He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners… to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. (Isaiah 61.1, 3)
So, after eight seasons of stalwart resistance, I succumbed to “American Idol” contagion. I’ve got it bad, too. Unlike the raft of knock-offs that leave me cold, it’s the real deal. The contestants are wildly talented and sincere. There’s no fake backstage drama to goose our interest; it all hinges on weekly performances in which a poor song choice or sour arrangement can be the decisive factor. In the prelims, the losses aren’t so painful, because the emotions are disbursed across several contestants. When the field narrows to 12 finalists, however, with one sent home each week, the losses really hurt. Now here’s the worst of it: when the elimination is revealed, the loser watches a recap of his/her “Idol” experience (scored with Will Young’s “Leave Right Now,” no less) before taking the show off the air with one final performance.
What troupers these kids are! Their dream is shattered. They’ve literally watched their professional lives (thus far) flash before their eyes. Devastated fans, friends, and family weep for them. Then, with the conductor’s downbeat, they bounce back, giving their swansong everything they’ve got. Just that fast, they shed their grief and don the demeanor of seasoned pros. It’s downright uncanny. At first, I was appalled the show’s producers would ask this of them. But I eventually caught on why it was the kindest, wisest thing to do. Sending losers home on a wave of sympathetic applause would only magnify their sorrow. This last lesson teaches them why it’s so important to reach for joy in times of despair. Having got this far, their future success is assured. Yet if they don’t discover their power to summon joy out of despair, they’re doomed. That got me thinking about us, and how we so often accept defeat and abide dismay when the power to summon joy resides within us. And before we start making excuses why we don’t tap into our power to bounce back let’s underscore one fact that nullifies every excuse in the book. Joy is not a trait we possess or a disposition we develop. It’s a gift we receive. Dozens of times the Bible explicitly says Jesus came to give us joy.
In Luke 4 we read of Jesus’s first sermon in His hometown, Nazareth. He opens the Scripture to Isaiah 61, reads it, and resumes His seat. Luke only excerpts the first verse and half of the second: “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” It ends there because Christ’s proclaiming a new era of divine grace is a thumping Messianic claim. (It also explains why His friends and neighbors become so outraged they run Him out of town.) But the quote captures less than half of a very long sentence. The larger portion announces Christ’s mission “to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” Without this segment, the prophecy is incomplete.
When we examine the full text, we’re intrigued by how cleverly it balances its declaration of liberty with its endowment of joy. The “good news” announces freedom from internal heartbreak, captivity, and darkness, while “comfort to all” expunges external expressions of grief: ashes, mourning, and despair. It’s abundantly clear Christ’s transformative power goes further than freeing us from turmoil, compulsions, and doubt. It includes redressing our affect, how we convey profound changes in our hearts, minds, and spirits. Ancient Jews responded to devastating events by stripping away all adornments in exchange for scratchy burlap tunics. In public repentance for sins that caused their misfortunes, they sank into a mound of ashes and didn’t budge. The longer they sat, the filthier and more miserable they looked. Isaiah’s prophecy foretells the end of this custom and Jesus’s Nazareth sermon confirms it. He came to crown us with beauty, anoint us with gladness, and clothe us in praise. In short, He came to give us joy.
Open the Closet
Times of despair still send many of us scrambling for sackcloth and ashes. When our dreams shatter, our lives flash before our eyes, and friends and families weep for our woes, our first impulse is to sink into angst and self-recrimination. Instead of bouncing back, we put everything on hold while we grow more miserable by the minute in hopes a wave of sympathy will hoist us to our feet. This is remedial behavior, unworthy of anyone who’s experienced the transformative power of Christ, who knows He’s a Healer of broken hearts, a Liberator of captive minds, and an Illuminator of darkened spirits. Instead of outing ourselves as failures and dwelling on our mistakes, we open the closet and reach for His crown of beauty, His oil of gladness, and His garment of praise. This is precisely what the author of Psalm 42 does. He writes: “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (v11) He won’t wait until his inner turmoil ceases before offering praise. He opens the closet and puts on his garment of praise. Wearing his joy brings him joy.
No matter how dreary the situation gets and how you’re tempted to sink into despair, always remember praise looks good on you. It lifts you out of the ashes. Once you’re wrapped in praise, you can’t help accessorizing it with crowning beauty and fragrant gladness. Praise feels good—much better than the scratchy burlap woven from despondency and self-condemnation. Finally, when you’re clothed in praise, you’re covered in God’s goodness and love, mercy and protection. You see yourself as you really are—in Him. And once you recognize that, you find praise not only looks good on you. It’s good for you.
When we’re in despair, we reach for the garment of praise. Praise not only looks good on us. It’s good for us.