9 Lies You Hear in Church: #4. Christians Should Always Be Happy

Part 4 of the series “9 Lies You Hear in Church
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
September 30, 2012
Lamentations 1:12-16; Philippians 4:4-7

Lamentations 1:12–16 • Is this nothing to all you who pass by? Look around: Is there any suffering like the suffering inflicted on me, the grief that the LORD caused on the day of his fierce anger?
From above he sent fire into my bones; he trampled them. He spread a net for my feet; he forced me backward. He left me devastated, constantly sick.
My steps are being watched; by his hand they are tripped up. His yoke is on my neck; he makes my strength fail. My Lord has handed me over to people I can’t resist.
My Lord has despised my mighty warriors. He called a feast for me— in order to crush my young men! My Lord has stomped on the winepress of the young woman Daughter Judah.
Because of all these things I’m crying. My eyes, my own eyes pour water because a comforter who might encourage me is nowhere near. My children are destroyed because the enemy was so strong.

Philippians 4:4–7 • Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.

I. BEGINNING

When Rachel created a Facebook event for tonight’s worship service and fellowship, she used an image of Ned Flanders from The Simpsons as the picture for the event.  Ned Flanders, the Evangelical Christian neighbor to the Simpson family who is always saying things like “Hi-dilly-ho neighborino” and other cutesy upbeat things.  He and his children sing “I’ve Got Joy Joy Joy Down in My Heart…” and “Put On a Happy Face.” Looking at that image that Rachel had used, it reminded me of something one of my alums said to me comparing Family Guy to The Simpsons: “Family Guy is funnier; but The Simpsons is truer.”

And that’s exactly right.  Ned Flanders may be a caricature, but he’s not a caricature without cause.  The idea that Christians are supposed to be this postive, upbeat, smiling, happy bunch of people is a very commonly held one, especially in the church.  (There are plenty of people outside the church who don’t see anything positive about us and assume we’re all a bunch of dour Puritans, but that’s another sermon series.) There is certainly an expectation that Christians are supposed to be joyous. This is the very idea that is satirized at the end of the Monty Python film The Life of Brian, as Brian and other criminals are crucified, one of them begins to sing a cheerful ditty: “Always look on the bright side of life…

That satire is not too far from the truth. There are many Christians who believe that one of the benefits of being a Christian is that you should never feel sad, or low, or depressed.  From the time the wise men looked up and saw the star and had their hearts filled with joy, the expectation has been that we will, too.

II.    THE TEXT

And many look to texts like the passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the Philippians as a key text for that understanding:

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad!

Be glad always!  All the time.  It’s often translated as “rejoice!”. That certainly sounds like an expectation that we should be happy all the time.  And we find parallel sentiments in other places in the New Testament as well:

1Th. 5:16 Rejoice always,

1Pet. 1:6 In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials..

1Pet. 1:8 Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy…

1Pet. 4:13 But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.

Illustration by Rachel Ternes

Based on passages like these, why wouldn’t some conclude that Christians are supposed to be smiling, happy people all the time?  I mean, think about it: we are followers of one who suffered to the point of death on the cross and then was raised from the dead.  There is a God, there is life after death, there is justice, and renewal, and peace.  Why ever be sad?

In fact, just try to find some sad hymns in the hymnal.  It’s not easy.  Even the ones that are vaguely melancholy are still positive and upbeat.  Take the example of It Is Well With My Soul.  The lovely hymn begins:

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

This hymn was written by a man named Horatio Spafford, born in North Troy, NY, whose son died at age four and whose business suffered greatly in the Great Chicago Fire.  He planned a trip with his wife and daughters to Europe but sent them on ahead as he stayed back to tend to some business concerns in the wake of the fire.  On the voyage across, the ship collided with another one and all four of his daughters died in the wreck.  It’s why the hymn begins “when sorrows like sea billows roll…”.

It’s a beautiful hymn and the hymn tune, Ville de Havre, named after the ship on which his daughters died, is moving and an ever-popular one in the church.  And yet, the hymn perhaps inadvertently buttresses an odd expectation that we Christians often have about ourselves: we could lose a young child, our livelihood could be imperiled, our daughters could die in a shipwreck, leaving us with our grieving spouse, but… it’s okay; it is well with my soul.

It seems like most of the only true lamenting hymns we find in the hymnal are about Jesus’ suffering and how that suffering is meant to be for our sake.  But we don’t suffer; especially not in our hymnody.  Or in our liturgy.  Our prayers remain upbeat; even if they start out lamenting, they always end strong.  Even the great Lutheran hymn “Out of the depths I cry to thee” returns with a praise at the end.  It’s very hard to find any hymns of the church that are truly lamenting.

