Andrew thought he was starting to understand joy a little better. Obviously, it would be hard to be sorrowful if you trusted completely in the love of God. “So you’re saying when I trust God’s love, I’ll be happy, right?” he asked.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Pablo. “Who said anything about happy?”
Andrew was confused. “But you said if I trust God —”
“— Then you’ll be miserable!” said Pablo. “You think the Evil One’s thrilled when you lean on Jesus? You think you’re better than your Savior, and never have to suffer?”
“But that sounds terrible!” protested Andrew.
“Sure it does!” said Pablo cheerfully. “Who smiles when life kicks them in the teeth?”
Something wasn’t adding up for Andrew. “I thought we were talking about joy —”
Andrew was more confused than ever. “It doesn’t sound like it.”
“Brother, always remember this,” said Pablo with intensity. “Happiness and joy are two different things. Happiness is when the sun shines and nobody’s done you wrong. It just means that life’s going your way today, and tomorrow you could be dead!”
“That’s a cheerful way to look at things,” muttered Andrew.
“So I’d rather have joy,” continued Pablo. “Joy is when everything is a mess and I cry from a broken heart. But through my tears I say, ‘God is good and Jesus saved me and heaven is waiting.’ It’s a lot harder than happy, brother. But it’s also a lot more worth having.”
“That kind of makes sense,” said Andrew cautiously. “But how does it work? I mean, in real life?”
“Think about my namesake,” said Pablo. “Remember the time he got whipped and tossed in prison for casting a demon out of a slave girl? Now, he’s just been beaten almost to death. He’s chained hand and foot in a cell that makes a leaky basement look like heaven. But he starts singing!Check out Acts 16:16-34. Now, we dumb Americans don’t get that. We shake our heads and say, ‘I could never sing in those circumstances.’ But that’s the problem: We’re thinking circumstances; we’re thinking happy.
Andrew nodded cautiously: He sort of understood.
“Paul wasn’t happy, he was miserable! But he was honored to be suffering like Christ and thanked God this would turn out for good — somehow. He knew he was loved, even as the World’s Chief Sinner. So why wouldn’t he sing? It wasn’t circumstances … it was a choice, based on radical trust.”
Andrew shook his head. “Pablo … I have to be honest, OK? I don’t think I could choose to sing. I just … I don’t have that much faith.”
“Most of us don’t, brother,” said Pablo. “That’s why you start small.”
“What do you mean?”
“Next time you’re stressed, stop whatever you’re doing and put your worries in God’s hands,” suggested Pablo. “The circumstances won’t get better, but you will.Philippians 4:6-7. When something bad happens to you, thank God for the good he’s bringing out of it. The Book says to give thanks in all circumstances, right?Read 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18. (No, this verse isn’t from Philippians. So sue me.) Next time you want a new television, practice being content.Philippians 4:11-13. Stop focusing on what you can’t have and enjoy what you got! A beat-up 13-inch TV without cable works fine. Trust me — I know.”
“That sounds kind of … hard,” said Andrew dubiously.
“But it’s a lot easier than singing in chains, brother,” smiled Pablo. “Remember — you said you’d try. Start by trusting God for the little things.”
* * *
Andrew shook his head. He’d been feeling encouraged a minute ago, but the good feelings were ebbing away. He knew he could give up his worries to God and practice contentment — for about a week. Then he’d be back to his old tricks. He could never make stuff like that stick.
“You don’t look too confident, brother,” observed Pablo. “What’s holding you back?”
“I don’t think it’ll last, Pablo,” admitted Andrew. “Any time I try to change … it’s like a New Year’s Resolution. Gone by February.”
“So you don’t have a community?” asked Pablo.
“Sure I do,” said Andrew. “My church and small group —”
” — In other words, you don’t have one,” interjected Pablo.
“I just told you —”
“What do you call community, brother? The people you see while you sing songs from a video screen and listen to preaching for an hour a week? Your small group — the place where you compete to give the most ‘spiritual’ answers even when you don’t mean them with a bunch of guys you don’t really know?”
Andrew opened his mouth to protest, but then shut it again. He had to admit that was a pretty accurate picture of the situation.
