There is an intense irony in the religious environment today. The more preachers have emphasized happiness, the more challenging it has become to get congregations to “rejoice.” The more we hear from the pulpit about how “great” it is to be a Christian, the more cheerleading is required to keep boredom from setting in. Why is this true? Is this simply a result of our shortened attention span in the digital age?
I believe the difficulty of keeping the “joy” balloon pumped up stems, at least in part, from the modern perversion of the gospel itself. Originally, the gospel was about sin and salvation. People came to the Lord for the forgiveness of their sins and the hope of heaven, even if it meant a much harder life in this world. They came in poverty of spirit (Matthew 5:3), mourning (5:4), hungering and thirsting for righteousness (5:6). They came shedding bitter tears for their sins (Luke 7:37,38), wanting to know what they must do to be saved (Acts 16:30). The radical joy of their salvation was rooted in the grievous soil of godly sorrow.
Though it seems ironic on the surface, it shouldn’t really surprise us that when we shift the emphasis of the gospel from sin to self-actualization, the result is not more joy but less. Our joy (at least in the deep, sustainable sense) is always going to be in proportion to our sensitivity to sin and gratitude for grace. At conversion, if we don’t see how serious our sins are, we will have little gratitude for their forgiveness. But godly sorrow is not a one-time event that happens prior to baptism. I would suggest that if godly sorrow ever ceases as an ongoing experience in our lives as Christians, we will find godly joy a challenge to maintain.
In our efforts to encourage others, I fear we are often so eager for them to “feel better” that we short-circuit the process by which they might truly discover joy. And in our preaching, I fear we are so reluctant to say anything that might make people “feel bad about themselves,” we lead them away from the “broken and contrite heart” (Psalm 51:17) that is the prime prerequisite for biblical joy.
The gospel presents us with us two truths: the sinful truth about ourselves and the saving truth about God. The first truth is what makes the second truth “good news,” but modern preaching hurries past the first — and produces Christians who, never having been taught godly sorrow, penitence, and forgiveness, have no significant source for the joy their preachers tell them they ought to be experiencing.
But it is our concept of God that hinders us the most. If we don’t accept the full biblical description of God, our truncated view of God will limit our joy (no matter what the devil may say). When “the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1) is left out of our spiritual growth and when “the wrath of God” (Romans 5:9) is no longer what we yearn to be rescued from, our “joy” is going to be a poor substitute for the real thing.