I came to earth. Compassionate healing is precisely what I intended in the incarnation. Through me, my Father has resolved, determined and purposed to restore what is broken and to repair what is damaged. I desire and wish for my Father’s will to be done. I take delight and have pleasure in being an agent of healing. I am fond of bringing wellness to those who are ill. Cleansing you of leprosy is therefore not just the will of my Father, it is my preference, my choice as well.”
Paraphrased from The New American Standard New Testament Greek Lexicon
Healing, bringing true goodness and producing human flourishing, was a common feature in Jesus’ ministry. In his deepest being, Jesus knew he was a conduit of God’s healing power. As that power flowed through him to heal a broken world, Jesus stayed connected to the One True Creator God—and to God’s unmitigated joy.
That joy was something fundamental in Jesus’ being. The scriptures say: The joy of the Lord is my strength (Nehemiah 8:10), and The kingdom of God is a matter…of joy (Romans 14:17). Jesus’ desire for his followers was that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:11).
I confess that consistent joy in the face of brokenness is hard for me. I know in my mind that joy is right and good. But joy and its attitudes and practices easily drift from the actual moments of my life. Moving from mental assent to life-practices is a challenge for my spiritual growth. When I see a sunset or hear a moving piece of music, I am drawn to God, to joy. For a moment, it takes my mind off the corrupt aspects of me, the evil of the world, and the disappointment caused by the Church. But I am inconsistent, fickle, of two minds. I slide back.
Not so with God. God lives with the fullness and richness of creative good always before him. For God, joy does not come or go with the sun. Dallas Willard gives us this beautiful insight in The Divine Conspiracy:
God is simply one great inexhaustible and eternal experience of all that is good and true and beautiful and right … this is what is implied by God’s perfection … this is his life.
We can participate in this joy as well. God’s life of joy is mediated to us via the redemption of Christ Jesus. By the person and work of the Spirit, we are given the ability to stand in and work for the good of our seemingly out-of-control world. But given what we have just considered about God, nothing is ever out of control. God is always, already present to any event we experience, emotion we feel, or word that we hear. And where the Presence is, there is loving attention and wise, powerful concern—there is a shepherding of the bad toward the ultimate good.
This worldview is our only hope for sustaining creative, healing energy. Without it, despair overtakes us every time. We shrivel, or worse, engage in various types of self-harm. We sometimes harm others too, violating our passion to be agents of the true good.
But when we fix our eyes on Jesus and his willing, joyful healing in alignment to the purposes of God, we return to his goodness as our one true north.
I saw this joy in Matt’s eyes as he greeted his friends living behind tarps, between overturned sofas or under bridges. As we lovingly distributed consecrated bits of bread and nonalcoholic wine, joy was in the eyes of the recipients too. This was especially true as Matt, giving human dignity and agency to those without homes, invited his friends to lay hands on us and pray for us.
For Christ followers who want to be agents of healing in the world, who aspire to humanize those covered by painful problems, the joy of the Lord is our animating strength and sustaining hope.