Everyone wants to be happy. How to be happy – well, that can become a divisive topic. The happiest moments of my life have come from romantic dates with my fiancée, vacations with my family, hard-won games of ultimate Frisbee, and times of leisurely immersion in a book. Or, I think of special celebrations during the graduation weekends that concluded my high school and college days. But just try to imagine the last time you had so much fun at a church service!
Why is that? How did a religion that offers so many reasons to be happy develop communities so lacking in joy? In a spirit of good cheer, I’d like to skip over criticizing others and, instead, briefly review the reasons we have to celebrate. My conviction is that as we develop a theology of joy, God will transform us into a heroically joyful people.
To begin this theological project, we can start with the opening words of Scripture, which teaches that the whole universe, in all of its indescribable grandeur and awesome beauty, was created by an incredibly powerful and good God. The abundant extravagance of this creation involved making over 350,000 species of beetles alone. The apex of all God’s creative work, though, was us – with spleens, brains that are 80 percent water, and twenty-some feet of intestines wrapped up inside. We are, by some terrific mystery, made in the very image of this Creator God. So before we even get out of Genesis 2, Christians have a lot to celebrate! After all, “and God saw that it was good” seven times.
Admittedly, evil and injustice make the third chapter of our Scriptures a sobering wake-up call. But the Bible offers us moral clarity and guidance for navigating an all-too-ambiguous and confusing world. Our answers to the burning question of our age won’t have a paint-by-numbers simplicity, but let’s be happy that Jesus taught us the Golden Rule! Moreover, after battling night and day against injustice with all the goodness, love, and kindness we can muster from the strength that God provides, isn’t it truly wonderful to get together with others to remember that God delivered a subversively fatal blow to evil through Christ’s death and resurrection?
And this is just the beginning! The Bible gives us dozens of other reasons to be glad, from the gift of the Holy Spirit to the promise of heaven to a daily intimacy with our Father in heaven. We need to draw deeply from these sources of truth if we are to recover a thoroughgoing joy in our communities. As we recover these promises for our lives, we also need to become relentlessly courageous and imaginative.
We need to be courageous because theology is useless if it doesn’t become deep-seated conviction. In the midst of adverse situations, it will take courageous, bold men and women to stand on and live out a joyful theology. Maintaining perspective is hardest when you get thrown into the mud. So without hardiness of character and close friends to encourage us, we’re going to get pulled back into the same old way of life. Choosing joy, no matter what, because of who God is and what He has done, takes real nerve.
We’re also going to need to imagine a different kind of joy. The syrupy-sweet, Jesus-is-a-friend-of-mine act isn’t going to cut it. Standing out like that is just annoying. We need a resilient joy that can sustain us through suffering, loss, hardship, persecution, and sacrifice. We need an enduring joy that isn’t rooted in material abundance or academic success or landing the hottest summer internship, a comforting joy that can coexist with feelings of grief, sadness, anger, and disappointment without being overwhelmed. In short, we need to recover and develop a genuinely theological set of reasons to be happy in Christ, the kind of ideas that can withstand any circumstances because they’re rooted in the soil of Scripture.
I’ve outgrown some of my happiest childhood memories, precious as they are. And I’ve come to learn that circumstantial happiness really does come and go. But I know I’ll never outgrow
contemplating and celebrating the goodness of the Living God. Those are the truths that can sustain our joy in every situation. May our theology develop us into a heroically joyful people!
Carson Wietnauer works with the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship.