Have you ever heard of Randy Pausch?
He seemingly had everything that you could ask for. He was a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. He was a pioneer in his field and had earned a reputation as someone who was working to open doors for women to pursue careers in computer science.
Then, he received the kind of news that usually does one of two things — brings us closer to God or pushes us further away.
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and every treatment that was tried, failed.
So, instead of sulking, getting mad at God and shaking his fist over his situation, Randy somehow managed to find joy and thanksgiving even in the middle of bad news.
He once said it this way, “I don’t know how to not have fun. I’m dying and I’m having fun, and I’m going to keep having fun every day I’ve got left.”
He delivered a lecture, an upbeat lecture, called, “The Last Lecture: Really achieving your Childhood Dreams.” That lecture was recorded and made it’s way to the internet and it became an instant sensation. People just wanted to see his words of wisdom. It became so popular that it led to a NY Times best-selling book called, “The Last Lecture.”
Randy lived about 18 months after finding out that he had pancreatic cancer. In those last 18 months, he did everything from walk away from his job to be closer to his family to sit in front of a Senate subcommittee and ask for more funding for cancer research.
Even in great pain and fear at the approaching end of his own life, Randy Pausch found thanksgiving and joy. His tragedy became a triumph as he was able to leave and impression on many people.
We could all probably name someone, some individual, who seemingly has had everything collapse around them. Yet, even when everything is falling apart, this person still seems to manage to find a way to be upbeat. They seem to have happiness and joy that go far beyond the place where they find themselves in life.
Sometimes it seems to be so baffling how one person can seem to be so filled with joy. And, then another person can seem to be so far away from achieving it. Joy and thanksgiving can be tough to understand.
A dictionary definition of thanksgiving usually points to some act of praise — usually pointed toward God. Joy the expression of that thanksgiving — that feeling of gladness. It’s important to note that this two things don’t necessarily mean happiness. Happiness is a different kind of feeling and it generally is tied more to where we are in the moment.
But why is it difficult even for Christians to find Thanksgiving and joy in difficult circumstances?
For that, I’m going to turn to Dr. Phil. I was channel-surfing one night and came across a show that involved a mother, a son and the husband/stepfather. They were on the Dr. Phil Show because of the mother’s habit of trying to give her son everything he WANTED.
Now listen to rundown on the list
- She bought him three or four guitars, not because he asked, but because she thought he might want them.
- He had video games, computers and designer clothes all for the same reason.
- She bought her son not one, but TWO cars, because she knew that he liked them both
- The family moved from a house they could afford to a bigger house they couldn’t because this mother knew that her son wanted a bigger house so more of his friends could come over.
- The father reported that the family was going into debt by about $1,000/month because this mother was trying to do everything that she could to give her son everything he wanted.
As Dr. Phil points out to her, she has started to equate her son’s happiness with how much she can give. If he’s unhappy, or even if she thinks he is, she runs out and buys him something. If he wants something, she’s so afraid to upset him, that she buys it just to keep him happy. For this mother, her relationship is defined by momentary happiness – and in particular through stuff.
The interesting thing is that the son was asked, “Does this make you happy?” He spoke with wisdom well beyond that of a teen. He said that in the moment, sure it made him happy, but he knew that long-term this wasn’t helping to prepare him for life.
That just sounds so silly, right? But isn’t that the way that even the most knowledgeable and faith-filled of Christians can sometimes see God?
Call it prosperity theology, but it’s a form of religious thought that equates our relationship with God in terms of how we’ve been blessed. Let me see if I can give you some of the ways this plays out.
- The fact that I got a raise at work is proof that God loves me.
- The fact that I am really healthy and that my family is healthy well that’s a proof of God’s blessing and love.
- My business is going well, I’m doing well in school. I have great friends. God has so blessed me – and therefore he loves me.
