“Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in his kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia. They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity.” – 2 Corinthians 8:1-2
The apostle Paul used three words in two verses that are critical to our understanding of how the two chapters work. Those words are troubles, joy, and generosity. Let’s begin with the word troubles, but first a little background.
The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were suffering. A famine ravaged the land and religious persecution complicated their adversity exponentially. Because of their suffering, apostles like Paul were collecting relief offerings and sending the proceeds back to Jerusalem. These offerings not only provided much needed assistance, they also helped bridge the racial tension between Jewish believers and gentile converts. As Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation he pointed to the Macedonian churches as an example of generosity.
You probably noticed in the text how Paul described the Macedonian believers as troubled and poor. The word trouble is from the word thilipsis, a word that describes a wine press crushing grapes to extract the juice. Certainly their lives were difficult as they, too, experienced the same kind of persecution and oppression as their Jerusalem counterparts. One would expect that these Macedonians would have too many problems of their own to consider someone else’s misfortune. But they found a way, in the midst of adversity, to dig deep and share with their foreign friends.
The second word Paul used in this passage is joy. Joy should not be confused with happiness. Happiness shares the same root word as happening. It is an emotion that is based on external events and actions that happen in our lives. If I get a pay increase, for example, I become happy. If I lose my job, on the other hand, I become unhappy.
Joy is different in that it is a character trait that is graciously bestowed upon God’s people by the Holy Spirit. Because it is internal, it is impervious to outside forces and events. I can have joy when good things happen as well as when troubles come. James 1:2-4 teaches that we can maintain our joy in the face of adversity simply by recognizing that God is at work and is developing our character and growing our faith. What happens in me is always more important than what happens to me, so the value of joy can remain constant. We have troubles, but even in the midst of those troubles we can experience true joy.
The third word that we find is generosity. Generosity is single-minded sharing. It is giving with no ulterior motive or strings attached. It is authentic sharing performed with utmost sincerity. Their generosity was spewing out from a fountain of joy.
Somehow the Macedonian Christians, though highly troubled, remained joyful and generous. How does that work? What is the relationship between the three concepts? I think the relationship between trouble and joy is hope. Hope links the two concepts. And for hope to be genuine, it has to be shared, thus linking joy and generosity.
Paul’s point is clear. Everyone has troubles. But the troubles we experience cannot become an excuse that keeps us focused inward. It is possible to experience adversity without limiting our attention to the world around us. Christians have something better than happiness, and that is joy. Joy comes from within because of our great hope in God. And that hope is strong enough to share.