This past weekend, I led my church’s university student group in a Bible study on joy. We’ve been studying the fruit of the Spirit for the past month or so; I chose to share on joy because it’s the meaning of my name (or to be more exact, “God gives me joy”), and because it’s my foremost desire to exhibit joy as I grow in bearing the fruits of righteousness in all that I do (Mark 4:20). When I first began preparing to lead this study a couple weeks back, I had no idea that as a nation, we’d be in the middle of another historic, genuine confrontation of this festering ailment of racism and inequality in our country. The subject of joy became even more poignant to me as I again sat and processed the unjust events of the past weeks (and truthfully, of the past years). I certainly didn’t feel like having joy in those moments after all the events that had transpired, but as I prayed and meditated on God’s Word, the Lord encouraged my heart. I’ve decided to share a bit of the study I wrote here; it is a deeply personal and Biblical commentary on the God-given joy I’ve found in the midst of racial inequality in America.
In Acts 16:16-34, we see the story of Paul and Silas unjustly imprisoned in Philippi for preaching the gospel. They were going about their missionary work, and in doing so, ended up stripped, beaten, chained, and thrown into prison (Acts 16:22-24). But what came next is astounding: they began to fervently pray and worship God! How was this reaction possible? What motivated them to respond in such a surprising way? The power and joy of the Holy Spirit.
The Greek word for “joy” is chara, which is related to two other words with similar meanings, charis and charos. Charis means “grace” or “gift,” and charos means to “rejoice” or “express joy.” Based on these definitions, a Biblical definition of joy can be described as a natural reaction or expression to the work and gracious gifts of God in our lives. I love how this definition evokes joy as an action, an expressed attitude of the heart that focuses on God’s majesty and love above the storms and trials swirling around us. Often confused with happiness, which is a transient feeling based on the quality of our current situations, joy is an act produced within us, where by the Holy Spirit’s power, we can confidently and steadfastly place our faith and trust in the Lord. Joy — which in itself is a result of the stability found in the Lord’s promises and unchanging character — demonstrates a sustaining effect on our lives. As Nehemiah comforted the Israelites through weeping and sorrowful times, he reminded them that “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10) With the joy of the Spirit, we can confidently put our hope in the Lord, knowing that His promises will be fulfilled and that greater is yet to come (1 Peter 4:13).
Returning to Paul and Silas, we see their joy as an expression of faith and thanksgiving in the midst of their circumstances. In other words, they exhibited joy in their trials. Later in the passage, through the beautiful example of Paul and Silas leading the Philippian jailer and his family to Christ, we’re also reminded of the joy that’s found in our salvation (Acts 16:31-34; Psalm 94:19; James 1:2-3). However, these two expressions of joy in the account of their jail experience were not the first things that stirred my heart upon reading these verses. Rather, it was Acts 16:25 – “About midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”
The other prisoners were listening to Paul and Silas express their God-given joy. Paul and Silas had an audience they would have never had otherwise right there in the Philippian jail. And their joy was magnetic — it caused the other prisoners to listen to them! Reading Acts 16:25 immediately brought me back to the present. In this time of national uprising, who might be attracted to the expressions of God’s joy in my life? And how could that joy point this new audience to the gospel of Christ, a gospel that is unequivocally about salvation and justice (Isaiah 1:17; Isaiah 33:22; John 5:21-23; Isaiah 30:18; Zechariah 7:9)? In this time as the pains of black Americans are being amplified, as Christians — and especially now, as black Christians — who will our joy attract? What message will we share with our audience? As the body of Christ, right now we have an unlikely but attentive audience with whom we can share God’s truth: and that truth is of God’s divine and moral law, and of His heart for all creation. In spite of the systemic racism the black American community (and therefore black Christians) have faced for centuries, I pray that we continue to find strength and unspeakable joy in the Lord (Philippians 4:4; Isaiah 61:10; Psalm 126:2-3), and that in doing so, we will both stun and absorb the hearts of those who’ve dismissed our experiences before.
People’s hearts and perceptions will not change with the passage of new laws. Systemic racism will not be fixed overnight by a chorus of empty support posted online. The very real pain behind that awareness has long been heavy on my heart, especially these past weeks. Paul and Silas’ account show that only the work of the Holy Spirit can open ears, turn hearts, and change lives. But as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:10, we can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Police brutality towards the black community in America echoes the bigger picture of historically inequitable social structures and systems in our country. My heart breaks for black lives unjustly taken from this earth. I have wept, and continue to weep, for senseless injustices perpetrated against our community. It’s difficult for me to hear dismissals or erasure of all forms of racism — from daily microaggressions to the vast examples seen all too often in the news. It has been painful to hear deafening silence from not only the world, but especially the American church, who fail to stand up for justice and what’s right, even if it’s uncomfortable. But in spite of it all, “I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:18)
1 Corinthians 12:12 declares that “the human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ.” Verses 24 – 25 of that chapter also note that “God has put the body together… this makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other.” This shows us that God intentionally created the body of Christ to have great diversity (v18) such that when one “member suffers, all the members suffer with it, or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (v26). In this time of great reckoning, the church of God not only has the responsibility to bear the fruit of joy but to act as a unified body: white Christians suffering with black Christians alike, instead of explaining away — or worse, completely ignoring — the very real pain and experiences of fellow members of Christ’s singular body.
The emotions of the past week, month, and years are still very real, raw, and painful for me. But through it all, God reigns. I find joyful comfort in His presence, and in the fact that I am very dear to His heart as His beloved daughter, just like the rest of His beautiful, different, and diverse family.
*For an incredible, invaluable resource of information and further reading, see bethebridge.com