“What a lump of sunshine that man was!”
— Charles Spurgeon
“From his whole person, joy seemed to radiate.”
— Les Misérables
“When a man or woman realizes what God does work in them through Jesus Christ,
they become almost lunatic with joy in the eyes of the world.”
— Oswald Chambers
Old Faithful is the most celebrated of all geysers. Located in Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful shoots thousands of gallons of boiling water high into the air every hour and a half. This hydrogeological activity is caused by underground water streams coming into contact with molten rock. A mixture of superhot water and steam forms from the collision, gradually building up tremendous amounts of pressure. Eventually, when the steam pressure is too strong to be held back, a jet of steam and water shoots to the surface.
Joy flows from the heart of a Christian much like Old Faithful does at Yellowstone. The divine nature of God rushes through a believer’s bloodstream; when it collides with a thirsty, seeking heart, the mixture produces a heavenly joy so potent that it cannot be contained inside any human fixture. “True joy, when it is joy in the Lord, must speak,” preached Charles Spurgeon, “It cannot hold its tongue, it must praise the Lord.”
The “Pleasantville Effect” is a film technique made popular by movies such as Pleasantville and Schindler’s List. The visual effect is simple, but powerful – an entire scene is filmed in black-and-white, except for a single object that is shown in color. A viewer’s eyes can’t help but be drawn to the lone color figure on the screen. Steven Spielberg, for example, brilliantly used this technique in Schindler’s List. In a brutal scene in which Nazi soldiers take over a Warsaw ghetto, the camera follows a small Jewish girl wearing a candy red coat. Even when the camera pans to a wide shot showing at least one hundred other people, the red coat draws the viewer to her. This colorful image of the girl stands in stark contrast to the chaos all around.
In a world of letdown and disillusionment, joy produces a “Pleasantville Effect” on the life of a believer. The contentment, liveliness, peace, and vibrancy that comes from joy causes the joyous Christian to stand apart from others around him. Spurgeon put it like this:
When joy comes into a man, it shines out of his eyes, it sparkles in his countenance. There is a something about every limb of the man that betokens that his body, like a well-tuned harp, has had its strings put in order. Joy—it refreshes the marrow of the bones; it quickens the flowing of the blood in the veins.
Just like a film viewer is drawn to a colorized figure in a black-and-white scene, I find myself naturally attracted to a believer filled with joy. I want to hang around that person. I want to have what he has. Spurgeon describes a similar reaction that he had to a man in his church nicknamed ‘Old Father Dransfield’: “What a lump of sunshine that man was!…The very sight of him seemed to fill me with exhilaration, for his joy was wholly in his God!”
A lump of sunshine. What a wonderful description of an earnest believer! Packing the very nature of God, the joy-filled Christian can’t help but radiate sunshine across the world’s monochromatic landscape.
Men of Joy
Monseineur Bienvenu is a character that plays a small, but pivotal role as the bishop in the classic novel Les Misérables. In fact, if you’ve seen the film or musical adaptation of the Victor Hugo epic, you probably do not even know his name.
Les Misérables tells the story of how a simple act of grace by Bienvenu transforms the life of a hardened convict named Jean Valjean. As the story unfolds, the newly paroled Valjean is looking for a place to lodge while passing through a small town. After he is turned away by all of the inns, he decides to knock on the door of a bishop’s parsonage.
The bishop welcomes Valjean into his home like a brother, feeding him a hot meal and offering a warm bed for the night. But, being jaded by his years spent in the penitentiary, Valjean is less than grateful for the kindness shown. Needing cash, Valjean rises in the middle of the night and runs off with the bishop’s silverware. The convict does not get very far, however; he is caught red-handed with the stolen goods by the police as he attempts to flee town. When the police bring Valjean back to the bishop’s home for questioning, Valjean expects the worst. He knows that if he is found guilty of the crime, his sentence will be life in prison. He is, therefore, dumbstruck when the bishop dismisses the police, telling them that the silver was a gift. Bienvenu’s grace doesn’t stop there; he places two silver candlesticks, the only possessions of value he owns, into Valjean’s knapsack. “Jean Valjean, my brother,” says the bishop with a joyful gleam in his eye, “You belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul I am buying for you. I withdraw it from the dark thoughts…and I give it to God!”
