Whoa, there!

When I started this word study over a year ago, I was desperately hoping to better understand joy, its causes, its inhibitors, etc., so that I could have more of it. I still want that. I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t want that. But as I stumbled the other day upon 1 Corinthians 7, I ran smack into the words of verses 29-31. While I generally think that what I need is more joy, the apostle Paul offered a rather startling exhortation: “The time is limited, so from now on… those who rejoice [should be] as though they did not rejoice.” Talk about bringing me to a sudden and complete, screeching halt. Although I have read 1 Corinthians 7 countless times in preparation for pre-marital and marriage counseling and more, I find myself struck for the first time by the ramifications of this statement: it’s possible to have too much joy.

As I think about it, of course, I realize that it must be true. I mean, I’ve met a couple of people that were quite simply so “joyful” that I wanted nothing more than to pop their little bubbles. Or maybe just their heads. And I know others that people – myself included – would readily describe as “too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good.” These people take joy to an unhealthy level where it actually begins to inhibit their effectiveness as witnesses for Jesus because they just drive people nuts and as constructive members of society because they can never get anything done!

And did I mention that they drive me crazy?

So the question, then, is this: how much is too much joy? And how do I find the balance, that point at which I have the maximum amount of joy that’s good while not crossing over the threshold to having too much?

It is this question which I believe Paul aimed to address in 1 Corinthians 7, at least in passing. Here, nestled amid a bunch of awesome teaching about relationships, single-ness, and more, the apostle suggests that “those who rejoice [should be] as though they did not rejoice” in verse 30, and then in verse 35 explains, “I am saying this for your own benefit, not to put a restraint on you, but because of what is proper and so that you may be devoted to the Lord without distraction.”

There are four things about that statement which catch my attention: (1) it’s for my benefit; (2) it’s not to restrain (or limit) me; (3) the balancing point is what’s “proper;” and (4) the point is that we be fully devoted – without distraction – to the Lord.

The first two of these are a bit hard to believe, but they are nonetheless reassuring. God doesn’t want to limit my joy because he’s mildly sadistic or some sort of divine killjoy.

For my purposes, though, I’m more interested in what’s going on with the other two bits here. What does it mean that I should restrain my joy “because of what is proper”? Often, I find that, when I have such questions, it’s good to consult other translations. In this case, the ESV offers, “to promote good order,” the KJV offers, “for that which is comely,” the NIV1984 reads, “that you may live in a right way,” the Weymouth suggests, “to help towards what is becoming,” and the NLT and NET group the two things, saying, “I want you to do whatever will help you serve the Lord best” and “”so that without distraction you may give notable and constant service to the Lord.” That doesn’t help me all that much. So I turned to Strong’s to figure out what’s going on and found this definition: “well-formed, i.e., (figuratively) decorous, noble (in ran): – comely, honourable.” Essentially, then, the idea is that I would be able to do what’s good. Apparently, too much joy inhibits me from doing the right thing. Perhaps because it inhibits me from doing anything.

I suppose that’s probably what this is about. God wants me to limit my joy so that I will do something, and that something will be good.

Then there is this other bit: “so that you may be devoted to the Lord without distraction.” According to Strong’s, the word behind “devoted to” means “sitting well towards” or “attend upon.” In other words, it’s my top (and only) priority. And the word we see rendered in the HCSB as “without distraction” means exactly that: that I would be focused exclusively on the task of being devoted to the Lord.

I guess that makes sense. I mean, how often, when I’ve been celebrating or rejoicing in the past, have I kind of forgotten what I was supposed to be doing for God? So God wants me to limit my joy so that I can remain focused on serving Him. That makes sense.

The question, then, becomes, how much joy can I experience before I cross the line into inappropriate? Well, I guess that Paul doesn’t give me a hard and fast answer on tht. How would one measure it anyway? I mean, can you measure rejoicing in the number of whoops? The number of decibels in general? The amounts of neurochemicals which are released into your body? Maybe there is some sort of joy meter that can plug into my body somewhere. The kids have been asking me why people have belly buttons.

I suspect that would be a bit legalistic for Paul, and a bit ridiculous for me. So I guess the best answer I may be able to get is, “It depends.” But I can also tell you that, in general, I have a long way to go before my joy level hits that red zone where I’ll start being less effective and/or distracted from my devotion to the Lord. So I guess I won’t worry about it too much today. I’ll just be mindful of it.

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