Paul calls the message of the Christian Gospel a skandalon. And yet it is this very message, carried to the Christian by way of the narrative that is to be preached. Why? Because it informs the joy of the believers. Perhaps the most extreme claim of the Christian narrative is that while the world’s joy is found in the pleasures of flesh and good fortune, Christian joy is found in the reprehensible and scandalous locale of the cross, the image of God’s death. And this joy drives the Christian to take up a similar cross and follow. Luther instructs:
“The honor of the cross must be inwardly, within the heart, that is, that I give thanks unto God that I must suffer, and that must spring from a joyful will towards the cross or death. Is it not a wonder to be possessed of a ready will towards death, while everyone dreads it? Thus is the cross sanctified.” 1
The Christian has been carried through death into new life, recreated to find joy in the midst of great suffering. All the while, the world looks on in shock and disbelief wondering how it is that one can be moved to love a God who appears to be cruel or to allow cruelty. Dr. David Scaer offers the following insight in his volume entitled James, the Apostle of Faith:
“There is no Christian value in suffering simply for the sake of suffering. Suffering’s value to Christians lies in having faith encounter difficulties. Faith is then forced into a situation of having to listen more carefully to the words of God and take them more seriously… Many of the minor blessings of life, which make up the real fiber of life, are taken away in times of persecution, and the Christian, simply because of the circumstances, is left alone with God and His Word.” 2
In order to understand this proposed fuel for Christian joy, consideration is given to the account of Jesus and His interaction with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21-28. This account offers a wonderful illustration of the tenacity and strength of Christian joy.
“And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
The event itself takes place within the context of what could be considered the brewing of a perfect storm. There is terror in its winds and waves. There is what seems like hell. There is a little vessel, a Canaanite woman in desperate need, venturing toward this storm. I say “storm” because the Canaanite woman must endure a turbulent situation. I say “perfect” because it is Jesus stirring the cruel turbulence.
It has been said that hell is the eternal torment in the absence of God. But perhaps it is to be as it was for this Canaanite woman who found herself in the presence of God and encountered an enemy, an accuser, a seemingly merciless judge. Certainly it would seem like “hell.” Ingvar Fløysvik offers the following insight in his book entitled When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms:
“God is not merely absent or indifferent. The psalmists also depict him as actively hostile. In some Psalms God is seen as having brought the psalmist near death. In Psalm 6 God’s persistent and angry reproaching (v. 2) makes the psalmist ‘feeble’ and ‘terrified’ (v. 3) and causes him to fear death and separation from God (v. 6). In Psalm 88 the psalmist says that God has placed him in ‘the nethermost pit,’ as far into Sheol as one can possibly go, and in ‘the darkness of the depth,’ an expression that evokes the picture of the chaos-forces. He sees the wrath of God as pressing…” 3
Each time I read the story of the Canaanite woman, I shudder at her meeting with Jesus. A storm was pulsating with violent verve and Jesus was hiding Himself somewhere in the winds, waves, and lightning, and this woman was sailing right into the tempest with a boldness that would seem to be both odd and utterly imprudent. Peering at this event through the eyes of the world, we are sure to recognize the foolishness of the child of Christian joy.
On the dusty road that leads to the region of Tyre and Sidon (Old Testament names precisely provided by Saint Matthew for the present day bordering sections of Galilee), this particular woman intercepts the Lord. Her voice is loud and certain. She draws immediate attention from Jesus and those with Him. She cries out the words that acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, the only One who can help her: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon!”
But this cry is discovered to be most unusual, especially after a thorough exegesis. Her words do not fit her expected narrative. These words should be completely foreign to her lips. The fact that Matthew calls her a “Canaanite” immediately conjures historical facts that only amplify the peculiarity of her words. She is not a Jew. And for those with Jesus, she isn’t even human. She is like a wild dog; at least that’s what the Jews would have been most comfortable in calling her. She is from a community that does not hold to a “messiah” while at the same time she is representing a bloodline of pagan inhabitants who occupied the promised land of the Old Testament. She, in the eyes of those around her, is evil. She is not an outcast like a sickly leper, as if to be forgotten or put away. She is not even theologically confused like the Samaritans. She is evil. She is an active enemy of the true God of the Jews, and it would seem that Jesus treats her in a way which suggests that she is getting what she deserves. It is as if He says, “You say that your daughter is demon possessed? That’s too bad because I have not come for people like you. It would seem, my dear, you are getting what you deserve.” 4 The world would see and hear the Lord’s response and would find it perplexing, offensive, disheartening. The Christian sees the opportunity for the expression of joy.
