The Merry Heart (Proverbs 17:22)

Here’s a second example of preaching Proverbs with a focus on a single proverb. Much of Proverbs lends itself to using a compare/contrast strategy in formulating the sermon: not this, but this. That gives the preacher room to play a little bit in driving home the gist of the proverb. In the conclusion, I even sang “The Lord of the Dance.” By playing a little in the preaching, my goal was to help the congregation not just hear the proverb and understand the proverb; I wanted them to feel the proverb—to feel joy. Oh, an another plus for preaching a single proverb: if you repeat it enough, folks will have it memorized by the conclusion of the sermon. Anyway, this is one preacher’s attempt to preach a single proverb.

********

I invite you to open your Bible to Proverbs 17:22.  We’re continuing our series, Spiritual Cardiology, in which we’ve been thinking together about some of the heart texts in the Bible.  As we’ve discovered, such texts diagnose and expose spiritual heart disease.  We’ve already examined the hard heart, the deceitful heart, the bitter heart, and the broken heart, and we’ve learned something of Dr. God’s prescription for healing these heart diseases.  But now it’s time to move away from spiritual heart disease and consider the healthy heart.  And a healthy heart is a merry heart.  Hear the word and wisdom of the Lord in the Proverbs … (read the text).

A joyful heart!  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet: a joyful heart, a happy heart, a cheerful, glad, rejoicing heart, and as King James translated it, “a merry heart.”  All good words—adjectives with a smile on their face, a chuckle in their throat, and a dance in their step.  The joyful heart is good for what ails you.  No wonder the Proverbs calls the joyful heart “good medicine.”

Ask Robert Reid.  Though stricken with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, he moved to Portugal in 1972 to serve as a missionary.  He served there until 1983.  He employed a tutor to teach him the language.  He distributed gospel tracts in a public park.  He engaged people in conversation.  He even married a Portuguese woman named Rosa.  He helped lead 190 people to Christ and made an impact on numerous churches.  Today, in his old age, he lives in his childhood home of Abilene, Texas, and focuses most of his missionary efforts on prison ministries.  On one occasion, he was asked to speak to a group of pastors and missionaries.  They lifted his wheelchair onto the platform.  A friend laid his Bible in his lap.  The audience watched his stiff fingers force open the pages.  It was obvious the sympathetic crowd genuinely felt for him in his disabilities.  Reid could have played for sympathy or pity, but he did something very different.  He raised his bent hand up in the air and declared, “I have everything I need for joy.”[1]

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

Though the disabilities Reid suffers have crushed the spirits of some, they didn’t crush Reid’s.  The good medicine of a joyful heart is just what Dr. God prescribed to lift Reid to joy.

I

Who doesn’t want joy—or, as the world frames it, happiness?  Didn’t Thomas Jefferson suggest that, along with life and liberty, one of the inalienable rights given to us by our Creator is “the pursuit of happiness”?  People certainly pursue it.  Some think they can spend their way to happiness, divorce their way to happiness, indulge their way to happiness, or drink and drug and gamble their way to happiness, only to find that the happiness they gain is temporary, fleeting, and back-loaded with buyer’s remorse.  But it doesn’t keep people from trying. 

Since the mid-90s there’s been a lot of happiness research.  Who are the happy people?  What makes people happy?  Where do the happiest people live?  A lot of research.

A study from 2011 found that Americans are most happy between the ages of—get this—75 and 79. It also found that Americans are unhappiest between 40 and 44. Can anyone say ‘midlife crisis’?[2]

Other studies have found that some of the things that most contribute to happiness are these: giving, serving, forgiving, faith, gratitude, strong relationships.  Happy people also avoid “if only” fantasies (like, “If I only had more money or a better job or better health or a better spouse or whatever”).  And happy people allow themselves to be happy.[3]  They don’t live with some sort of martyr’s complex that thinks they don’t deserve to be happy or to have joy.  No, they choose to be happy.  They allow themselves to be happy.

