“Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2
Joy and shame are two powerful emotional poles of our lives. We are now over a month out from the Christmas season, perhaps the most emotional time of the year where many of us have experienced each end of the pole. Joy is perhaps our most positive, powerful, alive emotion. It comes in three packages: the natural joy of good things, relationships and achievements; the joy of healing, rescue, or recovery; and the joy of the redemption, forgiveness, and salvation given us as Jesus’ lasting gift. Before reading further, I invite you to take a moment and think about what has brought you joy recently. Perhaps the wonder and beauty of nature: a beautiful blanket of pure white snow, or the first rays of sunrise; or recent gatherings with family and friends; or maybe one of the gifts received or given for Christmas; or a recent achievement, promotion or new job; or the joy of relief coming from a disease overcome and restored health; the family joy of a wedding, engagement or newborn child; and last, but by no means least, the joy of a relative or friend or even your own coming to faith in Jesus.
Even as I write this, I know that some may find this list not a reminder of joy, but rather of the pain of loss or the loneliness and frustration of life. These experiences may be longed-for but frustrated desires of a struggling human heart. For many, especially those suffering bereavement, depression, anxiety or loneliness for years, the experience of joy may be a distant memory, and its very absence may be the source of thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me? Where is God?” We can confuse joy and pleasure with the sum total of God’s blessings and think that God doesn’t love us or is punishing us when we have lost or not yet found joy, health or longed for relationships.
Yet many may still believe that God wants to bless us and for us to know Him as the giver of good gifts to his children. The natural gifts of creation can be windows into the fulfillment of all desire in Heaven. As good as creation can be, as wonderful as these joys are to savor for all who are blessed with them, they are all temporary and will pass away. We will one day say goodbye to everything and everyone we ever loved. All that can go well can go badly. All that can come our way can be taken away. Losses and the grave are inevitable. Just as there are manifold joys and blessings, there are inevitable deprivations and losses. We all have lost some of the goods of this life and know of many more people who never had them. For just as the good things of earth are given us to turn our eyes to the Good One who gives them to us, and to grant us satisfaction and prepare us for heaven, the very temporary nature of all created good is also a lesson for us: we are made for more than this! Earthly joys cannot fully satisfy our human hearts because our hearts are made to share with God the joys of heaven. We can be sure of death, taxes, loss, and disappointment. Through grace, we can also be sure of the promise of Heaven.
The loss, limit, or lack of joy in our lives can be a cause and a result of shame, which runs rampant through the holiday and post-holiday seasons. We experience shame in our relationships when something happens that makes us feel like we are disintegrating, disconnected from others and ourselves, isolated, and exposed as completely unworthy, as totally flawed and inadequate. The holidays often bring up for many cultural ideals that hardly anyone can come close to meeting. We might feel shame if we believe that we have chosen the wrong gift; or we don’t have enough friends, or our family is exposed as dysfunctional, fractured and fragmented. Shame causes us to avoid or withdraw, to escape or attack others and/or ourselves. Shame is the polar opposite of joy. For those of us who grew up experiencing chronic shame, it can become cemented to our very identity and grow to produce unending patterns of relational rupture, unhappiness, depression, and under-achievement or an over-achievement without ever feeling the joy of satisfaction.
This experience of chronic shame can create a joy-barrier that refuses to allow anything good in our lives to stand. Recognizing chronic shame or the inability to receive or retain joy may be an indicator to begin or return for further work in therapy. Joy is our birthright and one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. The knowledge that we are forgiven, redeemed, and altogether loved in God’s eyes can bring us immense joy and release us from the shame that forever attacks us and punishes us for a lifetime of sins long ago confessed and forgiven. The inability to receive this joy and let go of the shame is a glaring indicator of deep psychological or spiritual obstacles that we may have experienced for so long that we identify with them as who we are. This is not so. Jesus has come that we might have joy and have it to the full. Through prayer, the right kind of therapy, and corrective human relationships we can come to release this binding shame and receive the joy that Son of God wants to give us.
It is He, Jesus, the Son of God, who gives us His very own joy by coming to save us, by baptizing us in His Spirit, and by sharing with us His Risen emotions. Jesus came into the world to give us the joy of the divine life that he shares with the Father in the Holy Spirit. It is the joy of an infinite, mutual, self-giving love, mirrored analogously in our life in communion with Him and with one another. Jesus wants us to have his life. He wants us to share in his joy so that we might live our lives to the full. So let’s follow Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” who understands our suffering because he endured the Cross; who knows our shame and has the power to move it out of the defining role it can take in our identity, and let’s enjoy each one of our earthly blessings as a sign of the newness of eternal joy that God wants to give us, so that we might extend our generosity to others for them to also come to know and enjoy the blessings of Heaven.