"Satisfy us in the morning with your faithful love so that we may shout with joy and be glad all our days. Make us rejoice for as many days as you have humbled us, for as many years as we have seen adversity."
Psalms 90:14-15 CSB
"Joy being of God was a living thing, a fountain not a cistern, one of those divine things that are possessed only as they overflow and flow away, and not easily come by because it must break into human life through the hard crust of sin and contingency. Joy came now here, now there, was held and escaped" (Elizabeth Goudge, The Dean's Watch).
Are you happy? Are you walking in joy today? Given the times in which we live, that sounds ludicrous, doesn't it? How can one be happy with the world falling to pieces about our heads?
Yet we want to be happy, don't we? We want to walk in joy, but we grieve not only the griefs that trouble us, but the lack of happiness they cause. We bemoan another "case of the Mondays," a fight with a spouse, chronic pain, unemployment or miserable employment, cancer, prodigal children, church strife, political strife, injustice, war, rumors of war, this pandemic that seems it will never end. These are real trials, real suffering. They are near-constant reminders that this world is not as it should be. They remind us that we are fallen people in a groaning creation. We are broken and longing for healing. We sojourn through the wilderness of this life—and it is a wilderness—thirsty. Perhaps we look back to the leeks and onions and watermelons of Egypt. Perhaps we miss the miracle manna of the present moment in our all-consuming longing for the Promised Land of some future day.
C. S. Lewis called that longing, that thirst, sehnsucht. There are times when it is sweet in its bitterness, in the highlights of our life, in flashes of joy when gazing at a butterfly or mountain vista, in the rhythms of waves crashing on the beach in early morning when all else is quiet. There are other times when the bitterness of the longing is so great that, though we thirst, our circumstances taste like the waters of Marah, impossible to swallow apart from the cross of Christ making them sweet. In the fleeting happy moments and the hardest, still we thirst.
How will we respond to this thirst? Where will we turn for happiness and satisfaction?
Often we look for joy in worldly goods: in a mate, a job, a family, a ministry. We search for joy in good health, friendships, financial stability, nice home, adventure, travel, good food, more food, the latest gadget, letters after our name. We look to acquisitions, appetites, and accomplishments. We look to the earthly to give us joy and satisfy the thirst of our hearts. Then we feel surprised and frustrated when the earthly doesn't satisfy. We might as well have been drinking sea water. We have been looking for contentment in C. S. Lewis's "mud pies in a slum" because we do not understand the offer of a holiday by the sea ("Weight of Glory," Weight of Glory, 25ff.).
What will we do then? How will we respond? Many times we assume we chose wrong. We change our job, our address, our mate, our church. We take a trip, eat a meal, dye our hair, buy a new dress, sign up for a class. And we feel surprised and frustrated again that our hearts aren't satisfied. Still we thirst. We flee from the wilderness of obedience to a green pasture in the distance and find it also to be a wilderness. Or a mirage. We feel miserable and may have compounded our sorrow by the means we took to escape it.
May I suggest that our frustrated thirst is a blessing? Even when life seems going well and our circumstances are in a season of happiness, still those are only wells. Cisterns, even. And leaky cisterns at that. They give water for a while and then dry out, or maybe someone blocks them, as in Old Testament times. As the Lord told the prophet Jeremiah,
"For my people have committed a double evil:They have abandoned me,the fountain of living water,and dug cisterns for themselves—cracked cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jeremiah 2:13, CSB).
If our self-rescue attempts never failed us, we might never be open and ready to redirect our search to the Fountain, the living wellspring of joy, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is why Nancy DeMossWolgemuth says anything that makes us need God is a blessing. This is why persecuted Puritan pastor Samuel Rutherford wrote, "Dry wells send us to the fountain" (Samuel Rutherford, The Loveliness of Christ, Kindle location 517).
What is this fountain? Where is the wellspring of happiness? Of joy?
It is not a "what," but a "who." Christ Jesus alone can satisfy. He alone can quench our hearts' thirst. He alone can give joy that never fails, even in the midst of overwhelming sorrow, as He Himself said: "How happy are those who know what sorrow means for they will be given courage and comfort!" (Matthew 5:4, J. B. Phillips New Testament). He alone can give the joy in promises not yet realized, that joy in the sure and certain hope of future grace that sustains us in the thorns and thistles of the here and now. The expectation of His coming, the day when all wrongs will be made right and everything sad will come untrue, fills us with anticipatory joy even now. This is the mysterious beatitude, the sacred happiness, of the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the persecuted. This is the happiness which finds those who are not offended by the inscrutable ways of God. This is the joy of Habakkuk the prophet. When contemplating the imminent Babylonian invasion and relocation of Hebrew hostages to Babylon Habakkuk writes,
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there is no fruit on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though the flocks disappear from the pen
and there are no herds in the stalls,
yet I will celebrate in the Lord;
I will rejoice in the God of my salvation!
The Lord my Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like those of a deer
and enables me to walk on mountain heights!
For the choir director: on stringed instruments.
