Publication: Pastoral Letter, February 2007
Dear Friend in Christ:
An imprisoned Victor Frankel stated that the last freedom that we have is the freedom to choose our attitude. The apostle Paul said essentially the same when he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). He too was in jail when he told the Philippians to rejoice. He practiced what he preached when he and Silas rejoiced while in the Philippian jail (see Acts 16).
Joy is valuable_even priceless. We pay people to make us laugh, we enjoy joyful people. Why? Joy is our strength, our health, and our pleasure. When we stop laughing, we stop really living.
When Jesus was born, the angels sang “Joy to the World!” The Lord came to bring us the joy of salvation (see Isaiah 12:3-4). Since joy comes from our salvation, it does not come from our situation; it comes from our Deliverer. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In the world, there will be numerous reasons to be depressed, if you choose that path, but in the Lord you can choose joy, and overcome the world and what it may bring.
In 1963, I was extremely stressed and often angered. I was taking Greek and Hebrew in seminary, driving a thousand miles a week back and forth to my pastorate from New Orleans to Mobile, confronting “neo-orthodoxy” and the realities of life_the deaths of children suffering from varieties of cancer. The first funeral where I ministered was a suicide. In November of 1963, I had all the symptoms of a heart attack_at age 26. On a doctor’s advice I quit seminary for the third and final time.
I wrote a letter to a successful pastor asking him to come to our church for a series of meetings. He declined graciously, but closed his letter with Psalm 126. That text turned my life in a new direction. Several months later I was baptized in the Holy Spirit.
“When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with joyful shouting, then they said among the nations, the Lord has done great things for them. The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad….Those that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goes forth weeping a bearing precious seed shall doubtless come again rejoicing bringing his sheaves with him.” (See Psalm 126:1-3; 5-6.)
Israel knew captivity_to Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and later, Rome. In Babylon, they hung their harps in the willow trees_not able to sing the songs of Zion(see Psalm 137). But release brought joy. We cannot fully appreciate the joy of release until we understand the sorrow of captivity.
There are many captivities: Spiritual forces, circumstance, poverty, disease, mortality, grief, sin, and living by physical senses_even religion (legalism) can become captivity. Isaiah 61 tells us that Jesus came to set captives free. Ephesians 2:1-3 describes pre-salvation captivity. Captivity is when one’s life becomes controlled by external forces that deprive us of hope and freedom’s joy. Much of the world lies in captivity.
“Then our mouths were filled with laughter.” In April of 1964, I went to a prayer meeting led by my friend Ken Sumrall, who had experienced a life changing encounter with the Holy Spirit. During the meeting, many were being filled with the Holy Spirit. I was seeking the Lord, reading the Scriptures. I came to Romans 14:17, “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” As I read the word “joy”, a chuckle came from deep inside. “He is going to get it laughing,” a lady’s voice came from the row behind me.
Indeed, in a few minutes, I was in the back of the small chapel overflowing with the joy of the Holy Spirit. My spirit was released from the stress of circumstance and the confinement of my own nature.
Why do we remember the birth of Christ? Because He brought to us the joy of freedom. Why do we remember the birth of George Washington? Because he led the revolution that brought our nation into freedom from tyranny. There are many pictures of Washington: On a horse, in a boat, kneeling in prayer_but I have never seen a baby picture of Washington.
Too many people only have “baby pictures” of Jesus. He grew up to become the Lion of Judah, the Captain of our salvation, our Liberator! It was Jesus who said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” One greater than Washington or Lincoln has given us a greater liberty. Washington freed a nation, Lincoln freed slaves, but Jesus has brought freedom’s joy to the world. The world needs to know the delivering Jesus.
I remember when the Berlin Wall fell and thousands danced in the streets for joy. Freedom’s joy filled the air. But we have a greater freedom still. We have been set free from the law of sin and death (see Romans 8:2). We are free to have the “blessed hope” of resurrection and release from mortality. We are free in this life and in the one to come. We too should dance for joy!
KEYS TO FREEDOM’S JOY
Know that your freedom is in the Lord. After being baptized in the Holy Spirit and experiencing the freedom of the Spirit, I set about to bring that same freedom to the church that I pastored. It was a challenge. Our tradition stood in the way and much of the congregation was unhappy_I was considered too “Pentecostal.”
One Sunday night I looked out at a small crowd. My text was Philippians 4; my topic was, “In the Lord.” I had been struck by that phrase that Paul used repeatedly. So I listed those things that we can do “in the Lord” as opposed to in ourselves: be of the same mind, rejoice, avoid anxiety, give thanks, pray, have peace, meditate on good things, learn how to be content, do all things, and have our needs supplied. I reminded people that Paul was writing from prison.