Jacob wrestled with God in Genesis 32:22-32, so too does this woman engage in a wrestling match with God. But here we see Jesus picking the fight. We haven’t gotten very far into the text and already the believing Christian may envision, to some degree, life in this woman’s shoes. The portrait is being painted right before our eyes, a portrait in which we find ourselves. Have you wrestled with God? Have you tossed and turned and asked for mercy from the storms of life only to receive silence or what seemed like rejection? And afterward, you were quick to stand at the helm of the ship to which you thought you were captain, pointing your finger to the skies and vengefully demanding an answer from God, “Why? Tell me why!”
Indeed God has come to you in what seemed to be the approach of an enemy. He has allowed tragedy. He has seemingly been silent at the loss of a job, long-term unemployment, the onset of illness, a troubled marriage, the death of someone close. He has allowed these things. The world looks on and asks, “Where is the joy in this? How is it that God can be so cruel? Can you truly love a God such as this?”
The believing Christian will answer the world’s question using the same language, and yet the words won’t make any sense. The Christian will say, “Ask the Canaanite woman and learn from the answer that she gives,” because the Christian has been shaped by something different. The Christian echoes the Word of God proclaimed by Paul in Romans 5:1-5:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
It is the opulence of God’s exposed love in Jesus that determines your scrutiny of God and His actions in your life. It is not produced by the mind of flesh. Paul reminds us that we rejoice in our sufferings because they are tools of a loving God to draw us to Himself, to hope. This is a hope built on the objective reality of Jesus and His Gospel blessings. Faith clings to Christ and Christian joy springs up and out, knowing the end of the story no matter the condition of the seas traveled. Whether relief is given from the storms or our lives end in death, the believer has joy in knowing that he is child of God and an heir of eternal life. This joy finds God hiding in adversity, drawing the believer close so that he would cling to Him tightly in the storm.
But then again, Christian joy is both tested and refined as faith is often stretched to the breaking point. And as has been affirmed, to the world, this is senseless. The world sees God working and proclaims, “He isn’t to be trusted! He is playing games! A God of love would not do such things!” Instinctively, the world recognizes the apparent actions of God and is swift to deny Him in anger rather than believe His actions to be for the believer’s good, for the believer’s benefit. But the Christian, a child born in the joy of Calvary, rests in the promise. In other words, when we just don’t know what God is doing, we go to what we do know, to what God has revealed by His Word. We go to Jesus and throw ourselves at His feet knowing that He loves us. Not just because He said so (even though that would be enough for the child of faith), but because He proved it. I t has been preached to us and we’ve seen it! We lift our eyes to the cross and with great joy, by faith, we see that we were worth every drop of blood in His veins and He will not forsake what He has paid for.
As previously mentioned, we are made privy to the narrative of Christian joy early on in the Holy Scriptures. In Genesis 32 we see that Jacob grabs hold of God and refuses to let Him go until he receives a blessing.
“The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two female servants, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and everything else that he had. And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day has broken.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ And he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then he said, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.” (Genesis 32:22-32)
Was it bold and foolish for Jacob to approach a storm he had no chance of withstanding? Absolutely not! Jacob’s boldness was so much more than himself. Again, it was the courage and certainty of faith blossoming into Christian joy found in the promises of a loving God.
Like Jacob, the Canaanite woman captures God in His promises and refuses to let go. How beautifully rich are the details revealed in the text as it continues to unfold! Jesus ignores her cries. It seems He turns His back on her. He seems quite cold. This seems out of character for Jesus. This does not seem to be the same Jesus we’ve encountered thus far in the scriptures. And yet, it is! And the dramatic difference draws us even closer to the canvas, even further into the storm.
The disciples go to Jesus and beg him to send her away. Jesus has apparently passed her over and so now the text suggests that she has begun to cry to the disciples, asking them to go to Jesus. But this doesn’t seem to work either. What else can she do? In another move that seems rather uncaring, Jesus responds above and beyond her to the disciples, as if she isn’t even there. But He does this in a way that draws a response from both the disciples and the woman. Essentially He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, right?” He probably received affirming nods from the Twelve as they continued to shun the woman, “Yeah, that’s right. He’s here for us.” But the woman breaks through and throws herself at the feet of Jesus and gives a better answer. It is an answer supported by faith and expressed in the joyfully faithful form of a confident claim on what she knows is hers: “Lord, help me!”
Let us assume at this point, for the sake of discussion, that the world would be willing to grant deity status to Jesus. If so, how would it respond to the events thus far? I suppose it might say, “What gall! Who is this woman, an enemy of God, to make demands of Him?!” Jesus draws her even further into the depths: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She is now at the feet of Jesus. She has his complete attention and it seems as though He just slammed the door in her face. Is the world then correct in its observation? Perhaps the world would continue, “All is lost. She has struggled in vain. Her confidence and boldness have been received by God as arrogance, and they have become her destruction. Jesus is not going to help her. Her daughter will continue to suffer. She may as well give up and go home.”