If you’ve seen a film or musical adaptation of Les Misérables, that is all you really learn about the bishop. The story moves on to focus on the new life of Valjean. However, if you read the unabridged version of the Victor Hugo novel, you are able to discover much more about who this man really was. Bienvenu proves to be more than just a kindly old priest. Instead, he proves to be a beaming man of joy.
Bienvenu’s entire life was dedicated to serving Jesus Christ and others around him. When he first arrived in town to accept the bishop’s appointment, he was given a grand, spacious mansion in which to live. But, after seeing the needs of a cramped hospital next door, he claimed there had been a mistake, and promptly traded places with the hospital. “You have my house and I have yours,” he told the hospital director. “Restore me to mine; you are at home.” Later, when affluent members of his congregation had given funds for a new altar in his oratory, he took the money and gave it to the poor in the area instead. While many people around him spent their lives trying to mine for riches, he worked, in Hugo’s words, “for the extraction of pity.”
Bienvenu was a good shepherd of his flock. When he had money, he’d visit the poor. When he was broke, he’d make a pastoral visit to the rich. In caring for others, he always seemed to know the appropriate response. He could sit for hours in complete silence along side a widower who just lost his wife, while on another occasion be active in fervent prayer with a dying man on a hospital bed.
The entire town adored the bishop. Their attraction wasn’t based on his looks, his charm, or even his caretaking. Instead, it was that “indefinable something” that he possessed. “From his whole person,” wrote Hugo, “joy seemed to radiate.”
* * * * * * *
If I took a poll among my friends asking them to provide a sound bite description of Jesus Christ, my guess is that I would get responses like: “my risen Savior”, “the Son of God”, or the “Prince of peace”. However, suppose I could go back in time to the first century and ask the contemporaries of Jesus Christ the same question. I am convinced that the vast majority of his followers would describe him as “a man of joy.”
As relative late-comers to planet earth, we are introduced to Jesus after his victory on the cross. To us, he is the resurrected Christ, the living Word, and the Second Person of the Godhead. However, to people that lived with and around him, these sorts of titles were over their heads and not even their concern. Instead, they were far more excited by the kind of man that he was. The book of Hebrews tells us that God set Jesus Christ above his companions by anointing him with the “oil of joy” (Hebrews 1:9). In other words, the primary distinguisher of Jesus while on earth was his joy.
Jesus was something of a rock star once he began his public ministry. A rock tour-like atmosphere surrounded him on a nearly 24/7 basis. People followed him everywhere. They wanted to hear him speak. They wanted to feel his miraculous touch. As if to emphasize this reality, the Gospels mention specific times in which Christ needed to get away from the crowds and escape into the wilderness for time alone to pray.
To attract the masses like he did, most of us simply assume that Jesus Christ was a charismatic preacher with a magnetic personality. Perhaps even one of those “beautiful people” you see pasted on the cover of People magazine. After all, if God is going to appear in human flesh once in all of human history, one might expect him to do it with real panache – combining the good looks of Brad Pitt, the charisma of Johnny Depp, the charm of Pierce Brosnan, and the oratory skills of Kenneth Branagh. However, scripture actually goes out of its way to say that Jesus was nothing of the sort. In his prophesy on the coming Messiah, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah says :
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
Jesus, according to Isaiah, was “like a root out of dry ground.” In other words, he was not impressive or significant in the eyes of world. Maybe even a wallflower – overlooked and unnoticed before his ministry started. Isaiah adds that Jesus was neither good looking or charming. Christ, therefore, had none of the natural human physical or personality characteristics that I would have expected given his messianic role. It’s almost as if God went out of his way to make sure that people were not distracted by “Jesus the man”, so that he could instead wow the world with his divine joy.
In emphasizing his joy, I am not overlooking the miracles of Jesus. After all, Christ’s miraculous power was obviously a major attractor of people as well. As he traveled throughout ancient Palestine, both the curiosity seekers and the needy would seek him out to witness or experience a miracle. And, while miracles may have produced flocks of people initially, his contagious joy is what kept the crowds following him around day in and day out. To use marketing lingo, the “stickiness” of Jesus Christ’s appeal was his joy, not his power.
As an author, one of my greatest loves is communicating through the written word. However, I realize that written communication is not without its shortcomings. Subtleties, attitudes, tones, and emotions are often difficult to convey fully on a piece of paper. Email, in particular, is notorious for this problem. I remember sending off a good-natured ribbing to my friend awhile back. Being friendly banter, I thought nothing of it. However, when he read the email, he completely misunderstood the spirit of the message, since he could not see my smile or hear the friendly tone of my voice.