As I spoke, joy came upon me and I laughed a lot as I preached. Following the message, one lady said, “This is no time to be happy.” But I wasn’t happy because of the circumstance, I was joyful in the Lord. The Psalmist said, “at all times His praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Psalm 34:1). The devil will say, “There is never a time.” God says, “At all times.”
Know that your joy is in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes our spirit alive. The joy of the Kingdom is in the Holy Spirit. One night I was speaking by phone to my friend, John Duke. We were discussing the tragedy of a friend who was in the last stages of mortal life. As we spoke, the Spirit came upon us; we began to laugh as we realized that our friend had eternal life and our foe had been defeated. In a natural way, it made no sense. But we were taken by the Holy Spirit beyond the natural.
Know that you are free. One day as I prayed for our church, I had a vision of a corral, an animal pen. Small groups of people were clustered together, tied by ropes to each other and to the fence. As I looked more closely I could see that the ropes had been cut but the people remained as if they were still tied. I heard the Lord say, “You are free; act like it!” Many of God’s people do not realize or know that they have been set free. To enjoy freedom’s joy we must know what Christ has done for us and act on it.
Keep sowing even in tears. There is joy in sowing good seed knowing that we will doubtless come back rejoicing with our harvest (see Psalm 126:5 6). Givers are joyful. “It is more blessed to give.” Why? Because we are blessed when we bless. “Doubtless” is a beautiful word. Faith in future results brings present joy.
Another key to joy is in gathering the harvest. The harvest is living proof that God is a rewarder (see Hebrews 11:6). We will reap in due season if we do not faint (see Galatians 6:9). Results of good effort are a beautiful thing.
I grew up in a farming community and often worked in the potato harvest. We got up early and worked until late evening. But when it was all in, there was joy. The boss would buy a new truck or tractor. We all got paid. There was lots of laughter.
Sowing and reaping is one of the most basic creation principles. If affirms effort and endurance. In the end, it brings the reward of joy. The joy is equal to the effort. “Well done,” brings joy.
Know the promises of God. In 1965, I was put on trial in our church over the issue of the Holy Spirit. Carolyn and I sat in my office waiting for the moderator to come and get us and bring us Chronicles 20, “You shall not need to fight in their battle, for the battle is not yours, but the Lord’s. Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.”
After reading that note, I took a book off my shelf, Thirty-Five Thousand Precious Promises. My wife began reading a religious joke book, Mr. Blotz. Soon we both began to laugh. Finally, the moderator came in as we were laughing. “Could I have a few more minutes with the people?” he asked. “Sure, take all the time that you want,” I said. We were having fun. When the evening was over, a victory was crystal clear.
If we know the promises and believe, we can rejoice before the results are in.
Finally, joy comes from a steadfast hope. Psalm 146:5 says, “Happy is the one whose hope is in the Lord.” Zechariah 9:12 says that we are “prisoners of hope.” The apostle Paul refers to hope as the substance of endurance, that which prevents shame, the shared nature of Christ, the nature of our calling, our helmet in the battle, an anchor in the storm; Peter calls it the thing that purifies us. We are hopers and that makes us joyful.
JOY IN THE LORD
My brother and my wife are both in a battle with cancer. But we have discovered that joy is our strength. When I speak with my brother, a successful attorney, he never fails to laugh and we laugh together. My wife, through all of her ordeal, has continued to smile and laugh. Myra Sink, wife of my friend Jim Sink, is also battling cancer. She recently underwent a fourteen-hour surgery, but she has kept her joyful spirit.
Where does this joy come from? Certainly not from cancer. It comes from our Liberator, our Deliverer, Jesus Christ. We have been set free from the law of sin and death. When Jesus arose from the grave, He brought us with him.
For the remainder of this year_and beyond_I urge you to be joyful and find His strength. Beyond that, I urge you to bring the joy of release to those yet bound in some dark prison. Jesus rejoiced in bringing freedom. His joy was continually before Him (see Matthew 25:21; John 15:11; and Hebrews 12:2). One way to keep your joy is to give it away just as He did.
Please continue to stand with CSM this month and this year as we declare the liberty and joy of the Lord among the nations. These are not easy days, but it’s a wonderful time to be alive and serving the Lord.
Scripture Reference: Philippians, Acts, Isaiah, John, Psalms, Matthew