Home > Online Magazine > Online Magazine: Edition 55 - Autumn (March-May) 2014 > Aspects of Joy (by Don Hansen)
Aspects of Joy
by Don Hansen
There was a time in my youth when I worked for a man named Peter Alkamade. Peter was a Dutchman, a good man and a good boss. I remember one afternoon when heavy rain had temporarily forced us to stop working, and Peter took it upon himself to tell me a story about his cousin Nicholas. I might add that I have since seen this story in two or three Reader's Digest publications, and also in some editions of the Guinness Book of Records.
Nicolas Alkemade was the rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber in the early months of 1944. It was a time when none of the aircrew of any bomber could expect to live very long. Their average life expectancy was a mere 13 missions which, under ordinary circumstances, might take about five or six weeks to complete. This terrifyingly brief period of active service elicited no special comment from RAF authorities. But the same authorities designated the rear gunner in a Lancaster as hearing a "hazardous occupation" which, in everyday language, meant "basically suicidal". Why?
At bottom, there were two main reasons. First, the rear gunner was always the German night-fighter pilot's main target. Ordinarily, night-fighters attacked from the rear, and the rear gunner's fire power made it imperative that he be destroyed as soon as possible. Second, lack of space in the rear turret precluded the gunner from wearing a parachute. He wore only the harness. The parachute itself was carried in the body of the plane where the gunner might or might not be able to reach it if it was needed. Anyway, in the night of March 24, 1944, Nicolas Alkemade was the rear gunner in one of dozens of Lancaster bombers that attacked Berlin. On their way home, still over Germany, his aircraft was attacked by a night-fighter.
The German's opening shots destroyed the rear turret's Perspex canopy and set the big aircraft on fire. Alkemade's retaliatory hail of fire destroyed the German fighter, but the Lancaster was badly hit, and the pilot ordered the crew to bale out.
When Alkemade opened the door into the body of the plane to collect his parachute, he was confronted by an inferno. The entire body of the plane was a mass of flame and his parachute, near the door, was already on fire. So Alkemade shut the door to consider his options. In fact, he had only two, neither even remotely attractive.
He could stay in the plane and either be burned alive or blown up. Or he could jump without the benefit of a parachute. But the aircraft was still at a height of 18,000 feet or 6 kilometres, so he would likely hit the ground fairly hard which would be unpleasant. But jumping seemed to be preferable to burning, so he jumped while he still had a choice.
To his surprise, his immediate sensation was not of falling, but of floating. The cold air in his face felt good after the scorching heat. He had time to think of his girlfriend and regret that he would never see her again. And then he blacked out and was totally unconscious when he hit the ground.
Some time later he became aware of a dim light. He could see stars shining between thickly interlaced branches of fir trees. Then he became conscious of pain. His head was aching, his back hurt terribly, and he was freezing cold. And he realised that he was lying on the side of a hill in deep snow. Careful experimentation revealed that he could move his arms and legs, which suggested that they were still attached to his body and with that discovery came recognition of the unbelievable fact that he was still alive, and likely to stay that way. He had fallen 6 kilometres from an aircraft, landed in trees and snow, which had broken his fall, and he had survived.
A feeling of unbelievable joy swept over him, and though he was ordinarily not much given to prayer, he was moved to speak to his Creator. "Dear God", he said, "I'm alive." It was an accurate diagnosis.
Soon afterwards he was captured by the Germans, and taken to a nearby prison camp. But captivity did nothing to diminish his joy. He was still alive when he should have been dead, and it was a great feeling. And when the incredulous Germans verified Alkemade's story by finding the metal remains of this parachute in the burned out wreck of the Lancaster, they became active participants in his joy. Because they too could appreciate the man's ordeal, and his miraculous escape from death. So though he remained a prisoner until the war ended, he was also a popular hero to the other P.O.W's and to the German guards as well.
So why tell you this story? Because it provides an excellent example of an experience which was indisputably productive of great joy. But what, exactly, is joy? According to the Oxford Dictionary, joy is 'a vivid emotion of pleasure or delight' which, I think, we all knew anyway. But what actually produces joy? And it seems to me that Alkemade's experience indicates that ordinarily two key elements are involved: first, something like good news or a pleasant discovery or something similar in Alkemade's case, this was the realisation that he was alive, with all his limbs still attached. The second key element, which is easy to overlook, is the matter of surprise - Alkemade expected to die and he did not. And when we think about joy - real joy, that is - we find that this element of surprise is almost always present.
Let me illustrate by one or two simple examples. I recall a year when I sat two university examinations, one I was sure I had passed. The other I was equally sure I had failed. When the results were made known, I found I had achieved a distinction in the subject I believed I had passed. And I was very pleased with that. But in the subject I was sure I had failed I had received a credit, and though a credit was less meritorious than a distinction, that was the result that brought me real joy. Why? Because it was so unexpected.
