You better be joyful, or else…

Based on the biblical teaching, I would go so far as to say that it is the Christian’s duty, his moral obligation, to be joyful. That means that the failure of a Christian to be joyful is a sin, that unhappiness and a lack of joy are, in a certain way, manifestations of the flesh.

–R.C. Sproul, Can I Have Joy in My Life?

First off, I like R.C. Sproul and think he’s a great teacher.

But I think this can lead to being judged in a bad way. For those who deal with chronic depression, it may be near impossible, while still being a genuine Christian who is working out their salvation. I deal with that, and am able to feel joy, but you may not see it. Will people judge me because of this? There are also periods in one’s life when they don’t feel joy. Hopefully they will have the hope that they will have joy, as the Psalmists did, but even hope can be hard to come by at times.

I don’t have the book, so I don’t know if there’s context that would change what it sounds like as it is. But the quote is out there.

I would balance this with some quotes from Good News for Anxious Christians by Philip Cary, which I do have. Forgive me for any typos, and let me know.

The terrible vulnerability of our feelings is particularly evident in the psychological affliction we call depression, who’s victims are unable to feel joy or any strong emotion. [I wouldn’t call myself a victim.]

The idea that Christians are supposed to have a deep inner joy all the time is a terribly cruel notion. The idea itself is what’s cruel: it turns the people who wish to comfort the afflicted [better term] into tormentors. They want to help their suffering friends get the joy back, but in the process, they insist that their friends accept the underlying idea that it’s not normal for Christian life to experience deep suffering of the heart. So in addition to their suffering, their friends are wounded by the suggestion that their affliction is due to some failure in their Christian life–as if there’s something wrong with Christians who have a cross to bear.

[T]he promises of Christ can be turned into slogans, so that instead of promising that suffering shall come to an end–as the Cross of Christ leads to resurrection–the message is that suffering is unacceptable. [That’s what the afflicted may perceive.] What also happens is that Biblical exhortations such as the apostle’s words, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” (Phil 4:4) are turned into a kind of a command, even a kind of condemnation. Instead of inviting us to joy, they demand that we be joyful, or else.

Coincidentally, I came up with the subject line for this post before I typed out the quote.

In the book I wrote this: “For people who say this [you must always be joyful]: are they also never anxious (Philippians 4:6) or praying continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) as Paul also ‘invites’ us to do? Take out the plank.” And while you’re at it, don’t ever be anxious. It’s a command.

I realize this is a tough issue, and I think both of these authors aren’t as dogmatic as they sound.

I believe that we can always be joyful in what Jesus has done for us on the Cross, as I’ve written about in the past. (That post is important for how I feel about experiencing joy.) When there is deep suffering though, especially if it’s chronic, even this can be very difficult. Also, as I alluded to above, some of us have what’s call a “low affect” where we don’t show much emotion, even though we may feel it (and can sometimes lead to it spilling out, which can be embarrassing). I’ve had people try to get me to smile–“Oh come on, you can smile [dumb joke here]”, and I just don’t feel like it. I’m not a puppet who is going to make someone feel better because they don’t like the idea that someone can be afflicted in that way. It scares them. Or they just want me to feel better because they care, but don’t understand. I suppose the former what is a little cynical.

D. Martin Lloyd Jones, in his book Spiritual Depression (which I read as a library book, so I’m paraphrasing), wrote that part of the reason non-Christians aren’t as attracted to Christianity as they could be is because they don’t see joy in them. I think he wrote something about there being an epidemic of glum Christians. But he also acknowledged that there are those who experience chronic depression for a variety of reasons. He was only addressing the truly spiritual aspect of it, if that can even be divided from other factors. He was way ahead of his time (and the Puritans even more so, by hundreds of years), and I think he had the right balance.

This post is at about most people’s attention span, including mine, so I better end it here. I just wanted to hopefully give some perspective and balance to this very difficult subject. Let’s be careful out there, whatever your spiritual, emotional and physical health may be.

4 Responses to “You better be joyful, or else…”

  1. 1 Pedro4jc

    I would think that Sproul in the book the excerpt is from, would have the humility and consideration to admit that joy can often be unseen or unobservable, and so neither he or anyone else can be certain who is joyful or who isn’t. Hopefully, he qualifies that passage in a way that doesn’t place guilt on the person who may not be joyful, and further exacerbate a sad person’s problems.

    As to the paragraph on Martin Lloyd Jones’ thoughts as to why non-Christians aren’t as attracted to Christianity as they could be, there are plenty of overly perky/ever-gleeful, not-quite-real Christians doing their part to make sure non-Christians stay un-attracted to the gospel. I think the world values authenticity, and when they see me struggle w/ emotions yet trust in God’s sufficiency for me, that rings true and they are drawn to Christ more readily than if I’m just happy/shiny and insincere.

  2. 2 Scripture Zealot

    Good point on overly happy people. At least they aren’t usually persecuted. And also good about when people see others struggle, but see God working for His glory in them, them working out their salvation, and striving to ‘suffer well’.

    For some reason I didn’t see your comment until just now.

  3. 3 Dave Black

    Thanks for the great post, Jeff. Larry Crabb once said, “In even the happiest Christian lives there are deep pockets of incurable pain.” I like that. That’s the real world in which I live, and I know you do to. The NT does not teach the “Be Happy Attitudes.” Still, I’m grateful for the peace of God that surpasses understanding, the joy of the Spirit, the sense of lassitude one has when one rests in the Lord (which, of course, is not the same thing as being asleep in Jesus!).

    Your encouragement to us is to “suffer well.” I think your transparency will help many of us do just that.

  4. 4 Scripture Zealot

    Prof, I didn’t see your email until just now because of a snafu with Thunderbird not getting my Gmail. Thank you for your comment. “Suffer well” is what I often pray for and can usually experience some joy in some way.

    I pray that you and your wife will be able to experience joy as life goes on.

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