In this world, joy is a bedrock sort of thing—and not the froth at the top of a wave. Joy is deep satisfaction in the will of God, and this must be coupled with a recognition of the reality that God’s will is everywhere and in everything. There is no place where we may go and be allowed to murmur or despair in that place because God’s will is somehow “not there.” In the carol we sing about joy to the world, we are dealing with the reality of sins and sorrows that grow, of thorns that infest the ground, and nations that need to have the glories of His righteousness proved. That proof will be found in our faith.
“Wherein ye greatly rejoice, though now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ: Whom having not seen, ye love; in whom, though now ye see him not, yet believing, ye rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory: Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls” (1 Pet. 1:6-9).
Summary of the Text
The apostle Peter is exhorting believers who are facing significant trials. We still live in a world filled with trouble, and so what he says to them will apply to us also. When confronted with the weight of manifold temptations, our response should be that of “greatly” rejoicing (v. 6). When we are tried, our faith is tried (v. 7). Our faith is tried because God is a goldsmith. When the goldsmith plunges gold into the fire, it is not because he hates the gold, but because he loves the gold enough to want to purify it of its dross (v. 7). When the goldsmith beats the gold, it is not because he has contempt for the gold. He has a crown in mind. This analogy applies more to your faith than to gold (which ultimately perishes), and the goal is to have a faith that praises, honors, and glories at the coming of Jesus Christ (v. 7). You have not seen Him, Peter says, but you love Him (v. 8). You have not seen Him, but you nonetheless believe, and you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory (v. 8). You are striving to obtain the end of your faith (which is constantly being purified by troubles), and that final purpose is the salvation of your souls (v. 9).
Christmas should not be treated by us as the “denial season.” One of the reasons why so many families have so many tangles and scenes during the “holidays” is that everybody expects sentimentalism to fix everything magically. But Christmas is not a “trouble-free” season. We want the scrooges and grinches in our lives to be transformed by gentle snowfall, silver bells, beautifully arranged evergreens, hot cider, and carols being sung in the middle distance. But what happens when you gather together with a bunch of other sinners, and all of them have artificially inflated expectations? What could go wrong? When confronted with the message of sentimentalism, we really do need somebody who will say, “Bah, humbug.”
Peter is not referring to someone living in the back of a cave, having mystic fits. That is not what is meant by “joy unspeakable.” It is not “cloud of unknowing,” or an orgy of pseudo-enlightenment in the back of your eyeballs. These words are written to believers in the midst of persecution and trial. Pain concentrates the mind. Pain tethers you to this world, and the rope is a stout one. But at the same time, the grace of God enables you to look along the pain, to look down the entire length of the trial, and to see the purpose and point of it all. For the unbelieving observer off to the side, watching you, there is no explanation that can make sense of it.
This is how God works. It is His way. “And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). The peace of God is an invisible shield, one which others cannot see. This is why it passes their understanding. They see that your hearts and minds are protected, but they cannot see how.
Note that your hearts and minds are not the shield, and they are not set up to protect the peace of God. The peace of God is no frail thing, needing your help to keep it from being smashed. The peace of God is an impenetrable helmet, and your contentment is your head. It protects you, not the other way around.
Faith like Refined Gold
Faith can do this, even though it may do it imperfectly. Gold is gold, even with dross in it. The first round purifies the faith, so that you can see and understand the process. That faith thus purified is prepared for the next round— even if the fire is more intense, or the difficulties more severe. The point is not to avoid the process.
Joy to the World
So the message of Christmas is not a delusional message. We are not pretending that we live in a world that is not struggling under a curse. The doctor who applies medicine to a wound is not pretending the wound is non-existent. The craftsman who repairs a smashed piece of expensive furniture is not denying the damage. His presence presupposes the damage. The refiner’s fire does not exclude the reality of dross—it is excluding the dross in another way. The Incarnation is God’s opening salvo in His war on our sins. The presence of sin should no more be astonishing than the presence of Nazis fighting back at Normandy.
View the world with the eye of a Christian realism. The turning of seasons makes no one better. The gentle fall of snow removes no sin. The hanging of decorations only makes a living room full of sin sadder. As Jesus once put it, “Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gold, or the temple that sanctifieth the gold? (Matt. 23:17). Which is more important, the hat or the cattle? The foam or the beer? The gift or the altar? The gold paper stamp on the Christmas card or the gold coin of your faith?
If our hearts are decorated with the refined gold of a true faith, we may therefore decorate everything else. If they are not, then what’s the point? Joy is fundamentally realistic—which is why unbelief thinks of it as insane.