How and why do some Christians always give off the appearance of happiness? How is it possible for a Christian to be so happy? Is that even right?
These are questions with which I’ve been contending recently. Sometimes, it feels like believing in Christ is the cause of more sadness than happiness within me. I know that Jesus brings joy and that God wants us to be truly happy in knowing him. I know this because I feel the joy of my salvation – a personal joy. But I don’t live in a box covered in mirrors; I’m a human interacting with other humans, surrounded and influenced by a world filled with evil.
I can’t help but question. How can I be happy when the people I love the most have absolutely no security before God, no atonement for their sin, no confidence to approach his throne, no hope of existing eternally with him? How can I be happy when I think of flames of fire and then their faces?
How can I be happy when I watch the oppressive power of sin imprisoning and corrupting the people closest to me? How can I be happy when my personal relationships and relationships around me are falling apart because of our sin?
How can I be happy when my friends endure pain and heartbreak and confusion and sadness with no hope beyond themselves? How can I be happy when physical, emotional, and psychological problems afflict people I know?
How can I be happy when every single day my own sin rages and roars and wrangles me in its grip, leaving me feeling weak, defeated, and ashamed?
Perhaps most aggravating of all: how can some Christians go about exhibiting their seemingly-perfect lives, only ever publicizing the polished parts, pretty pieces, envious photos, prideful accomplishments? How can they go about deceiving the world and perpetuating the prosperity gospel with portraits of their pain-free and pleasurable lives?
There was a night recently where I lay awake sobbing. Someone I cared about was going through a painful situation and I felt crushed by the weight of it – the despair, the sadness, the unfairness, the seeming silence of God. Earlier that night, I had seen someone post a photo that was brimming with happiness. This was posted by one of those aforementioned individuals who always seems happy, who’s loving life with the Lord, whose life is always exploding with goodness. In a pool of emotion that night, I wrote:
How insensitive! How can some people continue posting about their perfect and joyful lives when there is an entire world out there suffering? If I didn’t know God and was constantly bombarded by their posts, I would want nothing to do with God. What kind of a God would ignore my sufferings and turn a blind eye to my hurts and pains, all the while continuing to send joy and happiness and cheer and laughter and prettiness and perfection to these Christians? This cannot be God! Where is the comfort in that?
Do you know how many people scroll through social media in the midst of their own depression? What are we supposed to make them think by constantly posting about happiness? “Come to God, and everything will be perfect”? “Believe in Jesus, and you can have this awesome life too”? No!! The Christian life is an ugly war against sin and darkness and evil, and wars are filled with nothing less than pain, and to show the world otherwise is utterly deceiving.
Despite my emotional roller-coaster that night, and despite all of my questions and frustrations, God has been patient and gracious to respond to me. These past few weeks, his words have been impertinently pursuing me: “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
These words used to be monuments to me – a mere preservation and commemoration of Paul’s experiences. Yet now, they are coming to life, breathing their breath and staking their claim upon me.
I’m learning what they mean: that even when I am saddened by someone else’s circumstances to the point of crying, skipping meals, arguing with God, telling him how frustrated I am with him and the way he won’t seem to change things – even then I can still rejoice in the nature of who he is, the hope he offers beyond all despair, the security he provides in the face of uncertainty, the comfort and love he wraps me with as my father, the promise of his word that the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. Even on those nights where I lay awake in tears, I am able to write in retrospect:
I was simultaneously torn with such torment and grief over and on behalf of [this person], and yet such comfort and joy in Christ. Yes, joy. I was sobbing, but so overjoyed in knowing the glory of Christ – that he is trustworthy, that he is a rock, that he works all things for his glory, that I can trust him, that he saves, that he is powerful to save, that he is willing to save. It was the weirdest thing – the two most contradicting emotions existed within me at the same time and in equal force. Is this what it means to rejoice in our sufferings?
In the very last sermon John Piper preached as the pastor of his church, he addresses this same verse: sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. His point is summed up in this: “What the world needs from the church is our indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow.”
This message has, for me, been like a spoonful of medicine that has not gone down easy but is starting to change me. The world needs our joy! Perhaps what has been most troubling for me has been seeing people’s joy without seeing or knowing their sorrow – it feels unfair, unrealistic. But how much more powerful to see the sorrow and the joy?
I’m sharing an excerpt of this message below, though I recognize it will make my post uninvitingly long. It’s very much worth the read, though, and even more so the listen.
We are a happy people. But we are not what you might call “chipper.” There is a plaintive strain in the symphony of our lives. I think Jesus was the happiest man who ever lived. And O how sorrowful! A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
I turn with dismay from church services that are treated like radio talk shows where everything sounds like chipper, frisky, high-spirited chatter designed to make people feel lighthearted and playful and bouncy. I look at those services and say to myself: Don’t you know that people are sitting out there who are dying of cancer, whose marriage is a living hell, whose children have broken their hearts, who are barely making it financially, who have just lost their job, who are lonely and frightened and misunderstood and depressed? And you are going to try to create an atmosphere of bouncy, chipper, frisky, light-hearted, playful worship?
And, of course, there will be those who hear me say that and say: O, so you think what those people need is a morose, gloomy, sullen, dark, heavy atmosphere of solemnity?
No. What they need is to see and feel indomitable joy in Jesus in the midst of suffering and sorrow. “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” They need to taste that these church people are not playing games here. They are not using religion as a platform for the same-old, hyped-up self-help that the world offers every day. They need the greatness and the grandeur of God over their heads like galaxies of hope. They need the unfathomable crucified and risen Christ embracing them in love with blood all over his face and hands. And they need the thousand-mile-deep rock of God’s word under their feet.
Yes, sensitivity to others’ sufferings is a good and necessary thing. But I don’t ever want to allow the weight of human suffering and sorrow to suppress this heavenly gift of joy. It’s my rightful gift; it’s exactly what Christ died to give me. I want the joy that comes from knowing God to be able to produce in me, as in David, these words in the very same breath:
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I have sorrow in my heart all the day? … But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.” Psalm 13