There is such a thing as a miserable Christian.
It is an unfortunate reality that many followers of Christ do not live – as the Westminster Confession of Faith would have it – “enjoying God”. For that, according to the Confession, is the chief end of man. He is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Of course, most Christians take seriously the need to glorify God. Our Creator and Sustainer is worthy of praise, respect, reverence, obedience, love and worship. Yet even God-centred worship can become dry and mechanical when performed without a sense of delight in God. Worship can even become a superficial posture wherein we know that it is good to glorify God, but become painfully conscious that there is a very limited amount of passion in what we are doing. A Christian, therefore, cannot properly be said to offer to God a fulsome worship, unless this also includes an enjoyment of God. A man must find God’s company pleasant; he must find his cheer in the presence of Christ; and he must come to discover that holiness is a sweet and lovely thing.
At this juncture, it is important to be careful of legalism. We cannot afford to establish rigid criteria and boundaries that are not biblical. A person, after all, can still be a Christian even if he does not seem to find much delight in his Maker. A man can have salvation with the merest particle of faith in the grace that is in Christ, as evinced by the dying thief on the cross. We are saved by faith, not by joy.
But sadly, for many Christians, life and the devil has worn their faith down to the joints and marrow. Some struggle with their circumstances. Relationships, for instance, are one of the greatest causes of pain to man, and a ceaseless reminder of the selfishness and wickedness that lies within his heart. Relationships between husband and wife; between parents and children; between nations; between employee and employer – these are fraught with breakdown and frequently much pain. One of the clearest evidences that man is sinful is his inability to live in harmony with other men. At other times, Christians can carry great burdens. Worries and fears about the future. Or even existential angst, as if one’s life is passing away and one feels that so little is being achieved. Other Christians live in lands that are not prosperous and safe, and struggle against rulers and principalities and the fear of torture and death.
Never, therefore, should we look upon a weary, sad, miserable, and weathered Christian with jaded eyes, and simply dismiss them if they lack the abundance of joy that Christ has promised. In their case, it is not that Christ has failed them. Rather it is that His people often have yet to learn and discover the way to the joy that He promises to give. So, dear reader, if you lack a steady stream of joy and happiness, then this is not cause for further gloom. Perhaps in God’s sovereignty He has brought you to this blog precisely so that you too may begin to learn about true Christian joy!
Let us first begin with a foundational principle. This principle is contained in two verses that will illumine everything else that will follow in this article. I invite any reader to consider these words with a purity of contemplation. Yes, most certainly, these verses are often wrestled by mystics and charismatics; and misapplied by liberals; and even cited by civil rights activists as if they conferred God’s imprimatur on their protest marches and political campaigns. I have no intention of following such groups in their error. We will, instead, draw one or two undeniable exegetical truths from these words:
So He said to the Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples.Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32)
The Lord speaks of “being set free”. Setting aside the nature of that freedom (and indeed, the nature of the oppression that makes the offer of freedom necessary), the Lord clearly demonstrates in this passage the avenue by which a man is properly set free.
Man is not set free by swords and spears or money. The Lord did not give His listeners a battle strategy against the Romans or give them all their dreams come true, as He surely had the power to do. Instead, our Lord declares that a man is set free by truth. And therefore, what Christ gave to them was words. Words uttered by humanity are so feeble and transient, but the Lord offered His words – His words, which reliably convey truth. Christ’s words contain true knowledge. They carry true information. These are the very words given to Christ by the Father himself (“These words you hear are not My own, they belong to the Father who sent me“). A man’s freedom, then, is obtained by receiving and continuing in Christ’s true words; by applying and living out the truthful information He has brought to us from heaven.
Of course, not every person who listens to the word of Christ will be set free, because many listen without faith and without any will to apply the words. For some people, His word makes no imprint in their heart whatever. Yet for those who take the Lord at His word, and believe what He says, they will find the power of truth in their life that establishes a glorious freedom. It is this true information that overturns darkness and shadow. It is this true knowledge and this true way of looking at things that liberates a man.
Now, then, what is the nature of the slavery that makes this freedom necessary? Our Lord himself tells us: it is sin. The Lord is adamant on this point – as indeed, is St. Paul when the apostle uses the imagery of slaves being mastered by unrighteousness. Sin, properly understood, exercises an enslaving quality upon every aspect of the human person. Not merely his body, which is only a small component of human sin, but more essentially his mind, heart, emotions, desires, and aspirations. Indeed, every part of the human personality is attacked and affected by sin. From physiology to psychology, all the constituent parts of a human person in his native condition is enslaved to sin and futility.
This is why the Lord’s teaching sometimes seems to be so alien to what we would expect and desire. For instance, in the New Testament, people come to Him complaining about an unfair share of an earthly inheritance. He points them to eternal treasure. People come to Him with news of frightful atrocities perpetrated by the Romans. He points them to the spiritual condition of their own hearts and the need to repent. His disciples speak admiringly of the great stones and decorations of the temple. He tells them it will come down to ruins. As our Lord is going to His death, women cry out in mourning for Him. He tells them to weep for themselves for a great tragedy will shortly befall them and their final condition would be both pitiful and lamentable (all the more so because it was entirely avoidable).
Just exactly what manner of Man is this? Our Lord is constantly, relentlessly, persistently, endlessly determined to tear away from our eyes the fluttering cobwebs in which we invest so much effort and energy. The things we instinctively feel hold so much importance.