Emoticons – those sideways smiles :-) and frowns :( used too convey emotion and facial gestures – are the 21st Century response to this inadequacy of electronic communication. However, the Bible, at least the NIV I have beside me on my desk, doesn’t make use of emoticons or other such devices. Consequently, when I read an account of Jesus healing the sick, it may not be immediately obvious whether Jesus did so stoically or with utter delight; the Gospel writers simply didn’t provide those kind of details. However, when I read the Gospel accounts in light of Hebrews 1:9 – that Christ’s joy is what differentiated him from others – I realize that everything that Jesus did during his ministry was done with a spirit of joy.
Bruce Marchiano, who portrays Jesus in the Visual Bible: Gospel According to Matthew DVD, discovered this truth firsthand when researching for his part:
As I sought to confirm that joy of Jesus in the Word, it became so blatantly obvious I couldn’t believe I never caught it before. Suddenly, it was everywhere, screaming from the pages of scripture: joy!…Jesus began jumping off of the page at me as well – His realness and strength, the sparkle in His eyes, the spring in His gait, the heartiness in His laugh, the genuineness of His touch; His passion, playfulness, excitement, and vitality: His joy!”
In Gospel According to Matthew, Bruce depicts Jesus as a man of joy – wholly unlike the somber, detached versions of Christ in other films over the years. In fact, Bruce’s portrayal of Jesus had a profound effect on my faith when I first viewed the video years ago. For in watching this four-hour, word-by-word account of the Gospel of Matthew, I began to grasp the joy of Jesus in a way that I never realized before.
Perhaps the scene in Gospel According to Matthew that most effectively captures the essence of Christ’s joy is the story of the leper’s healing in Matthew 8:1-3. When I read the passage in my Bible, I tend to focus on the nuts and bolts of the brief encounter: a leper meets Jesus; Jesus miraculously heals the leper; the leper goes off a healed man. However, when you see the scene visually acted out before you, you start to understand the sort of joyous interaction that must have taken place between the two men. The video’s director Regardt van den Bergh recalled the thoughts that went through his mind when filming the scene:
I felt compelled by the Lord that Jesus should go on His knees, the healed man should fall into His arms, and together they should roll in the dust. My immediate reaction was ‘No, I can’t do that!” but obeyed, and that scene became one of the most popular scenes in the whole production. Through the eyes of religion we tend to see Jesus as thus extremely reserved and serene figure – the Son of God who would never show so much joy as to burst into laughter and roll in the dust at a leper’s healing. But the Lord led us to bring joy to the character of Jesus.
Jesus Christ was the ultimate conduit of heavenly joy. According to the apostle Paul in Romans 8, all of creation “groans” in anticipation for the future second coming of Christ. Perhaps the reason creation so eagerly waits is because of the glorious joy it witnessed during Christ’s coming the first time around.
Beyond Prince Charming
Jesus was no Prince Charming; Isaiah tells us as much. But, often times, I think we look for one today. As a culture, we are naturally attracted to people with charisma and charm. The endless fascination of Hollywood stars in the media is clear evidence of that fact. In some ways, I think this attraction spills over into the church as well. Today’s Christian leaders are dynamic and personable men and women. They are the heads of megachurches, regularly appear on Christian television and radio, and are the headline speakers at the conferences we attend. Even in churches we attended in the past, the people I saw in the most visible roles were those with dynamic personalities.
Several years ago, my wife and I had dinner with a group of people from the church we were attending at the time. During the course of the evening, the topic of conversation turned to a nice looking, young couple who just joined our congregation and was getting involved in various ministries. In sitting back and listening to the discussion, I was struck that all of the enthusiasm for the couple seemed to be based on their charisma and sophisticated looks. I began to wonder if the same enthusiasm would have been shown to a shy, homely looking couple who had the same heart for Christ. I suspect not.
There is nothing wrong with charisma, of course. After all, this human trait is a gift from God. However, we need to make sure we don’t use it as a measuring stick for Christian maturity.
Charisma has nothing to do with a person’s spiritual state, but joy is a direct result of it. A person can put on charm; no one can really fake joy. In the words of Oswald Chambers, “The one thing that Jesus Christ does for a man is to make him radiant, not artificially radiant. There is nothing more irritating than the counsel, ‘keep smiling.’ That is a counterfeit, a radiance that soon fizzles out.”
