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Joy, Surrender and the Highest Good

What does it look like to have joy? And where does joy come from? When the circumstances of this world look dismal, how do we find the hope we need to survive and thrive? Is there a higher Being, a highest good, to which we can cling?

Struggling for joy and peace

A few weeks ago, I struggled with a grumpy attitude. I couldn’t figure out why my favorite people were irritating or why I seemed restless and unsatisfied.

When clouded with irritability or anxiety, I know I’ve disconnected from God’s life-giving Holy Spirit whose fruit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). I was barely holding onto self-control. Nothing else.

Since my Word of the Year for 2024 is Teachable, I went to the Teacher to examine my thoughts and heart.

“For I was born a sinner…but you desire honesty…Purify me from my sins, and I will be clean; wash me and I will be whiter than snow…Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me. Do not banish me from your presence, and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me, the joy of your salvation, and make me willing to obey you.” Psalm 51:5-12

Willing to obey you? That’s surrender. What an unusual prayer! How can joy and surrender go hand in hand?

Summum Bonum – the Highest Good

The sermon at church the next morning was about prizing God because God is the prize.

Cicero, an ancient Roman philosopher, asked, “What is the Summum Bonum?” or what’s the highest good from which all goodness flows? A great question for myself in the moment when nothing looked good. Not the world, not the circumstances, not myself or the people I was with. For Christians, God and his recorded Word, the Bible, are obviously our source from which all ethics, or goodness, are derived.

lit match illuminating darkness

As a believer my life should be about the highest good, the dearest treasure – God, himself. If I want goodness to flow in my life, it makes sense to be looking to the source of goodness. 

How do I do that?

Psalm 16 over picture of colorful yellow-throated, pink mums.

The Best Way

Edith Wharton said, “The best way to help the places we live in is to be glad we live there.” And if this is true of our places, I believe it is also true of our relationships. In that case the solution to my grumpy restlessness may be choosing to be glad instead of critical.

Woman holding a cup and looking out the window. Verse by Edith Wharton reads, "The best way to help the places we live is to be glad we live there."

What I mean is that perhaps we help our relationships by simply enjoying them. Being glad in them. Whereas my natural tendency is to try to fix them. 

(For example, how many times do we try to fix ourselves up so that we can come to God?) 

But if we’re honest we know the best relationships are when the parties involved just enjoy each other. That’s what we mean by friendship. Although you could commit to a friendship, you wouldn’t be able to call it a friendship without the element of enjoyment. What if we just came to God and enjoyed Him for who He is? What if we came to adore Him, rather than to mope about ourselves?

A girl lying on her belly in a field of dandelions blowing away dandelion fluff. Verse reads, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."

Which reminds me of two different quotes. One from Westminster Catechism which states, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” And also, this quote by Jen Wilkin, “Everything we say or do will either illuminate or obscure the character of God. Sanctification is the process of joyfully becoming luminous.”

A lantern and a quote by Jen Wilkin. "Everything we say or do will either illuminate or obscure the character of God. Sanctification is the process of joyfully becoming luminous."

Am I the Summum Bonum?

What gets in the way of prizing God, enjoying His company, and loving Him completely? Treasuring other things more than I treasure God. The Bible calls these “other things” idols.

And like me, you probably struggle with the idol of Self.

Because the culture would teach us that happiness is found in serving ourselves. For today’s society, self has become the summum bonum.

Do you remember in Snow White when the Wicked Witch/ Stepmother looks into the mirror to ask, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” She was looking for the summum bonum, the highest beauty which in her mind was the highest good. She hoped that she, herself, was the pinnacle.

We’re all a little like that, hoping and wishing that we, ourselves are the summum bonum. We want to be God so that we will be justified in worshiping ourselves and expecting others to worship us.

A Different Mirror

The Bible compares itself to a mirror. Not the “Mirror, Mirror on the wall”, but yet another impartial judge of character.

James 1:23 and 25 “Anyone who listens to the word…is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror…whoever looks into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.”

