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On Narratives and Joy

by Michael Roop
As I conclude my morning devotions in John 14-17, I’m struck by how lavishly Jesus promises joy will fall on those of His followers who will ask for it in His name (16:16-24). And as I begin to pray for that joy, I’m struck all the more by the thought patterns, the deep grooves in my mind, that run contrary to joy.

I’ve come to understand “judgment,” the action that Jesus forbids during the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:1), as ascribing one’s faulty actions to their character. He’s late because he’s selfish. She’s poor because she’s lazy. He votes that way because he’s unwilling to think it through. She says that because she’s mean. It’s never circumstantial, never explained by a multitude of complex factors; it’s just who they are.

And when that thought pattern finds a home in my mind, it becomes almost impossible for me to love them the way Jesus loved them. It becomes almost impossible for us to be unified as the Son and the Father are. It becomes almost impossible for my life and our relationships to display the love the Father has for us in Christ.

How I think about other people matters deeply. The story I’ve created about them, the one that explains why they are like they are, matters deeply. It is a matter of morality, of familial love, of fidelity to the Savior who refused to look at me through a lens of judgment. To choose in the moment to believe that “he’s always like that” or “she’ll always do that” is a sin of judgment against a son or daughter of God. It fundamentally disagrees with God’s decision to die for him or for her.

How can a person ever find true and lasting joy if their thought life is defined by these patterns of judgment?

This, no doubt, is why Paul admonishes that we “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). I’ve never before considered that these “thoughts” surrounded how I account for other people’s character. The kind of character I decide is true about them, and then reaffirm mentally every time they do that thing again. This disobeys Christ. And this is a standard of judgment I would never, ever want applied to myself.

Turns out the pathway to experiencing this promised joy is through the renewal of my mind (Rom. 12:2). Which, in this case, doesn’t refer to ascending to certain objective truth claims about God, this world, sin, or destiny. In this case, the renewal of my mind is the reforging of grooves and patterns. New default explanations for unexplained behavior that are defined by grace rather than judgment, by love rather than self-righteous anger.

Just before his admonition to take our thoughts captive, Paul tells us how: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). There is power in the name of Jesus to break the chains I have fashioned, the chains with which I have bound myself by a lazy disposition toward my own thoughts. My mind can be renewed by the Holy Spirit in me, the Power that raised Jesus from the dead (Eph. 1:19-21).

Father, may the free-flow of judgmental, self-centered narratives be dammed up by the grace showed me in Christ. May that grace infuse the thoughts and stories I have about others so that we can be one. So that they will know Jesus was sent by you. So that they, too, can find the promised, unending joy available to those who ask in Jesus’ name.