“In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” 2 Corinthians 8:2 NIV
This was Paul’s description of what was happening in the Macedonian churches as he wrote to the Church at Corinth. It sounds like a contradiction doesn’t it? How can joy overflow in the midst of a very severe trial? How can poverty well up into generosity? How can we give out joy we don’t have any reason to feel or be generous with things we don’t have?
Well, the short answer is, that in the earthly we can’t. You can’t fake joy, or magic something from nothing. But with God anything is possible, and when our joy and our riches have their source in him, then the outward circumstances are of little consequence to our effectiveness in these two areas in particular. Think of loaves and fishes, perhaps.
A contrast often strikes me when I see film footage from poorer places, between the wonderful smiles and laughter we see there, and the financially better off but miserable faces we get to look at close up over here. Joy clearly comes from somewhere deeper than our pockets. But to be able to experience so much of it in terrible times that it brims over to others? That is a tough ask. James also asks it of us straight away in the first chapter of his letter. It seems back to front and upside down to imagine that we can “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” (James 1:2 NIV)
Have you heard of the phrase “counter cultural” that gets bandied about a lot in churches? If we really understood just how counter to our culture the gospel of Christ was, I’m sure things would be very different. Because it is downright topsy-turvy. We are meant to be poor in spirit, meek, able to turn the other cheek, not take offence, give even more than we are asked for, and to love our enemies, amongst other things.
So, yes, also to be joyful when everything is pulling us towards despair. How can we do that? And the answer is, not by sticking our head in the sand and pretending all is well, but by our reliance on God’s goodness. By being constant in our prayers, and certain in our hope. By knowing that however hard it is here and now, all shall we well and all manner of things shall be well, one day. By understanding that all of these troubles are temporal, and that the eternal awaits us. It is not easy, it isn’t even human, but rather, divine. It is only by the grace of the Holy Spirit flowing in us that we can do this. Likewise, to be generous in poverty, is about learning to flow in love. It is giving the widow’s mite, finding different ways to give, including with our time, our listening ears, our compassion, our empathy, our wisdom, our creativity, or whatever we may have to give. It is all part of living within the abundance of God, life in all its fullness.
I hope that I might learn to live more like this. And perhaps my writing on this would mean less if I didn’t tell you that I have my fair share of tough stuff at the moment, and there is a lot of misery, trial and financial difficulty in my life. I choose to trust God, and to pray often. And some of that prayer is whinging prayer, I admit. But some of it is also thankful and joyous (mostly the parts where I’m listening rather than speaking). These back to front attitudes are hard to live out, but crucial to learn if we are to follow the King who serves.
Photo used under creative commons licence.