And a 2013 study found that many of the world’s happiest people live in Northern Europe, with countries like Finland and Denmark right near the top and Norway coming in number one.  Oh, and in case you’re interested, the United States ranked number 11, just behind that burgeoning super-power Luxembourg.[4]  And in terms of the United States, guess which state ranked number one in happiness—no big surprise here, Hawaii.  And guess where Arkansas ranked: 45.[5]  Believe it or not, it has nothing to do with how disappointing Razorback football has been the last couple of years.  If ever a state needed a sermon on the joyful heart, it must be us. 

These studies make clear that people pursue happiness.  They want joy.  And I’d suggest that this very human desire is a reflection of the image of God in our lives.  Since Adam and Eve first bit in the garden and brought down sin on their heads and ours, this desire for joy has been corrupted.  People often chase joy in things and ways that are opposed to God and far from God.  But the pursuit of that joy is rooted in the fact that we are all created in the image of God, and God is full of joy.  God takes delight in His creation (Gen. 1:31).  God works in us, “both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).  Hebrews 1:9 says that God anointed Jesus with the oil of gladness.  Jesus himself declared in John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”  And in Galatians 5:22, Paul writes that part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit is joy.  God is no cosmic sad sack, no celestial killjoy.  And His Son Jesus is more than “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief”; He’s a bundle of joy.  And the Holy Spirit does more than convict of sin; He brings armloads of joy into the life of a believer.  Our pursuit of joy stems from the image of God in our lives. 

Dallas Willard described a scene he witnessed in South Africa in which he walked over a rise near the seashore and caught a view of the ocean that took his breath away.  It was so incredibly beautiful and glorious.  It stirred a profound joy in Willard’s heart as he enjoyed the view.  Willard goes on to say that while he rarely sees such views, God sees them all the time.  While we take joy in the colors and movements of little fish in an aquarium, God has seas full of them, and they are ever before Him.  Willard concludes, “All of the good and beautiful things from which we occasionally drink tiny droplets of soul-exhilarating joy, God continuously experiences in all their breadth and depth and richness.”  No wonder Willard calls God “the most joyous being in the universe.”[6]  And because we are made in God’s image, God has tucked that seed of joy in our hearts.

God has tucked it into the Bible too.  Joy is a predominant description of the Christian life.  The noun occurs 58 times in the New Testament alone.  The verb rejoice occurs 73 times.  And joy and rejoicing are rooted in another New Testament word: grace.  Because we are graced by our God of joy, we can be joyful too.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

II

There are plenty of crushed spirits around, so why don’t we take our medicine—the medicine of a joyful heart.  And it is medicine.  In India, laughter is made a form of medical therapy through “laughing clubs.”  The first one opened in the mid-90s and hundreds more since then.  In the 1990s in Bogota, Columbia, the mayor had to deal with increasing episodes of road rage.  People were getting killed.  You know what the mayor did?  He dressed the traffic cops in clown costumes.  Much to everyone’s astonishment, the experiment worked.[7]  Laughter is good medicine.  Laughing reduces stress.  Why do you think there’s a category of laughter we call “the nervous laugh”?  Because it at least momentarily breaks tension and reduces stress.  Why do you think that when I preach on touchy, stress-y subjects like money and marriage I use a little humor?  Why do you think during occasional tense discussions in meetings, I employ a witty comment here and there?  To reduce tension and lighten a moment.  Laughter is good for you.  It even provides exercise.  Laughter works both facial and abdominal muscles.  It burns calories.  It lifts heavy hearts.  It usually leaves a feeling of serenity in its wake.  And laughter is no stranger to the person with a joyful heart.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

III

In the record of Christian history, we discover that numbers of Christians have taken this medicine to heart.  The first Christians were so joyful they were accused of being drunk.  The first Franciscans had to be reproved for laughing in church because they were so happy.  During the Reformation the reformed church set Christian lyrics to tunes they borrowed from the barroom.  The first Methodists stole some of their hymn-tunes from operas and set the songs of Zion to dance music.

My God, I am Thine; what a comfort divine
What a blessing to know that Jesus is mine!
In the heavenly Lamb, thrice happy I am
And my heart it doth dance at the sound of His name.

