Religious Smog

Words of joy are like sluice gates; open them and floods pour through.


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   Years ago while I was serving a student pastorate in northern California, a teenage girl in our church group, whose name I have forgotten, asked me a question. She said she was going with a boy of a different faith (a fact I already knew) and that certain aspects of church teaching were creating a problem in their relationship. She said she had been to see his pastor, who after he heard her out, said to her, "My dear, don't you know we're put into this world to suffer?"

   I have since then found a remarkably similar statement in Thackeray's nineteenth-century English novel The Newcomes. A French priest tries to comfort a long-suffering wife with the words "Not here, my daughter, is to be your happiness. Whom heaven loves it afflicts."

   My teenage friend's question to me was "Do you think that's right?"

   Let me use that girl's question as a springboard to plunge into the real issue, which involves the whole mystery of existence on earth. Her friend's pastor was correct this far: We are

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born into a world full of suffering, much of which seems to come upon us with no explanation. But does the Bible, the Word of God, really teach that our purpose in being born is to suffer? Or is that just some religious smog?

   To put it into more precise doctrinal terms, does Christianity teach that when God created the human race, He predestined it (or most of it, babies included) to eternal misery by His inscrutable will? Or does it teach that God became so angry over the sin of Adam and Eve that He condemned the whole human race to work out its punishment here on this planet through suffering? Think a minute. Is that really the Good News of the Gospel? Is that the "kingdom" Jesus was talking about? And when He said, "I have come that they may have life, and have it more abundantly," is that what He meant?

   Earlier I suggested that Jesus' inner joy came directly from the heart of His heavenly Father by the Holy Spirit, and that on the human side His genial nature probably was inherited from His mother, who was the daughter of a race known and honored the world over for its cheerfulness, vivacity, and ability to laugh even in the most deeply trying circumstances. (Think of the contributions of Jewish comedians.)

   Now I would like to suggest a third source of Jesus' joy: God's written Word, the Old Testament.

   Let us begin with the Psalms, which Jesus seems to have loved and which He often quoted. When I sat down one day and began seriously to look for love and joy in that book, I became so excited I was (to borrow a phrase my mother often used) "beside myself." In particular I found various forms of the words joy, joyous, enjoy, delight, gladness, exuberance, and jubilation appearing well over a hundred times, beginning with Psalm 1 and ending with a grand finale in Psalm 150. I am informed that one scholar has listed 13 Hebrew roots and 27 separate words for joy in the Old Testament.

   After reading the Psalms in my personal devotions for half a century, I was under the common impression that most of them were rather plaintive in character, reflecting the hardships and struggles of Palestinian existence. I now realize that nothing could be further from the truth!

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   The Psalms are above all else hymns of praise and thanksgiving that give a sweet savor and rich perfume to life. They radiate cheer and exhilaration; they sparkle with zest and high spirits. If we have missed that (and for a long time I did), it may be because for centuries we have associated them with a liturgical form that majors on veneration and awe rather than joy.

   But the Psalms are not dirges or wails; overwhelmingly they are the exuberant outpouring of writers who are literally kicking up their heels, so excited are they to discover the redemptive love of Almighty God. "Shout for joy!" "Praise Him with the clash of cymbals." "Praise Him sun and moon." "Extol the Lord." "My heart leaps for joy." "In Your name I will lift up my hands." "The hills are clothed with gladness." "The valleys . . . shout for joy and sing."

   Let's continue our quest by researching some other Old Testament Scriptures.

   We hear God speaking to the prophet Isaiah in these words: "Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains!" and again, "I will make you . . . the joy of all generations." Nehemiah writes, "The joy of the Lord is your strength." Zephaniah declares, "The Lord . . . will rejoice over you with singing." Even the sardonic preacher in Ecclesiastes says plainly, "God gives . . . joy."

   For me it is difficult to call Jeremiah the "weeping prophet" after reading his glorious description of the blessing of God to come to the Jewish people when they returned from captivity in Babylon:

For the LORD will ransom Jacob and redeem them from the hand of those stronger than they.

They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the Lord the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and herds.

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They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.

Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well.

I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow.

Jeremiah 31:11,12    

   Neither of the Old Testament nor the New can it be said that they reveal a God whose main purpose toward human beings was to afflict them with suffering. Just the opposite! He wished them the blessings of peace and love and joy in a land of fruitfulness and abundance.