Habakkuk 3:17-19, CSB, emphasis mine
Dear heart, happiness is never truly found by those who make it their quest. Happiness is the byproduct of pursuing Christ who pursues us first and faithfully. Seek happiness, and you will not find it. Seek Jesus and holiness, and you will find them and happiness too. He brings water from a rock and makes streams flow in desert wastes, when He is the one who has led us into the desert wilderness. Our thirst and the world's frustration of it drive us to Jesus, the fountain of living water who never runs dry. Jesus never turns a thirsty soul away empty when that soul brings its thirst to Him (John 4; John 7:37-39). On the other hand,
"Focusing on one's soul—on oneself—means you lose yourself. It reminds me of the hedonic paradox: if you focus on gaining your happiness, it will constantly elude you. Only by not focusing on your own happiness can you experience the true depths of actual happiness. Similarly, the soul is lost and saved not by denying one's particularity but by laying oneself before the living God, letting his will be more important than my will, thus submitting myself to his purposes and plans. To our surprise, when this happens, we discover true life" (Kelly Kapic, You're Only Human, Kindle location 1575).
True happiness is the sweetness of the life of Christ the True Vine flowing into us, the branches. Even our wounds are points of contact with His vitality and joy, and that joy can withstand and coexist with profound sorrow and loss. Elisabeth Elliot has quoted Janet Erskine Stuart's words, "The one pure joy of the one who suffers is the presence of Christ." Not only is Jesus undeterred by our thirst; He is also undeterred by our suffering. People often are; even His own people turn away from our grief and pain, but He never does. He comes to the brokenhearted closer than the dearest dear one, closer than our breath and the blood in our veins, and He bandages those wounds with His pierced hands. Where Jesus is, joy is. This joy of living in union and communion with Him is a foretaste of the consummation of all things, when Isaiah's prophecy will be realized in full:
"The wilderness and the dry land will be glad; the desert will rejoice and blossom like a wildflower. It will blossom abundantly and will also rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon. They will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Then the lame will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing for joy, for water will gush in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the parched ground will become a pool, and the thirsty land, springs" (Isaiah 35:1-2, 6-7a CSB).
For Moses and the people of Israel, one time water came from the rock struck with the staff of God in Moses' hand. Once it was meant to come by Moses' words. Other times the patriarchs had to dig to find the springs (Genesis 26:19). So it is with joy: sometimes it bubbles up through the indwelling Spirit without our thought or effort because Christ was stricken for our joy; sometimes we must cry out for it with groaning; sometimes we need to dig down to it through the habits of holiness, especially the Word of God, prayer, and fellowship with our brothers and sisters in Christ. (Singing praise to Him also helps.)
The nineteenth-century English minister and orphanage head George Müller discovered this for his own life, and his words have helped multitudes of others:
"…the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was, to have my soul happy in the Lord. The first thing to be concerned about was not, how much I might serve the Lord, how I might glorify the Lord; but how I might get my soul into a happy state, and how my inner man might be nourished. For I might seek to set the truth before the unconverted, I might seek to benefit believers, I might seek to relieve the distressed, I might in other ways seek to behave myself as it becomes a child of God in this world; and yet, not being happy in the Lord, and not being nourished and strengthened in my inner man day by day, all this might not be attended to in a right spirit" (George Müller, "Soul Nourishment First").
When we steep our dry and thirsty souls in meditation on the written Word of God and pray it back to Him, when we partake of Scripture as a sacrament of the presence of Christ, the living Word of God, the well of holy joy will spring up and our work will be overflow of His life in us, spreading life to our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, with their joy splashing onto us as well. This is not, however, Bible reading to check off a list or prepare for a talk we're giving. This is meeting with the Triune God who loves us in the pages of His Word. This is going to the Bible as a thirsty soul finding water in a barren land. David, who kept his sheep and later ran from Saul in the wilderness of Judah, experienced this firsthand and wrote of it in the Psalms.
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
in your light do we see light.
Psalm 36:7-9, ESV
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Psalm 16:11, ESV
Finally, this joy is also a holy joy. The digging of meeting God in Scripture and prayer, if we have really met with God at all, will transform our lives from the inside out. We who have been saved from the penalty of sin are being saved, little by little, from the power of sin, until one day we will be saved even from the presence of sin. The old hymn is right: "Trust and obey, for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust and obey" ("Trust and Obey," John Henry Sammis).
Lord, this sounds so simple, but it's hard. We are thirsty and hurting, and we desperately long for Your joy. Forgive us for trying to quench our thirst from the leaky buckets of this world. Forgive us for forsaking You and looking for joy in the things of earth. Those dry wells have driven us to You, who give water without cost to all who come, You the only true slaking of our thirst (Isaiah 55:1ff.). We fall on our faces before You and confess that we don't deserve the fountain of living water You promise. Yet You do promise it, Father. You promise fullness of joy and that we might drink from the river of Your delights. In Your great grace, Your undeserved favor, grant us Your joy as a testimony to others of how wonderfully satisfying and beautiful You are. Teach us to learn to be happy in Jesus. Make Your Word vibrantly alive with Your presence. Let us recognize our Shepherd's voice in the Scriptures. Enable our obedience out of the overflow of His life in us. Even in the deepest sorrows, anoint us with the joy of Christ's presence. Make our faces radiant with the nuptial joy of the Bridegroom's love. Silence the shaming voices; the resistance of Satan who wants to keep us joyless and in bondage to our broken cisterns; the worry that keeps us focused on the sand instead of our Savior. In Your presence is fullness of joy. Hold us there, Lord. Hold us fast under Your wings, because of Jesus' redeeming work. Amen.