Biblical Joy 301: How to Lose Joy, Part 3
In 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) Field Code explicitly prohibited any soldier from surrendering, “Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you.”
One year later, a young man named Hiroo Onoda began his service to the IJA as an intelligence officer. In 1944, Japan sent him to Lubang island in the Philippines on a commando mission to destroy the infrastructure upon which the enemy's supply chain depended.
His commanding officer, Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, told him, “You are absolutely forbidden to die by your own hand. It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens, we’ll come back for you. Until then, so long as you have one soldier, you are to continue to lead him. You may have to live on coconuts. If that’s the case, live on coconuts! Under no circumstances are you to give up your life voluntarily.”
When Japan surrendered in 1945, Onoda was one of a million Japanese soldiers left in the Philippines. Due to the difficulty of quick communication in that region, the US dropped leaflets and sent patrols throughout the country announcing Japan's surrender.
When he saw the leaflets, Onoda noticed the Japanese writing had several typographical errors. He concluded this was just another tactic of the US to trick Japanese soldiers into surrender. Consequently, he remained there another 29 years, building a remote outpost for himself deep in the forest.
Finally, in 1974, a Japanese traveller discovered him and sent word for Major Taniguchi, now a bookseller, to come and relieve him of his duty.
For 30 years, Onoda had established himself as a resourceful and dedicated soldier. But only two of those years mattered for his country. In fact, during his "post-war service", he and a small band of other soldiers had killed 30 and wounded 100 locals throughout Lubang.
Of the many lessons learned from this man’s life, one stands out: commitment without knowledge can be disastrous. Christians should learn from Lieutenant Onoda's story. Let me share some similar errors the Bible warns us about.
1. Letting Zeal Cause Us to Miss the Truth
In Romans, Paul mourns the same problem among the religious Jews of his day, “I can testify about them that they have zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” (10:2)
Many religious Jews didn’t pay attention to the Bible’s prophecies about the Messiah or the early apostles who proclaimed that Jesus had fulfilled them. For Jews who rejected Jesus, such prophecies and gospel accounts were like the leaflets that Onoda disregarded: a distraction from fulfilling the mission.
These Jews ignored the truth because of their zeal. The Greek word translated as “zeal” is often used to describe militant religious passion. In Romans 10, the word is used negatively because it’s talking about zeal for ignorant religious commands. But in 2 Corinthians 7:7 it’s used positively to describe the Corinthian church's “deep concern” over their church's sin. Zeal isn't inherently good. It can do massive harm. But when it's based on biblical truth, it can unleash incredible joy.
Zeal can be extremely powerful. I've encountered Christians who were so zealous for their cause, I was stunned into silence. I wasn't convinced. But the passion of a zealous speaker for a noble sounding cause can flip our perception world upside down. But that doesn't make it correct.
Christians need to be wary of misdirecting their zeal for God toward political and religious substitutes. Just like in Paul's day, we are tempted by political and religious movements that disregard truth and knowledge as inconvenient.
Many Christians will remember the Moral Majority of the 1970s and 1980s, which tried to redeem our country’s spiritual state through political activism. Those who began that movement would have been stunned to see America’s growing secularization today. Instead of a bastion of Christianity, we have a cesspool of anti-God legislation.
That effort, though well-intentioned, was based on the assumption that you can change a country’s spiritual state through electing Christian leaders and passing laws Christians support. But where do we see that in the Bible? On the contrary, the Bible teaches that spiritual transformation comes through individual people joyfully receiving the truth of the gospel, not legislation (Acts 13:48; 16:34; 17:11-12; 1 Thess 1:6; Phil. 4:9; Col. 2:6-7). You can't hack God's formula for spiritual transformation through alternative man-based efforts.
Imagine if all that effort and money put into elections had been invested in following Christ's great commission for a) evangelism and b) discipleship of those who believe. That spiritual effort would have produced a lasting joy for all who engaged in it. Partnership with Christ always does. We get that joy by making sure our zeal is to know and follow the teaching of Jesus Christ.
2. Ignoring the Hard Truths
There are three kinds of truths in the Bible which can be hard to swallow.
First, some passages are hard because they offend our culture. The reality that God created Adam by forming him from dust and breathing life into him, rather than human beings arising from a random series of evolutionary adaptations. The idea that sex should only happen between a man and a woman who are married. The idea that people must admit they are sinners and repent of that sin if they are going to follow Jesus. None of these are popular ideas. Yet they are clear teachings of the Bible.
God says there is joy in knowing the truth in a culture drowning in lies. That’s why the apostle John wrote the following:
“We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” (1 John 1:4)
“I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in truth.” (3 John 1:4)
When we walk in the truth, we experience joy. We see God at work in our midst. So I encourage you, if you see truths that Christians are getting pressured to reject, give special study to those truths to prepare you to withstand that pressure. You will be filled with the joy of knowing the truth.
Second, some passages are hard because they offend us. When you see sin in yourself, do you ignore it, do you try to address it on your own, or do you look for Scripture’s teaching about it?
An example: anger is something that many Christians struggle with. Did you notice Nebuchadnezzar’s anger problem in Daniel 2? You see it again in chapter 3. If anger is a problem for you, read Psalm 4.
Sin isn’t beaten by zeal on its own. Zeal is great as long as it is combined with knowledge from God (Romans 12:2). As you look into Scripture to see what God says about your sin, you will reap a bounty of joy as you watch the Spirit cultivate godly character in you.
Finally, some passages are hard because they are difficult to interpret.
Why do you think Revelation 1 gives this special blessing to those who read it? “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear the words of this prophecy and keep what is written in it, because the time is near.” (Revelation 1:3) That special blessing encourages Christians to study it because the book prepares them in a unique way.
Furthermore, consider Revelation 13, which refers to the number of the great beast that persecutes God's people, “This calls for wisdom: Let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, because it is the number of a person. Its number is 666. (Revelation 13:18)
Can you believe God wants you to work with numbers as you study the Bible? He actually commands you to do calculations! Actually, some of the best Bible scholarship delves deeply into numerical issues. As with Revelation 13, Daniel 9 rewards those who look carefully at its prophecies to understand the time Messiah will come.
All that to say, there is great joy in working carefully to understand difficult passages. If you bypass them, you forgo a joy that God wants you to have. Don’t do that. Engage slowly and deliberately in grasping all the truth that God is offering you.
Joy isn't a passing emotion outside of our control. In many ways, it’s the opposite. It’s a lasting joy that God offers us. But all the Scriptures that teach about joy show that it isn’t offered unconditionally. God teaches us how to find joy. It comes to those who strive for all the blessings God offers. It comes to those who place God’s priorities above their own. May God work in us to make that a reality.