The first Salvationists danced.  In fact, they jumped with joy.  General Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, told them that if they felt the Spirit move them they could leap in a hymn or a prayer.  They leapt all right.  One Dr. Farmer, a very prim and proper organist at a large church in England, used to tell how he adjudicated at a great music festival, and he heard a Salvation Army band in action for the very first time.  His most educated musical soul was offended both by the drummer and the man with the French horn.  He appealed to the drummer not to hit the drum so hard, to which the beaming bands-man replied, “Oh, sir, I’m so happy I could burst the blessed drum!”  When Dr. Farmer turned with a similar appeal to the man with the French horn, the man held up the much-twisted instrument and said, “But sir, I’m so full of joy I want to blow this thing quite straight!”[8]

And in the Great Awakening joyful outbursts were common and sometimes considered proof of one’s salvation.  When one had the “falls” he let out a scream of repentance, fell suddenly to the floor where he lay mute and motionless for a time and then returned to consciousness with a “heavenly smile.”  The “rolling” exercise was another outburst of joy in which one seized by the spirit of joy would roll over every obstacle (pews, stumps, or logs) until his spirit was calmed (thus the term “holy roller”).  The “holy dance” was late in arising and early in declining, but for a while it was considered an apt expression of praise and joy in which during a worship service one would go into a monotonous dance pattern keeping rhythm with a lively tune.  (I saw this happen in worship in Jamaica).  And then there was even the “holy laugh,” a soft, audible, rhythmic tone which young people found irresistible.  And because of its quiet nature, it outlasted other exercises of joy—the “holy laugh.”[9]  A few years ago, this “holy laugh” made a re-appearance in the Toronto revival.

Through our Christian history, joy has found a way to bubble up from the soul in any number of expressions.  And it’s provided some good medicine for the church.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

IV

Sadly, along the way, some Christians tried to squelch joy.  They seemed to assume that “a crushed spirit” was more godly than a joyful heart.  The renowned ancient St. John of the Cross advised believers to mortify all joy and hope, to turn “not to what most pleases, but to what disgusts” and to “despise yourself, and that others should despise you.”  St. Bernard habitually covered his eyes to avoid the beauty of Swiss lakes.  The Puritans, as H. L. Mencken once described them, were persons with a haunting fear that someone somewhere is happy.  Much of 20th century Protestantism worked diligently to avoid any levity or humor in their gatherings.  Legalistic Christians have always done more to steal joy than to give it, to crush spirits rather than cure them.  And the late columnist Erma Bombeck once famously penned a column in which she wrote about overhearing a mother in her church scold her small child for smiling at people in the pews around him.  He turned around and looked at the people behind him and just smiled.  The kid wasn’t doing anything disrupting—no crying, no whining, no fiddling with hymnals, no noise of any kind; he was just smiling at the people around him.  And his mother snapped this classic line at her little boy: “Stop that grinning!  You’re in church.”[10]  Really?  Don’t the world and the devil do enough to crush our spirits and steal our joy without the church piling on and giving such aid and comfort to the enemy?

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

V

So choose joy!  “But, preacher, my spirit is crushed.  And if you knew my circumstances, you’d realize there is no room for joy in my heart.”  Oh yes there is—because joy is not dictated by circumstances.  Joy is more about faith than about feeling.  We faith our way to joy.  If we couldn’t faith our way to joy, the Bible wouldn’t couch it as a command and teach us that joy is something we can choose.  The psalmist declared, “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (118:24).  Choose joy!  To the Philippians Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).  Choose joy!  And to the Thessalonians Paul wrote, “Be joyful always” (1 Thess. 5:16).  Choose joy!  God wouldn’t command something He wouldn’t empower us to do.  Remember: part of the fruit of the Spirit is joy.  So when the Spirit is in your life, joy is in your life.  You have to lay hold of it in faith.  Paul did.  He wrote those commands to be joyful not from a beach resort in southern Italy; he wrote those commands behind prison bars in Rome.  Choose joy!

