And yet, I would say there is a different type of joy that comes from self-sacrificing service that can only be tasted by those who lay themselves aside. I would imagine that the exhausted fire-fighter receives one type of joy in spending time with his family at the beach, but another type of joy when he carries someone out of the burning building. Both may bring nourishment to the soul, but a self-sacrificing love feeds a part of the souls that a million good meals could never hope to touch.
The Bible has much to say about this kind of joy.
Take Paul for example. If we read a description of his ministry, we would definitely sign him up for counseling. He said that people doubted the authenticity of what he was doing, no one really knew him, and that he was sad. Physically speaking, he was poor and even dying. On paper, we would think he had every right to be burnt-out and maybe a little bitter. And yet, Paul continues his report explaining that he was very much alive, making many rich, in possession of the entire world and even…rejoicing (2 Cor 6:8-10). How could this be possible?
It is possible because his joy was based not his general well-being, but instead his joy was wrapped up in those he was serving. He called the church in Philippians “his joy and his crown.” If a firefighter loses a limb in saving the life of a little girl, his joy will be wrapped up in watching the little girl live a long, healthy life. The mother who tirelessly works with her child to prepare a speech feels like people are applauding for her as her son confidently says his last few words. When we give of ourselves for the sake of others, there is an undeniable deep joy that far surpasses momentary pleasures.
Jesus also tasted of this joy. When he started his public ministry and lived a life of homelessness, he was not thinking about things like food or clothing or how he could best care for himself. He did not need to because he was already full on a different kind of food: the work his Father had sent him to accomplish. He said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:35). There was something so deeply satisfying about seeking to do the work set out for him that the basic need of eating was almost forgotten.
And then there are the plain statements in Proverbs that say,
“One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want. Whoever brings blessing will be enriched, and one who waters will himself be watered” Prov 11:24-25.
It is not the one who occupies himself with right care for his well being that is satisfied. It is instead the one who is seeking the well being of others that finds himself refreshed. It is in giving of ourselves that we live rich lives and in preserving ourselves that we end up impoverished.
So, how do we receive this kind of joy?
Don’t Seek Your Own Good
To our “have it your way” American culture, I think we need to be reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Cor 10:24 “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor.” The Bible actually tells us to not look out for “number one” but instead to put ourselves aside and look out for the good of those around us. I wonder how our decisions would turn out differently if we took the big ME and MY NEEDS off of our pros and cons list completely.
Lay Down Your Life and Encourage Your Friends to do the Same
There is a holy joy in serving others in a self-sacrificing way that runs so deep that it simply cannot be rivaled by a life of safety and comfort. We, as the church, should be encouraging one another to seek this kind of joy in difficult service within the Kingdom of God. There is, for example, a sweetness of submission to God in staying in a difficult marriage and having him sustain and comfort you than in leaving it for an easier life. Good friends remind one another of this joy and the example of Christ first and foremost and call one another to sacrifice comfort and ease for this joy.
Know that True Joy is Often a Tired, Sad Joy
Jesus, the Savior of the world, was known as the “man of sorrows” who “set his face like flint” and walked towards Jerusalem in order to die “for the joy that was set before him.” He was all at the same time a man who was completely fulfilled in doing the work that the Father had set out for him to accomplish, he did it for joy, and he felt anguish in thinking about what he had to do. If Jesus faced all of these emotions in his ministry, I think it is normal for us to too. Sorrow, fatigue, and weariness are not necessarily warning signs that something is going wrong, but may be crucial ingredients in a God-honoring ministry.
The truth is that a life of self sacrifice is often exhausting and sometimes a break from it would be helpful. But what I want to make clear is that pouring oneself out to the point of exhaustion is not in opposition to self-care, it is a means to a deeper joy.
Take for example fellow missionaries who minister in a neighboring tribe called the Baka people. They have ministered to the Baka people for over 20 years, and have only now started seeing some converts. They have chosen the harder life, living deep in the jungle, wrestling malaria, biting ants, and dark, evil traditions. And just last week a Christian Baka woman died and immediately went into the presence of her Lord. She is possibly the first Baka adult to enter the gates of Heaven. And I believe that if you were to ask those very missionaries today if it was worth their labor, sickness, pain and loss, they would say yes. And they would say it both with tears in their eyes and a smile on their face. This is the exhausting, frustrating, exhilarating, peaceful joy that I strive towards. And I pray that you will too.