How within a handful of minutes does one take measure of a life, especially the life of a parent, and particularly the life of an extraordinarily godly, Christian parent? It cannot – and perhaps should not – be attempted. But to say something is preferable to saying nothing, even if the something is woefully insufficient. That is my difficult task today.
My mother exhibited many Christian virtues, and she exhibited them extraordinarily, but I’ve chosen only one to enumerate. It is the one that, in my view, characterized her life more than any other. For social media, my mother selected the name Joy Bell. There is a reason for this: she considered joy a vital part of the Christian life. She valued joy. She desired joy. And she had joy.
We often consider joy a secondary and optional Christian virtue. The Bible gives it a much more prominent place. In the Old Testament, God threatens terrible things to his people if they do not live lives of joy in him (Dt. 28:47–48). We read in Psalm 16:11, “Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore.” Jesus told his disciples that he came in order that they might have maximum joy (Jn. 17:13). Again and again the Bible speaks of the gift of joy and of rejoicing in all that God is done, is doing, and will do. To be a joy-less Christian is to be less than a Christian.
My mother knew this fact, because she studied the Bible carefully. She consistently reflected this joy.
She knew that joy is not identical to fun. Joy is not evidenced by incessant laughter. Joy is not the product of exciting or peaceful circumstances. Joy is knowing and loving God and his Son and other believers, delighting in the Lord and walking in his paths.
Joy does not presuppose exemption from trying circumstances. Like all of us other Christians, she suffered the trials of life: loss of friends; misunderstanding of loved ones; material fluctuations; and, of course, severe illness. But she did not abandon her joy.
She had great joy in her husband, my father, whom she loved — and loves — so much, and who taught her so much about the Lord and the Bible, and who always provided faithfully for her.
She had great joy in her children grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, on whom she often looked with the greatest love and admiration.
She rejoiced in her parents and sisters and brother and delighted in family reunions, and enjoyed few things more in life than simply having her family surrounding her — watching them.
What joy she took in singing both at home and church! She sang deeply moving, Spirit-filled, painstakingly articulated solos – hymns and gospel songs, to thousands of saints and sinners across the United States for over 40 years.
She rejoiced in her church, including this church. She enjoyed singing not just solos, but congregationally, and she rejoiced to hear the word of God faithfully preached.
She took overwhelming joy in the word of God. She loved it, she believed it, she read it, she studied it, and she obeyed it. Early in their marriage, my father encouraged her to get into the word, and she never got out of it. Although she got plenty out of it.
Most of all, she rejoiced in her Savior Jesus Christ. As a young girl in Sunday school, she trusted Jesus Christ for salvation. Our Lord himself said that if we were to come to him, we must come as little children, with a very simple, guileless, unadorned faith. She trusted Jesus Christ and his atoning death on the cross and his bodily resurrection to save her, and she never looked back, never doubted. It was this great, overwhelming life commitment that guided her, in which all her joy was rooted.
This brings me to my final and most significant point. My mother did not simply find joy in people or things. Joy was a part of her very being. To be Salle Jo was to be joyful.
We live in dark times. Of course, the world has been afflicted with moral darkness since man’s Fall in the garden. Our times are especially dark due to the loss of Christian influence in the Western world and our nation. This sin produces sadness. The world is full of sadness because it is full of sin. In the middle of this sadness, an island of joy in a sea of sadness, was Joy Bell. With David she could say, “I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me” (Ps. 13:5-6). When our heart fixed on God, joy is the fruit.
I’m quite sure that I never witnessed my mother reflect a sustained spirit of pessimism. Realism, yes. Recognizing the evils of sin and hardships, yes. But she always had an optimistic outlook. Her attitude: Things will change for the better. Why? Because God answers prayer, and she prayed. Romans 12:12 calls us to rejoice in hope. She was joyful because she was full of hope, and she was full of hope because she trusted Jesus Christ, and she trusted Jesus Christ because she believed the Bible. And the Bible is the most hope- and joy-filled book in the world.
The day after my mother died (my birthday), I started to wonder what emotions I would experience at her passing. I didn’t have to wait long. I soon experienced a wave of gratification and satisfaction — of joy. She had lived a joy-filled, Christian life to the fullest. As she told one of her granddaughters, she had no regrets. She grew up in a faithful Christian family. She attended and served in stellar Christian churches. She married a godly Christian man. She was a devoted mother to four children. She sang God-glorifying music around the country and in the British Isles. And she died a Christian death. What was there to regret? A life without regret is a life of joy.
If Mom were here today, I need not speculate on what she would tell you. You were meant for a life full of joy. And joy is found in casting yourself entirely on the Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for your and my sins, and he is alive today interceding for us with his Father, and he will one day return to the earth to consummate eternal joy.
My Mom did not always have the strongest physical constitution, and I sometimes wondered how she endured the vicissitudes of life. After serious and sustained reflection, I believe I now have the answer. It was the same answer that Nehemiah gave ancient Israel:
Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength. (Nehemiah 8:10)
My mother’s great, underlying, overarching, strength was the joy of the Lord. This is what kept her going. This is what made her hopeful. This is what carried her into her Lord’s bosom.