The Image of Joy

Matt Connally

Matt Connally is a pastor in the United States. He received an MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and a Bachelors of Journalism from The University of Texas, where he served as editor of The Daily Texan from 1991-92. He has also worked with Campus Crusade for Christ for several years both in the United States and Asia.

The Nature of Competition and the Competition of Nature
What do you get when a set of laws are written down so that a group of people can follow them as strictly as possible? The laws even stipulate that specially appointed guardians and officials will teach and enforce the laws, and assign various degrees of penalty for breaking them. Regardless, people absolutely love both to follow the rules and also to help and encourage others to do the same. Indeed, they want to share this wealth with all nations and invite anyone who is able to participate. What do you call such a phenomenon?
Well, you could call it the books of Leviticus or Deuteronomy or just the Bible. Of course you could also call it the Olympic Games. In both cases the author(s) of all the rules had the same purpose in mind: pure, unbridled joy. Some of the more difficult rules at first seem almost arbitrary, but in the end we find they enhance the purpose of it all.
Sport is unique to the human species. All of creation follows rules and competes, but only one creature creates rules to follow…just for the fun of it. How is it such a fundamental part of our being that every two years it unites all nations?

What is Competition?
Perhaps the purest form of competition is sport, but that is certainly not the only place we see it. If ever there were a self-evident truth in life, it is the phenomenon of a mutually benefiting struggle—iron sharpening iron. That is how we can define competition, and we see it not just in nature where animals and plants compete to create new life. We also see it in economies as businessmen strive to create new products and services. We see it in political and technological races. We see it in the education system as resume jocks compete for scholarships. We even see it in the justice system as lawyers and legislators endeavor to establish the greatest peace. And then, of course, there is romance.
So now, what is it? We know what the word “competition” means, but do we know what exactly it is?—this self-evident, all-pervasive, non-negotiable governing word of the cosmos.
In all its forms and at all times it absolutely depends and even thrives on established rules. Sports have rules. Economies and governments have rules. Nature has lots and lots and lots of rules, some of which we have translated into English (or some other language) but most of which we can just tell that the rules are there even if we haven’t translated them. For example, there is a fearless little dive-bombing sea bird of the Galapagos Islands called the Blue-footed Boobie, and it has a courtship dance that appears to be as carefully evaluated by the participants as are figure skaters by Olympic judges. Similarly, just as the graduates of Julliard must meet certain criteria, so also nightingales and humpback whales must exhibit excellence as they sing their songs and play their tunes.  Likewise the peacock’s dedication to beauty has been so finely tuned that only an expert can distinguish one from the other. And it’s all according to some particular unwritten standards (though presumably they actually are written in the DNA even though, again, we haven’t translated them into English) that can often seem completely arbitrary to the novice.
Surely competition is more than just a set of rules? Nevertheless it may not itself be more than a word—a really awesome, powerful, beautiful word; an expression of desire to create something new, whether it be new life, new art, new technology, new medicine, new understanding. To compete is to strive to create something good, and also to want others to do the same. After all, no one likes to play a game where the teams are way unmatched; to the contrary, we want opponents who are just as good as or a little better than we are, so they can push us. We don’t want to create anything less than the best.
In its purest form of sport it is simply the recreation of joy. That can be hard to believe in a time of multimillion dollar contracts and rampant steroid abuse, but of course the ideal is still true: the purpose of sports is simply good, clean fun.
And if the word joy applies to anything—anything at all—it applies to singing, dancing birds and bees and wildflowers. So we could say that all of nature struggles—though does not always succeed—in an expression of the joy of creating life. This doesn’t necessarily mean that all creatures author or understand this expression. Do beavers perceive fun any more than they perceive engineering? Do spiders perceive competition any more than they perceive geometry? Birds’ songs may be an expression of joy, but that doesn’t mean the birds are the authors of it any more than are IPods or DVDs or paintings.
So who is the author of it all—all these rules guiding all the extraordinarily intelligent, complex, creative, expressions of joy? According to the Bible, the Creator is self-evident. “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” (Romans 1:20)
It does not say that he is loud or flamboyant; to the contrary the Bible says that God is gentle and meek. But he does communicate very, very clearly.

