Joy. Who doesn’t want it?
We live in a world of criticism, negativity, suffering, trials and pain. We’re “afflicted…perplexed…persecuted…and struck down” (2 Cor. 4:8–9), and our joy can be depleted when the effects of sin on us and our world are so present. The frequent state of Christians is that of groaning, awaiting our final redemption when all sin, sickness and sorrow are ended. The joy of heaven becomes the yearning of our hearts, so yes, we need the joy Jesus gives here and now.
This is the premise of Jesus Always by Sarah Young, author of the enormously popular Jesus Calling. She recounts her journey of impaired health—the pain and the limitations—and shares how she was able to find joy amid suffering. That’s the theme of this second book—the pursuit of joy. Her purpose is to explore “the promises of joy in Scripture—promises of life abundant, life to the fullest, life brimming with joy. Reaching out with joy-filled reminders from the Word of God and written as if Jesus himself is speaking directly to you.”
Speaking for Jesus
Throughout the text there are italicized words—Scripture—typically followed by paragraphs of instruction or encouragement written in the first person as Jesus. Much has been written about claiming to hear and speak extra-biblical words of Jesus, so that won’t be the focus here except to say the written Word of God is complete and sufficient for our salvation, growth and guidance. Nothing should be added or removed. The Lord gives warnings throughout about that very thing (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6).
It’s a serious matter to claim to speak for Jesus. Historical Christianity has long recognized that only the apostles—those who walked and talked with Jesus—were recognized to have authority to speak for him in that way. But since the canon of Scripture has been completed, no one can claim she’s speaking Jesus’ words unless she’s reading her Bible out loud. In his goodness God has given us an unchanging document to help us know him and his desires for us. Jesus Always would be better served if Young would simply include her comments as her own instead of as belonging to Jesus.
Subjectivity Over Truth
Surely some of the book’s appeal is that we live in a world where experience and opinion seem to rule the day. No longer does truth or reason prevail over “what I think,” “what I want” or “what I feel.” Even in the church, opinion often trumps truth. We want to stand in judgment over Scripture, scrutinizing its validity and sufficiency, instead of bowing to its authority over us.
When we appeal to our own opinions instead of God’s Word, we become the ultimate judge. We decide what God is like, picking and choosing the character traits that align with our own thinking. Essentially, we create God in our own image. However, when we do this, we violate a key belief in historic Christianity—that the Scriptures are complete and sufficient for everything in life and faith, and we can’t add to or take from them without harm to our life and faith.
Beyond speaking for Jesus, Young’s concept of searching for joy has difficulties as well. The extra-biblical words in Jesus Always give vague admonitions as to how to seek for joy, such as Jesus saying to us,
“Seek to live in the present moment where my presence awaits you continually… Instead of going full speed ahead as soon as you know what is next, you must wait until I show you when I want you to go forward.”
These kinds of statements are subjective and self-focused, and they’re not the words of Jesus. And I’m afraid that’s exactly the focus in many churches today. In contrast, the Bible offers concrete reasons for joy and paths to it, and they’re all things he has done. Specifically, joy is our response to his saving works, especially the coming (Luke 2:10–11) and resurrection of Christ (Luke 24:39–41). We find joy as we commit to God’s ways (John 15:10–11) and words (Ps. 19:8; 119:14). God’s attributes and actions also evoke joy, such as his judgments (Ps. 48:11) and his sovereignty over all the earth (Ps. 97). All of these things are objective truths, on which we look back and to which we look forward, and they bring us eternal joy, even in the face of adversity (Col. 1:24).
These reasons for joy are real and constant. They don’t come and go like our feelings, and they don’t depend on the wavering state of our emotions or situations. That’s why the imprisoned Paul could exude joy (Phil. 1:18, 25; 2:17–18, 28; 3:1; 4:4). His supreme focus was the spread of the gospel, not his conditions or emotional state (Phil. 1:12; 4:11–13). If his circumstances had been his focus, he would’ve had every reason to be severely depressed. But since God was using his imprisonment to advance the gospel, he was ecstatic.
Paul’s type of Christian joy seems in short supply today. Christ is the one who gives us joy (which Young is clear about, and she continually recounts the joy of his presence), but if we’re seeking Christ merely as a means to get joy, it’s treasuring the gift more than the Giver, and possibly even using the Giver to possess the gift. It’s a subtle shift, but if it’s joy we pursue, then our chief end becomes our experience of joy instead of Jesus himself.
The Jesus who speaks in Scripture calls us to a discipleship that requires putting our sins to death. I don’t see this sort of self-denying discipleship on the pages of Jesus Always. I don’t see calls to obedience and service, nor calls to trust and lean on the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ as the foundation for all true joy. That’s what’s missing from this book. True joy is only found in seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and then all these things will be added unto you. We must not get that order backwards.
As C.S. Lewis explained in Surprised by Joy, you can search the world for joy and not find it, but when you’re busy living your life in right relationship with God and loving Jesus sacrificially, joy sneaks up behind you and surprises you.
Life can be hard. Sin, sickness and death are real enemies introduced at the Fall, and we dare not deny our emotional responses to them. Even the Son of God wept (John 11:35). Yet at Lazarus’ grave, he knew his crucifixion and resurrection were in sight (John 11:25), and he knew (as we can know now) that sin and death would be conquered forever at the cross. That’s the reality that brings us everlasting joy.