Friday, September 12, 2008

enjoying God (8) why don't I feel joy in God?

Sometimes Christians give the impression that to be a Christian, you have to be happy. If you're miserable, maybe there's something lacking in your faith, or you're not really a Christian.

It won't be long before experience of suffering, sorrow, or discouragement, brings that kind of faith crashing down.

There will be times in every Christian's life when we wonder if we will ever feel joy again. But what should we make of these times? Aren't we supposed to have joy in God? Can you be a Christian without joy?

There are a few things to remember here. First, desire and delight are two sides of the same coin. Sometimes we feel delight, a positive experience of joy. Sometimes all we feel is desire, longing for God. But both show how highly we value God, how we believe he alone can satisfy the desires of our soul.

Second, joy may seem to be absent, even when its seed remains in our hearts. We know the seed is there, because we're unhappy about our lack of joy. We're uncomfortable. We feel something is missing. If we didn't care about God, our lack of joy in God wouldn't bother us. In the depths of that sorrow is the seed of joy.

And most importantly: whatever our feelings of God's absence, the fact is that he is always with us, if we trust in Jesus. We're righteous in God's sight, united with Christ, and his Spirit lives in us (Rom. 3:22; 6:5; 8:9-11). We don't move into, or out of, God's presence depending on our feelings. The foundation for joy is always there, even when feelings of joy are absent.

But is it appropriate for Christians to be unhappy? Doesn't Paul say "rejoice in the Lord always", and "be joyful always" (Phil. 4:4, 1 Thess. 5:16)? Are unhappy Christians worse Christians, or disobedient Christians?

Christians should be unhappy, at times, in this fallen world. It's appropriate for Christians to grieve. It's appropriate for Christians to feel sorrow. A Christian who doesn't feel grief and sorrow in the face of death and suffering lacks something. Christians shouldn't be immune to what is happening around them.

But we can be unhappy and joyful at the same time. Paul describes himself as "sorrowful, yet always rejoicing" (2 Cor. 6:10). Peter says the people he is writing to "greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials" (1 Pet. 1:6). They don't just suffer, they "sorrow" and "grieve" - yet they also rejoice.

For joy and happiness aren't the same thing. It's possible to feel a deep sense of joy in God, even when we grieve or suffer terribly. Sometimes our joy in God is more intense when the things of this world are stripped away. Perhaps you have known this: the determination to trust and praise God in the face of loss, the sweet joy of suffering with Christ in the cause of the gospel.

Yet there will be times when joy seems a million miles away. In the first moments, days, or weeks, of devastating loss, it may be anguish, bewilderment, and even anger, which we express with honesty to God. And many great saints - Spurgeon, Cowper, Brainerd - suffered from severe depression.

In the day of sorrow, sometimes all we can do is cry out to God, hold on to his promises, plead with our souls, pray, and wait.

Futher reading: many of these ideas are taken from John Piper's When I Don't Desire God, and from chapter 16, on trials, in Martyn Lloyd-Jones' Spiritual Depression.

images are from stock.xchng

1 comment:

mattnbec said...

I've heard the feelings-fact idea many times before, but I think the desire-delight point and the seed one are also very useful. Thanks. It seems to put a glimmer of hope there and some perspective. Sometimes that sort of thing just seems to have a way of making the misery a bit more bearable and enables a bit of a mind shift which helps you to keep going a little bit longer.