- Maybe you’ve heard the term Protestant Work Ethic. What this term really came to mean was that, for those from the reformed view, proof of your salvation and relationship God came in the way that you were materially blessed.
Honestly, it’s a message that’s easy to understand. I love God and here’s the proof! And’s it a great and hopeful message because it attempts to put God’s love into real terms that we can see.
But what’s the problem with that?
- It’s too often a shallow view of God’s love and grace based on where we are.
- It’s not true joy or thanksgiving.
What happens to this view when something goes wrong? What happens when you get that diagnosis you didn’t want to hear? Or the economy goes broke? Or a tragedy strikes such as 9-11?
If you can remember back to the days following Sept. 11 or Hurricane Katrina or any other disaster, do you remember any of the TV interviews? I can remember hearing people who were questioning, “If God’s a good God, why would he allow this to happen to us?” It call all be equivalent to asking, “Does God still love me?”
This is why I like to read so much in Paul’s letters. Do you know what the world was like in the time in which Paul is starting churches? It’s a time when admitting to being a Christian could have cost you your life. Jewish Christians were cut off from their families and sometimes killed for refusing to turn their backs on the Church. The Romans viewed Christianity as a cult and rounded up and kill its members. There wasn’t a lot of rejoicing in the situation in which many Christians found themselves. Yet, they were able to have thanksgiving and joy based in the relationship with God.
Paul is an authority on this. Just think about some of the things he’s been through in his work as a missionary:
- He encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus and is blinded
- He’s thrown out of towns and synagogues.
- He’s stoned and left for dead
- He’s shipwrecked more than once
- He’s beaten, whipped and thrown into prison.
In contrast, when Paul had been a Pharisee, he had been respected. Doors had opened to him. He was considered to be the best and the brightest. And now, he was an outcast, even to his own people.
And it makes you wonder, if Paul could go through all of that in his life and still have joy, then is our joy and thanksgiving really based on what we have in front of us? Is really based on whether or not we get a raise or whether or not we got a good report from the doctor? It is based on whether or not I’m getting everything I want? Is that the kind of joy and thanksgiving that Paul has? The answer is no.
Philippians is considered to be the most joyful of Paul’s letters. Paul is in prison at the time it’s written. As he writes, he’s probably chained to the wall and he’s probably been beaten and starved.
Yet, he’s still joyful. He rejoices at the news he hears of the churches in Philippi. He is giving thanks to God everyday. Instead of being down, he is lifted up because he sees it as an opportunity to share his faith with the prison guards and the other inmates.
Here’s what Paul has to say about thanksgiving and joy in Philippians 4:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. (NIV)
Paul is encouraging the readers (and us as well) to place our eyes, not on our predicament, but on the God who is above it, who cares for us and who loves us. Paul is determined to press on toward the goal. That’s a focus on joy — looking straight at God no matter what is happening around us.
It’s a goal, he says, that requires our total commitment. If something is standing in the way, if our situation is overwhelming us, we have to let God do his work in us so we can experience TRUE thanksgiving and joy again.
Our earthly lives and situations really are a roller coaster ride. There are highs and lows and sudden twists. And if that’s where we’re trying to find our joy and thanksgiving, what more could we expect than an emotional roller-coaster.
Our relationship with God doesn’t change the fact that all of those things are happening around us. We just have more clarity. We’re still on the roller coaster, still having the highs and the lows of life, but now we have God sitting next to us in the seat, taking care of us and helping us along. Our source of joy and thanksgiving isn’t the roller coaster we are experiencing, but it’s the one who’s holding us close and helping us through the ride. And God’s always there.
So where’s your joy and thanksgiving? Do you find yourself getting bogged down in the roller coaster of life? Does it seem like your situation is getting in the way of experiencing joy in God?
Does your life feel as if you are holding a daisy and pulling its petals – God loves me, God loves me not.
Paul would urge you, push you, do anything that he could to help you see that your joy and thanksgiving come from one source and one source alone.
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