“I’m talking about community, brother!” exclaimed Pablo. “People who don’t just mutter prayer requests for you, but know where you live. People who won’t play Pharisee when you admit you’re struggling. People who can help you grow in grace; hold you accountable —”
“We do that,” said Andrew defensively. “Every week, we ask each other how it’s going with lust and stuff —”
“That’s not accountability!” scoffed Pablo. “That’s the Spanish Inquisition!”
“What are you talking about?”
“Anybody can admit to looking at Miss February,” said Pablo. “And we should admit it — ‘confess your sins to one another’;James 5:16. that’s in the Book. But that’s a sorry substitute for accountability. If you had real community, you could share victories!”
Andrew shook his head in confusion. He had no idea what Pablo was talking about.
“You’re working to find joy, right? And you’re starting with baby steps, right? So don’t just tell your group when you screw up! Tell them that on Tuesday, you were dreading a meeting with your boss, and you gave it over to God, and it went horribly, but you still thanked God afterwards for the character He’s building in you!”
“I don’t know,” said Andrew, scratching his head. “Isn’t that pride? Talking about how cool I am?”
“It can be,” admitted Pablo. “But I’m not too worried about that. You know the problem I see with most of the brothers here? It’s discouragement because they aren’t good enough! Now, that’s pride: thinking they can measure up to God’s holiness. That pride won’t let them admit they had a bad week, even if God got them through it, because ‘Good Christians’ are supposed to be happy all the time. End result: They don’t grow because they give up on an impossible standard! You follow me?”
Andrew nodded cautiously.
“But brother, we serve a God who delights in us; who rejoices over us with singing.Zephaniah 3:17. What’s wrong with letting your friends rejoice when you do something right? Even something small? Isn’t most of life about small things?”
“When you get beyond admitting you peeked at Miss February to admitting you had a hard week, you’re on the way to real community. And when you can share joy along with pain, your friends are closer than brothers. We’re more afraid of confessing our private joys than our private sins any day of the week.”
Andrew turned this over in his head. Being afraid to admit good things sounded ridiculous, but as he considered it, he realized that sometimes it was true. Maybe I’m afraid of sounding proud, he thought. Or maybe it’s just superstition: If I admit to good things, then they’re going to get worse.
“OK, I think I see what you mean,” he said slowly. “But what’s community have to do with joy?”
“In Philippians, there’s a guy named Epaphroditus. Remember him?”
Andrew shrugged. The name sounded vaguely familiar.
“Paul found a huge amount of encouragement when this guy came to visit him in prison.See Philippians 2:25-30. It’s also worth looking at what Paul says about his friend Timothy in verses 19-24 of the same chapter. Now, do you think Epaphroditus was just some guy Paul shook hands with after church? Or somebody who tried to look super-spiritual in his small group?”
“Of course not! Paul says they shared ministry and friendship. Would he celebrate over some clown he hardly knew? Here’s the true test of community, brother: Is it joy to be with them? Do they encourage you; lift you up closer to Christ? Do you look forward to basking in their love? Sounds to me like your ‘small group’ isn’t very encouraging. You only go to the Spanish Inquisition because you feel guilty, and then you leave feeling even worse.”
Andrew shrugged again. He was doing a lot of that in this conversation, and it made him uncomfortable. The problem was, Pablo was right on the money with just about everything. He wanted to disagree with something … but he couldn’t.
“Brother, when you share your secret struggles and secret joys with a group of people, you’ll rejoice to see them — just like Paul with his buddy Epaphroditus. And if you ask me, that’s what real community is about. People who bring you the joy of Jesus.”
* * *
Andrew got up to stretch and make another trip to the restroom. As he walked out of the visiting room, he noticed Deonte walk over to Pablo. The two men hugged and struck up a laughing conversation. Guess he practices what he preaches about joyful community, thought Andrew.
He glanced at the clock in the hall and discovered he’d already been talking to Pablo for almost 45 minutes. The time had flown by! The prison’s visitation limit was an hour, so he hurried back to the table just as Deonte and Pablo were finishing their conversation.
“You listen to this brother, young man,” said Deonte, stabbing a beefy finger in Andrew’s direction as he moved back towards the wall. “He’ll put you on the right track.”
