I recently learned that my maternal grandfather, a pastor who planted churches in Korea and founded a Korean American immigrant church in the United States, regularly conveyed these words of guidance to his own children: “Enjoy life.” It was with fondness and smiles that my aunties, uncle, and mother shared remembrance of this saying together when our family gathered to honor my grandfather’s life one year after his passing. We sang his favorite hymn (“Amazing Grace”) and shared memories by his gravesite under the shade of a nearby tree.
The profound wisdom in those words can too easily be lost. Today, hearing that exhortation in spaces of comfort and privilege can sound hedonistic. But for my grandfather, those words were a radical message of faith in the midst of struggle and obedience compelled by love, not duty.
My grandfather was born in the early years of oppressive colonial rule, a time when Koreans fought for their humanity in the face of an imperial power that profited from suppressing and attempting to eliminate their centuries-old culture and language. Following the end of World War II and the restoration of Korean autonomy, he graduated from seminary and became part of a growing wave of church planting and evangelism efforts in Korea, which later included a time of brutal imprisonment and witnessing fellow Christians being martyred for their faith. He later responded to the call to start a Korean immigrant church in the U.S., relocating his family to the Detroit area in the early 1970s.
My grandfather lived through times of colonization, imprisonment, war, and suffering. He was hard-working and sacrificial, leading 5 a.m. prayer meetings, teaching, preaching, and ministering to the needs of an ever-growing congregation, who saw the church as their resource for every felt need, as an oasis in the desert of a foreign land. At our family gatherings he led us in worship and prayer, and he sought to engage his grandchildren in practices of faith by administering Bible-reading campaigns, with rewards.
Joy is not optional.
My grandfather knew this.
And yet in the midst of the burdens he carried, the gravity of the needs around him, and unending ministry work, he was quick to smile, with boundless energy and a deep, infectious laugh that could put anyone at ease. My grandfather believed in moderation, actively pursuing physical, emotional, and spiritual discipline, while also intentionally seeking joy, practicing generosity, and living a life of love.
By encouraging his children to enjoy life, he communicated a deep message of both hope and warning. Hope, because life is suffering, and in that pain, the joy of the Lord is our strength. And warning, because life without joy is life that is not rooted in Christ.
Joy is not optional. My grandfather knew this. He bore the pain of suffering throughout his lifetime, surviving inhumane imprisonment and even witnessing his own mother being beaten because of her faith. He understood the cost of following Jesus more deeply than I may ever know. His testimony reflects the truth that hope, joy, and love spring forth from a life of full obedience to Christ.
As I continue growing in vocational ministry, I need my grandfather’s message more than ever. As tasks and responsibilities pile up and the needs and requests of my church community continually surface, “enjoy life” becomes a necessary reminder that work cannot be separated from the love of Christ and the joy of the Lord.
I am in awe of the movement of the Spirit, bringing the necessity of joy to light through the witness of my grandfather’s character and wise teaching, as remembered by his beloved children. My hope is that this movement of truth would continue to flow, bringing conviction for us all to cling to joy—as though our lives depend on it.