It’s funny how happy I feel about spring,” I said to my husband, who’d joined me on the patio. It was an ordinary day in May. Our tulip poplar shaded me with its new leaves, and birds chirped and whistled from its tangled branches. A warm breeze rustled the fabric of the patio umbrella, and I felt the full force of joy bolstering my spirit.
We weren’t doing anything special. In fact, it was a Friday afternoon following a particularly busy week, and I was outside reading. I should have been pulling the mass of weeds in the flowerbeds or mowing the towering grass we couldn’t keep up with in the unseasonably wet month we were having. But for the moment, the sun was shining, the air was warm and dry, and all felt right with the world.
“I think it’s because winter seemed to last forever,” Steve said, lying back in the reclining chair next to mine. We sat there quietly for several minutes, letting the delight of spring dull the memories of a particularly harsh season: the polar vortex that froze our water pipes, one son’s frustrating struggle with Spanish class, my extended bout of the flu, and the ongoing reality of aging—both our own and our parents’.
Finally, with one last gulp of sweet spring air—surely the neighbor’s lilacs were blooming—we headed off into the busyness of another weekend.
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus talks about joy in much the same way we experienced that evening: the result of waiting for and finding the things we deeply desire after a period of struggle. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd is thrilled when he finds the one and can return to the 99 (Luke 15:1-7). In the parable of the hidden treasure, joy propels the man not only to receive the treasure, but also to buy the field it’s buried in (Matt. 13:44). The woman who loses a coin searches until she finds it again. Then, not only is she filled with happiness, but she also invites her neighbors to rejoice with her (Luke 15:8-10). Each parable points to the future and to the wonder and exhilaration we’ll experience when the kingdom is at last fulfilled. These stories point to sinners repenting, God’s purposes being accomplished, and Christ, our true treasure, being revealed at last. What joy there will be when God’s kingdom comes!
These stories point to sinners repenting, God’s purposes being accomplished, and Christ, our true treasure, being revealed at last.
It’s like a long-term annuity, something I learned about recently when I helped a relative plan for retirement. Annuities are a type of insurance policy that allows for tax-deferred savings, and specifically with the long-term ones, a person makes a significant up-front investment for a big payoff down the line. Often we see joy this way: a future payout in heaven after a lifetime of adversity. Particularly as we enter the season of Advent, this cycle of suffering, waiting, and joy seems embedded in God’s plan for redemption: first, when Jesus came as a baby, and ultimately when He comes again. We sing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” even as we look toward our future joy when the Lord will return.
But joy doesn’t point us only to the future. In my research, I also learned about income annuities. In this case, the investment is the same, but the payout can begin immediately, with periodic payments along the way rather than one lump sum at the end. When I compared the two options, the latter brought not only the quicker return but, in my relative’s case, also the greater. I think this is how joy is supposed to work, too.
During the Last Supper, the Lord tells His disciples this story: “A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world” (John 16:21 NIV). In one sense, Jesus seems to be saying that future joy makes present suffering worth it. Suffer through the pain of pregnancy and labor, and you’ll gain a baby to love. Or even endure winter, and spring will be waiting for you. Or invest your money wisely, and one day you’ll receive a profit.
But Jesus, more than anyone, understands that life doesn’t always work out so neatly here on earth. Sometimes, even the best investors lose everything in a crash. Occasionally cold, wet springs, like the one we ended up having, offer little relief from the ravages of winter. And all too often pregnancies end in miscarriages or stillbirths, with a mother’s (and father’s) anguish even greater at the end than the beginning. Yes, the coming kingdom will offer that linear joy following directly after suffering, but Jesus isn’t asking us just to grin and bear it here on earth until He returns. Rather, He’s giving us a vision of future joy that makes present joy possible, despite our suffering and pain.
Jesus shared this parable of childbirth the night before He was arrested, as He talked about His own death and resurrection. He’d raised the topic often enough that the disciples were starting to believe Him. He knew they were shaken by the death threats and attempted arrests. But He wanted them to understand that all the things they were—and would be—enduring were actually producing something greater, both now and in the future.
It’s like what the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:8-10: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body” (NIV, emphasis added). That meant the disciples didn’t need to simply survive the days at hand, letting their “light and momentary troubles” achieve only some future glory (2 Corinthians 4:17 NIV). They could live hopefully, confidently, even happily now “in the body” as they were “being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16 NIV)—like a pregnant woman who experiences the thrill of her baby kicking. Or like my husband and me keeping track of the growing hours of daylight in the darkness of winter. Or like Jesus Himself, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).
But joy isn’t ours to relish alone. In 1 Thessalonians 2:20, Paul tells the Thessalonian Christians they are his “glory and joy,” and the reason he endured imprisonment, shipwreck, torture, and scorn. Kingdom joy is others-focused. It’s at the heart of brotherly love (Rom. 12:10). It’s the secret to rejoicing with those who rejoice (Rom. 12:15). It’s why John wrote in his third epistle, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4).
It’s also why, on that ordinary day in May, I didn’t realize how much I was enjoying a quiet moment of spring weather until my husband came to share it with me. It wasn’t just that we’d endured the long winter; we’d endured it together. And now, the delight was ours to share together, too. The same is true for all of us in God’s kingdom. Even during the long, cold months of tragedy, difficulty, and suffering, we can await Christ’s return with hope, confidence, and—most of all—joy.
Illustrations by Adam Cruft