The world is a stranger place than you think it is. Just a couple of weeks ago I was riding in the rear bench seat of a Toyota all-terrain minivan on one of the very few paved roads in south-western Uganda which was being improved by an Israeli construction company. And my son and I saw three pygmies walking alongside the road, wearing castoff western clothing, one of whom was carrying a spear (I believe he was wearing an old NFL jersey). I watched a man publically acknowledge and repent of having attempted to murder a woman who jilted him and would not return a bride price of 4 million shillings – I watched him be forgiven and embraced by his community. I met a man who had been cursed by his step mother and became blind, who was later healed when a pastor prayed for him – five years later. From my Western point of view, these were strange experiences. But I heard of something even stranger.
In Rwanda, directly across the border from Kabale, Uganda, is a group of Rwandan women who have joy. These are women who were children during the Rwandan Genocide, in which an estimated 20% of the population were brutally killed by their neighbors. These are women who, for various reasons, all provided for themselves through prostitution. These are women who are probably all HIV positive. These are women who are bereft of clan and family respect, stability, and support. These women live together and now support themselves in large part through the manufacture of Rwandan handcrafts. Based on my limited but firsthand knowledge of southwestern Ugandan economic realities, I can safely say that these women do not own cars, land, or retirement accounts. They do not have health insurance policies. Their career choices are radically limited. Their life expectancies are short. In brief, they are, in as much as the human eye can discern, the very photo negative of the typical American. And yet they have joy while so many of us do not.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the famous Welsh preacher, considers Joy to be one of the principal characteristics of the born again Christian. In a series of sermons on Psalm 51 (recently republished as “Out of the Depths” by Christian Focus Publications) he cautions us concerning this joy: “Now let us be careful about this. There is a great deal of misunderstanding about this question of Christian joy. It is very important to note that the joy of which David speaks here, in exactly the same way as the Bible speaks of it everywhere else, is a particular joy… The joy of which he speaks is what is called ‘the joy of thy salvation.’” (p. 80). Consider that last pronoun: ‘thy.’ In modern English, we would say ‘your.’ The joy of which the Bible speaks is, in the sense in which we ask for it, the joy of God’s salvation – not ours! It might be the case that it is precisely here that many contemporary American Christians fall off the rails – we are busy praying and singing, “Restore unto me the joy of my salvation.”
Am I splitting hairs here? I don’t think so. Consider what robs you of joy. Whatever robs you of joy cannot be a certain grounds for having a perdurable joy – those things can be taken away or otherwise lost. When we think of “our” salvation it is all too easy to think about the effects that salvation brings us – and here our focus can begin to include all sorts of things which are in their very essence temporal and therefore temporary – like health, wealth, even including relationships defined by such phrases as “’till death do us part.” But if we let the emphasis fall on the joy of God’s salvation,” we are focusing on the fact that it is God himself who is the Savior. Our happiness is no longer tied to the effects of salvation as we temporarily experience them. Now our joy is tied directly to the Person who has both procured and eternally secured that salvation for us. And that joy is powerful – it echoes in the hearts of penniless castaways from a broken culture who live with the reality of death by AIDS. Does it echo in yours? Won’t you join me this year in singing “restore unto me the joy of THY salvation?” God himself has orchestrated the salvation procured by Jesus the Son of God and applied by God the Spirit– your sins are forgiven and nothing can take you from the shelter of God’s hand.