When charisma is the sole attraction that you have towards a person, you will eventually come away feeling unimpressed or even disillusioned. Back when I was in high school, a dynamic speaker came to my church for a special youth weekend retreat. I was totally mesmerized by his preaching. And, like any hero, I wanted to get to know him and be known by him as well. When I interacted with the man at a later time, however, I discovered he was not the person I expected. He seemed, to me anyway, a fake, a paper-thin shell of the man I heard preaching.
In contrast, the more time you spend with a joy-filled believer, the more your attraction will grow for that person. Take, for example, Monseineur Bienvenu in Les Misérables. Hugo wrote that the first impression that people had upon meeting him was dismissive: just a nice guy with a ho-hum personality. However, the more people got to know him, the more they developed an undeniable attraction towards the man. Hugo describes:
At the first view, and to one who saw him for the first time, he was nothing more than a good man. But if one spent a few hours with him…little by little the goodman became transfigured, and became ineffably imposing;…majesty was developed from this goodness, yet the radiance of goodness remained; and one felt something of the emotion that he would experience in seeing a smiling angel slowly spread his wings without ceasing to smile. Respect, unutterable respect, penetrated you by degrees, and made its way to your heart; and you felt that you had before you one of those strong, tried, and indulgent souls, where the thought is so great that it cannot be other than gentle.
Bienvenu and Christ had a raw power that went beyond charisma and charm. Penetrating the souls of people they came into contact with, their “weight of joy” and became a commanding force that God used to draw others to himself.
Race of Truth
I want to do more than hang around joy-filled Christians or read about the Bienvenus of the world. I want to be one. When I interact with others, I yearn for them to see joy flowing out of me. I want them to walk away with a contagious desire for the joy of the Lord. I don’t say this out of ego or pride, but purely out of the realization that that’s the sort of life God designed me to live.
However, too much of the joy that God packs inside of me never flows outside. I have a nasty habit of hording it. I let the busyness of the day preoccupy my mind rather than seeking out the needs of others. My natural shyness can hinder me from interacting with people I don’t know well. Bienvenu remarks in Les Misérables, “I am not in the world to care for my life, but for souls.” Sadly, all too often, I think I am in the world to push my own petty agenda rather than simply loving and serving the people around me. But, when I do so, the “Pleasantville Effect” no longer works. The joy that should distinguish me fades into the black-and-white background of the world.
The Tour de France is one of my favorite sporting events to watch on television. Each July, 200 bicycle racers race 2,000 miles over 20 days all around the French countryside and mountains. During the opening flat stages of the race, it is often difficult to distinguish between the contenders and the pretenders. The majority of the riders, including all of the race favorites, will stick together in the peloton (the main pack), while a handful of lesser riders break away, hoping for a single day’s stage victory. Often times, one of these breakaway riders will gain enough time on the rest of the field to take the maillot jeune (the leader’s jersey) away from the race favorites for a few days.
However, at the end of the week, the Tour schedules an individual time trial, a race in which a cyclist races by himself against the clock. Among race enthusiasts, the time trial is nicknamed the “race of truth”, because no rider can simply “hide” in the peloton or use some cheeky tactic to gain time on others. Instead, by day’s end, the clock reveals exactly which individuals are actually contending for the Tour victory and which are not.
The tell-all nature of the time trial reminds me of the way in which the display of joy in my life reveals what is going on in my soul. It’s a public test of truth indicating where I stand with Jesus Christ. People will either see joy flowing or they won’t.
When the nature of God is in control of a person’s life, joy cannot help but spill out. However, because we live in a sinful world, other factors can easily bottleneck joy and hinder it from surfacing. Some people are prone to worrying, stressing out, and getting angry. Others have past baggage that so dominates that their present life that they can’t see beyond it. These strongholds can make it difficult for the person to exhibit much joy at all.
When I was growing up, I attended Vacation Bible School during summer break. One the songs we’d sing each year was “This Little Light of Mine”. “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine,” goes the tune over and over. Most adults listening to it probably consider it trite and simplistic. It’s a children’s song, after all. However, when I listen to the words carefully, I begin to realize that this song offers insight into the way true joy is expressed in our lives. Every believer is equipped with a light inside of them, enabling them to radiate joy to the rest of the word. However, as the song indicates, it is still my choice whether or not I am going to let it shine in my life. I can hide it under a bushel. I can let Satan blow it out. Or I can be a lump of sunshine.
Modified excerpt from my book The Myth of Happiness (Zondervan)