Joy in the face of hatred

We humans are social creatures. I don’t mean we’re all extraverts (or “extroverts,” if you prefer) — I mean our growth, development, and sense of self all depend on our relationship to others. How people treat us or respond to us matters, even when we say we don’t care. And nobody, unless they have had their souls twisted by cruelty, actually wants to be hated.

So it might a sound a little strange when Jesus prays that his disciples would be full of joy in the face of being hated by the world.

He’s warned them before that the world would hate them for being his disciples (John 15:18-21). Up until now, they have been with him, and he’s kept them safe (17:12). But he’s leaving, and he therefore prays for the Father to take over the job (17:11).

Then he prays this:

Now I’m coming to you and I say these things while I’m in the world so that they can share completely in my joy. I gave your word to them and the world hated them, because they don’t belong to this world, just as I don’t belong to this world. (John 17:13-14, CEB)

The hatred that the disciples will face may not always be of the virulent kind, though history records that nearly all of them met violent ends. In the context of a culture based on honor and shame, family and friends may shun them for their own good, so they can see the error of their ways and return to the fold.

But the question here is how they could possibly experience joy in the face of such treatment. Does Jesus just mean some other tepid kind of “joy,” something like pasting a wan smile over their suffering while trying really hard to remain optimistic?

That’s not what the book of Acts seems to describe, when the apostles are beaten to within an inch of their lives and go on their way rejoicing that they have had the privilege of suffering shame and pain for Jesus’ sake (5:41).

Jesus knows that the greatest shame the world has to offer is awaiting him: death on a cross. And yet he prays as one who already has a handle on joy. I’m reminded of what the writer to the Hebrews says: Jesus “endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne” (12:2). It was the tangible prospect of the joy of union with the Father that made the pain and shame of the cross endurable.

Is such a joy really possible? Yes — but only to those who are in the world but not of it, as Jesus was. More on that in the next post.

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