This article was originally published in the Spring 2012 newsletter of The Barnabas Center, a Christian counseling center located in Charlotte.
Something wasn’t quite right. The room down the hall that had been filled with the lighthearted chatter had become eerily quiet. My reason knew better, but my mother’s heart, innately built to protect my offspring, grew concerned. I followed the littered trail of plastic weapons, grappling hooks, and superheroes that had been carelessly discarded. At first, I couldn’t find them. But the trusty trail did its work.
Two little blonde-haired boys were crouched and wedged between the sofa and the spacious window against which it sat. They didn’t move. Flooded with relief, I turned my attention to that which held them captive. They seemed to be peering into nothingness. Our backyard looked as it always had. Trees, a playground, and a struggling vegetable garden composed the familiar scene. “Look closer, mama,” said my youngest. “It’s just hidden in the dark.”
Sure enough, as I shifted my focus from the landscape to what was immediately before me, hidden stealthily among the shadows, was a tiny, eight-legged miracle. She was completing her signature stripe down the middle of her masterpiece. Watching my boys took my breath away. The Creator of the universe had beckoned these tender ones to come and play with Him. They had been introduced to their Maker through His handiwork. They had received a taste of joy. All through the work of a tiny spider.
Joy is one of those words we use frequently without clear understanding. We memorize the verses, sing the songs, and speak of joy in our everyday conversations. In Galatians 5, Paul says that joy is one of the distinguishing marks of the Christian life. Yet what does it meant to “find joy” in the midst of our scheduled, demanding, and ordinary lives?
The Greek word for joy, charis, means grace recognized. God’s grace is always present. It never leaves us. At times, grace is easily seen. It’s showcased in the infectious laugh of an infant, the delight of a bridegroom, Bach played perfectly on the cello, relief flowing from a good doctor’s report, forgiveness granted from a loved one, the bursting buds of spring and the vibrant leaves of autumn. For an instant, we’re deeply aware of God’s presence in the midst of a very fallen world. The veil between heaven and earth becomes thin. We are given a taste of the divine, of the ancient, and of the eternal, all in the blink of an eye. We are given a taste of joy.
At other times, grace, like that tiny spider, is working away in the shadows. It is no less real and no less present than when spinning in full sunlight, yet it is much more difficult to see. Life is full of shadows — in our families, broken (or limping) relationships, the miscarriage of a child, job losses, and the challenges that come with marriage and parenting, to name a few.
Yet God promises His children that His grace is sufficient, and He is working in the midst of all circumstances. I believe that to be true, yet something often clouds my vision from seeing that grace. It prevents me from experiencing the joy that is available.
There is an ongoing battle within me between my pursuit of happiness and my desire to have joy. Although joy may produce happiness, the two are not interchangeable. Joy is always available. Happiness is dependent on circumstance. Our Maker created us for joy, yet we can’t produce or manipulate it. That’s the rub. I’m made for joy, but I spend my days chasing after happiness.
The difference between shallow happiness and a deep, sustaining joy is sorrow. Happiness lives where sorrow is not. When sorrow arrives, happiness dies. It can’t stand pain. Joy, on the other hand, rises from sorrow and therefore can withstand all grief. Joy, by the grace of God, is the transfiguration of suffering into endurance, and of endurance into character, and of character into hope — and the hope that has become our joy does not (as happiness must for those who depend on it) disappoint us.
—Walter Wangerin Jr., Reliving the Passion
Daily, I miss out on the opportunities to experience joy simply because I’m too distracted. When circumstances make God’s grace more difficult to see, I want to lean toward the window that offers hope rather than return to the “toys” of my everyday routine. Those toys come in many forms, such as busy schedules, ministry, work, home projects, exercise, and great books. They are good gifts from the Father, but I give them too much power. They provide the security of the familiar. They provide relief. They provide comfort. They provide a temporary anesthetic for a chronic ache. They’re temporary substitutes for the real thing, but I’m still left wanting more.
My boys’ intent gazes offered evidence that something significant was occurring. It caused me to shift my focus and draw in closer. I wanted to see. Every day brings evidence that grace, though not easily seen, does indeed exist. It whispers that joy is always possible. When I watch a friend walk through a hard stretch of life, yet choose to look for more. When the landscape of circumstance provides no plausible reason for deep peace and contentment, yet peace and contentment abound, I draw in closer. I want to see. When I look through the shadows of disappointment, fear, anger, or despair, my Maker transforms my belief into discovery. I no longer know only about Him. I experience Him. Grace recognized.
Joy can be found in the most unexpected places. In the hurting (or rejoicing) co-worker down the hall, in the redemption offered by a hard conversation with a friend, and in the painful void that accompanies loneliness. Every day and every season bring a unique composition of light and shadow. Every day and every season offer new opportunities to experience joy.
A few years ago, our family entered a season of unknowns. The economic dominoes fell directly on top of my husband’s group at the bank. As a result, his job went away. Early on, the possibility of making a radical career change was invigorating. We were open to whatever God had planned . . . that is, as long as we remained in Charlotte. We found it relatively easy to hold occupation and lifestyle loosely, yet we clung tightly to our community. Our feet were firmly planted in the Queen City. As the months ticked away, relocating became much more than just a remote possibility. All roads were leading to a job in Nashville. We were moving. We made the house-hunting trip, began making connections in our new city, and sold our home.
The greatest gift we received from those twelve months was not the surprise ending of a job in Charlotte. It was not in the details of circumstance or in the granting of our hearts’ desires. The real surprise ending was that our hearts’ desires had been changed. Rather than clinging to what we thought life should look like, we began to want God’s best — regardless of circumstance. Job loss resulted in our surrendering control. We experienced the peace and freedom that comes only from total dependence on the Father. There it is. The tiny eight-legged miracle spinning in the shadows. Grace recognized. Joy.
God leaves his fingerprints all over my day, if only I’ll have the eyes to see them. I’ve been created with a voracious appetite for joy, yet I spoil it by snacking on pleasure, convenience, and whatever promises relief from pain. Rather than retreat from the darkness that can be present in life, I want to lean toward it. To see the gift of the moment. To receive and embrace what has been given to me rather than longing for lesser gifts.
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
—C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
At every turn, grace awaits discovery. The spider is spinning, the flowers are bursting into bloom, and the earth and all its inhabitants are proclaiming that there is hope. One day, everything sad will finally come untrue. The sun will rise for the last time, and will forever dispel the shadows that temporarily hinder our vision. Every day, we’re offered a glimpse of that eternal joy. At times, it’s glaring brightly for all to see. Yet at others, we may need to lean in toward the shadows. As the eyes of our heart strain to see the miracle of grace, it’s not through panes of glass that we peer. It’s through the shadows cast by two pieces of rough, blood-stained timbers. Through the eternal intersection where death and life gave birth to hope. We have access to the hope that will not disappoint when we’re willing to “Look closer . . . it’s just hidden in the dark.”