At the start of last year, God gave me a word, which was to be my touchstone in the year to come: joy. It was the kind of thing, if I did not know Him better, I would’ve taken as mockery, for my life at the time was anything but joyful, nor had it been for a while, nor did this seem likely to change. But by then, I did know Him better, or at least, well enough to know that He does not mock, and when He comes thundering into our consciousness in that near-silent, yet resounding way that only He can speak, and gives us a word that, if we did not know Him better, we would only take offense at—and maybe we do for a moment, until we realize who it is that’s talking to us—then we almost have no choice but to listen.
I spent far too many years ignoring God’s voice, and when I at last began to hear it, it became and remains the thing I am most careful about. So when He told me my word for the year would be “joy,” I knew it was Him, in part because no one else—and certainly not a voice I had invented—would’ve been audacious enough to speak such a word to me. A great many other words would’ve been more appropriate to define the tone of that season: exhausted, defeated, wasted, overdrawn. There was nothing in me that could shake off the weight, the truth, the palpability of these adjectives and reach instead for something that gleamed like distant sunlight in a country I had forgotten existed. But, as is often the case with God, that was also the point.
I had, for some time now, been rid of the delusion that I could fix whatever mess life, in its whimsy or cruelty, decided to throw at me. I had also started to learn that, when God speaks His promises to us, He does not intend for us to be the ones to fulfill them. We see this over and over in Scripture: someone voices a need to God, or sometimes, says nothing at all, and God answers with His assurance and with a single command: “have faith.” It is often the only act to be performed by the believer. Have faith. And yet, most of us, myself included, struggle mightily with this. We think it cannot possibly be that simple, we must do something, and we are told by our society, by our friends, by our family, by everything around us that we are fools to stand still and wait—as though waiting isn’t, in itself, the hardest thing for us to do.
But I had been learning to wait. It seems my entire life has, in one way or another, been a lesson in this, and so it has also, by necessity, been a lesson in looking like a fool. At the start of last year, I was lost in more ways than one. I had stepped out in faith and found myself in a desert, and every step I took seemed to lead me deeper into it. Friends who had stood beside me for years fell away, until it got to the point where it was only me, Jesus, and a faithful remnant who, though they continued to be encouraging, also grew more puzzled. And so really, it was just me and Jesus at the start of last year, when I came home from a trip to a freezing apartment, turned on the heater, and began to unpack, and without prompting, He said to me, “Joy.” And without pausing for longer than it took to let out a small breath of laughter at the irony of which my God is so fond, I received His word and said to Him, “Okay.”
Another thing I have learned in walking with Jesus: so much of our Christian life is a lesson in seeing Him prove that He is a God of His word. Of all the things I have tried and failed to earn for myself, joy could never be one of them—not ever, and certainly not then, and so all I could do was reach out a hand into the emptiness before me and have faith that God would fill it with joy. “Joy,” He said to me, when two weeks into the new year, my landlord decided to sell the property my apartment of five years was built on, and I was thrust into ten months of construction, interruption, displacement, and uncertainty, as I waited to see if I would be able to stay. “Joy,” He said to me, as clients were late with their payments, and I played Russian roulette with my bills. “Joy,” He said to me, when longtime relationships ended, and people said terrible things, and I began to understand the metaphor that to be a follower of Jesus is to be pressed and crushed and distilled.
Without intending it, I did not post anything on this blog for a year. Instead, I started a document called “Heart Murmurs,” and into it, I poured every thought that came crashing into my head, as life continued to toss me in its whirlwind and God continued to promise me joy. I think it has become a kind of prayer journal, though I hesitate to use that word, as I have always been terrible at journaling. But the prayer part is right because, in doing this, I have discovered who it is I have been writing to all these years—who has been the recipient of all my doubt, my despair, my questions, who has been the audience I have long been trying to reach. It was, as I said, just me and Jesus at the start of last year, and it has largely been just me and Him throughout the year, as life has taken more and more, and He has kept hold of me, assuring me, picking me up, leading me on, saying to me, “Joy.”
“Joy,” He said to me, when a wonderful woman bought the property, and I got to keep my apartment. “Joy,” He said to me, when my clients became regulars, who pay me at regular intervals, and who give me space to write. “Joy,” He said to me, as other friendships deepened, to a level I could not have thought to ask for. “Joy,” He said to me, and “Joy,” He says to me still. Joy, as I am tempted to ride this wave of relative calm, so foreign to my experience, and Jesus picks me up, leads me on, tells me the train doesn’t stop here—the future He has promised is yet to come. Joy, as I hang suspended in the balance of striving and contentment, with the understanding that, in many ways, emptiness and capacity look the same. Joy, as He focuses my vision, scrapes off the excess, refines me. Joy, as I pray into extravagant dreams. Joy, as I wait for the One who will fulfill them. Joy, as I continue to look like a fool.
Last month, I finished a book by G.K. Chesterton called The Everlasting Man, and in it, he speaks of the Roman Empire, about how it was almost and, for all intents and purposes, actually was destroyed by Carthage—obliterated beyond recognition, before it rose again in inexplicable triumph, and became the most powerful force in the ancient world. Of Rome, Chesterton writes, “She came to stand alone in the midst of an empire because she had once stood alone in the midst of a ruin and a waste.” As I read those lines, there again came the voice I have learned to know well. I copied Chesterton’s words onto a post-it, which rests on my desk, and every day I sit down to write, I read them—the sunlight from a country that no longer seems quite so distant.