Read part 6 here
In my journey to become a better theologian, I have met two surprises. The first was the discovery that contrary to what we might expect, theology is not drudgery (like math homework or Saturday chores) but an enterprise overflowing with joy. The second was the realisation that the state of my theology matters a lot, not just to me but to my friends, my family, and also my church.
Few things would sadden me more than for anyone to come away from reading this book thinking of theology as castor oil that women must swallow because “it is good for us.” On the one hand, I’d be glad even for negative thinking if it moves any of us to get started. But having said that, how sad it would be if we resign ourselves to the pursuit of the one for whom we were made and in whom we will find our deepest delight and satisfaction. This is where I bump up against my limitations as a writer, for it would be easier for me to describe the delectable taste of chocolate, the splendour of a Florida sunset, or the exhilaration of skiing down the wintry slopes of Mount Hood than to put into words the unspeakable joys we discover when we apply ourselves to know our Creator. But where superlatives fail, I can at least leave hints to entice women to press forward in their pursuit of God, not merely to cope better with life but to flood our hearts with delight.
My first taste of the joy of knowing God caught me entirely by surprise because it was so contrary to what I had anticipated. I always expected to meet up with joy sooner or later—on the other side of a struggle, in the light that follows a dark phase, at the end of a long wait, and above all, after I crossed the finish line. I’d seen enough Olympic races to know that euphoria sweeps over even the most haggard, grim-faced champion when the race is over and the victory is in hand. Heaven is a precious hope cherished more fervently by the greatest sufferers among us, those who live with pain and brokenness, to whom heaven alone promises relief.
Joy on the far side of the struggle makes perfect sense and matches all the evidence. But the joy I encountered didn’t have a leg to stand on, for it arrived ahead of schedule. The storm was still raging, none of my questions or prayers had been answered, my circumstances hadn’t changed at all. Unlike finish line joy, this mid race joy seemed more akin to a phenomenon often described by marathon runners. Running, they tell us, triggers the release of endorphins, chemicals from the brain that elevate the runner’s mood, relieve tension, and give a deep sense of calm and pleasure during the race. The race isn’t any less challenging, nor the effort any less taxing, but amazingly enough, that doesn’t make the joy any less real.
Christian joy is more than a mood swing or a shift in hormone levels. Nor is it, as some have suggested, a choice or a duty to be happy, at least on the outside, even when we’re miserable inside. True joy springs irrepressibly from the heart and is always rooted in our theology. Which explains why joy can appear in the middle of a crisis and coexist with pain, brokenness, grief, or loneliness. Joy isn’t grounded in our circumstances; it is grounded in the unchanging character of God.
Fixing our eyes on Jesus keeps the big picture ever in front of us — that God is on his throne, that we are loved, that he is at work in the present moment accomplishing his purposes. Even this situation will work for his glory and my good. No matter how strong the enemy appears or how many wounds we receive, we already know how the story will end, and there is ample cause for joy in this.
But the most substantial reason for our joy is in the delight we find in God himself. Fixing our eyes on Jesus is, in itself, the single greatest cause for joy. The apostle Paul, an innocent on death row, wrote of mid race joy in a letter to the Philippians. Paul didn’t explain his joy in terms of location or circumstances or prospects. Paul’s joy was tied to a person, for he had fixed his eyes on Jesus. Compared to “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus,” Paul considered everything else (including all that he had lost and possibly his own life) to be “rubbish” (Phil. 3:8).
I may not have the soul of a poet to help me describe the joy that comes with knowing God. But King David was blessed with such a soul, and he used it freely to revel in the joys of the theologian. He longed for God like a parched soul staggering across a scorched desert in search of water. Tastes of God’s unfailing love were, to David, more satisfying than life itself. He suffered from insomnia, but not because he feared the enemies who had driven him into the wilderness and were lurking somewhere in the darkness with murderous intent. David’s sleepless nights were caused by joyous thoughts of God. “I lie awake thinking of you, meditating on you through the night. I think how much you have helped me; I sing for joy in the shadow of your protecting wings” (Ps. 63:6–7 NLT).
The joy that kept the king awake, that reverberated in Paul’s prison cell, that draws women to study God more carefully, shone brightly at the deathbed of a middle-aged woman several years ago. Her family had summoned her young pastor to come to the hospital after doctors told them her time was short. When he arrived, her pain and laboured breathing made it difficult for her to speak. Her words came slowly and were barely audible. As her pastor leaned nearer, he heard her whisper, “Why me?” At first he began thinking of Scriptures to comfort her; then he realised she wasn’t complaining. This wasn’t the “Why me?” of despair; it was the “Why me?” of incredulous joy — that God had set his love on her, that she was coming home. This side of the finish line, concurrent with the pain of dying and the grief of being separated from her husband and children, she knew real joy in Christ.
Even in the war zones of life, there is joy for us because our God is great and we are bathed in his love. The joy Jesus gives isn’t grounded in our circumstances; it is grounded in him. We fix our eyes on Jesus and find in him every reason for joy, and he will never change. How can we suppress the joy this brings? This is the power of good theology in action.
Taken from When Life and Beliefs Collide by Carolyn Custis James. Copyright (c) 2001 by Carolyn C. James. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com
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Carolyn Custis James (BA, Sociology; MA, Biblical Studies) thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. She travels extensively both in the US and abroad as a speaker for churches, conferences, colleges, theological seminaries, and other Christian organisations. She is an adjunct professor at Biblical Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, blogs on www.whitbyforum.com and Huffington Post / Religion, and is a contributing editor for Leadership Journal.