The Word indeed shows us who we are, that we are not in fact the highest good, the summum bonum. It also shows us that God is. As we submit and obey Him, we will be blessed with the freedom that comes from surrendered control. We will live lives that are no longer centered on our own ways, but are blessed because we have surrendered to God’s way of living. And so the joy that we seek in jealousy and selfish ambition, is surprisingly found in obedience.

Why Selfishness Steals Joy

A hand resting on a windowpane streaked with rain. Quote from David Powlison reads, "Our cravings rule our lives; they directly compete with God himself for lordship. No problem is more profound of pervasive."

My devotional yesterday centered on this verse from James 3:16: “For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.” (David Powlison, Take Heart)

Jealousy and selfish ambition abound in our culture that praises self-worship. And this verse proves true in our crazy world where disorder and evil abound. Rather than any good flowing from our self-serving, we find instead chaos and destruction.

And jealousy and selfish ambition are the things that end up stealing my joy. Choosing other things (jealousy) or myself (selfish ambition) are how I end up irritated or anxious or depressed.

Perfectionism Steals joy

Jealousy and selfish ambition sneak into my relationships as well, in the form of perfectionism and idealism. I expect others to do things my way and think my way because I believe my way to be best. But guess what? Even here that approach brings “disorder and every vile practice.” Like anger, like the silent treatment. Like whining and manipulation. Like tit-for-tat and withholding good. Can you see why I was irritable and discontent? Perfectionism can steal joy.

And wasn’t I chasing the Perfect expecting Joy? And I come full circle back to Edith Wharton’s idea applied to relationships. I would best serve these relationships by enjoying them.

Enjoying people is what makes the perfect relationships.

Trying to make people perfect kills relationships.

And it comes back to my relationship with Christ. Perfection isn’t what brings me into relationship with God so why do I try to start there? Since only God is perfect, my efforts to perfect myself apart from Him are impossible. I need to prize God first, over myself, over trying to make myself perfect. I need to realize that God himself is the treasure. He’s the source of goodness, not me. The God of the Universe is the only possible sunnum bonum.

Freedom in Surrender

Have you ever been really frustrated and trying to fix something when someone comes along and takes over your burden? Have you ever experienced that relief of knowing that the “thing” was not your responsibility anymore? At that moment you can breathe easier and you feel light and free.

That is what surrender is.

We get the idea that surrendering to God’s ways and obeying Him will cost us our joy and peace. We’ve bought the lie that God is against us, and in order to win we must resist Him. We recognize that obedience is costly, but ignore that disobedience is more costly.  

Skeleton keys laid on the pages of an open Bible. Verse reads, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it." Luke 9:24

So stepping back to examine my selfish expectations and surrendering them to Jesus lifted my critical attitude. After all, no one can be everything that I need except Jesus. I don’t need other people to fill my emotional cup, because that’s His place. That’s why He wants me to seek Him first. Being able to shift back, with the Lord’s help, to making my relationships be about others instead of myself, restored happiness and peace.

A fat robin sitting on a whitewashed fence. Verse from Matthew 6:23 reads, "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you."

Consider Flipping Your Perspective

If all this is new to you, I hope it gives you something to think about. The way God does things is often upside down compared to how we would do them. And yet, as the Creator, He really knows more than we, “the created”, about how life works best.

Take an example from real life. Everyone knows that we enjoy having healthy bodies. And we enjoy eating rich food. And that eating everything we want and never exercising doesn’t result in good health. We can’t truly attain happiness by serving ourselves.

It’s the same way with surrendering our plans. Our efforts to control our lives will not end up in health.

Learning to love and enjoy God is where our spirits, minds and bodies find perfect health. Not from doing the “good things”, but from knowing the Good One. Or the Source of Goodness

Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus

All this reminds me of a sweet hymn you may remember.

In closing, let me pray for you these words that Paul wrote in a letter to the Roman Christians. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15:13) Amen.

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