Enemies on the Journey Towards Joy

man boxing against his much larger shadow

There are enemies on the road. If 1 John is a journey towards Joy, one of the things which will come up again and again is that there are enemies on the journey towards joy. Not all goes easy. Not every step is uncontested. In more conservative and evangelical branches of the church, we tend to have a heightened sense of the enemies on the journey. The enemy is the culture. “Those people out there” are enemies hindering our journey. Those policies, the loss of moral values, “people don’t go to church anymore,” the slide (or head-first, breakneck run) down into all sorts of depravity—those are the enemies on the way. And while that is true, an obsession with “those enemies” can blind us to what is probably the greater enemy: the person in the mirror.

A biblical scholar put it well when he said:

“Both the Old and the New Testaments make it painfully clear that God’s people are often their own worst enemies, worse by far than the “world” outside the church, when it comes to faithful appropriation of the gospel message.”

Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey, 3rd ed

The last part of the quote is key: “when it comes to faithful appropriation of the gospel message.” When it comes to living comfortable lives, then a changing culture is definitely a major enemy on the journey. To the degree we associate joy with what our culture calls “the good life,” to that degree changes in the culture hinder our joy. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, there are increasingly many ways that it is getting hard to be both a follower of Jesus and pursue the “good life” of the American Dream.


Gospel Appropriation

Appropriating the gospel is a different concern. There are plenty of cultural hardships—and more appear to be coming—but these are not the only thing which keeps us from joy. The joy which is of highest concern in the Bible is a joy that can be experienced in want and in plenty, in persecution and in power. It is a joy that challenges many of our assumptions about how the world ought to work and many of the assumptions of what “the good life” is.

It is undeniable that there are many external enemies towards our joy.

But ask yourself this question: “What is hindering you from having the vibrant relationship with God that you desire?” While there are many factors hindering us, it is hard to conclude that outside influences have the ultimate say. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that my own lack of desire and engagement is the biggest hindrance in having a vibrant relationship with God.

Targeting the right enemies

We can address wrong beliefs. Those are an important and pernicious enemy on the journey towards joy.

We can address wrong actions. Those also are an important and pernicious enemy on the journey towards joy.

But it is difficult, if not impossible, to make advances when our attempts to address these issues aim mainly outward. The self rages against obedience to the gospel. The self hamstrings our own efforts on the journey towards joy by constantly directing our efforts in the wrong direction.

As we consider enemies on the journey towards joy, don’t forget that in many realms of life, you are your own worst enemy.

Searching for…something

box robot yearning for true love

We’re searching for something else,

searching for something more,

we’re searching for something else,

what it is we’re not really sure,

but certainly something more.

Every now and again, a song hits a nerve. It seems to capture in a concise way the mood of a movement, or a group, or a generation. The song “Igendwas” by Yvonne Catterfeld hits a sweet spot in describing this cultural moment (at least for my generation). Yes, the title is funny; that’s because the song is in German. Here is a general-purpose English translation that is good enough to see what it is about (it’s a pretty song, even if you don’t understand German).

Above I have translated the chorus into poetic English. The chorus captures clearly the indecisive yearning which runs throughout the song. A yearning for something or someone that rises beyond the trivial, the temporary, and the cliches of modern life. Catterfeld muses on how we are able to explain the position of the earth, make monuments, take pictures, yet it all fades away. Our pictures don’t give us memory; our monuments don’t make us last; we can explain the rotation of the earth but in our pursuit of explaining ourselves we just keep trashing the world around us. It turns out, doing things and making stuff doesn’t assuage the yearning in our hearts. There must be something more.

In the second verse (sung by another German artist, Bengio), the song moves into reflections of endless indeterminacy. He sings of our longing to find someone who is real, solid, lasting, and who shows us who we are. But even if we found someone who might be able to do that, we can’t stay and learn because staying and learning means we could miss out on something else happening somewhere else. There is always a something else and always a somewhere else and the endless chasing for something leaves us endlessly spinning, finding nothing. Always more and different with the hope that the novel will turn out not just to be novel but categorically different. That in the next novel thing we will actually find the thing which explains ourselves to us. We are dedicated to getting somewhere, finding something, achieving something, but no one knows what that is and no one has the answer to guide us.

A song of our hearts

This song is a song of the human heart. We know, each one of us, that there is something more than what we have. That we were intended for greater than, deeper than, higher than. But in each ascent to the heavens, we find that the beeswax which holds our wings together can’t lift us high enough, and we plunge again into the seas below. As the Christian band The Gray Havens puts it in their song “High Enough:”

'Cause we fly, to the mountain top 
We climb, to the skies above 
We sail, to the stars and up 
But we can't get high, high enough

All around us—and, if we are honest, far too often inside of us—is a world full of people looking to find something. Something else. Something that lasts. Something that shows we are right. Something that shows we have reached as high as there is to reach. Something that shows we have become God.

There is no something we will ever find, though. Not by just following our longings to the next shiny thing.

There is no someone we will ever find, though. Not by trying out someone while endlessly looking for the next someone who might be better.

As much as our hearts were made for delight—and that pursuit of delight stands behind the pursuit of “something”—they were also made for devotion. Devotion is the breeding ground for delight.

The lesser and greater delights

Many delights in life can be found through devotion to a craft. Rejecting the endless pursuit of something else and rooting down here (rather than looking for another “there” to go to) opens up the possibility of delight. Devotion to a place, a people, a project, provides the time and space it takes for delight to grow in our hearts. These lesser delights of life are beautiful and worthy to be savored. We were made for these delights. Yet they are lesser. While worthy, even devotion to these lesser delights will never pull us outside of the endless pursuit of something else. Our hearts are made for something more profound than we can achieve by ourselves.

The greater delight is what we are really seeking for in each throw-away delight, each new relationship, each new experience. But no experience resumé of lesser delights ever adds up to the greater delight. The greater delight is not, in an ultimate sense, something—someone really—to be found by us in our pursuit. The Greater Delight demands instead that he finds us. Until we are worn out on the endless pursuit of some greater lesser delight that might bring contentment, the Greater Delight is unexperienceable.

A master of our hearts

The song Irgendwas colors in the contours of modern life, but can’t make sense of why the picture is always blurry and never resolves. There is a need, in the end, to give up on the pursuit. Not to give up on the pursuit of delight, but to give up believing (hoping against hope) that enough lesser delights will ever equal the Greater Delight.

The great lie of today is that we can both be master of self and enjoy the delight for which we were made.

What our hearts really need, really crave for, is a Master who can guide us into delight. Indeed, who is Greater Delight. As St. Augustine said long ago:

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it resets in you.”

Photo by Alexas_Fotos on Unsplash