Thursday, October 28, 2004

Smiling on the Inside? Part 2

Sustaining Joy in a Joyless World

“Is ‘joy in Christ’ na├»ve in a world where there are so many problems, issues, sins?” The question came in an email from a friend of mine who is confronted nearly every day with some of life’s most agonizing struggles.

In the previous post I argue that our answer must not deal with the question superficially by separating joy and happiness so we can then say, “Well, we can be joyful on the inside even though the problems in our world make us sad outwardly.” I believe joy and happiness are, biblically and practically, virtually the same. Their connotations are slightly different, but they are too similar for us to distinguish between them in our own heart. We’re either happy AND joyful, or we’re not. We can’t be joyful but not happy.

So how do we sustain true joy in a world filled with incredible pain? I think the answer is in how we see. Sustaining joy in a joyless world requires a certain kind of seeing… eyes that behold things that others might not… a panoramic perspective that beholds the entire tapestry—dark threads of pain in their complementary place alongside the brighter colors of pleasure. In short, we need the “eyes of eternity.”

We need eyes like John Newton, who sees our present suffering in light of our future glory: "Suppose a man was going to York to take possession of a large estate, and his [carriage] should break down a mile before he got to the city, which obliged him to walk the rest of the way; what a fool we should think him, if we saw him ringing his hands, and blubbering out all the remaining mile, ‘My [carriage] is broken! My [carriage] is broken!’" (Works, volume 1)

Or we need eyes like Peter, who writes: “to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation” (1 Pt 4:13).

In other words, we find and sustain joy in a joyless world by seeing all the horrible pain in light of heaven. Our full redemption is coming! The cross conquered sin and pain and death and suffering! The decisive blow has already fallen. Though the world we live in still groans in agony (Rom 8:19-21), it knows that someday soon the triumph Jesus won at the cross will be ours to enjoy in its full pleasure and delight forever and ever.

We need eyes to see the world and all its pain like this! When we see life this way, our joy will be strong and enduring and real. This perspective will preserve us from a shallow, chipper triteness that masquerades as the real “joy of Christ.” Only this way of looking at the world will allow us to “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15), because only this perspective doesn’t see someone else’s pain as a threat to my own joy. After all, my happiness comes from heaven, not from a pain-free life on earth. Only when we see the world like this will we “go to [Jesus] outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 12:13-14).

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Smiling on the Inside? Part 1

Sustaining Joy in a Joyless World

Life shreds thin joy. If our joy is not robust and solid, daycare shootings in Detroit and homelessness in San Francisco and beheadings in Baghdad and genocide in Sudan and AIDS orphans in South Africa will slash it to shreds in seconds. Either that or we’ll medicate ourselves against the pain by living in a fantasyland where the wretched realities of the real world can’t threaten our chipper self-centeredness. (This option, by the way, is the one most people choose by default, numbing themselves with TV, movies, music, fashion, achievement, whatever. But that’s a problem for another blog entry…)

Our world is filled with pain… and I haven’t even mentioned the everyday frustrations of hard classes, sour relationships, excessive demands—all the normal distresses of daily life even before we read the newspaper. So what can we do to sustain real happiness even with both eyes open to the horrors and heartaches of the world around us?

I think I need to divide my answer into two parts… Second, my answer. First, a few problems with what might be the traditional Christian answer.

Typically, I think Christians have tried to draw a distinction between joy and happiness, going something like this: “Happiness is a feeling, and it’s based on the circumstances outside you. Joy is a choice, and it’s based on what’s inside you.” But I think that answer fails for several reasons…

First, both happiness and joy are spontaneous and emotional. The reason some Christians try to distinguish joy from happiness is probably a sense that joy is deliberate and strong while happiness is spontaneous and superficial. But in reality, joy is not an internal disposition we can simply choose with our will; it’s a gift from God, a work of the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17; Gal 5:22; 1 Thes 1:6). And it spontaneously erupts as a felt sense of delight in our heart, just like happiness (cf. 1 Pt 1:8).

Second, the Bible concerns itself with both our happiness and our joy. For example, “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7). And “How happy are the people whose God is the Lord” (Ps 144:15; cf. Deut 33:29; Is 52:7).

Third, I don’t think we can successfully separate feelings of happiness from a sense of joy in our own soul. Even if there is a difference between happiness and joy (which I doubt), practically it’s a meaningless one because we are unable to experience the difference. How convincing is “The frown on my face is only circumstantial. Deep inside I’m quivering with enjoyment…”? People who talk this way don’t possess superior self-awareness or outstanding willpower. Nope. They're either being naive or they're lying. Joy in the heart shows up as a smile on the face. No exceptions.

So how should we answer this crucial question of maintaining joy in a joy-stealing world? Well, I’ll try to get at the answer in a day or two. But whatever we say in the meantime, let’s NOT pass over the question glibly and say with a smirk, “Well, I’m smiling on the inside.”

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Inspired Ambiguity

Thinking Hard About Why the Bible Requires Hard Thinking

I was chatting on the phone today with a college student who was deeply engaged in a confusing Bible study project when the question came up: “Why didn’t God write what He meant more clearly?”

At first I thought we were bordering on indicting God with a poor performance, but then I remembered the Apostle Peter expressing some of the same consternation: “There are some things in [Paul’s letters] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Pt 3:16). If Peter talks that way, maybe we’re correct… Some of the Bible is tough to understand! But why?

