Why joyless Christianity completely misses the point

Lately my book of choice has been Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, a must-read for anyone looking to get back to the basics and hit the reset button on their faith.  One of my favorite parts so far is when Bell discusses the why of our faith.  Why do we do it?  What is the point?  What motivates a person to take part in this messy, beautiful, all-encompassing thing we call Christianity?  As Bell puts it:

“The point is our joy.  That is when God is most pleased.  They aren’t two different things: God’s joy over here and our joy over there.  They are the same.  God takes great pleasure in us living as we were made to live.  He even commands it in the Psalms: ‘Take delight in the Lord.’  It’s such an odd command, isn’t it?  You will be happy or else.  But God is serious about this.”

I can’t tell you how excited I was after reading this.  I mean, how awesome is it that God just wants us to be joyful and delight in him?  I can so totally do that!  Obviously there’s more to the story, as Bell goes on to say:

“Now this joy doesn’t rule out suffering, difficulty, and struggle.  In fact, taking Jesus seriously almost guarantees that our lives will be difficult.  History proves it.  And very few actually set out to live such a focused, beautiful life.  Narrow is the way, and only a few find it.  But the kind of joy God speaks of transcends these struggle and difficulties.  I love how one writer put it: ‘The peace of God, which transcends all understanding.’”

Isn’t that great?  Even after reading this, though, I couldn’t help but think of how the critics might respond.  So often I’ve heard people say things like “Christianity is not about us — it’s about sacrifice” or “ideas like this are the product of westernized civilization designed to make us comfortable and happy all the time” or “to say that the point is our joy is to downplay the difficulty that comes with being a Christian.”

I don’t know about you, but that kind of bummed me out for a bit.  I mean, which view is right?  There seems to be something to both sides.  Yet as I thought about it, I realized that how we approach this idea of sacrifice is everything.  It’s entirely possible that one could be talking about sacrifice and completely miss the mark.

I was reminded of a time last semester where I heard two sermons on sacrifice within very close proximity to one another.  The interesting thing is how different the tone of each was.  On one hand, there was this fire-and-brimstone message about how hard sacrifice is.  How it requires us to give all of ourselves and how Christians aren’t allowed easy lives and how guilty I should be for living comfortably.  That sort of thing.  It was very depressing.

But then I heard this other message.  This person talked about acknowledging the futility of living for oneself.  He discussed the humbling idea that the sacrifice of my small, insignificant self can make a difference in someone else’s life.  He spoke about how beautiful it is to give away something which was never mine to begin with.  See how different that is from the other guy’s message?  He almost seemed — wait for it — joyful about this idea.

I’m beginning to realize that if there’s no joy present in your walk, it’s possible that you don’t fully understand the Christian faith.  Just think about it.  What is it that gives us joy?  Not just fleeting emotion, but serious joy?  The answer is simply doing what we were made to do.  Being generous and compassionate and loving.  Those things can be seriously difficult sometimes, but what’s easy is not always what’s rewarding.  And what is the reward for those things?  Deep and lasting joy.  It makes sense, then, that God would want us to be joyful.

On top of this, starting with anything other than joy simply doesn’t work.  If you aren’t living out your faith for the joy that comes with it, you probably just think it’s “moral” or “the right thing to do.”  I don’t know about you, but I can’t be moral just for the sake of being moral.  I would argue that very few people can.

And what ultimately happens to joyless relationships?  They don’t work.  They fall apart.  You’re not especially willing to make sacrifices for the other person, and you begin to question the point.  That’s why you have all these couples who find they must “rediscover the joy” of their relationship.  The joy part is important.  And let’s be real — you don’t start dating someone because it “feels moral.”  That doesn’t make any sense, does it?  You do it because you take joy in the other person.

In church culture, we often cast aside the joy of being in a relationship with God for cold, dead “sacrifice.”  I’m convinced this is backwards.  I’m convinced this is why we have so many people leaving church.  And yes, we may go through periods where we don’t feel a thing.  But as Christians, we live with the understanding that, when we come out on the other side of these trials, we will experience more joy than we can even comprehend.

Christianity is not about white-knuckling our way to becoming “moral.”  Christianity is about recognizing that this way of life is far more fulfilling than living for myself, and that doing what God wants brings me more joy than words can say.

Anything other than that completely misses the point.