Going by the most common ways in which Christians are portrayed in the media, and the ways they tend to present themselves to the world, joy may not be the first word which you would identify with them. If you took a poll of your work colleagues, your neighbours, your friends at the gym etc, and asked them what words they would attach to individual Christians they might more readily come up with judgemental, dysfunctional, repressive, and so on. While much of this is the result of misrepresentation it must in equal measure be attributed to miscommunication – Christian engagement with the world can seem entrenched, militant, and frankly dour. If this is the case it is in spite of the gospel that we espouse, rather than as the result of it.
Recently I’ve been reading about joy in the book of Romans. Romans is a tour de force of a book, trailing the reader through the effluent of human sinfulness in its early chapters, demonstrating over and over again that this is no alien territory to us, but our home turf, our fixed abode, our poison of choice. By Romans 3 we are desperate for light, for some kindling of hope or help in our tattered humanity, and from verse 21 we find it in abundance. Paul opens the floodgates of gospel truth about Christ’s death in our stead, inundating the arid valley of our lost souls with a message which is too good not to be true. Christ has been set forth as a propitiation for our sins, he has borne the guilt of sinners, he has satisfied the wrath of God, and God’s justice has been demonstrably vindicated while the justifying of sinners has been wondrously facilitated. If you have never visited Romans 1-3 you really must go there – you’ll arrive at nightfall, but the sunrise is worth waiting for.
Romans 4 and 5 are an assessment of the destructive work which this flood of gospel truth has realised on the previously flourishing life of sin which we indulged. We have come to God by faith in Christ alone and our works, like those of Abraham, have had nothing to do with it. By Romans 5, Paul is laying out the seismic nature of this singular faith in Christ – we are justified by faith in him, we have a standing before a holy God, and even our adversities, conflicts, disappointments, losses, have been transformed for us so that we can ‘rejoice in our sufferings’ knowing that hope is not a word which hangs on to see the outcome, but the certain outcome itself which governs our view of every other happenstance.
Romans 5:11 is a stand-out verse in terms of joy and the Christian life. Just let its profound truth sink into your soul:
Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have received reconciliation
Reading over that verse again ought to ignite your soul. Because of this gospel, because of this justification by faith, because we have not merely been saved, but will finally be saved we can now rejoice in God. Rejoicing in God is not native to us at all – resisting God, remonstrating with God, resenting God, those are our default settings and our built in preferences. Now, though, we rejoice in God. We have been brought near, into the very presence of, the Almighty Living God. The purpose for which our souls were created is now bountifully and beautifully realised in our communion with him. The barrier to the joy that is found in approaching him has been decisively and eternally removed, and now among all of the other lesser joys that life affords, our chief joy is God himself. At the end of all of the teaching about the gospel, the main thing we ‘get’ is God, and that is all that matters.
I need reminding of these truths. If I consult my Twitter feed tonight it looks as though Christianity is a fragmented special interest group at best, and a snarling and vicious predator at worst. If I look to the condition of the church worldwide, it looks as though Christianity is mainly offering an enhanced form of carnality, a super-realised message which matters only now, a slick machine which renders us just like our former selves but just a little better, more prosperous, less mundane.
But when I look into the gospel I find a landscape of such breathtaking and redemptive beauty that I catch my breath, and have to steady myself in order to be able to grasp even an inkling of the enormity of God’s work in sending Christ to be my Saviour. Tonight I can lay my head to the pillow in the conscious and constant enjoyment of God, and tomorrow I can rise with the same sentiment and reality emblazoned across the daybreak. If you are a Christian and your joy is dulled by the traffic film of the world we live in, unplug, recalibrate, take the gospel in your hands and heart afresh and see the great grounds for rejoicing in God that you have. If you’re not a Christian, the gospel invites you to a joy which is audible now, but which will reverberate for all eternity in a never ending crescendo of praise to Almighty God – I can’t think why you’d want to miss out on that.