Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live. - G.K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy
Yesterday, I was thinking through this Big Joy that powers our Christian faith. But, like me, you may be asking, "If joy is such an integral part of the Christian faith, then why am I so downcast?"
If we're honest, we have to admit this life is hard. We endure many trials. Our hearts get broken. Sickness, persecution, broken relationships, frustrated plans and dreams, addictions, death...this is not joyful stuff, people!
One beauty of Scripture is that it does not disregard one truth for the sake of elevating another. Just look again at those verses in Hebrews 12: "...let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (v. 1-2)
Odd juxtaposition of words, don't you think? Weight, sin, endurance (as in hard, exhausting, on-going work), the cross, shame...joy.
Here's another odd combination: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness..." (James 1:2) Trials, testing...joy.
Or consider the Beatitudes, in Mark 5: "Blessed are the poor in spirit...those who mourn...those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake...Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad..." Poor, hungry, persecuted, reviled...rejoice.
Christ Himself was called "a man of sorrows." He wept over Jerusalem, grieved the death of Lazarus, mourned the hardness of His hearers' hearts. He was misunderstood, maligned, ridiculed, beaten, murdered. Yet He endured all of this "...for the joy that was set before Him..."
So which is it? What are we to expect in this Christian life? Big joy - Or - big sorrow?
The answer is: Both. In fact, Scripture assures us that we most certainly will experience both. Well, if that's the case, then how is this Christian life any different from life as a non-believer? And how does joy play into all of this?
G.K. Chesterton put it this way: Everything human must have in it both joy and sorrow; the only matter of interest is the manner in which the two things are balanced or divided.
Picture in your mind planet Earth, surrounded by a thin layer of atmosphere, and beyond that space, stretching out further than we can even imagine. For the unbeliever, Earth and its atmosphere are all that they have - the present, small, immediate joys that can be scrounged in a short existence in a decaying body. "Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Whatever makes me happy now. Climbing this mountain, sex with a new partner, advancing a level in this video game, reaching the top of the corporate ladder, eating this cake...whatever it is, that is as big as the joy gets. And when it's all over? The immense blackness of space - eternal separation from the God they were created to worship. Physical torment, and the never-ending consciousness of all that has been lost. Hell. Do you see how small is the joy, how vast the sorrow?
But for the Christian, this Earth and its atmosphere represent the very small travail of our existence. Decaying bodies, fraught with aches and sickness. Addictions. Broken hearts and broken homes. Unemployment. Poverty, hunger, disease, death. Persecution. Martyrdom. Those sound like pretty big sorrows, don't they? But in all this, we have the promise of God that these very trials are working to transform us into the likeness of our beloved Savior, Jesus: we are being made truly beautiful. Plus, we get "flashes" of joy (those things which the unbeliever confuses for ultimate joy) along the way to brighten our path - good music, mountain climbing, great sex, chocolate cake, cold beer. And then, finally, punch through the thin "atmosphere" of this short life into the vast expanse of "space" that lies beyond - an eternity of living in the presence of God Himself. Living with whole, healthy, vigorous bodies. With meaningful and satisfying work. Living with our brothers and sisters in relationships characterized by genuine and untainted love. No more sickness, no more tears, no more sorrow. Forever. Forever. Do you see how small is our sorrow, how infinite our joy?!
The pagan sees no further than the gray clouds suspended overhead, and says, "Such sorrow! There must not be a god. I will grab for myself what happiness I can, while I have time." The Christian sees past the nearer atmosphere of clouds and storms, sees past them to the brilliance of the stars and the sun, sees glimpses of the joy that lies beyond and says, "Glory!"
Yes, this life is hard. Yes, your soul will be downcast. But infinitely bigger than your sorrow is the great Joy that lies beyond. This is why we find the Psalmist and the Apostle Paul and gloomy Jeremiah, even while in the depths of melancholy, suddenly bursting out into joyful praise. Remembering anew the huge joy that lay before them, they could not help but sing, even in the midst of trials.
To quote G.K. Chesterton once more: Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man's ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something small and special...Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.