The last shepherd to return from gathering firewood dropped a meager load of sticks on the ground beside the sputtering fire. He looked at his partners huddled close to the feeble flame and knew they faced another long, cold night ahead. Drawing his cloak tighter around his shoulders, he gazed upward at the deep and mysterious sky. The moon had already set, leaving behind stars so brilliant the young man felt he could brush them with his hands and watch them fall like apple blossoms in his father’s orchard back home.
‘Home’ was a bittersweet word to him after so many months away with the flock. He slept on the ground, ate cold food most of the time, and—above all—spent day and night watching over the most stubborn and seemingly stupid creatures God ever made. Surely he could expect more from his life than this? He’d heard David’s writing in the synagogue: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul” (Psalm 23:1-3). “Beautiful words,” the shepherd thought, “but when will they come true for me?”
He stretched his aching muscles one last time, bid his fellows goodnight, and lay down on the frigid ground. Perhaps in his dreams he’d find the promised land of God’s blessing which seemed so elusive in the light of day.
“What is that?” one of the other shepherds said. “Do you see that?”
In irritation, the shepherd rolled over for a look, expecting to see the men searching the shadows for some phantom threat to the sheep. Instead, they all sat gazing upward into the sky.
“It’s coming closer,” another said. “What is that?”
As the shepherd sat up the hilltop suddenly burst into light—more luminous and warming than the brightest day he’d ever seen. Strangely, the light didn’t hurt his eyes. He scrambled to his feet to join his friends, and they clung to each other, terrified. Suddenly a man stood before them, as radiant and pure as the light surrounding him.
The angel of the Lord looked at the frightened men, and said, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10).
Despite his fear, as the shepherd listened to these words, a joyous laughter he couldn’t contain began to bubble up in him. A savior? After all our waiting, there is a child of flesh and blood sent from God? Can it be true?
Suddenly the doors of heaven itself were thrown open above them and a vast chorus of angels appeared, singing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Oh, pure joy! It swirled around him like healing water, lifting his heart above the drudgery of his life and the anxiety that had been his constant companion. He wasn’t alone or forgotten! God cared for him after all! Tears rolled down the shepherd’s face as he fell to his knees. He would go to Bethlehem to find this savior—but he knew his search for a pathway to redemption and reconciliation with God had come to an end. He believed what the angel told him: this baby would make it possible to finally find salvation—and lasting joy—in God.
Make a Joyful Noise
In this story, at the very beginning of Jesus’ life and ministry, we find one gift meant to be its end result—deep joy at the awesome news of our salvation. To experience anything less is to have missed the point—and missed out on the full-spectrum, whole-life transformation God had in mind. His plan did not include leaving us stuck in an earthly limbo of hardship and doubt. Ours is a fantastic inheritance of joyful freedom. To announce the news, he sent a multitude of messengers who couldn’t wait to shout and sing it out to the high heavens.
Rejoice! Emmanuel has come! God is with you! Come out of hiding and join him again in Eden!
How else can we respond to that but to literally leap for joy?
This is the promise of salvation—and the inevitable fruit of a life of openness and honesty with God. “For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17). This is what makes all the vulnerability and initial discomfort of deep honesty with him worthwhile—the living water of joy.
Deep and open honesty with God leads to great joy because:
1. Honesty clears away the falsehoods that keep us from seeing God’s love as it really is. Way back in Eden, the entire drama of human history began with the serpent’s lie: “Eat of this tree and you’ll be like God.” And he’s been lying ever since. Jesus went so far as to say, “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).
His lies have confused and confounded us into believing all sorts of baloney about ourselves and God: that we must earn our way into His grace; that our Father is angry, vengeful, and grudging with his blessing and acceptance; that we are forever stained and unworthy to enter His presence (even under the covering of Christ’s blood).
The day we overcome our reluctance to be open and honest with God is a day of joyful liberation. It is when, like exhausted shepherds on a lonely hillside, we receive the best news of our lives: God is with us—period. Rejoice!
2. Honesty permits direct experience of God’s presence, where we once hesitated to go. Having received this news, and responded by receiving a deeper relationship with God, we are free to see for ourselves what is true about Him and what is just a lingering lie. Openness and honesty is a step away from only seeing God “through a glass, darkly”. No longer in hiding, we move toward perceiving him as he truly is: holy, forgiving, generous, and infinitely loving. Put that together with the knowledge that, by the miracle of salvation in Christ, we aren’t mere servants in his household—by His own invitation we are his beloved sons and daughters!—and I dare you to restrain an outburst of joy.
3. Honesty relieves us of the scourge of self-judgment. So long as we remain in hiding, alone with our sin, it is easy to wallow in guilt and shame. We flog ourselves with memories of every time we failed to live up to expectations—ours or those of others—and cringe with shock and dismay at the depth of our unworthiness. Since we don’t allow God to answer for Himself in such moments, it is easy to imagine He feels about us the same way we do—deeply disappointed. Not much occasion for joy in this scenario, that’s for sure!
But when I bring those same shortfalls to Him in honest and open confession—what happens? Insults and scolding? Hardly! Like the dad in the story of the prodigal son, my Father orders a feast in my honor, runs to meet me with princely robes and a ring of belonging. Seeing God’s gladness at the prospect of reconciliation with me, my self-recrimination vanishes like shadows when I turn on a light—and his joy becomes my own.
4. Honesty centers us in Christ, the author of all joy and our hope of salvation. As we have seen, Jesus is the only doorway into a deeper and more honest relationship with God. It is only by His atonement for our sins that we may enter God’s presence at all. But once there, and once we choose the vulnerability of being truly open and honest, something miraculous happens: that very honesty in turn strengthens our bond with Christ as the center of our lives. It is an ever deepening and widening spiral of transformation, each step empowering the next.
Honesty with God isn’t another exercise in disciplined devotion. It is the key that opens the vault holding our inheritance in Christ—salvation from sin and the unstoppable living water of joy that flows from it.