Don’t Miss the Joy! Intro & Chapter 1
I missed Philippi by 25 miles. By plane and by bus, I had already traveled over 5500 miles to arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria. From the Sofia International Airport, I traveled several hundred more miles by van and bus through small Balkan villages and mountainous passes and armed guards at checkpoints.
And finally, my bus arrived…in Thessaloniki. I offered my most diplomatic American voice and questioned the driver: “I thought we were going to Philippi?”
He said, “Thessaloniki better. Shops better. Food better. Philippi just ruins.” I slumped back in my seat. It was apparent my travel companions were more interested in acquiring lovely souvenirs from Thessaloniki tourist spots than seeing one of the most incredible and intact archaeological digs on the route of Paul’s journeys.
“Paul also went to Thessaloniki,” the driver offered me helpfully. “I know, I know.” And so, Thessaloniki it was. Philippi, just a scant forty-minute drive to the north, eluded me. I found out later the driver did not know HOW to get to Philippi, but he failed to mention that fact.
So there I was, stuck in Thessaloniki. It was drizzling chilly rain, but it was actually a beautiful seacoast city. Sadly, not the one I wanted to see. And so I sulked. And I missed the joy available in the moment.
We do that all the time, don’t we? When we don’t get our way, on our timeline, in just the manner we saw it playing out in our heads. And so we pout like children. How many times has it happened to you?
I’m beginning my thoughts on Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus outbreak. We are now told that the peak of infections in Florida will arrive within ten days from this writing: maybe sooner. I just had a church member reach out to me who leads a nursing home facility to my south. She was asking me to pray for her staff. The next day the National Guard was arriving to test all of them after a patient and one of the nurses tested positive for Covid-19.
It’s hard to find the joy sometimes. Life bumps into us in unlikely and unexpected ways. And we miss the joy…maybe by a few feet or maybe by 25 miles. But somehow it escapes us, and it is difficult to find it once it’s gone.
My prayer is this book will remind you to look for the joy in unlikely places. Joy is not awarded to the ones who “try” the hardest to get it and hang on to it. It is not a wage given to a worker, and it is not on loan. Joy is a gift given us by Jesus: “My joy I give to you.” And as we abide in Him, we can embrace it.
We just have to recognize it, and then accept that sometimes joy comes wrapped in unexpected and sometimes even unpleasant circumstances. Sometimes it comes by means of unexpected people. And sometimes it comes in situations that only God, through the eyes of the Spirit, can enable us to see.
But I am deeply convinced that God does not want us to miss it. It may not come in the timing we thought, by the people we thought, or even through the circumstances we thought. It may surprise us if it comes wrapped in disappointment, or tears, or heartache or confusion.
Joy could have met me in Thessaloniki. But that was not where I’d planned to meet it. I missed it by 25 miles.
Don’t miss the joy. Even when the gift comes wrapped in the unexpected!
Finding Joy in Times of Confusion
“And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” (Acts 16:6)
Paul and company weighed anchor and set sail full of confidence. It was a confidence born of God’s call. A confidence affirmed by God’s people. They set sail to parts unknown, determined to bring the Gospel to lands and people where it had never been preached.
The apostle “born out of time” (his description) was leading the missionary venture after he and his friend Barnabas parted ways. They were bravely following the bold vision and clarity offered by their influential leader.
Those were the days before electronic navigation and GPS systems. Sailors traveled by locating the stars and heavenly bodies. They relied on wind and currents that a skilled mariner could mostly predict.
But it was not maps and navigation they lacked. They were waiting for the clear and affirming voice of the Spirit of God, which Paul had learned to recognize and rely on, to direct them.
And all they heard were “no’s.”
And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. (Acts 16:7)
The Book of Acts, penned by the physician-historian Luke, tells us that one-by-one Paul’s efforts fell apart. Asia was a no-go. The Holy Spirit had “forbidden” them to go. Then, they attempted to enter Bithynia, but “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Sometimes our best-laid plans seem to end just like that.
We lay our lives out: school, career, marriage, children, home purchase, then retirement. While some may not be nearly so structured, all of us have a kind of built-in expectation of how things will be.
By the way, let me say quickly that there is nothing wrong with planning. The Book of Proverbs, for one reference, affirms careful planning:
“Commit your work to the Lord, and your plan will be established.” (Proverbs 16:3)
“The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:9)
“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” (Pr 16:21)
That is just a sampling of one chapter. There is no caution about planning in the Bible as long as we understand that God has a right to overrule our plans to establish His own. Sometimes we get it wrong.
And sometimes our plans do not take the Lord into account at all. It is continually surprising to me how many young people raised in churches and coming from families of faith never truly seek the Lord about what He wants them to do with college.
We take one of the most important (and expensive) decisions we have ever made and just “wing it.” I wonder how different things would be if we simply asked, “Lord, which school do you want me to attend? Which major? Which professors and classes do you want to use to shape my mind and thinking?”