   In a gentle and affectionate way let us now look at the church that Jesus founded, and that we love today, albeit each in our own way. As the church moves into its third millennium, is it reflecting the tone of the book of Acts? Is it conveying the warm spirit of the early Christians, whose tremendous popularity spread all around the Mediterranean shores?

   Or is it possible that the church has (unconsciously, perhaps) distilled much of the joy out of Christianity? Think of cherubic personalities like Francis of Assisi, or Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, or Billy Bray, the Welsh lay preacher. How rare such apostles of joy have been in the annals of church history! Each was tremendously popular in his time, but the church seems hardly to have known what to do with them.

   The Bible tells us that even the rivers and trees of the forest clap their hands in praise to God, but in many a church today hand-clapping is seldom practiced. It almost seems we have turned Isaiah inside out and exchanged the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness. Joyfulness, lightheartedness, and jubilation seem out of order in many church assemblies. Joy gets scant treatment in our biblical and theological institutions and library indexes. Seldom does it creep into our creeds and church histories. It is nowhere to be seen in the records of

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religious wars, ecclesiastical disputes, inquisitions, and persecutions.

   Today in many worship services the Psalms that are so full of gladness and blessedness are read aloud, but in a most ceremonious manner. It is not that joy is entirely ignored in the churches, for eloquent sermons are preached on the subject, and hymns are sung about it, but often the mood is reverently subdued. People do not expect to be lifted up. Many times their presence is due to childhood memories, or to a sense of duty and obligation. Even the young people who are loyal to their church in many cases expect nothing but solemnity when they enter its doors.

   Billy Graham states:

   One of the desperate needs among Christian young people is exuberance and vitality in their loyalty to Christ. People go to a football game today and shout their heads off, or go to a circus and cheer act after act. They become enthusiastic about everything conceivable, but when it comes to spiritual matters they think we are supposed to become sober and quiet, and wear black, and never have a good time or enjoy a religious event.1

   Certainly a frivolous or jocular attitude is inappropriate in approaching the sacred mysteries of our faith, let alone the throne of God Himself. A sense of awe before the Shekinah Glory is an expression indispensable for true worship. But the problem with much worship today is not the departure of the divine Presence, for where two or three are gathered together in His name, Jesus still promises to be with us. Too often the problem is the supersanctimonious smog we spread over our church life, the unnecessary gravity with which our leadership protects its dignity, the unnatural posturing that can so easily pass into overbearing arrogance and conceit.

   When I visited C.S. Lewis in Cambridge in 1963 he told me, "There is a great deal of false reverence about. There is too much solemnity and intensity in dealing with sacred matters,

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too much speaking in holy tones."2 The tragic loss in all this pious gamesmanship is to the individual in the pew, who begins to feel that in the midst of the religious ceremonies he cannot get through to the Lord Himself. Recently I received a letter from a young lady in West Virginia saying, "It seems to me the subject of joy is sadly lacking in the lives of many Christians when we ought to be the most joyful people on the face of the earth."

   When Christians try to act more holy than Jesus Himself, the church is in trouble. Jesus was particularly sharp with "scribes and Pharisees" who "for a pretense make long prayers."3 Exit pomposity!

   Add to the mix the seemingly endless protocol, minutiae, and irrelevata that tie our ecclesiastical proceedings in knots, and you have the church of the third millennium. To attend many church meetings today is to run the risk of humongous boredom.

   Let me go further. Many of the authors of our Christian books seem unable to comprehend what it means to have the kind of radiant, overflowing, inner joy that Jesus brought to earth and shared with His followers. I have known professional theologians who appear baffled and bewildered by a demonstration of the believer's lighthearted joy in the Holy Spirit. To be set free by Jesus Christ, to revel in the new birth, to exude the joy of the Lord, to celebrate the knowledge that one's sins have been forgiven because of the vicarious sacrifice of Christ who went to the cross and shed His blood for us and our salvation, is to be in their words "an enthusiast." To explain such behavior, they compile erudite monographs about "cultic joy," "festal joy," and "eschatological joy."

   But the joy that today's jubilant new convert has is no different from the joy that Jesus obviously had while He was ministering in Galilee and elsewhere, and which He shared with His disciples. This kind of reveling cannot be compartmentalized. It suffuses the whole of existence and blows the dismal clouds of unbelief out to sea. By a miracle of grace the Holy Spirit continues to make it available to us today. It is not mere

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jolliness, although fun and laughter cannot be ruled out of the kingdom. What Jesus actually brought with Him from heaven was something more than a new start for humanity; it was a clear, bubbling, unpolluted delight in God and God's creation, His redemption, His new creation, and His promise of eternal life.

