As our conversation was concluding, WB spoke a benediction, “Shane, I pray that as you go from this place you will seek the joy set before you.”
“Seek the joy set before you.” I admit those words, that vision, has guided much of the past six months in my life. But it was not something I understood in the moment it was first spoken. As I drove away I continued to hear those words ring in my mind. For days, then weeks, I pondered, “What does it mean to “seek the joy set before me?”
I confess it sounded like a foreign language. There was a sense of guilt, even shame, that followed the thought of seeking joy. To purposefully pursue joy sounded contradictory to my trained pursuit of suffering…and I do not yet fully know how the suffering narrative formed in my life. I suspect it is rooted in a faulty theology of Christian perfection. A skewed sense of self-righteousness. And although I have long ago set it aside intellectually, it still has its aftereffects deeply embedded in my story. Somehow I have continued to live into the role of the suffering seeker of sainthood.
Three months went by, and then a return trip back to the same table. In October we sat down again to continue our conversation. I was quick to ask, “What does it mean to seek the joy set before me?”
I have tried to come up with words to best describe the freedom poured into the core of my imagination in the conversation that followed. But no matter the attempt, words fail at describing the cascading joy, the renewed hope, the expansive freedom, and the determined courage to walk a different path.
The path I was pointed toward is the way of Jesus. WB pointed to the words of the Hebrew writer (12:1)…“For the joy set before him Jesus endured the cross…knowing what was to come.”
And suddenly it made sense. Joy comes before suffering. Joy leads us through suffering. It is the joy on the other side of suffering that pulls us through dark nights. The way of Jesus is centered on joy.
Joy is the Gospel goal. Joy in response to beauty. Joy in the midst of pain. Joy as a witness to a great hope. Joy as resistance to unsustainable want. Joy that creates a peace with the present moment. Joy that both leads and pulls us through life. Joy as the indicator that we are truly alive. Alive in Christ. Free in Chist. Free to live. Free to suffer. Free to dream. Free to simply BE.
I confess I am still learning how to seek the joy set before me. I am still learning how to rest in freedom. Still learning how to be free. But these three visions…knowing myself as a target of grace, living as a non-anxious presence, seeking the joy set before me…have become my reorienting journey. I have much to undo. Much to learn. Much to change. But I am beginning to avoid the dread and follow the joy. I am learning how to BE.
For, as Thomas Merton perhaps best said, “Before the Lord wills me to do anything, He first of all wills me to ‘be.’ What I do must depend on what I am.”