In like manner, when a boy asks a girl to marry him, and she says she will, the boy experiences joy. At least, that is the expectation. And a major factor contributing to his joy is the element of uncertainty. My experience in these matters is strictly limited, but I have read widely, and it seems that the level of joy is directly proportional to the level of surprise that the girl has actually said 'yes'. Certainly, if the girl's positive response is a foregone conclusion, then there will be little or no element of surprise and likely no particular feelings of great or unexpected joy.
On a more spiritual level, surprise seems to have been a major factor in the joy experience by the disciples when they learned that their crucified Lord had risen from the dead. Notice how the book Desire of Ages describes the delighted reaction of the two persons going to Emmaus when they recognised the identity of the stranger who had walked with them.
Their weariness and hunger are gone. They leave their meal untasted, and full of joy immediately set out again on the same path by which they came, hurrying to tell the tidings to the disciples in the city. In some parts the road is not safe, but they climb over the steep places, slipping on the smooth rocks. They do not see, they do not know, that they have the protection of Him who has travelled the road with them. With their pilgrim staff in hand, they press on, desiring to go faster than they dare. They lose their track, but find it again. Sometimes running, sometimes stumbling, they press forward, their unseen Companion close beside them all the way.
The night is dark, but the Sun of Righteousness is shining upon them. Their hearts leap for joy. They seem to be in a new world. Christ is a living Saviour. (1)
The Scriptures reveal that Jesus' long-standing disciples responded in exactly the same way. They had not expected Jesus' resurrection, and they were astounded when He appeared among them. In Luke's gospel [Ch 24:40,41] Jesus had to prove who He was by showing them His hands and feet and even then the disciples "…still did not believe for joy."
And John's gospel simply states: "The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord". [John 20:20]
It is easy for us to understand the disciples' joy. Theirs was a vivid sensation of pleasure and delight, intensified by the element of surprise, that the One they had seen dead was alive. But what about Christians in this present time? The Bible suggests that they should also be joyful people. John 15:10,11 records Jesus' own words; "If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete".
And then to ensure that people do not put a legalistic interpretation on these words, Jesus revealed the particular command He had in mind:
"My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you". John 15.12
So, loving Christians will be joyful Christians. And just as Christians are supposed to be loving, they are likewise supposed to be joyful. For this is what Jesus wants.
In Luke 10, we read of the seventy-two disciples that Jesus send out to tell people of the nearness of the Kingdom of God. Their mission proved to be highly successful and in V 17, we read: The seventy-two returned with joy and said 'Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your Name.' and Jesus responded with these words: "I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." (Vs 18-19). But then He added: "However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in Heaven." (V 20)
Many commentators take these words to be a warning to the disciples against trusting in themselves and the power that Jesus had given them. But other commentators - rightly in my non-expert opinion - see His words as a clear affirmation of the supreme value of salvation and the joy that is derived from the knowledge that ones salvation - provided one continues to believe - is basically guaranteed.
For it seems to me that the single most important factor which should bring joy to contemporary Christians is simply a clear appreciation and understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it further seems to me that the gospel - the good news - embraces both the elements that I have previously suggested are productive of joy. The news itself brings pleasure and delight. In a world where death is a frequent occurrence - and I know of nothing that brings greater sorrow than death - the concept of everlasting life has to be the best possible news. As the apostle Paul has pointed out in 1 Corinthians 15:26: "The last enemy to be destroyed is death".
Death is an enemy; it is an alien thing. So the end to death will bring joy throughout the world. The gospel promises an end to death. In the familiar words of John 3:16, we have the promise: "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.". KJV
That is the good news: the news that brings pleasure and delight. But what about the element of surprise? Where is that? The surprise is in the simplicity of the gospel. Basically we have only to believe in Christ as God to be accepted. Our passport to the Kingdom requires no great works on our part. We do not have to go on laborious pilgrimages to holy places. We do not have to make massive sacrifices or give the Church huge donations to be reckoned righteous. We have only to believe, and we all have the capacity for that. Small wonder that those who have been raised in legalistic circumstances, as was the case with me and likely with many of you, find the gospel hard to accept. It seems too good to be true; it seems altogether too simple. Like the disciples, we tend not to believe for joy. But believing is basically what is required. And when people genuinely believe, it has a dramatic effect not only on their levels of joy, but on their lifestyles as well.