Are You Listening?
That does not mean that we do not need to listen very carefully, ask questions, and then keep asking and seeking. Everywhere scientists look in nature—whether they look through a telescope or through a microscope or just take a walk in the woods—they discover rational, creative communication. (Again, if the words rational and creative apply to anything at all, then they apply to self-evident truths like photosynthesis and DNA.) But they have to study for many years and listen very carefully before than can perceive and translate it. Similarly perhaps, God speaks very clearly but also wants us to listen carefully.
The disciples came to Jesus once and asked him why he spoke in parables which the crowds did not understand.
And he answered them, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

"You will indeed hear but never understand,and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them. But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it." (Matthew 13:11-17)

In other words, he spoke to them in parables because they were not listening. They had their own preconceived ideas of what God should be like, and it was definitely not a meek, lowly teacher born to peasants and traveling with a band of rednecks. They wanted a messiah who dazzled and overpowered and confounded people, and drew the world’s attention to himself. Jesus didn’t do that.
The passage that he quotes in his response is from the book of Isaiah and is about 700 years old at the time (i.e. from the 8th century B.C.). Isaiah was a prophet serving in the Temple in Jerusalem, where he had an awesome vision of God—the kind of vision people liked, full of thunder and power and awe. And in the vision he heard God speak, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then Isaiah said, "Here am I! Send me." And God said, "Go, and say to this people: “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand…[the passage that Jesus quoted]’”. (Isaiah 6:1-9)
In other words, none of God’s people (the Israelites) were paying attention to him or obeying his words, so he sent Isaiah to preach in a way that they would want to pay even less attention and would close their eyes and ears even more. Such that when Isaiah preached, this was the people’s response:

"To whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast? For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little."
And this was God’s judgment on them for that response:
"For by people of strange lips and with a foreign tongue the LORD will speak to this people, to whom he has said, "This is rest; give rest to the weary; and this is repose"; yet they would not hear. And the word of the LORD will be to them precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little, that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken."

When the people read the Scriptures—such as Leviticus or Deuteronomy—all they heard were just a bunch of nit-picky rules: “precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.” So when God sent Isaiah to preach to them, He intended for them to still hear a bunch of rules, as if Isaiah were talking to children, to “those who are weaned from milk”. Keep in mind that although God was speaking to them in this way He was also telling them, first through Isaiah and then through Jesus, exactly how and why He was speaking to them this way.
Nevertheless they would still stubbornly refuse to see and hear the purpose for all the rules—joy, and life abundant. They would complain and grumble about all the rules, how difficult some of them were and how arbitrary some of them appeared. They would cheat, bribe the umpires, and try to cripple their competitors.
Why do we do it? Why do we bring such evil into the world?
Suffering and pain are not the problem. When an athlete suffers pain we do not say he is enduring something evil. Indeed, people will go through all kinds of pain and suffering just for the fun of it. But the problem is that we cheat. Why do we cheat and lie and steal? Why do we lust after the gold? Is it God’s fault?
The Bible says that it is not His fault, but that He will still take the blame for it.

Why death?
After all, someone has to pay the penalty. There can be no joy, no life, no prize, no peace, where there are no rules. And the penalty in God’s kingdom is death—not just for people but for every living thing in the creation which God entrusted people with.
On that point, by the way, scientists are divided as to why living things age and die, and they generally understand very little about it. Our bodies do not “wear out” in the way that cars and clothes wear out, for they are quite capable of replenishing themselves. Instead our bodies appear to be programmed, literally in the DNA, to slowly break down and die. It starts at the cellular level, and then reaches the tissues and finally the organs. And then we die.
Which is a beyond astonishing phenomenon that absolutely beggars the imagination of scientists. In fact, to conclude that we are programmed to die is so outrageously counterintuitive that many scientists reject it out of hand. It simply cannot be true; surely there just has to be another explanation.
But according to the Bible the Creator has commanded death as the wages of sin. However, God is also able and willing to pay that penalty for anyone who will accept it. “The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy,” Jesus said. “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) He suffered an excruciating (literally, “out from the cross”) death that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting life.
Why did he do it? For the joy of seeing His redeemed enter into His rest. “Therefore…let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

We do not follow a bunch of rules or principles or a moral code. We follow a person. We follow Him because He loves us and because He is worthy of all honor and glory and praise.
We follow Him because we love Him and we want to know Him better. When champions fall and are revealed as cheaters, we look at them in a whole new light. “Who are you?!” we declare. “We thought we knew you. We thought you were an athlete. But athletes don’t cheat. Athletes don’t lust after the gold.” Similarly Jesus said that someday when He does return in all His majesty and power, there will be some who are labeled as religious champions but whom He will not know. (Matthew 7:21-23) He knows those who love Him. He will come for those who followed him for the joy of knowing Him and making him known, even at the cost of great suffering and hardship to themselves.