Joy, joy, joy

We learned in vacation Bible school that following Jesus was an instant formula for a lifetime of happiness. So why do so many Christ-followers find easy acquisition of these things so painfully elusive?

By Amy Butler

Lately, that vacation Bible school song “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart” has been running around in my head, and I can’t get it out.

Remember the song? We learned it, I guess, to remind us that if we love Jesus successfully enough then joy and peace and all that good stuff would naturally come to us. I don’t recall worrying too much as a 5-year-old about a potential absence of those things in my life, but I do remember liking the song.

Cut to being a grown up: Now the quest for love, joy and peace can be almost all-consuming. I see people in my office day in and day out who are looking for some or all of these things, often without much success.

This is surely one of the great ironies of adulthood -- that we’re constantly looking for all these things, yet we never sing that Bible-school song in grown-up church.

Does this mean that the VBS teachers were wrong, that following Jesus is not automatic bliss and wonderfulness in life? Does it mean that we grown-ups are not following Jesus closely enough when our lives seem lacking peace, joy and love? Does it mean the musical integrity of “I’ve Got the Joy” just won’t stand up to Sunday morning worship? Is the Christian life supposed to be hard?

The other day I heard a story on NPR about the differences between Eastern and Western styles of learning. Here in the West, it seems that you’re not doing well unless you get the answers right all the time. In Eastern cultures, it’s the struggle that gets rewarded instead of the immediate correct answer.

The story recounted an experience by a researcher who observed a fourth-grade math class in Japan. The kids were learning to draw three-dimensional cubes on paper. In the class there was one kid who just couldn’t get it. The way he was drawing his cubes was all wrong. The teacher noticed this and asked that student to come up to the front and draw his cubes on the board in front of the whole class.

The American researcher saw this and cringed. In America, it’s the kid who had the right drawing first who would be invited up to the board to demonstrate for the class. Calling up the one who wasn’t getting it would surely humiliate the poor kid.

But the researcher watched as the kid tried and erased, over and over again, until he finally drew the cube correctly. When he did, the whole class broke into applause, and that kid went back to his seat feeling important and successful.

In our Western world we feel like failures if we are unable to accomplish something off the bat. If we struggle, we think something is wrong.

Hearing that story made me wonder about the joy, joy, joy: Is the life of faith a kind of wonderful struggle, where there’s joy and peace and love to be found in the hard trying?

Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart, no matter what the song suggests. I don’t know about you, but I try and try and fail again and again to live a life in which true discipleship comes easy, and very often the joy, peace, love don’t automatically fall into place, either. Sometimes discipleship is hard.

But perhaps it’s worth considering Eastern theories of learning when it comes to Christian discipleship, because there’s surely peace, joy, and love way down in our hearts -- and maybe in the struggle to unearth them, too.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.