In my first post on the Mountain Bible School I noted that I had persistently used a phrase when teaching through John 13-21: “It is a wonderful thing to be a Christian.” It was an attempt to summarise the raft of privileges that Jesus promises His disciples in these chapters. However, I can imagine circumstances where it would feel like an irritating phrase. Somebody tells you that it is great to be a Christian and, for whatever reason, you just don’t feel it. That then induces guilt or confusion as to why apparently we are different to any other Christian. I can sympathise. I have a vivid memory of singing an 18th century hymn at church which talks about God guiding us through our “happy days”. I was in a pretty bleak period and I recall recoiling at the line. Now when I taught through John 13-21 I didn’t deal with this topic and so I wanted in this final post on the Bible School (I promise!) to address the issue.
Others have written on this subject at greater length (such as Lloyd-Jones in his book on Spiritual Depression) but I wanted briefly to touch on five issues that may be worth thinking through when it doesn’t feel wonderful to be a Christian.
I’ve written previously on this area noting the different strengths and weaknesses of various personality types. In this context it is worth reflecting on optimists and pessimists. I quite like the definition of a pessimist as “an optimist’s opinion of a realist.” I suspect for those going through tough times the pessimist is often an easier companion than the ever cheerful optimist! But those of us of a more melancholic disposition are going to need to work harder to see the blessings of being a Christian. The discipline of being thankful is useful here. Getting into a routine where you force yourself to consider why you are thankful to be a Christian today can be a useful stimulus to joy. Our personality type may make it harder for us to rejoice but part of Christian maturity is about challenging our personality rather than simply succumbing to it.
There are times when Christians just end up weary. It might be the pressure of life, constant battles with temptation, a nightmare situation at work or sleep deprivation owing to young children. Whatever the cause, you are just exhausted. You struggle to feel very much at all. When somebody bounces up and down at the front of church saying how wonderful it is to be a Christian you just want to curl up quietly somewhere.
In that situation, it does us good simply to recall the Lord’s compassion. Some of the most precious verses for me over the last few years have been these from Psalm 103:
“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.”
What does the Lord do when He sees us exhausted? He remembers that we are simply dust and has compassion.
I don’t particularly want to challenge the weary Christian to feel greater joy. I want to point them to the Lord’s compassion for them. It may even be that this truth leads to the first glimmer of thankfulness that we belong to a God like that.
The sense of privilege in being a Christian comes from an awareness of all the gifts that have been lavished upon us. I mentioned ten of them in the first post. But you will only feel that if you focus on what the Lord does for you rather than what we do for the Lord.
On Sunday evening I was preaching on the subject of God’s grace and I noted that it is completely counter-intuitive. The world works on the basis that we get what we earn. It is so easy to import that into our relationship with the Lord. The result is that we will seek to work ourselves into a relationship with the Lord. It won’t feel like a wonderful privilege.
One of the most helpful practices as a Christian is learning to receive. Sometimes it can be useful simply to imagine the Lord bestowing gift after gift upon us that we simply receive with empty hands. As we think along such lines the joy returns.
I have always been struck by how Paul writes Ephesians 1. He lists a whole heap of blessings that we have through the Lord Jesus from v.3-14. If I were writing v.15 onwards I probably would have told the Ephesian Christians to live out such blessings in godly behaviour or perhaps to go and proclaim Jesus to the world. But Paul prays that the Spirit would work in the Ephesians to open they eyes of their hearts. I think the gist is this. Paul lists the blessings and then prays that they would have the spiritual eyes to see and grasp them.
That is so vital. I’ve known the experience (from both sides) of a preacher being thrilled by some truth in the Scriptures and a congregation being bored rigid. What is necessary? Presumably it is the Spirit opening eyes and mouths so that people will be able to see and taste the wonder.
If it doesn’t feel wonderful to be a Christian can I encourage you to pray? “Father, please open my eyes to see and grasp the privileges I enjoy?”
Jesus does give us a reason why we may lack joy in our Christian lives towards the end of John’s Gospel:
“If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in His love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” John 15:10-11
A failure to repent of sin will inevitably damage our sense of Jesus’ love and our joy. Theologically, that is because our sin grieves the Spirit who brings joy to our hearts. In some ways I hesitate to teach this- I know at times that it leads to excessive introspection for some Christians who are struggling to rejoice. My suspicion is that if we are not aware of our sin then the other causes mentioned above may be more likely. But some of us will know our sin and know the lack of joy that it brings.
How do you get out of the vicious circle though? Some Christians sin, lose their joy and are then stuck. Being a Christian no longer feels wonderful and so there can be a lack of desire to repent. Here is my suggestion. Confess your sin openly and then consciously apply the Gospel to your heart. Receive the privileges that are available to forgiven sinners. Let the joy return. Then use that as power to resist the temptation that will come.
Above all- don’t be content to have a Christianity that feels less than joyful. Jesus wants us to know our privileges. For that reason, it is worth thinking through why we are not enjoying them so that we might apply the appropriate remedy.