Appearances are often deceptive. Have you ever seen a couple lovingly holding hands after years of marriage, only to hear of their divorce soon thereafter? And what about comedians who appear happy and full of life, but are strung out on drugs and sometimes end their lives early? And then there are those with perpetual smiles, but sadness and utter turmoil on the inside.
The number of people who appear to have it all together on the outside but inwardly are dissatisfied with life might surprise us. It is not that they intend to deceive others, and, to be sure, there is no need to wear all of our feelings on our sleeves. But too many people, though they want to be happy—and try to be happy—are inwardly unable to achieve their desire.
One of the criticisms of social media is that it presents people as living exciting lives filled with travel, friends, and fun—a standard that their “followers” fail to achieve. The reality is that though few live up to the unrealistic standards portrayed by social media, many vainly aim for them, lamenting that their own lives seem forever disappointing in comparison. It is human nature to display our successes in front of our friends and family. We want others to know what a wonderful life we have—that we are “succeeding” at life. In many ways, this has always been the case, but Facebook and other Internet tools magnify the problems with this way of thinking. Today we can post pictures instantly to family, friends, and complete strangers all at the same time. No need to pay for expensive film and wait for the pictures to be developed.
Sliding down a zipline, bungee jumping from a bridge, parachuting out of a perfectly good airplane, and sipping from a glass of wine among smiling friends on an alpine veranda all give the appearance of living “the good life.” But appearance is not reality. There are plenty of people in the world, celebrities especially, who have the time and money to follow these and many other pursuits, but whose lives are miserable, given to depression, divorce, and drugs.
It is natural to desire to be happy, and to want others to be happy as well. Most of us truly want our friends and family to enjoy “the good life” and we do our best to help them achieve it—and to experience it alongside them. It is clearly important to us. So, why is true fulfillment in life difficult to find?
The Search for Lasting Joy
Let us begin our search for answers with the prophet Isaiah. He both asks the question and gives the answer. “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2). The context shows that he is referring to far more than breakfast. He is pointing out that people are searching in the wrong places for that which truly satisfies. This was a problem then, and it remains a problem today. Our nature is prone to chasing mirages, which look like answers but fail us in the end.
King Solomon rightly explained that there is nothing new under the sun. He, too, sought happiness and he could buy as much of it as was available: wine, women, song, and much more. He planted beautiful gardens, was entertained by the best musicians of his day, and surrounded himself with gold, silver, and all kinds of precious things. In the end, he still felt empty and came to despair of life. “Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).
Isaiah’s question, “Why do you spend money for what is not bread?” is perhaps even more relevant today than ever. We cannot keep up with Solomon, yet the average person has more access to options for relaxation and leisure activities than those of generations past. Much of that, however, is passive, “spoon-fed” entertainment: television, movies, video games, and social media. Instead of living in a real world, one can vicariously fight off aliens, steal cars, or be a fighter pilot, all while expending far less mental energy than it takes to read a good book—and virtually no physical energy at all. We don’t even have to get out of our chairs to change channels. For those who remember “The Clapper” light switch, there is not even a need to clap your hands to turn lights on or off: Just tell “Alexa” what you want, and she will do it for you! All these gadgets are interesting, but not one of them can provide us with a rewarding life.
It is a mistake to equate fun and entertainment with happiness. Riding roller coasters is fun for many, but standing in line in the hot sun is not. There’s nothing wrong with good, safe fun, but the rides come to an end and real life remains at the end of the day. Entertainment is temporary at best, relies on external sources and stimuli, and can descend into boredom, leaving one unfulfilled. True happiness is an internal state that lasts through good times and not-so-good times.
Isaiah chides his audience for focusing time and resources on that which will never bring lasting satisfaction. Wine, milk, and bread only satisfy for a short time. Therefore, Isaiah points us to food and drink that lasts: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.… Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance” (Isaiah 55:1–2).