The unbelieving world, shaped by its own joy (which has its source in pleasure and good fortune), sees the events of this life unfold, accepting its trials and strife as “allowed” tools of terror to destroy us. They are seen as the end of joy and hope and the beginning of joylessness and hopelessness. But in Christian joy, faith keeps asking! This woman does not deny the truth of Jesus’ words. In fact, with great humility and the repentant recognition of her sinful, undeserving condition, what Jesus has said is true. In sin, she is a dog and undeserving of any banquet feast the master is preparing. In fact, had this been the final resolution even after the exchange, this little dog would have accepted her lot and gone away to her home trusting that Jesus’ actions were for her good. But she is a persistent and devoted “puppy” that knows her Master. 5 She knows He loves her and will not shun her if she tries one more time. On her knees, hands folded and desperate, she gently and reverently pleads one more time, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
For the Canaanite woman, this particular storm is over. The tiny vessel has been tossed and battered and now rests safely in harbor, in the arms of Jesus, the same arms that were wrapped around her and protecting her through the storm from the very beginning. The joy! The relief! Jesus proclaims to her and to everyone listening that she is a woman of great faith! She loves Him and He loves her. By His strength, His guiding, she would not let go. She held on tightly to His mercy, even when all seemed lost. She was driven by a joy much different than that of the world.
Christian joy is best expressed while standing on the stony ground of Golgotha. The Christian lifts his eyes to the cross and sees Jesus. The Christian hears Him cry out, “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” In exhausted agony, Jesus wheezes the words that show forth true rejection and refusal by the Father as the righteous accuser, the righteous enemy, the righteous judge. Jesus has borne this not only for the Christian, but for the world. Jesus has accomplished redemption and has gone down in the treacherous storm of the task. In the same joy at Golgotha, the Christian watches Him rise from the depths victorious. The joy of the Christian becomes the certainty of hope found in this risen Savior.
And so it is then that the Christian ventures out into the storms. He is attacked by the howling winds of the world. He is assaulted by the pelting rain of the sinful nature. He is struck by the lightning bolts of the devil and his minions. But he ventures forth not of his own strength. Jesus is his strength. By His holy Word, His absolution, Holy Baptism, His body and blood given in the Lord’s Supper, the tangible elements of Christian joy shine forth giving the guarantee of the safe harbor of heaven. The Christian is able to read the approaching storm, and like Saint Athanasius surrounded by tearful friends as he prepared to leave for the fourth of what would be five exiles, to respond, “Be of good cheer; it is only a cloud which will soon pass over.” 6 Like Luther, the Christian will recognize God’s love and respond:
“When God wants to strengthen a man’s faith He first weakens it by feigning to break faith within him. He thrusts him into many tribulations and makes him so weary that he is driven to despair, and yet He gives him strength to be still and persevere. Such quietness is perseverance, and perseverance produces experience, so that when God returns to him and lets His sun rise and shine again, and when the storm is over the man opens his eyes in amazement and says: ‘The Lord shall be praised, that I have been delivered…’ Within a day or two, within a week or a year, or even within the next hour, sin brings another cross to us: the loss of honor or possessions, bodily injury or some mishap which brings such trouble. Then it all begins again and the storm breaks out once more. But now we glory in our afflictions because we remember that on the former occasion God was gracious to us, and we know that it is His good will to chastise us, that we may have reason to run to Him and cry, ‘He who has helped me before, please help me now.’ And that self-same longing in your heart (which makes you cry, Oh that I were free! Oh that God would come! Oh that I might receive help!) is hope, which does not put to shame, for God must help such a person. In this way God hides life in death, heaven under hell, wisdom under folly, and grace in our sin.” 7
Knowing the source of true joy, the Christian may be found confident and more than capable of learning and speaking joy’s language.
1) Martin Luther, “Sermons from the Year 1527,” in Luther’s Works W.A., 17, II, 425.
2) David P. Scaer, James, the Apostle of Faith – A Primary Christological Epistle for the Persecuted Church (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2004), 40.
3) Ingvar Fløysvik, When God Becomes My Enemy: The Theology of the Complaint Psalms (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 149-50.
4) See also Judges 10:10-16 and consider the Lord’s response to the people of Israel when they called out to Him for deliverance. Only after they are drawn to repentance and faith, thereby removing all foreign gods from among them, does God’s resistance break and He must be merciful, that is, faithful to His character and promise.
5) The Caananite woman uses the diminutive form of the word “dog” which is to be understood as a puppy dog, part of the family and loved by all, as opposed to a wild street dog. She is thereby expressing that she knows she is part of God’s family and even as the dog, she is loved.
6) Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Volume III –Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1910), 887-88.
7) Martin Luther, “Sermons from the Year 1527,” in Luther’s Works W.A., 17, II, 274.