We have entered into the holiday season. It’s a time of the year where both happiness and sadness become very apparent. As I recall my years in the pastoral ministry, I remember that we saw more happiness and sadness between Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of the year. We would hear families say, “Our family will all be together, and we are looking forward to a wonderful Christmas.” But then there were others who said, “It will be the first Christmas without dad. He will be missed.”
And yet it is the time of the year when we celebrate the birth of Jesus and sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” This mixture of emotions often causes me to ask if happiness is a prerequisite to joy.
The Scriptures give us the answer. The Psalmist writes, “You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their grain and new wine abound” (Psalm 4:7). Happiness comes with an abundance of blessings, but true joy is a gift God has placed in our hearts. This is the central thought of this Advent season.
Did this thought apply in the life of St. Paul?
We meet Paul (earlier known as Saul) as a part of the persecution that had one goal: to destroy the Christian faith. The Bible tells us, “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ÔLook,’ he said. ÔI see the heavens open and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.’
“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ÔLord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ÔLord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (Acts 7:55-56, 59-60).
Saul’s heart was happy, for another Christian had been killed.
Not long after, Saul was traveling to Damascus. He met Christ on his way to bring Christians back to Jerusalem for persecution. (You can read this great conversion story in Acts 9.) However, God had other plans for Saul, for he was to be God’s chosen instrument to carry the Gospel to the Gentiles.
And after about three years, Saul had not only received a new name (Paul), he was a new person. Now he faced days that, while they would be filled with hardship and unhappiness, God had placed a joy in his soul that could never be taken away.
This is demonstrated in Acts 16. Paul and his friend, Silas, were in jail. They had been accused of throwing the city into an uproar by advocating customs that were unlawful for Romans to accept or practice.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the other prisoners listened to them. Suddenly a violent earthquake shook the foundations of the prison. All at once the doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!” The jailer called for lights and rushed in. He fell trembling before Paul and Silas and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved Ð you and your household.”
At that hour of the night, the jailer took them and washed their wounds. Then he and his entire family were immediately baptized.
Contrast that day to the day when Paul witnessed Stephen’s stoning. Paul had been happy to see another Christian killed. However, on this day in Acts 16, as Paul and Silas sat in jail, they were not happy campers, for they had been beaten severely. Yet there was joy in their hearts that could not be taken from them.
When we have met the Lord and live in a personal relationship with him, we experience an inner joy. We might have sadness, for someone has been taken away from us that through the years has brought much happiness. I think of a husband and little boy who buried their wife and mother this year. The Christmas tree will be lit, but sadness will abound in their hearts, because mom is not there. Yet there can be joy.
I think of a man who will be spending his first year in prison. It will not be a happy experience. But listen to what he wrote: “Pastor Larsen, I’m in prison, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more fulfilled in my life. Isn’t that wonderful! Praise God!”
“May the God of hope fill you with joy and peace as you trust him” (Romans 15:13).
He came to bring joy.