Where are all the Happy Christians?
Once again my mornings and evenings with CH Spurgeon are challenging my heart while the Spirit convicts my soul. Here is a gem from my morning reading:
The life of the believer is here described as a delight in God, and we are thus certified of the great fact that true religion overflows with happiness and joy. Ungodly persons and mere professors never look upon religion as a joyful thing; to them it is service, duty, or necessity, but never pleasure or delight. If they attend to religion at all, it is either that they may gain thereby, or else because they dare not do otherwise. The thought of delight in religion is so strange to most men, that no two words in their language stand further apart than "holiness" and "delight." But believers who know Christ, understand that delight and faith are so blessedly united, that the gates of hell cannot prevail to separate them.
There thought that pierced my heart was this: I don't know many happy Christians.
What Do I Mean by "Happy"?
Happiness, in a religious context, can get pretty tricky to try to explain. I know plenty of Christians who attend a church service, partake in a redeemed rock concert, get pumped up by a motivational speaker, and then ride the adrenaline wave to their Sunday afternoon nap. That may count as a euphoric high, but it falls greatly short of the happiness described by the Psalmist when he says that the Lord has anointed lovers of righteousness with the oil of gladness. Gladness is not a worship-high. It is a state of being.
This happiness I speak of is more than a mood - for moods come and go. I can be in a foul mood in the morning (you know, pre-coffee) and see a mighty improvement by the afternoon. Happiness is, by definition, a temporary state of emotion. Words like gladness, delight, and pleased, are experienced in short bursts as well. Of course, Christians, like all people, experience short bursts of happiness, but I find it troubling that I find very few Christians that can be defined by the word. The majority of Christians I know would far better be classified as angry, worrisome, anxious, determined, dutiful, driven, and others. But rarely joyful.
Substitutes of Joy
I have been surrounded by Christians my entire life. My parents were Pastors and they enrolled me in a private Christian school. I went to a Christian University and I have been employed by churches. We are starting a church with my very close Christian friends. These are my credentials, I suppose. 30+ years of living in the middle of it. Here is one of the things I have learned: Christians are lousy at being joyful and fantastic at substituting joy for some other emotional outlet.
I've worked for a Pastor who found meaning in the duty of Christianity. His work was his life and it all boiled down to the mission. There was no joy in the mission, I think because the intrinsic meaning of the mission was that it was supposed to be difficult. The harder it was the more meaningful it was. Rarely did we talk about the joys of following Jesus. Often we talked about the difficulty and sludge of pastoring our community. I wouldn't have a hard time counting the number of times I saw him smile.
Other Christians that I am close to are more defined by their worry and anxiousness. Everything is an opportunity to enter crisis mode or at least settle comfortably into a calm shallow depression. The newest threat is the biggest threat of all time and suddenly the God of Salvation seems to be inadequate for the task of saving his people. They may spend two hours a week singing triumphant songs but the rest of their life is defined by their own pre-determined defeat.
The place where joylessness creeps in the most is when it comes to the area of the spiritual disciplines. Now, admittedly "discipline" isn't the most joy-inspiring word, but the words of David in Psalm 119 allude to the joy of reading the Bible. That is a foreign concept because "no one has time for that." Some saints have found joy in spending countless hours in prayer, but many find it annoying to bow their heads in thankfulness around the dinner table. Going to church on Sundays is a struggle done only to avoid nagging phone calls. The joy of tithing? You can stop laughing now.
If Spurgeon is right, that true religion overflows with happiness and joy, then the tenants of true religion should be joy producing. If his words are true, and I believe they are, then why does following Jesus seem to suck so much?
As much as joyful should be the predominant descriptor of the Christian, it is obvious by reading the Bible that joy is not the perpetual state of humanity - Christian or not. The Psalms vacillate back and forth between sorrow and joy, triumph and defeat, longing and fulfillment. Please don't misconstrue my words into saying that all Christians must be happy all the time and through every season of life.
What I am trying to convey is that I don't joy being the overwhelming attribute in the lives of many Christians. Many Christians that I have come into contact with are consistently joyless and defeated with periodic spikes of joy on their chart. Ironically, the most joyful Christians I meet are the ones that subscribe to the Joel Osteen measure of spirituality. The one guy that self-proclaimed "real Christians" proclaim as a heretic is actually producing a joyful congregation! (Though I will attest that I wish he was more doctrinally sound and less pop-psychology centric, there is no denying those who listen to the Osteen message are generally more joyful and believing they will overcome).
Enough Pointing Fingers
While I have lived among many joyless Christians, it is my own joylessness that Is what prompted me to write these words. I have previously described my realization that my flipping of Christian priorities led me to confess my attitude is what is really wrong with the church. This post stems from my confessions in that one.
Substituting work for worship has been my attempt to find joy and meaningfulness in something other than God. It has not worked. The oft-paraphrased quotation of Augustine comes to mind, My heart stays restless until it finds rest in thee. Restlessness is a word that I am finding has many synonyms. My heart stays peace-less, satisfaction-less, and yes, joyless when it searches for peace, satisfaction, and joy in everything else but Christ.
I have often been convicted that my lack of true joy is the reason why most of my friends won't follow Jesus. There is simply not much different about me because of my faith. Not only have I not been able to give an answer for the hope that I have often I find myself encircled with feelings of hopelessness and joylessness. My life is a poor hermeneutic of the gospel that I cling to.
Repentance leads to joy
The last 12 months of my life has been a time of constant confession and repentance. Many sins were held in place by snarky justifications and I do believe that the source of my joylessness is the sin that weighs down my soul. Confession and repentance, through the Holy Spirit, liberates from the shackles we rarely admit are even there. Joy is the result of that freedom. An example may be helpful here.
As previously mentioned, I have been constantly surrounded my Christian doctrine. I told myself that I knew enough of the Bible that I didn't have to read it because I already knew it. As the call to start a church gripped my heart, I realized something that devastated me. I can't legitimately tell people to read their Bibles as a source of life when it is not the source of my life! I had to confess to God that I was relying on what I had been taught while ignoring that I still needed to be taught through his Spirit and his word. Confession was not enough. I could admit, but I must change the patterns of my life - I must repent - and start in a new direction.
With great regularity, I now find joy as I read my Bible. Yes, I find joy in the arduous task of reading the Bible. It didn't happen on day 1 or even day 51, but the more I read the Scripture the more I am happy and satisfied with life. Of course, this is one example taken from the many confessions I have had to make in the last year. The more I confess and repent the more joy-filled I become. In the midst of one of the hardest 6-month stretches that my family has ever gone through, I say an increase in my joy and happiness, not the expected decline into depression. I stopped longing for God's "approval" and started accepting his grace. The more I respond to his presence the less I feel like I have to earn his favor. This is becoming my source of joy. I am grateful that the Spirit keeps leading me and I am praying that you can begin to respond to his leading too.