And then we scratch our heads and wonder why college is such a frustrating and sometimes futile experience. Did you ask God to “establish your plans” as you filled out applications?
Or how about the new job offer you’ve received? Yes, it will mean uprooting your family…again. Yes, it will mean disrupting the routine of your family and tearing your household out of networks of community and friends. But after all, God wants you to make more money, right? Isn’t that all that matters? Is the Lord “establishing His plan” in your job? If He says “no” will you do the same?
For those who are dating, is God “establishing His purpose” in you as you seek a date, or a mate? Is He guiding those you spend time with, as well as you, in the course of your lives? Has He established His plan in your relationships?
God has an interest in our plans. The American church has several favorite verses that end up, well, everywhere. One such verse is Jeremiah 29:11
“For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a future and a hope.”
God is personally and deeply invested in us as His followers and children. When we give ourselves to follow the Lamb of God into eternal life, God becomes deeply interested in using the life you have surrendered to Him. He wishes to “establish His purpose” in us.
But when we follow our own wisdom, our own counsel, and our own instinct, we sometimes wind up in a cul-de-sac of confusion. We cannot understand where God is. Why didn’t He show up?
CLEARING THE FOG
I do not wish to imply that Paul had taken a wrong turn in Acts 16. The men on that voyage did not embark with a clear destination in mind, except to go where the Gospel had not been proclaimed. They were simply willing to trust God wherever He led. It is the truest example of discipleship, of trusting Jesus moment by moment in obedience wherever He leads us.
Their problem was discerning where that next step was to be! They were listening to God. They knew He wanted them in the ship they were in, and in the sea they were sailing.
But they could not discern clearly where He wanted them to drop anchor. Asia? Europe? An island? The mainland? Where was God leading them to go and proclaim the Gospel?
Sometimes we reach those intersections in life where it is not clear what God is doing. On several different occasions in my life, I have had to stop to discern the will and direction of God. It’s not always a clear choice and option of “good” or “bad.” Often, it is more “good, better, or best.”
Those are actually much harder choices. None are terrible. But one, you know in your heart, is optimal. These times can become paralyzing if we let them.
When these moments occur, I know instinctively that I will have to make a decision without all the information I would like to have on hand. At some point, maybe due to prompts and thoughts that I cannot objectively validate, I will take a step (maybe a leap?) of faith.
This can be particularly frustrating to your mate if you’re married. They have questions. They have concerns, and “a dog in the fight” too. How do you know? What is God saying to you?
Pam and I went through such a period as I was finishing my college degree and trying to begin the steps of moving to Louisville, Kentucky to enter the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Frankly, I had been in two years of non-stop classes, carrying heavy class loads including two years studying Greek, and I was just over it.
For almost three months, I floundered. Her life was in the balance, too. She needed to apply for jobs. To complicate matters, a door had opened for me to go to Nashville and work with a friend who had done quite well for himself in the Gospel music industry.
One day while driving south on the Interstate near our home in Williamsburg, we passed a sign that summarized the dilemma. The sign said “Louisville Nashville” and showed the interstate parting just ahead.
I had caused us to be adrift in a sea of uncertainty. It seemed in the moments that followed a voice welled up inside me and said, “Make a choice.” I knew if I had to decide in that moment, I needed to point my car toward Louisville. And when I acknowledged that, I had peace.
I’m sure Paul fielded a few of those questions. To Paul’s credit, he was not going through a “hunt and peck” or “trial and error” approach. He was praying and waiting on the Lord. And finally, the answer came.
WHEN GOD SPEAKS
God does speak. Our God is not silent. We are just hard of hearing sometimes. Other times, God has shrouded what He is doing in mystery. But sometimes God speaks in ways that are crystal clear.
So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him saying, `Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ (Acts 16:8-9)
On this occasion, God spoke to Paul through a vision. This vision apparently came to Paul as he slept. Paul awoke with the only confirmation he needed for their trip to continue.
And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:10)
Now some may object, “well that was how God did things in the Bible, but not today.” There are many in unreached Muslim cultures and other people groups who would disagree with that assessment.
They still see visions today in some circumstances. I have heard numerous testimonies claiming this, and people have come to faith with the help of these visions.
In a nation like ours where Bibles are plentiful and people are literate, visions and dreams may not happen quite as often. Leaders will sometimes claim heaven-sent “visions” for their churches or ministries.
I do believe, however, that God gives us what I call “dreams and visions” when He is calling us to a new ministry or season of ministry. While these are not visions that focus on a glimpse of the future, I believe God calls us to “daydream” and be preoccupied with the thing He is calling us to do next.
THE JOY OF MOVING FORWARD
Out of the season of waiting and drifting in uncertainty, the joyful travelers set sail for Macedonia. You could almost hear the songs of praise being sung over the spray of salt water as they pointed the bow of their ship toward their destination.
There is always a joy within us as we know we are following the will of God, even when we have to seek for a season and travel through some period of confusion and uncertainty to find it.
But the joy makes the journey worth it!