And the Lord will confer His divine blessing on none of our indulgences. He does not grant us the slightest comfort for our earthly existence, no promises of the “good life” as we so often wish it to be. Our longings for a quiet and uneventful life, with sufficient levels of prosperity, with a semi-functional family, and with regular dollops of colour, friendship and laughter may seem to us to be an entirely reasonable expectation, as if we were equals engaged in a negotiation about our future with the King of kings, and as if we could exchange our worship for a fair package deal for life. Yet, our Lord will have none of it. He speaks very little of this temporal existence, and does not permit us to bargain with Him. Our condition is too hopeless and His salvation too vital for any man to deserve a say at the negotiation table. Rather, Christ engages in unilateral spiritual diplomacy. Christ talks. He pushes the instrument of surrender at us. We accept His terms for peace. End of discussion.
It is hard to escape the Lord’s persistent long-term focus even from the briefest, most cursory reading of the New Testament. So often we sin-damaged beings can see hardly further than the nose on our face. We are born with spiritual myopia, and the world around us and all that is in it appears to us in burred form and is often difficult to interpret. Worse still, we get so accustomed to things being blurred that we begin to believe that this is normal vision, and that we are therefore interpreting our lives correctly. We peer closely at things, beholding only small areas of their surface at a time, and then think we are geniuses because we manage to figure out what an object exactly is as it looms before us.
The New Testament ceaselessly reminds us that the Lord’s eyes are laser precise. There He stands on the mountain, far above us, gazing with incredible clarity toward the horizon. But we rush to the Lord, tugging at his garments, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? What about now? What about here? What about my happiness?“. The Lord lowers his gaze, almost unwillingly from the glory beyond, and he points us to the horizon.
“Can you see over there?” he seems to say, “Look a little further! There are far greater concerns; richer and more glorious matters! And if you cannot see it, then you must trust Me when I tell you that I can see it, and that I am pointing you always in the right direction.”
The essential point, then, is this. If we are to begin to be happy in Christ and to enjoy God – and we all must begin somewhere and at some point – then surely the first step is to accept these basic biblical principles.
Firstly, that there is such a thing as a joy unspeakable in Christ, for He tells us this is so (John 15:11). He tells us that there is complete joy, and, indeed, that this is part of the very purpose for which Christ has given us His words.
Secondly, we must accept that we are naturally slaves to sin. And, moreover, that we have a native tendency to run back to our first master. Even a Christian sins, sometimes grievously so (e.g. St. Peter and the churches at Corinth), which is why we need an Advocate to plead our cause (1 John 2:1). At the same time, we must embrace the realisation that our psychology, our interpretations of life and our interpretations about what is happening to us, indeed, our entire view of things is wrong, and always tends toward wrongness. Even that which we feel – and too often we think our emotions give us reliable information – is subject to the same contamination. Our hearts – down to a man – are”deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).
We cannot understand accurately even half of what is going on within us. Our own hearts are an impenetrable mystery much more often than they are understandable. Think how many hours we have each spent in our lifetime trying to decode our own emotional state and to figure out what it is that we feel, and why it is that we feel it! Or trying to force ourselves not to think or feel along certain lines, in order that we may think or feel along others! Given that we struggle with something so central to our being, how much less can we think that we may accurately interpret our own past or discern our own future? It is foolish. It is foolish because we are sick in our native and natural condition. We are spiritually crippled, addicted to the cause of our symptoms; allergic to their cure, and therefore in constant and terrible need of a Great Physician who deals not only with flesh and blood, but also with the spirit, with the mind, and with the heart that lies within us.
Thirdly, we must come to the realisation that the cure for our complaints lies in possessing true knowledge and true information. Christ’s truth will uplift the heart and ennoble a life. Long-term exposure to His truth will liberate a man from dread and darkness forever. Truth – Christ’s truth – applied to a life will shatter the power of sin over us, which makes men so wretched and miserable. And this will continue until we get to a point where we can sing hymns in the stocks in prison, like Paul and Silas (Acts 16:25); where we can rejoice while the blood is still wet on our backs from a beating like the Apostles (Acts 5:41); where we can encourage other people to rejoice always in the Lord even from a cell (Philippians 4:4). To advance so much in the Spirit and in the Lord’s teaching that we derive the sum of our joy no longer from time and circumstance but instead from Him alone and what he points to over the horizon, and which he ever reassures us is not actually that far off at all. Indeed, the kingdom of God is close at hand.
Imagine what it would be like to be unspeakably happy and joyful; at peace and at rest in YOUR current condition without any external changes, any editing of your circumstances, and additions or deletions! Would that not constitute riches and bring much glory to God? Most assuredly, it would.
Amy Carmichael, who poured her life out in India, wrote: There is nothing dreary or doubtful about [the life]. It is meant to be continually joyful. We are called to a settled happiness in the Lord whose joy is our strength.
Hudson Taylor once observed: There are three great truths. First, that there is a God; second, that He has spoken to us in the Bible; third, that He means what He says. Oh, the joy of trusting Him!”
The beginning of true happiness, therefore, is to renounce our own beliefs about how to obtain it, and to begin to realise that it lies not in what is in front of our nose, but over the horizon to where Christ is always pointing. How, a man may wail, can I stop believing that my happiness is dependent on my circumstances? Well, not with your own wisdom, or your own reasoning, or your own effort, or your own power. It comes from purposeful exposure to the liberating truth of Christ, and we grow into it through purposeful, diligent prayer. And then we advance to the level of our Master, who was never fazed by his circumstances, and was never miserable.
Some of the Lord’s saints have proximated to it closely, like St. Francis of Assisi who, although he had his mystic tendencies, entered a life of joyful poverty and service, and in his poverty, discovered the joy of Christ unspeakable which has eluded kings.