   I'm talking about the kind of divine joy that existed in paradise before the invasion of evil; or perhaps one was not aware that Adam and Eve were happy? Read the text again. Laughter was born in the Garden of Eden. Elisabeth Elliot reminds us that "obedience always leads finally to joy." Dr. Ed Wheat, a Christian marriage counselor, writes:

   As I put the principles of the Bible into practice, and as I learned how really to love my wife, this became pleasure as well as responsibility. Obedience took on the bright colors of joy.4

   That aptly describes the true situation that existed in Eden at the beginning.

   We shall be examining the biblical accounts, looking particularly at the people who were affected by the ministry of Jesus and those close to Him. The reason for this research is not simply to add to the massive scholarship that has already been posted in the New Testament field. The true reason for our study is to see whether this joy of the Lord can be appropriated today, not just by new converts in the first flush of rapture, but by all of us who love the Lord. Do we have access to it? Is there after all something in Christianity that can make our lives glow, that can turn sorrow into joy, discord into beautiful music, and dreariness into something fruitful? Did Jesus really bring something beautiful from heaven, something primordial out of the dawn of creation, that can give us the full radiance of life which we seem to keep missing?

   In his remarkable book The Way to Pentecost, the well-known British Methodist preacher Samuel Chadwick tells us that he was "about my Heavenly Father's business" when

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in my search I came across a prophet, heard a testimony, and set out to seek I knew not what. I knew it was a bigger thing than I had ever known. It came along the line of duty, in a crisis of obedience. When it came I could not explain what had happened, but I was aware of things unspeakable and full of glory.

   Some results were immediate. There came into my soul a deep peace, a thrilling joy, and a new sense of power. My mind was quickened. Every power was vitalized. There was a new sense of vitality, a new power of endurance. Things began to happen. It was as when the Lord Jesus stepped into the boat that with all the disciples' rowing had made no progress, and "immediately the ship was at the land." It was gloriously wonderful.

   And then he points out that two thousand years ago something very similar happened to those who were present at Pentecost: "Illumination of mind, assurance of heart, intensity of love, fullness of power, exuberance of joy."

   It was a vivid and authentic testimony by an outstanding servant of the Lord. Chadwick then declares that the Holy Spirit is

the Spirit of Truth, the Spirit of Witness, the Spirit of Conviction, the Spirit of Power, the Spirit of Holiness, the Spirit of Life, the Spirit of Adoption, the Spirit of Help, the Spirit of Liberty, the Spirit of Wisdom, the Spirit of Revelation, the Spirit of Promise, the Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Meekness, the Spirit of Sound Mind, the Spirit of Grace, the Spirit of Glory, and the Spirit of Prophecy.5

   Great! But not the Spirit of Joy? Why not? Luke tells us that Jesus came into Galilee after His baptism filled with the Spirit and preaching the kingdom of God. It was a message of good news and joy. The book of Acts adds that, during the days after Pentecost, the "disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy

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Spirit."6 They were having such a good time that people thought they were inebriated.

   Now let's build a contrast. Perhaps you know of a church that is facing a serious crisis. At this moment, while you are reading this page, the church officers are meeting in grave session, trying to cope with a spiritual, moral, or financial issue that is threatening to divide the congregation. Other informal groups are meeting privately in homes to express their disaffection. Lengthy telephone calls are being made. Slander is being spread. Petitions are being prepared. Lawsuits are being threatened. Members reportedly have been seen attending other churches. As the officers of the congregation meet to grapple with the situation, no one would ever accuse them (as they did the early disciples) of being drunk. They are simply earnest Christians trying to make their way through their own religious smog.

   How do we lovers of Jesus get into such entanglements? What must we do to be "regrafted," as Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie says, so that we can "catch the impact of the exhilarating elixir of Jesus' joy" as an "artesian flow," and "feel the palpable delight of His life?"


1. In Decision magazine, October 1968

2. Interview on May 7, 1963, published inter alia in Lewis, God in the Dock, p. 259

3. Matthew 23:14

4. Ed Wheat, M.D., Love Life for Every Married Couple (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), p. 12

5. Samuel Chadwick, The Way to Pentecost (Fort Washington, PA: Christian Literature Crusade, 1976), pp. 35-36.

6. Acts 13:52

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