Okay, I admit it. I struggle. I read and hear about people who seem to find this amazing joy and delight in their relationship with God. They express it so eloquently and passionately. I’m jealous of that kind of relationship because that doesn’t seem to be my normal. Yes, from time to time, my relationship with God has had an element of joy…maybe even more times than I can recall; however, exuberant joy seems to go missing on most occasions.
People who know me well would consider me to be a pretty emotional person. So naturally, you would think my emotions would, more than likely, flow easily when I meet with God, right? You would think it would be perfectly normal for me to experience an overflow of joy on those occasions. Then why don’t I? I’m certainly not going to try and manufacture some emotions. I actually detest worship leaders or pastors or anyone else who tries to whip me up emotionally to generate some kind of spiritual high. The problem is those highs just don’t last all that long, and then people are left immediately searching for that next spiritual high.
This is what I’m really talking about. When you sit down in the morning with your Bible—just you and God—are you genuinely excited to be there and to meet Jesus…like you can’t wait? Do you see that time as the very best part of your day? Is there a certain joy that overflows your heart and moves your spirit to worship?
That’s what I want. That’s what I long for. I’ve tasted it at times, but for whatever reason that real relational joy seems to have gone missing. I understand there will be times when mental or emotional exhaustion can overwhelm us. And, yes, sometimes there are just those plain old dry times because we are, of course, human. I get that. But shouldn’t there be more joy-filled times than dry times? Shouldn’t the former characterize our time with the God of the universe more than the latter?
The expression of real joy
A few years ago now, I had one of those memorable spiritual experiences that will forever stay with me. It happened during one of my trips to Bangladesh. It was as if God painted this beautiful picture right in front of me to remind me of what that real joy looks like and can be like! As we were making our way along a very bumpy and rough road toward our three homes in Bangladesh, I saw in the distance a group of young girls standing in front of the gate that leads into two of their homes. The look of anticipation on their faces and their enormous grins honestly stunned me. It was unlike anything I could remember experiencing during my 13 years in this ministry. As our car stopped several yards away from the girls, I opened my door and immediately was greeted by shouts of “Papa, Papa, Papa!” There was no waiting for me to approach them. They ran full sprint toward me with arms open wide and with expressions of unbridled joy. As amazing as that picture was to me, there was an immediate problem I had to deal with: Whom do I hug first? Well, it turned out that it didn’t matter because it was pretty much a gigantic group hug, which was perfect!
I want to make one thing very clear. There is really nothing very special about me. There really isn’t. I’m sincere when I say that; it’s not an attempt at false humility. This moment was about these girls knowing the person in the car who was coming to see them. They knew it was someone who had loved them unconditionally and had cared deeply for them for several years. I’m not afraid to show my love through hugs and kisses even if it’s not the norm for this culture. What I’ve found is most people I come in contact with in Bangladesh love to be hugged. I remember being told it’s not culturally acceptable, but somehow I just felt it was scripturally acceptable. If it was done carefully and in genuine love, I was confident that it would turn out to be okay. I’m pretty sure that’s proven to be true because they’ve received plenty of hugs and kisses over the years!
Experiencing God with a childlike heart
When the girls lavished that greeting on me, I thought: Shouldn’t that be the exact kind of reaction we have when we are with our Heavenly Father as we meet Him through the scriptures? Shouldn’t we be full of unabashed joy and genuine excitement? We are meeting with the only One who has ever really loved us unconditionally and who genuinely wants to be with us even when we have just wallowed in the muck and the mud known as our sin. It should be like, “Man, I can’t wait to throw my arms around His neck and just rest right there in the full assurance of His loving presence!” I want my experience with God to be just like the kids’ was as they waited to see me. Hearts racing as they stretched their necks to see if that next vehicle they heard coming around the corner contained the one they had been waiting for and longing to see. That’s what it is! It’s that wide-eyed anticipation…the inability to wait…that intense longing…real, genuine excitement and unbridled joy!
Later, when we prepared to leave the homes, there was another picture that God painted for me—a different picture, but still an important one. We all gathered around a table and prayed before we left. A little girl named Prety who was sitting next to me began to cry softly. As we continued to pray, her soft crying turned into audible sobs. She got up, ran from the table to her room, and closed the door. The separation that was coming was too difficult for her to bear. As we continued to pray, someone brought her back in to join us. She laid her head on my shoulder and continued to cry softly. The reality of the goodbye was too much for her. When genuine, unconditional love exists, you don’t want to let go of it. You don’t want to have to walk away from it, even if it’s only for a season. I felt that kind of love from the kids, and I think they felt it from me. Let’s just say that tears flowed for several minutes as we said our goodbyes. While there was sadness in the coming separation, there existed real, genuine relational joy, and that’s what made the separation so sad.
Never letting go
As we drove down the long road away from the homes, the girls and boys ran beside us as fast as their little legs could carry them, straining to keep up. Cries of “I love you” and “Come back soon” were shouted, and some pressed their hands on the windows of the van as it slowly passed by. Eventually, the last of the children fell back, even those who were trying desperately to hang on to the very final moment when it would be no more.
That moment caused me to consider if it’s just as difficult for me to let go of God’s presence after I have been with Him and am simply moving on with my life. Do I have a joy that causes me to run and run and run until I’m completely exhausted? Do I shout, “I love you! I’m coming back soon!” and try to hold on to that very last minute of being in His presence? Is my relational joy so strong that when I meet with my Father, I find it extremely difficult to let go and wait for that next time? That’s the kind of joy I want! Not a manufactured kind of joy but a genuine joy that flows from a real, abiding relationship. It doesn’t happen at a special event or service. It doesn’t exist by going to church. It can’t be found in a book or a blog. It happens as we abide and as we embrace every opportunity to fall at the feet of this merciful, compassionate, grace-giving God!
So, with a broad grin on my face, eyes full of anticipation, and a desperate Ionging to be present in the moment with Him, I open the scriptures, and my heart explodes, “Papa, Papa, Papa, You are here! Thank You for coming!” Then, throwing my arms around His neck, I will whisper into His ear, “It’s so good to be with You again! There is nothing better than to rest and bask in the joy of Your presence!”
The rest of the day, well, it can wait!