As we’re faced with difficulties in life, it’s hard to feel peace or joy, but the Bible says this is one of the marks of those filled with the Spirit.
Criticism of the Lord of the Rings movies’ last-minute eagles-save at the end wouldn’t have surprised Tolkien. In letters to his son, he responded to criticism of these scenes by describing his reasoning for having deliberately written them in that way.
"I coined the word 'eucatastrophe': the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.
“It perceives—if the story has literary 'truth' on the second plane….—that this is indeed how things really do work in the Great World for which our nature is made.”
The eucatastrophe in fictional stories reflects the biblical story of redemption, resurrection and eternity in heaven: an impossible good happening to people who had no way to secure this deliverance for themselves.
It was, Tolkien argued, a critical element to every good story’s happy ending.
Where Does Joy Come From?
Within Tolkien’s definition of the eucatastrophe lies another foundational understanding of our Christian walk.
John Piper describes it this way in one of his sermons: “…say you are going camping. You wake up, and there is this gigantic silhouette of a bear outside your tent, a grizzly bear. He seems hungry. You don’t say, ‘Now, let me think about this. There is a bear. Bears are big. Bears are dangerous. Conclusion: I should feel fear here, so I will now decide to be afraid.’
“Emotions don’t work like that. Thinking works like that, but feeling doesn’t. It happens to you, which means that the Bible is filled with commands that we do things that are immediately outside our control to do — commands to rejoice, to fear, to be grateful, to be tender-hearted.”
God’s goodness and his gifts to us, especially salvation and redemption and promise of eternity with him, deserve celebration with overwhelming gratitude and joy. The Bible says as much.
As Piper points out, however, drumming up these feelings is at best artificial and at worst an exercise in futility.
If we want to obey the Bible but we don’t want to be fake, what should we do?
Is it impossible to actually obey Psalm 5:11 “But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them sing joyful praises forever. Spread your protection over them, that all who love your name may be filled with joy.”
What if, much like our own incredible deliverance from sin and death, joy was a gift?
What Holds the Gift Back?
Paul lists joy among the gifts of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23, "But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control….”
As the Spirit works inside of us, all of these things should be a nature result. That said, we can’t just sit back in the couch and whistle while we wait for joy.
If Frodo hadn’t agreed at the Council of Elrond to go on his iconic quest with the fellowship, somebody else would’ve been scooped up on the slopes of Mount Doom. If Frodo hadn’t ever hit the road, he probably would’ve been caught by a Ringwraith while getting his mail. The ring would’ve been back in the hands of the baddies, and no miraculous eagles rescue would’ve happened at all.
The Spirit gives us joy, but only if we open the door for him to come into our lives.
In a newsletter sermon, David Wilkerson laid down a challenge for many believers who find little joy in their life. “Serving the Lord with joy and gladness is absolutely impossible if sin lies at the door of the heart.
“No wonder so many are always depressed and sad. Show me a minister with unforsaken sin in his life, and I'll show you one of the saddest, most miserable men on earth. His sin destroys his joy! Show me any believer with disobedience in his life, and I'll show you a bundle of nerves, racked by guilt, condemnation, shame, and sorrow.”
Jesus instructed his followers to persistently ask his Father to set things right in their lives (Luke 18:1-8). He says elsewhere that God is waiting to give good gifts to his children who ask (Matthew 7:7-11).
Like Frodo, our job is getting off the couch and setting out on the road. If there’s a sin sapping away our joy, God will pull it to our attention. He’ll help us overcome.
The End and the Heavenly Havens
In his message “The Secret of Spiritual Strength,” David Wilkerson affirms where we can find this otherworldly joy. “Peter speaks of ‘the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God’ (1 Peter 3:4).
“Such a spirit has nothing to do with temperament or personality. Some people are naturally inclined to be calm and shy while others are simply morbid. No, the meek, quiet spirit Peter refers to can only be implanted in us by the Holy Spirit. He gives it to everyone who fully trusts the Lord in all things.”
The unconquerable heart of joy and peace can so easily be ours because it is our heavenly Father’s and we are his heirs.
“And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering. Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. For all creation is waiting eagerly for that future day when God will reveal who his children really are” (Romans 8:17-19 NLT).
We have great reasons for joy. Not only have we been adopted into the greatest family on earth, but we look forward to a new day with God, one without suffering or sorrow.
“And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that…the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Tolkien, J.R.R., Return of the King, Ballantine Books, 1965, p. 384