Showing Our Teenagers the Joy Only Jesus Gives
Recently, I was talking to someone who works with middle schoolers and high schoolers. He told me he asked his students, “When you think of being a Christian, what word comes to mind?”
One of the first answers was, “Hard.”
My heart dropped hearing this answer. Certainly, being a Christian doesn’t mean that our lives will be all rainbows and butterflies or that all our dreams will come true or that we will never experience suffering. Jesus Himself promised us that in this world we will experience hardships. It’s a foregone conclusion. However, is that the first thing we want youth to think about our faith?
Today’s teenagers have been shaped by terrorist attacks, school shootings, and the Great Recession. This generation has been exposed to some of our worst historical moments through the 6-inch screen of a smart phone; highly accessible information has given tragic circumstances a profound impact on their young lives. Studies are showing that they are more risk-averse and more skeptical. They are growing up in an age with the highest rates of suicide, depression, and anxiety that our country has ever seen.
This year has been a hard one for us all. In April, the United States’ unemployment rate skyrocketed to an all-time high of 14.7% while people around the country were quarantined, tucked away from family and friends, not attending school or social gatherings. We watched as our city and country were burned, literally and figuratively, in response to the brutal murder of George Floyd. We endured in the most contentious election season of our lives, and perhaps even America’s existence.
In light of all of this, it’s understandable that youth would say faith and life are “hard.” Yet Paul’s command to the Philippian church is to “rejoice always, I will say it again, rejoice.” Second century Greek bishop and martyr, Irenaeus famously said, “The glory of God is a person fully alive.” It sometimes feels like to be fully alive and joyful is nearly impossible.
Because our joy is permanently rooted in an unchanging person, Jesus Christ, we can have joy that cannot be moved by our circumstances.
Joy That is Rooted in Christ
In the four short chapters that comprise the book of Philippians, the Apostle Paul uses the Greek word for joy or rejoicing sixteen times, even as he writes from a jail cell. In Philippians 2:23, he says, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” Sitting in that dirty, dark cell, experiencing persecution, Paul is actually thinking about how much better it would be to be dead and with Christ in heaven, but he says he shall remain for his friends’ “progress and joy in the faith.”
Paul knows that true joy is permanently rooted in a true Jesus- the real, living, reigning savior. This is why he can pen his most joyful letter amidst immense suffering. He knew the truth of the song we sing every Christmas: “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” Joy came to the world, and his name was Jesus. Because of his incarnation, death and resurrection, Jesus says that he is in us, by the Spirit, just as God is in him (John 17:23).
This means our joy is found only in Jesus, a real person with real flesh and bones. When Jesus was raised to life to sit beside the Father, he placed his Spirit within us. Psalm 16:11 says, “in your presence there is fullness of joy.” With the Spirit residing within us, we have unlimited access to this joy.
Joy That is Immovable
When our joy is rooted in Jesus, that joy cannot be taken away from us. In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus speaks these words, “I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours… But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they have may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (v. 9, 17). What is amazing is that Jesus is not only praying for us as Christ followers, but he specifically prays that His joy would be fulfilled in us.
According to Charles Ellicott’s commentary on John, the joy Jesus is referring to is the same joy that supported him in all the sorrow and loneliness of his earthly ministry. It came from the ever-present source of God the Father. Jesus himself needed his Father’s presence in order to have joy. That joy is what he gives to us in the substitutionary atonement for our sin on the cross.
To be honest, my life doesn’t always feel like I am tapped into a constant source of joy from God. I can only imagine what being a teenager in 2020 must feel like- to graduate without a graduation, wear a mask with a homecoming dress, see friends at school through a mask and distance or a screen. The circumstances of this world may make us feel like we are not rooted in joy. However, that is because we misunderstand joy as an emotion, when really joy is a place.
Emotions come and go; don’t we know it after this year? Personally, I vacillated between radiating pride and satisfaction over my homemade bread to complete despair at the state of our world.
Joy, however, is a place situated in a real person, Jesus. It simply cannot cease to exist or even change- no matter how hard life becomes or how much we try to flee from him. Psalm 139:5-7 says, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!” We cannot escape his presence; therefore we are always in his fullness of joy, even when we don’t feel it.
That is why we are able to feel sadness, an emotion, in the midst of joy, a secured place. We can sing through tears. We can grieve with hope. Our souls are anchored into a real, live place in a real, live person, which means we will stand out in this world- and to our youth. Today’s youth need to know that though the world can be a scary place, our lives as Christians are characterized by joy. While things can be hard, our lives and our joy don’t end with the fleeting nature of this world. Our joy is permanently rooted in Jesus Christ, who is now and forevermore. Therefore, we can have joy now and forevermore.