“Now,” said Pablo, as Andrew sat back down in his chair. “Where were we? How about if you remind me what brought you to see Hermano Pablo?”
“Uh … I guess it was … y’know, boredom,” said Andrew.
“Why are you bored?”
The truth is, Andrew had no idea. He’d never been very good at analyzing himself. “I don’t know.”
“Fair answer. Let’s find out,” said Pablo. “What are your goals for life right now?”
“Well … I want to find a new job. But I haven’t really been looking; I know I should. I’d like to get married and have kids — you know, someday. And I guess I want the regular stuff — you know, a house, a new car, whatever.”
Suddenly, Andrew thought he realized where Pablo was going with this. “But I should be content with what I have, right?”
“No — never do that! Not about your goals, brother — not if you want to get un-bored! When you don’t have a mission, you’re just waiting to die,” said Pablo passionately.
“But you said —”
“Here’s your problem: You need to have the right goals! Is what you just told me what you want carved on your tombstone? ‘Here lies Andrew, who got married and bought a McMansion in the suburbs’?”
“No! I want to raise a family and get closer to God and be happy — well, joyful —”
“And who are you taking with you to heaven?”
Andrew shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He was afraid evangelism would come up eventually, and he’d been dreading the thought. “I don’t know … I mean, I try to witness. But it never works.”
“It usually doesn’t,” said Pablo, “because people get all the commercials they need on TV. Why should they buy Jesus?”
“The TV’s selling cars; you’re selling Personal Saviors. Why should people listen?”
“Well — because God loves them, like we were talking about —”
“Do you love them?”
Andrew scratched his head. Last time he tried witnessing, it was by passing out tracts at work — and almost got fired for it. But the truth is, he’d been motivated by a lot more guilt than love.
“It’s interesting, brother,” continued Pablo, “how Paul structured Philippians. Chapter 1 is mostly about preaching Christ.See, for example, Philippians 1:12-18. Then chapter 2 tells us to humbly serve like Christ.Philippians 2:1-11 is the most beautiful passage in Paul’s book — and perhaps the most challenging. Take a look. I mean, Jesus gave up heaven to visit this sinful mess we call home. I don’t care how many feet you wash, you’ll never stoop that low! But would we have listened to Him preach any other way?”
Andrew nodded. He’d never thought about it quite like that before.
“The goal for us all is knowing Jesus more — always remember that,” said Pablo, warming to his subject. “It’s your goal, my goal, even your jerk boss’s goal. Of course, he doesn’t know it, and you’re supposed to tell him. But why should he pay attention when you’re a God salesman? He doesn’t listen to the announcer hawking Toyotas, either.”
“I’m hoping that gets me off the hook for witnessing,” said Andrew wryly, “but I bet you have something else in mind.”
“Ah, you’re starting to learn my secrets! Imagine this, brother: What if you went out of your way to be a standout employee? What if you were more honest; more hardworking; more eager to help? Not because you’re brown-nosing — but because you’re working for Jesus instead of the company? Would that make the boss curious about you?”
Andrew shrugged. “He’s not a very curious guy.”
“OK, what if you volunteered at a homeless shelter? What if you started a Bible study here at Fairview? What if you went around to businesses and offered to clean their toilets? What if you read to people in a nursing home? What if —”
“I get the idea,” said Andrew, holding up his hands. “That’s serving — like Jesus served us. But is it preaching the gospel?”
“It is if you do it right,” Pablo responded. “Jesus offered healings and parables, all for one low price!We American Christians are good at forgetting this. We want to emphasize either Jesus’ mercy ministries, like healing and feeding people, or His proclamations about being a good disciple and encountering God. But the reality is, His “gospel” teachings are inseparable from His “practical” ministry. He was committed to both, because they both build the Kingdom of Heaven. When you serve people nobody else wants to smell, you better believe they’ll get curious about why you’re there. When a man realizes he’ll spend his best years making license plates, you’d be surprised how much he wants to hear about God.”
“I liked my goals better than yours,” muttered Andrew. “You know, a wife and a house in the suburbs —”
” — and that’s exactly why you’re bored,” said Pablo promptly. “God made you for a greater purpose.”
“So I should start serving? That’s the new goal?”
