A Jesus Freak whose joy overflows is a puzzling thing to a watching world. But that’s not a bad thing. Let your light make ’em curious! Let people see your peace under pressure and wonder what your secret is. Maybe they’ll work up the courage to ask you about it. Joy in the midst of suffering always confounds those who don’t possess it.
One day, on the way to visit some friends, Englishman John Denley was stopped and searched by the authorities, who found his written confession of faith. Denley believed the church was built upon the apostles and prophets, with Christ as its head. He also believed that the present state of the church, the Church of England in the 1500s, was not part of this true Church. At that time, many of its teachings were contrary to the Bible.
For his beliefs he was turned over to a local government official, who turned him over to the bishop for questioning. Denley would not back down from his statement of faith, so he was condemned to die.
Within six weeks he was sent to the stake to be burned. When they lit the wood beneath him, Denley showed no fear. He cheerfully sang a psalm as the flames rose around him. One of his tormentors picked up a piece of wood and threw it at him, hitting him in the face. He hoped to anger or silence Denley, but Denley only responded, "Truly, you have spoiled a good old song." Then he spread his arms again and continued singing until he died.
"Count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds."
Jesus Christ, Matthew 5:11-12 The Message
Another sixteenth-century Englishman also found a reason to rejoice through his hardships. And, like Denley, he was willing to give his life for the sake of the gospel.
John Bradford stood boldly before the Lord Chancellor. "I urge you," the young man said, "don’t condemn the innocent. If you believe I am guilty, you should pass sentence on me. If not, you should set me free."
Bradford, the well-loved pastor of St. Paul’s in London, was thrown into prison for his beliefs that differed from the state church during Queen Mary’s reign. While he was in prison, so many of his congregation came to visit him that he continued to preach twice a day. He also preached weekly to the other men in prison, the thieves and common criminals, exhorting them from the Word of God and often giving them money to buy food.
Bradford’s keepers trusted him so much that he was often allowed to leave the prison unescorted to visit sick members of his congregation. All he had to do was to promise that he would return by a certain hour. He was so careful about keeping his word that he was usually back well before his curfew.
After a year and a half, Bradford was offered a pardon if he would deny his beliefs, but he would not. Then after six more months in prison, the offer was repeated. Again he refused.
"John," his friends warned, "you need to do something to stall for more time. Ask to discuss your religious beliefs with Queen Mary’s learned men. That will take you out of immediate danger."
John replied, "If I did that, the people would think I have begun to doubt the doctrine I confess. I don’t doubt it at all."
"Then they will probably kill you very soon," his friends said sadly.
The very next day John was sentenced to death, and the keeper’s wife came to him with the news: "Tomorrow you will be burned."
Bradford looked to heaven and said, "I thank God for it. I have waited for this for a long time. Lord, make me worthy of this."
Hoping to keep the crowds from knowing what was going on, the guards transferred him to another prison in the middle of the night. But somehow the word got out, and a great multitude came to bid him farewell. Many wept openly as they prayed for him. Bradford, in return, gently said farewell and prayed for them and their future.
At 4 a.m. the next day, a large crowd had gathered at the place where Bradford was to be burned. Finally, at 9 a.m., an unusually large number of heavily armed men brought Bradford out to the stake. With him was John Leaf, a teenager, who also refused to deny his faith. Both men fell flat to the ground and prayed for an hour.
Bradford got up, kissed a piece of firewood, and then kissed the stake itself. In a loud voice he spoke to the crowd: "England, repent of your sins! Beware of idolatry. Beware of false teachers. See they don’t deceive you!" Then he forgave his persecutors and asked the crowd to pray with him.
Turning his head toward John Leaf, he said, "Be of good comfort, brother, for we shall have a merry supper with the Lord tonight!"
What is the difference between joy and happiness?
We are told in Nehemiah 8:10 that God’s joy is our strength. How can joy be strength when all around us is terror or sadness?