It’s a good question, because surely God has the ability to be clear when He wants to be. If deficiency is ever the problem, it’s in us, not in God! Plus, God’s entire self-revelation, His expectations for people, His plan for redemption are all revealed in a book—a book we must understand in order to obey. So you’d think He’d always speak with absolute clarity, right? Well then, why doesn’t He? (If at this point you’re not tracking with me because you think the whole Bible is perfectly clear, go read Galatians 2:15-21. Now explain it. All of it. Are we together again? Good…) So here are some reasons I think God wrote some relatively unclear stuff in His word...

First, it highlights His wisdom and our dependence when we are forced to pause, ponder, and pray. “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Pro 25:2). Hard parts in the Bible are a constant reminder that we don’t know it all, but He does.

Second, it helps us identify the truths we should feel the most strongly about, since we can reasonably assume that what God made most clear is of greatest importance. Is Jesus really God? No doubt. Bank your life (and death) on it. What music style does God prefer? Umm… well, I doubt it’s Country, but let’s not fight about it, OK?

Third, it’s a built-in reminder, even while studying the truth, of the importance of love for other Christians. If all Scripture were equally clear, all Christians would presumably believe the same things. But then who would notice our love for each other? After all, no one watches the Republican National Convention and comments: “Wow. Those people sure get along well… I wonder why?” But when Christians really love each other even in the midst of disagreement, outside observers are left wondering, “Hmmm… These people really seem to enjoy each other in spite of their disagreements. They must have a really cool God…” (cf. Jn 13:35).

The moral? Pray for God's help to know the truth. Stand up for what matters most; be gentle about the rest. And love, love, love. These are the lessons God has for us, woven right into the fabric of His sometimes hard-to-understand word. Happy hard thinking!

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Running the World on Faith

Pondering the Role of Faith in Politics and Life

Catching a little “Fresh Air” on NPR earlier today, I heard a most thought-provoking opinion about faith (George W. Bush’s in particular) and its political ramifications. Host Terry Gross quoted Bruce Bartlett, a former advisor for Ronald Reagan and administrative official for the elder George Bush. Bartlett opined: “The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence, but you can’t run the world on faith.”

Hmmm… Is he right? Is faith an inadequate (perhaps even a dangerous) guide for running the world? My search for an answer goes right to the very heart of what it means to be a person created in God’s image…

I would argue that faith is an essential and irreducible component of every decision every person ever makes. Not necessarily faith in God, but belief in at least something. Why do I say that? Because the human soul is unalterably covenantal. Or another way to say it is that we are all worshippers. Or we could say we are perpetual happiness seekers.

In practical terms, this means we are constantly on the lookout for something or someone bigger than ourselves that we can make an agreement with—a covenant—expecting this thing to bless us and make us happy if we act in certain ways. Our little covenant arrangements can be formal or informal, explicit or implicit. The point is, we all make them and we all live by them all the time.

We go through life asking the question (either consciously or subconsciously): “What must I have for my life to be happy?” When we find something that we believe has the power to bless or curse us, we make a little private covenant with it, and we follow that covenantal arrangement in how we make all the decisions that follow. Ask yourself the question: What must I have to be happy? This thing is your “covenant god.”

So what does this have to do with faith? Everything. We make our covenants, we choose what/who to worship, we pursue our happiness based on what we BELIEVE. None of us has all the empirical evidence on whether our choices will turn out for our good or our bad, so we just have to choose the option that looks the best to us. It’s a matter of belief. It’s all about faith.

So back to our original question: Is George W. Bush’s faith [in the Bible’s God] an inadequate or dangerous guide for running the world? Well, considering that he has to have faith in something to make his choices, let’s answer the question with another question… If he’s going to be running the world, wouldn’t you prefer he have faith in Someone with unlimited knowledge, power, and love? Yeah, me too.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Got Stuff?

Glorifying God with Our Stuff: Asceticism vs. Thankfulness

I've been pondering this question for a while now... How do we bring God the most glory with regard to our possessions? Option 1: by sacrificing and living without them (asceticism), thereby showing that He is more desirable than stuff. Option 2: by enjoying and giving thanks for them, thereby showing that He is the Benevolent Giver of all good things.

I think C. S. Lewis helped me on to a preliminary answer in a quote I read yesterday. He presents us with a third option that I hadn't even considered. He writes, "Gratitude exclaims, very properly, 'How good of God to give me this.' Adoration says, 'What must be the quality of that Being whose far-off and momentary coruscations [sparkles] are like this!' One's mind runs back up the sunbeam to the sun." (Letters to Malcolm)

In other words, Lewis argues for neither asceticism nor thankfulness as the most God-honoring approach toward our stuff. He argues for turning "stuff" into vehicles for worship! Pretty cool. Here's how I think it would work...

You pick up a couple new things at Old Navy, and you're wondering how to bring God glory in your attitude. Give them away to a homeless shelter (i.e., asceticism)? Whisper a prayer of thanks every time you look in the mirror (i.e., thanksgiving)? Nope. Instead, we should savor the moment of delight in donning our new clothes and then turn to God with: "God, I really enjoy these clothes. Thanks for allowing me to purchase them. But if clothes are this cool, how much greater must You be. I know the pleasure I find in clothes is a yawn compared to the pleasure that You Yourself afford me..." And suddenly Old Navy fades (lol) and God's glory shines.

One more thought before we abandon this strain... I think that if we can really say from our heart, "God, how much greater you are than this thing," then we'll be on the path toward sacrificing our possessions at the appropriate level. When God is our treasure, all of our stuff becomes really really expendable.

Got stuff? Want to glorify God with it? View it all as a glimmer of glory from Him, and hear Him whisper: "Not all these things, but I am the desire of your soul."