“And pray for ways to share Jesus. Every day, I say, ‘Lord, show me who I can serve today. Show me who needs Your love.’ I won’t say I’m never bored … but not very often.”
“Sounds kind of scary,” said Andrew nervously.
“Sounds kind of joyful,” corrected Pablo.
* * *
Andrew realized that his time with Pablo was almost over, but he didn’t want to leave. He felt like he’d met a new friend; someone who, after only an hour, wasn’t afraid to challenge him in love. I think this is real community, thought Andrew.
Pablo looked down at his watch. “Right now there’s nothing I’d like more than to talk longer,” he said. (And Andrew could tell he actually meant it.) “But in a few minutes, Deonte has to take me upstairs, and you have to drive home. Now, I need to give you a warning before you leave.”
A warning? Andrew eyed Pablo cautiously.
“Here it is: The more joyful you get, the more you’ll want to die,” said Pablo.
Andrew stared blankly. That didn’t make any sense.
“It’s true, brother. When you put confidence in Christ, promotions and applause don’t matter anymore, because your ego doesn’t need it,” said Pablo. “The more you find contentment, the more you realize everything you own is a pile of junk. If you discover real community, you won’t desire anything you can’t take with you when you go. And the more you serve people, the more you long to meet Love Himself.”
“So joy gives you a death wish?” asked Andrew incredulously.
“It makes you realize living is Christ and dying is gain,” said Pablo. “You long for Jesus so much you can’t stand it, because there’s nothing left for you here. But you want to finish whatever God has for you to do before you leave.”Read Philippians 1:19-26.
Andrew’s mind was swimming. Yes, he was glad he’d go to heaven someday — but not now! He had some things he wanted to accomplish first, thank you very much.
Of course, according to Pablo, he wanted to accomplish the wrong things.
“I don’t know,” he said simply, after a long pause. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. I mean, I can’t see wanting heaven that bad. I like life. Even when it’s boring … I can’t imagine leaving it.”
Pablo nodded. “It’s harder on the outside, brother,” he said. “The world is trying to give you heaven now because they don’t believe in anything else. Inside, in prison … well, I know the only way I’ll ever be a free man is when I go to be with Jesus.”
Andrew smiled. “Are you trying to make me jealous?”
“I just know it’s easier here, brother. Sometimes I think everyone should spend a year or so in jail. Not for a crime — just to love Jesus more.”
Andrew smiled. “I don’t think you’d find many honest citizens who agree with you. But listen … I just don’t know about this. I can’t imagine wanting heaven that much, that in some way, I kind of … want to die.”
“Most people can’t,” said Pablo. “But if you start looking for joy … you might be surprised what happens. Heaven has a way of sneaking up on you.”
Deonte walked over towards the table and motioned to Pablo. The inmate stood up. “Come back again, brother,” he said. “I want to hear how the joy’s coming along.”
“Count on it,” said Andrew.
He reached out to shake Pablo’s hand, but Pablo wrapped him in a huge bear hug. “Brothers don’t shake hands,” he said.
Deonte led Pablo out of the visiting room, and Andrew was surprised to feel a lump rising in his throat. “I’ll be back, Pablo,” he said.
“I’ll see you here, there, or in the air,” said Pablo, grinning. Then he walked through a heavy steel door with the guard.
Andrew stood staring after him, lost in a confusing mix of thoughts, until a guard growled at him to leave.
* * *
Andrew drove home slowly, mind full of ideas. He was already starting to put some of Pablo’s thoughts into action. When his heater took a while to warm up, he thanked God for the cold. When he thought how nice it would be to find a new job, he remembered how blessed he was to have one in the middle of a recession.
But his strangest thought of all came later in the trip, when he was almost home. Andrew realized that he wanted to call the prison right away and schedule another visit with Pablo, but he would probably have to wait weeks — maybe months — to see him. And although he’d only met the man once, that felt like a very long time.
Then suddenly, the thought came to his mind that in heaven, he could talk with Pablo as much as he wanted. And just for a moment, he thought maybe heaven would be better than he was giving it credit for.
It was in that instant that Andrew Baxter felt something strange stir inside his soul. He wasn’t sure what it was, because he hadn’t felt it in a very long time. But he thought maybe — just maybe — it was a twinge of joy.
Copyright 2009 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.