Where is the Joy?
Where is the joy? Though I have been a believer in God and Jesus my whole life, I never really understood the concept of joy. It was elusive. As I sought to grow deeper in my faith, the path did not lead to joy, but to something else. Something like frustration, worry, maybe fear? Eventually I came to a realization that something was broken in my faith that prevented joy. What could it be?
Certainly nothing was broken in the message of the Bible I believed in so strongly. Nothing was broken in God or his character, since he is unchangeable and perfect. I never felt a lack of belief in God, Jesus or the Bible.
On the contrary I felt more and more like God was calling me, in and through all the many areas of life, through painful times and through joyful things. I found that God's calling was not a call to action or better behavior. It was not a call to improve myself through continual effort. It was not a call to my knees or a call to go. Instead everything pointed to Himself and to a relationship with him. One that is simpler and less based on effort or achievement, less striving to perfection.
What I heard was a call to freedom. Freedom from what? Freedom to do what? Why is God so concerned with freedom? Am I not free already? I wasn’t sure but the call was somehow connected to salvation, to the offer of eternal life, to the message of Jesus, and to his work on the cross. The call was going to lead to true joy! Somehow the message of salvation was going to be my path to joy.
Through study of the Bible and through some active listening, I started to understand that "salvation" means freedom by its very definition, and as described by the prophecies and teachings in the Bible that talk about the work of Christ. And freedom in the Bible led to joy in those that were liberated. Somehow, God was very passionate about freedom, and had a deep intent to liberate his children. This intent was carried out in the salvation that God provided.
So, What was Broken?
Something is wrong with the traditional salvation message.
I am a member of the conservative, American, evangelical, Christian culture. My experience has been through various types of denominational and non-denominational churches that all believe the Bible, and base their church on the Bible. I would say I have an average set of beliefs in that culture, but with a tendency to question and also to believe in thinking for myself.
As a layer on top of my culture is my experience. Though it is not taught explicitly, the experience I have had of my Christian culture is that it does not bring joy.
The message it brings to the world and to my heart is filled with good and joyful things, but there is something wrong with it. There is something missing, and something toxic, in the message, in the living of it, in living for it. I found myself many times trying to find the purpose in my faith, the purpose in the church, the purpose in my life.
I found myself wondering what I could ever do that would make a difference in the world. I found myself wondering what more I could do, or do better or differently, to care more, to be more effective, to grow in my faith, to live a life I could be proud of some day. That "some day" is the Day of Judgment -- when I will be measured up against all others and Jesus will decide how I did in this life, and then I will spend the rest of eternity reaping the reward for the life I lived.
What I found was amazing to me: I found that living for eternal judgment is an unhealthy way to live. It can't bring joy. Furthermore, eternal judgment for all isn't a very positive message to share with the world, and yet it is the staple message of the evangelicals.
When I realized that there was in inconsistency between the God I believe in and the traditional salvation message, I searched and found the reason. Although we teach the concept of "grace" to understand God and the Bible, we don't embrace it fully. Instead we live with paradox.
Laws and Systems
Here is the problem. Here is what's wrong with the traditional salvation message: unfortunately it is still based on laws and systems of behavior. There remains the notion that we must live in such a way that we will please God.
We must live with purpose, where purpose leads to effectiveness and efficiency of our limited time on Earth. We must understand authority, and live to please authority, including God, our church leaders, our parents (until we are independent), our bosses and governments. We must adhere to systems of politeness so that others will know that we are good people with a certain station in society.
As Christians, we must commit ourselves to good disciplines, like reading the Bible, praying daily, going to church, ever trying to grow in our relationship with God. We must be a disciple!
We must also be an evangelist. We have to speak at every opportunity to share the message and win new believers. We must support missionaries to propagate the message to the entire world. We must worship God, by doing things that please him like singing songs that declare his greatness, praise his good works, and show our devotion to him.
Some churches believe we should lift our hands or kneel on our knees or dance before God or say "Amen" to show we are worshipping more fully. At other churches we are encouraged to engage emotionally and get really excited or cry or clap to show that we are sincere in our faith. My observation is that being a traditional Christian is filled with expectations. It feels like pressure. It creates stress. It creates a crisis where we wonder if we are good enough and doing enough.
Many of the things I am complaining about are actually good things. However this is the problem: nothing is wrong with good behavior but it has nothing to do with salvation. Nothing! When it comes to good standing with God, none of the stuff I listed in the last paragraph will help in any way to differentiate you from anyone else or give you good standing with God. God will not judge you on any of these things. The image of Jesus judging people and separating the good and bad people to let the good people into heaven has frequently been misunderstood!
