Weekly Edgework #35 - Feb. 28, 2005

Stumbling Blocks to Joy

If you managed to solve your one big problem, another would rush in to take its place. Then another and another. This is how it goes with problems. There’s no end to them. The real problem is that you think you cannot be happy as long as you have a problem. You’ll always have problems; therefore you’ll never be happy (Champagne for the Soul, Mike Mason, p. 129).

For most of us problems are stumbling blocks to joy. We think once we get over them happiness will automatically come streaming back into our lives. First I must find a better job, get over my chronic illness, find a girlfriend, finish an assignment or complete a renovation project – then I will be able to tap into the fountain of joy. We think we must clear the deck of difficulties so that joy has a place to land. We can’t conceive of joy and problems coexisting. Even if we don’t subscribe to this worldview overtly, the way we live our lives often betrays what we really think.

Of course there is a problem with this pathway to joy. As soon as our most immediate problem is resolved, there is always another one that emerges from our line-up of secondary problems to take the place of the immediate problem we have just managed to overcome. This reminds me of the marble games so popular in the 1950s. I received a number of them for Christmas throughout my childhood. To begin the game you shook the enclosed apparatus until all the marbles lined up in a row at the bottom. Then you pulled back a spring-loaded plunger to admit one marble into the chute, let go and then hoped its swirling motion would land it on a high-scoring ledge. When you repeated this motion, the second marble in the row entered the chute and became the immediate focus of attention. Then it was the third, fourth and fifth marble. Always there was another marble waiting to enter the chute.

Gradually I am coming to realize that if I am to find happiness at all, it will have to co-exist with problems that I face. In many ways life consists of meeting and overcoming one problem after another. That means that if I want to know true happiness I will have to find a source of joy not dependent upon the presence or absence of problems. At any given moment in my life there are a variety things that are going well. Furthermore, God has promised to walk with me wherever life’s road takes me. In light of this, I must first take hold of joy to celebrate all that is right. When I do this I am in a much better position to work at overcoming the problem before me.

This approach to joy seems somewhat irrational. It is easy to object. You can say that if I knew the depth of your problem I would agree that you can not find joy as long as it hangs around. Why then does the Apostle Paul have the audacity to say, “Rejoice always, and again I will say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). Does that mean we simply ignore problems, put on a forced grin, and smile our way through life like a deranged monkey? Of course not. We work at solving the problems that confront us in life. We seek help from others and God. But ironically, joy is the best tool to work at problem solving. Confront a problem with a frown and a heavy heart and it doesn’t seem to budge. Confront it with joy that is not tied to the problem and you are more likely to move it off center stage.

Those of us who have had the opportunity to meet people of faith in under-developed countries have frequently noticed their pervasive sense of joy. Does that mean they have fewer problems than those of us living in wealthier nations? To the contrary, the problems, predicaments and persecutions they face make our problems seem miniscule. Yet there is joy. Like watermarks on expensive stationary, joy underlies the text on the pages of their lives that often speak of great difficulties. Pampered Christians in developed countries would do well to observe and emulate their less privileged brothers and sisters.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance (James 1:2-3).