Isaiah uses food and drink as a metaphor contrasting physical and spiritual, and he was not the only one to do so. Jesus Christ also used this metaphor when talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, telling her He could give “living water” and she would never thirst again. That sounded good, but the extent of her understanding was that this living water would eliminate laborious trips between her home and the well. She could not comprehend that the water He spoke of was the Holy Spirit, which would give a satisfaction that nothing physical ever could (John 4:7–15; 7:37–39).
Jesus came as that true bread of life prophesied by Isaiah. This was the point He made when He compared manna to Himself: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:48–50). He went on to say, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me” (John 6:56–57).
Dr. Roderick C. Meredith so often referred to the Bible as the mind of God. Jesus is the Logos, the Spokesman, the One who inspired that amazing book. When we drink in and eat of the words of the Bible, we are feeding on Christ. Dr. Meredith’s favorite scripture was Galatians 2:20, which tells us that Christ must live in us, and we know that He does so by the power of the Holy Spirit. That Spirit is the mind and power of God. “Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:9).
The Source We Seek
One of the fruits of God’s Holy Spirit is joy (Galatians 5:22). The English word “joy” comes from a word that means “cheerfulness, calm delight.” One may glean from how the word is used in the New Testament that joy may be either temporary or lasting. When Philip went down to Samaria and God performed miracles through him, we read, “And there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). That was clearly a temporary (and understandable) joy, but joy’s inclusion as a fruit of the Spirit indicates a permanent state. This does not mean the person in whom the Spirit dwells experiences a constant, steady state of joy with no lows. It is also true that, for a variety of reasons, some people simply exude more cheerfulness, calm delight, and joy than others. But true, lasting joy and contentment through thick and thin is a fruit of the Spirit. When God’s words, His mind and attitudes, abide in us, we think as Christ did while He was on earth, and we daily become more like He is.
It is through having the Holy Spirit that we can rejoice—have joy—even during severe trials: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6–7).
This kind of big-picture understanding does not characterize the natural mind. This has been brought home to me on more than one occasion. For example, there was the dying man my wife and I visited in the hospital. He told us that coming down with cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him. He realized he had been spiritually drifting for years. He saw it as a wakeup call, a call to the reality of his very purpose for being. As he explained, in his case he was not looking to be healed. His sight was on the resurrection, when he would wake up in the Kingdom of God.
At the same time, there was another man dying of cancer. He was a new convert, but he, too, put his trust in God, and every time I saw him, he had a big smile and did all he could to encourage those around him. These men, both so near to death, had a calm cheerfulness about them. Through God’s Spirit, they could understand the big picture, and had living hope in the resurrection. What examples they were!
Perspective in Trials
We see this in the Apostle Paul. He suffered with some kind of affliction for which he sought God three times for relief. God’s answer was no. “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul came to a deep understanding from this experience: “Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (vv. 9–10).
Paul also wrote, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). Heartfelt prayer, with thanksgiving for what God provides, and truly being able to share our needs and concerns with God, gives us something the world as a whole does not have. We can have peace even during the most severe trials. As Isaiah informs us, “You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You” (Isaiah 26:3).
Not all handle trials so well, not even in the Church. In fact, not all handle minor inconveniences with grace, and these passages should cause us to take a serious look at our relationship with our Creator. We must look in the mirror and ask ourselves the sobering question, “Do I have joy, peace, and contentment?” If not, why not?
We understand that each of us, due to background and natural inclinations, develops some of the individual fruits of the Spirit with greater difficulty than we do the others. Some people have better training growing up and are taught the godly traits of being thankful and content with what they have. Others grow up in homes where selfishness, anger, and unhappiness are the rule. This presents a challenge. Even God’s Spirit does not instantaneously reverse that which was learned during our formative years.
Each of us must examine ourselves, whether we see each element of the fruit of God’s Spirit within us. Only then can we evaluate why we lack a particular trait and begin to cry out to God to help us overcome that lack. We must do our part to recognize the problem. Only then are we able to strive with the help of Christ living in us to develop godly cheerfulness, calm delight, peace, and joy. God promises to give us His Spirit, but we must ask, seek, and knock on His door through heartfelt supplication and prayer (Luke 11:9–13). As we meditate on the gift of God’s Spirit this Pentecost season, may all of us be filled with lasting joy!