Sure, studies show that we can contribute to our happiness when we do things like give and forgive, serve others and cultivate healthy relationships, exercise faith and cultivate gratitude.  Those things help, but the source of the joyful heart is not in the things we do.  The source is in what God has done for us in Christ.  We can only find our deepest joy, joy that lasts, when we live in relationship with God—a relationship made possible because, as Hebrews teaches, Jesus, “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” (Heb. 12:2).  Don’t look for your joy in the world; find your joy in Jesus.  The world will break your heart; Jesus never fails.  Don’t look for your joy in circumstances.  Circumstances are fickle and changing all the time; “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb. 13:8).  Lean into Jesus and develop your relationship with Him.  The deeper you go into Jesus, the deeper your joy.  Like Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail, you’ll find a song even when bombs and bullets and battles are exploding all around you.  It may be the blues for a while, but it will be a song of Jesus’ faithfulness and love.  And if you can’t sing when your spirit is crushed, then remember God’s promises:

  • And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).
  • Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:39).
  • For this light and momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison (2 Cor. 4:17)
  • The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit (Ps. 34:18).
  • In this world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world (John 16:33).
  • And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Lay hold of the promises of God.  Speak God’s promises to your pain.  Take your burdens to Jesus.  Relax into the joy of the Holy Spirit in your life.  And in spite of your circumstances, joy will bubble up in your soul, and you may find yourself whistling in the dark.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones

VI

It was Bible School as usual on that summer day so many years ago.  I had been visiting with various classes, and it was my time to sit down with the kindergarteners.  Usually, these visits became question and answer sessions.  And kids can ask some great questions.  More often than you’d think the youngest kids ask me about death.  So we were talking about that kind of thing, as much as we could on a kindergarten level.  I was trying to be as engaged as I could but that was a tough week.  On top of VBS every day and my regular preparations and responsibilities, as I recall I also had a couple of funerals that week for people I genuinely loved.  So not only was I already feeling rather crushed and pressed and dried in spirit, the conversation felt heavy too.  And that’s when a boy named Noah, a kid who didn’t have the easiest life in the world, spontaneously shot up his hand and in the most random of comments said, “My mommy taught me a song this week, and I want to sing it.”  And before I even gave permission, he stood up and broke into song—this song

I danced in the morning when the world was begun,
And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.
And I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth;
At Bethlehem I had my birth.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee,
But they wouldn't dance, and they wouldn't follow me;
I danced for the fishermen, for James and John
They came with me, and the dance went on.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced on the Sabbath, and I cured the lame;
The holy people said it was a shame.
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high.
And they left me there on the cross to die.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black;
It's hard to dance with the devil on your back.
They buried my body, and they thought I'd gone;
But I am the dance, and I still go on.

They cut me down, and I leapt up high;
I am the life that'll never, never die.
I'll live in you if you'll live in me;
I am the Lord of the dance, said he.

Dance, then, wherever you may be
I am the Lord of the dance, said he,
And I'll lead you all wherever you may be,
And I'll lead you all in the dance, said he.

He sang the whole thing acapella and in key and with the most beatific smile on his face.  My eyes welled up.  I smiled too.  And in spite of a painful, pressured week, I kind of wanted … to dance.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.


[1]http://maxlucado.com/read/topical/peace-that-defies-pain/ and other internet sites.

[2]http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/12/age-and-happiness_n_4773484.html

[3]This kind of data is readily available on the internet through a google search “what makes people happy”  

[4]http://www.forbes.com/sites/christopherhelman/2013/10/29/the-worlds-happiest-and-saddest-countries-2013/

[5]http://info.healthways.com/wbi2013

[6]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1998), 62-64.

[7]I found this information on India and Colombia in Leonard Sweet, Learn to Dance the Soul Salsa (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 188-189.

[8]I am indebted for most of the material in this historical survey to a sermon by William Sangster cited in 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. XI (Waco: Word Books, 1971), 341-342.

[9]This Great Awakening survey is cited in Hugh Wamble, Through Trial to Triumph (Nashville: Convention Press, 1958), 42-43.

[10]Much of this historical survey is found in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 31-33.

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