How do I know? Because Jesus and the Bible clearly state that salvation is simply a gift to be opened. Jesus, the king and ruler of heaven, is truly the supreme authority over it. And in his authority he has made a way for us to have a relationship with him in this life and for all eternity. Now that he’s done that, our salvation is simply a choice made from belief. In other words, salvation is simply a choice, and is not any system of behavior. It’s God’s choice to provide salvation, and it’s our choice to accept it. The entire Christian life is salvation -- not salvation PLUS a bunch of laws or expectations. That would be a paradox, an inconsistency in how we live, like having two masters. Do we accept God’s offer of grace, or do we try to earn it in spite of grace? What do we choose, Grace or Works?
That means, that we should NOT continue to live to please God. What? Surely that is wrong - doesn't God want us to please him? I mean, doesn't he state all over the Bible all kinds of things we should do to please him, like the 10 commandments, or Jesus’ "Greatest Commandments", or the sermon on the mount? Doesn't Jesus just teach us a better way to please God, that is better than the old laws?
Can't we just believe and follow the Bible and then we will good Christians? The answer is NO we cannot. In fact, Jesus and the writers of the New Testament never say that we can please God by following instructions. When they do give instructions or specific directions, they make sense in the context of who they were writing to or talking to, but in fact do not make sense if interpreted as timeless commandments.
As Christians we still find ourselves gleaning timeless commandments out of context and way beyond the intent of the author. We seem eager to create lists and steps and procedures to succeed in pleasing God.
Furthermore, our culture and strong belief of the necessity of pleasing God pervades our relationships with others. We feel that we must be authoritative parents that teach our children to please people, otherwise we are doing them a disservice by raising them to be rebellious and not inherently understand authority.
We also have a strong tendency to enforce norms on those in our culture -- it's also called judging one another. We feel free to let others know when we feel that God requires something that they are not doing, and we put pressure on them to do it! We withhold our acceptance of others if they don't conform. Even if we're nice about it, we use expectations and acceptance to enforce good behavior among our children, friends, neighbors, and fellow church-goers.
If you don't believe me, ask yourself some hard questions about how you accept people that are different than you are. Does their behavior make them unacceptable to God? We still strongly enforce norms of good behavior and right ideals, and we judge a person’s behavior and system of ideals as indicating good standing with God. We apply this to the obvious areas where we see sinful behavior, and we apply this to subtle areas like beliefs.
The system of behavior required in the traditional salvation message is no better than any other system of behavior. Like the Pharisees that Jesus fought so earnestly, or like the secular world we are striving so hard to separate ourselves from, we have fallen into the trap of behavior and expectations.
We fail to embrace grace, and instead continue to live by a system of behavior that we describe as pleasing God or doing his will.
When we put those words to it pleasing God, or God's will, then we justify any and all actions necessary. Modern civilization is built on much uncivilized behavior, and plenty of it is justified by belief in God and the Bible.
Unfortunately, we interpret the Bible to support OUR needs for laws and to build systems of society to justify our own evil behavior. We interpret the Bible to allow us to judge one another and differentiate the good guys from the bad guys.
Is God Impressed?
So, what is wrong with the traditional salvation message? Why is it broken? Why can't it bring joy? To summarize, the traditional gospel is still a system of behavior, and we still use it for OUR OWN benefit. Somehow we use faith in God and the fear of eternal judgment to forget about God and instead believe in our own actions.
We are inconsistent. It can't bring joy because God doesn't like our systems and is not impressed.
Since God is the true source of joy and peace, we are lacking it. We are missing something, and so we mistakenly work harder to please God more and to find true joy and peace. But he remains unimpressed and our pursuits are in vain. Ouch!
So, there must be a better way. I'll give away the simple truth: only one thing pleases God, and that is intimate relationship with us. Maybe we follow our vain pursuits out of a sincere fear of intimacy. We don't really want to relate to God, so we do a bunch of stuff to avoid it.
We lavish songs of praise on God, but we don't listen to him, we don't open up to him with our true feelings. But why do we avoid such joy, such peace, such freedom?
Relationship with God does not come with any conditions, any strings attached, any expectations of behavior, any requirements, any eternal judgment. The price for our salvation does not have to be paid with good behavior.
So, just relate. Just be! All God wants, is US as friends (and not as slaves)! If he has that, together with him we can enjoy that relationship for all eternity.
God wants to offer us freedom from fear and judgment, so that we can relate to him in an intimate relationship of love. God also wants us to offer that same freedom to others, and love them with compassion and acceptance. Only then can we agree with Christ’s higher standard, which can be summarized simply as “Love God. Love One Another.”
What a powerful message of Grace and Freedom the Bible carries! And what a powerful message we can share as the Church of those that have been Accepted. Why haven’t we seen it before? If our eyes are now open, let us shine our light of this Good News for the entire world.