Now let me illustrate the intimate relationship between joy and the gospel by relating one final brief anecdote, told by a man who was an unbeliever when he was a boy, but who became a professor of theology and a preacher of righteousness following his conversion. This man was George, later Doctor George Morris. George Morris was raised in a non-Christian home, the seventh of eleven offspring. When George was in high school, a Methodist minister moved into the area. This man knew that George's family were not Christian, but he called on them regularly and won the father's respect. Almost a year later the Methodist ran an evangelistic mission and the minister called at George's home to tell the father that he should come to the meetings and take all available children along with him. And to George's horror, the father agreed.
On the opening night George who was not interested in spiritual things, deliberately took a long time to get ready, so it was late when the family arrived. When they walked in late, it seemed to George that every person in the church turned around to look at them, which served him right.
The sermon that night centred on the story of Lot and his wife. The minister made much of the fact that Lot's wife had been turned to salt. He kept saying: "Remember Lot's wife." George knew nothing of Lot or his wife, and was not concerned. He figured that the minister was simply trying to scare people and he was determined not to let this happen to him. So he spent most of the time during the sermon talking to a boy from school who was sitting beside him, and annoying two girls from school who were sitting in the pew in front.
But to George's great embarrassment, when the sermon ended, his father went to the front of the church, knelt down, and wept as he confessed his sins. Then George's mother went forward and knelt beside his father. At this stage George seriously considered leaping from his seat and running from the church 'like the wind' as he put it, but some strange power compelled him to remain.
And then his father stood, turned around, and started up the aisle. Intuitively, George knew he was coming to him so he dropped to his knees and crawled past the people standing in his row of seats until he reached the wall. He hoped that his father would not pursue him, but his father followed him all the way, put this hand on George's shoulder, lifted him to his feet, and then said these words:
"Son. I know this is embarrassing to you, but I want you to hear me out. I have found something here this evening that I have been searching for fifty-six years, and I would rather die than see you make the mistake I have made." George said, "Well what do you want me to do?" "Go down there."
And George, who had a good deal of respect for his father did as he was told, and walked down the church's centre aisle.
When he reached the front of the church, still not knowing precisely what he was doing, he knelt as he had seen his parents kneel. An elderly lady came and knelt beside him. She said, "Son, do you know that God loves you?" "No ma'am," said George. And the old lady said, "Why son, He loves you so much that He sent His son to die for you. Do you believe that?" This was a new thought to George, but he answered, "Ma'am, is that what my father believes?". She replied, "It surely is." And George responded, "Then I will believe it too."
Next the old lady said, "Will you commit your life to God?" And George replied, "I really don't know what that means." So the old lady said, "It means your life is not gong to be yours any more because it belongs to God." And George asked, "Is that what my father did?" "That is what your father did." Said the old lady. "Well, then I will do it too." Said George.
And at that very moment, George later said, a feeling of irrepressible joy engulfed him. He was suddenly and unexpectedly overcome with a deep sense of compassion for every person present in the church, he had a feeling of boundless gratitude to God, and the most wonderful feeling of pure delight that God actually cared for him: cared enough to send His Son to die so that he, George, and uncaring teenager, might have life.
Now it is true that conversion might not always be productive of these feelings of instant joy. The great CS Lewis, for instance, when he was converted, described himself as "perhaps the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England." There was no immediate joy for Lewis. But the joy came later, which is why he was able to call his autobiography Surprised By Joy. And this same joy will inevitably come to all when they grasp the wonder of the gospel. Because the gospel - the good news - is such good news that it fills us with such surprise and joy. For instance: consider these Biblical affirmations:
- Ours is a God who justified the ungodly (Romans 4:5 KJV and RSV. Or, as it states in the NIV, God…justifies the wicked). And we all need that kind of God.
- The gospel tells us (Romans 5:16-20) that in place of sin and condemnation we are given the gifts of justification and righteousness. What we need we receive as a gift.
- The gospel tells us that in place of our one time lowly status when we receive Christ we receive the right to become children of God (John 1:12). We become members of the most exalted royal family in the universe.
- The gospel tells us that we will have fellowship with Christ and the saints forever (1 John 1:3; Revelation 21:3). And we will ourselves be received as saints.
And if this kind of news does not bring us joy, then I respectfully suggest that perhaps we should pray regularly for a deeper understanding of the gospel.
Sixty-nine years ago, Nicolas Alkemade knew he was about to die, and rejoiced to find himself alive. Today, we who were once dead in trespasses and sins can rejoice for the same reason. For as the Scripture puts it, in Christ we have all been made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22; Ephesians 2:1). Small wonder that Paul, in Romans 15:13, wrote these words; "Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace".
This is why I pray that each one of us may be filled with joy and peace in the same way that Paul requested God to do for his companions.
1. Desire of Ages Ellen G White p801, Pacific Press Publishing Association Mountain View California 1940
Unless otherwise stated, Scripture is taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zonderman Bible Publishers
Scripture taken from the King James Version of the bible is identified as (KJV)
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