So, it’s easy to get the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, because it’s reinforced by our liturgy. And liturgy is one of the main ways that people learn their theology.  It’s why the work the worship committee does is so important, because bad liturgy can equal bad theology.

So, the net result is that there is a broad expectation that Christians are supposed to be happy in light of their faith and what Jesus has done for us.  And sometimes, the expectation is even more pronounced.  Because there are many Christians who not only believe that we’re supposed to be happy all the time, but also that if we are sad or depressed then we’re sinning.  That we’re doing the wrong thing by allowing ourselves to feel sorrow or pain.  One colleague told me of a her mother mourning the death of her 23-year old son and then being told by fellow parishioners that she just needed to “have faith”—as if in her sobbing she couldn’t possibly be faithful.

But what kind of bulljive is this?  The faithful don’t get sad or depressed? No one told that to Jeremiah.

III.  THE OTHER TEXT

In fact, the Prophet Jeremiah, one of the great prophets of Israel, who mocked the prophets who tried to tell the king everything was fine, who reminded the people that because of their faithlessness they would have to endure the yoke of the Babylonians for a generation, is the prophet whose laments earn him the nickname “the weeping prophet”.  The Jeremiah who wrote the excerpt we heard from Lamentations earlier:

Is this nothing to all you who pass by? Look around: Is there any suffering like the suffering inflicted on me, the grief that the LORD caused on the day of his fierce anger?
From above he sent fire into my bones; he trampled them. He spread a net for my feet; he forced me backward. He left me devastated, constantly sick.
My steps are being watched; by his hand they are tripped up. His yoke is on my neck; he makes my strength fail. My Lord has handed me over to people I can’t resist.
My Lord has despised my mighty warriors. He called a feast for me— in order to crush my young men! My Lord has stomped on the winepress of the young woman Daughter Judah.
Because of all these things I’m crying. My eyes, my own eyes pour water because a comforter who might encourage me is nowhere near. My children are destroyed because the enemy was so strong.  (Lamentations 1:12–16)

Here the prophet speaks on behalf of destroyed, afflicted, suffering Jerusalem.  But the tears are not metaphorical.  Jeremiah is often full of sorrow and lamentation.  And then there’s Job.

Today my complaint is again bitter; my strength is weighed down because of my groaning. Oh, that I could know how to find him— come to his dwelling place; I would lay out my case before him, fill my mouth with arguments, know the words with which he would answer, understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me through brute force? No, he would surely listen to me. There those who do the right thing can argue with him; I could escape from my judge forever.
Look, I go east; he’s not there, west, and don’t discover him; north in his activity, and I don’t grasp him; he turns south, and I don’t see. (Job 23:2–9 CEB)

These are not the words of a man who is trying to put a happy face.  Not someone trying to “look on the bright side of life”.  This is someone who is lamenting and owns it.  Who does not shy away from his feelings for fear of appearing not to be faithful.  In fact, Job is a model of faithfulness. In fact, he is all the more faithful because he is honest about what he feels.  He can still be faithful even as he wishes he were never born.[1]

IV. A WHOLE FAITH

It should be pointed out that not all books of liturgy and worship are deficient in this way.  No, in fact, the great worship book of Israel shows us what honest liturgy can look like.  And that liturgy is found in the Psalms.

It was Biblical Scholar Walter Brueggemann who first categorized the Psalms as Psalms of Orientation, Disorientation, and New Orientation.  And it is in those Psalms of Disorientation that we find lament and pain.  There are Psalms that complain. Psalms that wonder why God isn’t doing something to help.  Psalms that cry out in pain from a deep dark place.  Psalms that are angry with God.  Psalms that cry out in anguish: Why, O God?  How long, O God?

The emotion of the Psalms are sometimes so raw that to many Christians they seem almost impious.  In fact, if these Psalms weren’t already in the Bible, there would be a large number of Christians who would assume that such sentiments ought never be expressed in church.  And yet, how important it is that the Church be a space precisely for the expression of such feeling.

As Dr. Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, a former professor of mine, writes:

“Without the angry laments, we are cut off from the opportunity to be honest and whole in our prayer before God,” but goes on to note that a shift took place in American Christianity, where older Christian faith was replaced by a “spiritual consumerism” that sought to satisfy people’s desire to feel good and receive satisfaction in their religious experiences.[2]  But as she notes: “The problem with that emphasis is, when we do not or cannot fell good, what do we do?”

Just as with all the other Lies looked at in this series, this one has the potential of doing real spiritual violence.  For if people are not told that their sorrows, their laments, their pain, their complaints, and their anger are legitimate expressions of faith, then they will continue to feel ashamed and even un-Christian whenever they feel those things. Given that feelings are not something easily changed, that seems a cruel way to treat someone who can’t help what they feel.  I mean, is there anyone here who has been able to change a feeling that they’ve had just because someone said they should?

