Columnists > Soul Food

How dare I

A challenge to too-gloomy Christians: Where's your joy?

Issue: "Can the boom last?," Oct. 16, 1999

How dare you set yourself up above all the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, doctors, and confessors of the church? Miserable man and worm upon the earth that you are, yes, ashes and food for worms, what foundation have you for this rash, insane, deplorable, accursed doctrine? What devilish pride puffs you up?"

Sometime I feel those savage words are aimed directly at me. Of course they weren't; they were addressed by a contemporary Christian to a Jewish philosopher named Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza's rationalistic writings about God caused him to be expelled from the synagogue in Amsterdam, and he was likewise severely criticized by many Christians of his day.

How Spinoza stood up under such attacks I don't know, but I can't help wondering if I'm also vulnerable. You see, I have this restless feeling that Christianity ought to be more joyful than it is. We have all the equipment. We have the Holy Spirit, with all His fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness, faithfulness, and self-control. We have the example of Jesus, who was filled with joy and was eager to see us equally filled (John 15:11). We have the 542 references to joy that I have found in the Bible. We even have the assurance that joy was present at the creation.

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With all this backing, I modestly ask, what's keeping us from being joyful people as we travel the road of life? I'm not singling out individuals to blame. Many pulpits preach joy, urge joy, and commend joy to us listeners, but by and large, I don't think the message is getting across. I do know some Christians who live joyful lives. Joy seems to inhabit them; they interpret life on earth as an expression of the joy of the universe. It's not so much what they say as what they are: remarkable people.

Jesus was a joyful person. He had an upbeat temperament and radiated light-heartedness, friendliness, and healing wherever He went. Millions of paintings, statues, and icons aimed at representing Him have been produced over the centuries, many of them masterpieces; yet for the most part I believe the artists have failed to catch Jesus' true spiritual nature. They have perceived Him as holy and sanctimonious and have sought to recreate Him that way, but they have forgotten to turn up the corners of His mouth.

I know that for many people, if not most, life isn't fun at all. It is grim, stressful, dangerous, and deeply unrewarding. If they can find relief in stimulants and tranquilizers, they take it regardless of the after-effects. That is precisely why a joyous Christianity is needed today.

As I look at it, Christianity as it enters the 21st century is zealously struggling with the sin problem that is infecting humanity. It bravely seeks to penetrate the dens of wickedness and rescue the lost. But so often it neglects to hold out the glorious promise of rapturous joy and delight to those who are in misery. It does not sell heaven on earth. It battles the enemy fiercely, but forgets that its true message is not fierceness at all.

Jesus said that the angels of God expressed tremendous joy in heaven over the repentance of one sinner. What do we do? So often we struggle so hard on the battlefield for the Lord that when a believer enters the golden circles of God's love, we seem too worn out to celebrate and to break out the goodies. Let's loosen up! Let's turn up the music. Let's let the world see that we are more than earnest, pious churchgoers; we are full of fun and joy and gladness of heart. Let's tell the world that the Christian life is filled with the Spirit of God and the joy of the Lord. Let's say it's the only way to live, and then let's live it ourselves.

If this is heresy, and I am a worm with Spinoza, make me a laughing worm.

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