We long for freedom to experience joy.
Free to make decisions and plot outcomes that suit ourselves. The language of culture speaks to this longing. Happiness is hocked as independence gained. Be your own boss. Take care of your needs first. Have it your way! Because the freedom to be happy only exists when we get what we want, the way we want it. Right?
While it can certainly feel that way Jesus crushes that paradigm. Instead, he offers what seems to my ears a paradox.
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” Matthew 16:25
Or as CS Lewis writes in The Joyful Christian, “Aim at Heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
It’s just before sunrise and I’m curled up in a leather recliner with the fluffier of my two cats, devotional in hand. I’m using as little light as possible to read—lest I wake a soul and have to put Christ’s words into action before I can see the bottom of my mug.
I turn to the entry for September 8 in Streams in the Desert.
“You have relieved me in my distress.” Psalm 4:1
This is one of the grandest testimonies ever given by man to the moral government of God. It is not man’s thanksgiving that he has been set free from suffering. It is a thanksgiving that he has been set free through suffering: You have relieved me when I was in distress.” He declares the sorrows of life to have been themselves the source of life’s relief or growth. (Streams in the Desert, September 8)
Foster parenting has in many ways been a paradoxical road to joy in my life. I’m a Westerner who delights in many of the time-stealing, self-serving passions of culture. I have been desperate to save my life by hoarding it—keeping the best bits of myself for the people and activities that are easiest to give to.
As a foster parent many of my puffed-up notions of self are utterly crushed. And I love it. This is proof of the Holy Spirit’s work in my life. Of God not leaving me to hang myself in a noose of self-actualization but giving me an upwards rope to God-glorification. It’s not natural for me—it’s not speedy either—but it’s powerful and it has lead me to contemplate this Biblical mystery that loss for Christ’s sake becomes gain over time but gain for my sake remains only loss.
I have all the usual responsibilities—family, work, trails to run and a house to clean. My free time is fleeting at best and I like to spend it writing. But now we have a preschooler in our home and she isn’t able to ride a bike to a friend’s house, get her own snack or even manage potty breaks like our big kids. Instead of writing words to encourage a fellow sister in her faith I find myself making creatures out of play-doh, slicing oranges into “smiles” and wiping sticky fingerprints (and one self-portrait) off the walls. I don’t think these interruptions quite fit the category of “distress” yet they work to push back the notion that my time is well--mine.
And yet many of these moments of ‘life lost’ are truly delightful. What little children lack in independence they make up for in hilariously insightful interpretations of the world. The joy this child has brought our home has proven Christ’s paradox in my heart in ways that nothing else could.
But there’s something else that’s wonderful. Not only have my husband and I been set free to serve this little one (and her birth family) but our children have also and that is a reward of incomprehensible value.
Our youngest bio daughter who has as many excuses to avoid reading as we do missing socks, will read story after story to this little one. Another daughter who delights in playing with and caring for American Girl dolls has spent countless hours playing with and caring for a real American girl.
Our son—who loves gaming and skateboarding and hanging with his friends—has excitedly welcomed this child into his heart, encourages her in a gentle voice we didn't know he possessed and anticipates seeing her upon his return from school.
I guess when I’m realizing is that Christ’s words are really true. It is not the pursuit of our individual loves and passions that bring abiding satisfaction—but the freedom to pursue Him.
Because it’s not mainly about a sweet little girl who needs a home or watching my biological children grow in compassion or even foster care. It’s about Jesus Christ. And there’s no way to serve Him, love Him or really know Him unless you obey Him.
And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. “For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? Luke 9:23-25
Deny their desires? Take up a cross daily? Jesus says this after feeding a multitude, turning five loaves of bread and two fish into abundance. Perhaps his disciples thought full bellies and the adoration of the masses was what He meant. But their master, knowing their misunderstanding continues His lesson of supreme love. It is not what you keep but what you give in My name that makes all the difference. And so for the joy set before him, Christ fixed his eyes on the cross. Every miracle he performed and every tussle with the religious elite ensured His unobstructed date with death.
And when that rough and splintered instrument of torture was thrust upon Him and He buckled and collapsed in pain and exhaustion, another man, Simon of Cyrene, whose back hadn’t been bloodied was 'compelled' to carry Christ's cross for Him. Be it by force or choice--another man's problem became his own and all the world would benefit.
(I wonder if Simon knew the beauty of his burden? I wonder if we do?)
The gentle teacher from Nazareth, the long-awaited Messiah who filled people with hope and nourishment, whose kindness extended to the marginalized—women, children and races despised, who poured out his life for others (not one miracle recorded was for personal benefit) forfeits His life.
Hell assumes victory.
Disciples scatter in confusion.
But His words hang in the atmosphere, unchanging and true. “Whoever loses their life for my sake, will save it.” Word and deity proven as Christ overcomes death by triune authority. And another paradox manifests as one perfect life is forfeit and the whole world is gained.
The picture is so beautiful, so hopeful so…illuminating.
So instead of longing to be our own master—we submit. This is humility.
Instead of demanding our rights, we yield our will. This is selflessness.
Instead of serving our interests, we do what’s best for another. This is love.
And before long those of us who’ve cast our hope upon the Rock find ourselves embracing crosses of different sorts, some forced upon us others chosen, lugging them about knowing that despite the present struggle the end will be glorious.
Christ’s words only seemed paradoxical to me because of my obscured perspective. It's only when the crown I've forced on my brow is returned to its rightful owner that I can see greater things are possible.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12
We long for freedom to experience joy. What we don’t naturally desire is the burdensome journey to get there. As a fellow sojourner I’ll leave you with the final lines from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
"Lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles and run with endurance the race set before you. "