And that’s why it’s so important that the Church make space for sorrow and lament in our liturgies, in our prayers, our hymns, so that we can validate the lives of the people in the pews.  William Sloan Coffin, one of the great Christian thinkers of the 20th Century, noted that when people are in times of sorrow, the church is really good at quoting scripture to them that rock-solid faith never waivers, proving “that they know their bibles better than the human condition.”[3]

If we are to be an incarnational church, being the body of Christ present in the world, then it is imperative that we understand and are able to relate to the human condition.  To where people are in their lives.  And to give space for them to share who they are authentically, not in some idealized form that everyone thinks they should be in.  But who they actually are.  What they’re actually feeling.  And letting them know that whatever they are feeling, those feelings are part of a life of faith; they are not removed from it.  Just as the Book of Psalms would not be complete without the Psalms of lament, so too would the book of our lives not be complete without our laments, our sorrows, our tears, as part of our story of faith.

V.   END

In his masterpiece, The Messiah, Georg Friedrich Händel uses a number of different biblical passages to tell the story of Jesus.  Not all are from the Gospels—a number are from Isaiah or the Book of Revelation.  And there is even a tenor solo based on the passage from Lamentations we heard earlier:

Behold and see, if there be any sorrow like unto his sorrow.

The Messiah we proclaim, the Jesus we know, is not a Jesus removed from sorrow and suffering, but one who knows it.  The shortest verse in the Bible is John 11:35.  Three short words in Greek: εδακρυσεν ο Ιησους, “Jesus began to cry.” Jesus knew sorrow.  He knew lament.  He knew abandonment and loss.  And yet we count no one more faithful to God than him.  Is there not room for us to lament as well?  How can the church meet people where they are if we do not allow ourselves to be both faithful and sorrowful?

See, the mystery of our faith, its great secret and power, is not that all of our problems go away and we’re suddenly all “happy happy joy joy” because we’re Christian.  No.  The great power of our faith is in knowing that even when we’re not happy, even when we are sorrowful, even when our eyes are founts of tears and our head a spring of waters, God is with us.  When Paul said that nothing could separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, he meant it.  Nothing.  God is with us in times of joy, and God is with us in times of sorrow.  We do not need to put on airs for God.  We do not need to keep a stiff upper lip. We do not need to “look on the bright side of life”.

We need only realize that we are in relationship with one who has borne our griefs and who knows our sorrows.  One who has wept for the sake of the people.  And one who never lets us go.


[1] Steve McVey, 52 Lies Heard in Church Every Sunday: And Why the Truth Is So Much Better, p. 129.

[2] Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, Journey Through the Psalms, p. 5.

[3] Ibid., p. 119.

One thought on “9 Lies You Hear in Church: #4. Christians Should Always Be Happy

  1. I appreciate this post more than words can express. This has been the truth for me since I was born again. Within the same week I was saved I still had many questions even after receiving the spirit. The spirit within was peaceful as ever and my need to ask questions of my church leaders seemed justified. My questions about my new found faith was answered with, “Are you sure you received the spirit?” Needless to say, I felt shut down by the question and soon realized I may not get quick well formed answers from at least some of my leaders.

    After quite some time, I found myself bumping into random Christians who were always smiling. Joy be to them of course and bless them but sometimes it felt weird, like it was forced. There were a number of times in church where I noticed everyone was ALWAYS smiling as if it was some kind of testimony that their faith literally painted a grin on their face. So, I struggled with it. Asking myself why am I not always smiling? When the spirit is strong I certainly feel the joy but the smile was in my heart with the spirit, not a constant display on my face. I knew already from the spirit that my somber behavior and seeming mild moods compared to my church going family was justified yet I was expected by others to keep on the “up and up”.

    This part in particular of this article that says, “spiritual consumerism” nailed it on the head for me. Bless the many hearts because the idea makes sense and sure, the constant smiley face might attract many soon to be followers of Jesus which is mighty wonderful! but what happens when someone (like me for example) wants you to put on your serious face and hunker down with them even if it is to address sorrow? Also, must every Christian be smiling to prove they love Jesus and feel His love in return?

    As this article pointed out for me, my somber moods and suffering is a testimony to my faith and new life in which God scooped me up and placed me on good soil. My suffering and remembrance of where I was are my shared memories with the Lord. Not forgotten but important reminders of just how abundantly He loves me and how very real and unconditional His forgiveness is. When I am weak, I am strong. When my church family is always smiling they may not attract others as perhaps they intend as their hearts are telling them to be the light in the darkness so is mine. In the faith I was given, the light represented through me isn’t delivered with a carefree smile. It is given to others with a concerned expression and the words, “Hey, I know where you’ve been and that’s okay. Jesus loves you and understands it all. He’ll bear the burden for you and with you.”

    So thank you for this article and God bless you all.

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