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A Happy Church is a Healthy Church?

  • T.M. Moore BreakPoint
  • 2009 17 Aug
A Happy Church is a Healthy Church?

A recent conversation with one of our Centurions reminded me of just how off course the contemporary Church has become.

But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers' houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy... (Ezra 3:12)

Patrick Tiedt was telling me about an event he participated in one evening not long ago. It was called something like "God's Game Day." Adult believers came together to play games unto the Lord—board games, bouncy games, parlor games—all kinds of games. There was a purpose to the evening, of course. At the end the pastor spoke to the people in attendance and told them, "What we want you always to bear in mind is that God wants you to be happy."

There it is: God wants us to be happy. Being a Christian must be all fun and games or we just don't really understand what the life of following Jesus is all about. God wants us to be happy. Hmmm. I wonder if that really is the message the Man of Sorrows wants us to take as the operating motif of our discipleship.

The role of affections

This is an important question because affections play such a powerful role in our lives. In the Scriptures, affections are associated with the heart, and the heart is regarded as the wellspring of human life, as both Solomon and Jesus testify (Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 12:34).

Affections, as Jonathan Edwards explained so well in A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, include our feelings, attitudes, hopes, aspirations, longings, and dreams. They run the gamut from sorrow, fear, doubt, dread, anger, hatred, indifference, love, joy, peace, hope, and boldness. Each of these has a place in the life of faith. Even such "negative" affections as hatred and anger are appropriate in their proper place (Psalms 97:10; Ephesians 4:26). The affections we nurture in our souls motivate the actions we perform in the Name of Jesus. What we are in our daily walk with the Lord is largely shaped by the affections we nurture in our souls.

If the main affection the Christian is to sustain is happiness, as GameBoy Pastor insisted, then what does this imply? At the very least it implies that affections which are the opposite of this are not proper, and should not feature in our lives as followers of Jesus. From this perspective, Jesus does not want us to know sorrow. We need not linger in sorrow—because of our sins, or the tragedy of sin in the lives of others.

Rather, whenever such negative affections beset us, it's time to break out the Monopoly board and play our way back to happiness. There is no excuse for Christians ever hating anything, since hate will wear us down and eat away at our souls. So don't hate your sins; accept them as normal and look to Jesus to receive you just the way you are. Then you'll be happy again (especially if that look to Jesus is accompanied by a triple-word score).

And those grumpy old men moaning and grieving over the paltry dimensions of the new temple? Well, they need to lighten up, break out a deck of cards, and renew their souls by shooting the moon. God doesn't want us to be sorrowful! Get happy, people, and get over it!

Three essential affections

As you might have guessed, I am not sympathetic with the idea that, above all, Jesus wants us to be happy. Indeed, that way lies the path to heresy and an unfruitful life. When the people of Israel returned from exile, they set about the task of rebuilding the temple, the dwelling-place of God with His people. Rather than first build a wall around their city, to ensure their safety (and happiness?), they first turned their hearts to God, eager to be right with Him from the get-go.

But when the foundation was laid, the new temple was clearly much smaller and more modest than the one Solomon had built. Those old men who remembered that temple wept, recalling what had been lost because of their unfaithfulness to the Lord. At the same time, the younger people, who could only see what was being done to restore the worship of God in their midst, rejoiced with such a great noise that "the sound was heard far away" (v. 13). Meanwhile, the prophet Haggai stood among the people and pointed to a day yet to come, when the glory that was the former temple, and the glory the young people could envision from this new temple, would be vastly outstripped and dwarfed by the glory that was yet to be, when the Desire of All Nations Himself came and made His dwelling among His people (Haggai 2:1; cf. Ezra 5:1).

The people of Israel prospered in their work of renewal and restoration as they lived and worked together amid an outpouring of three powerful affections—sorrow, joy, and hope.

The old men of Israel served to remind the rest of the people of what had been lost because of Israel's willful rebellion against the Lord. They remembered the glory of Solomon's temple and knew this current project would never measure up. Perhaps the loss of the former temple put them in mind of the Garden of Eden, and the loss to all God's people and all mankind that came with Adam's sin. Perhaps they also grieved over their own part in depriving themselves and the generations that would succeed them of the blessings of God's covenant because of their own sins.

No one rose up to rebuke those weeping old men or to offer them a Twister mat or a Parcheesi board. Instead, they let them weep, and everyone learned from their weeping. Their weeping blended with the rejoicing of the young into a glorious shout that reached throughout the countryside and announced to one and all that the work of restoration had begun.

As necessary as was the sorrow of the old men, the ebullient joy of youth is equally important. Those young people looked at that paltry foundation and all the work that was yet to be done, and they didn't complain or gripe or look for some excuse for why today was not a good day to do the work of the Lord. Rather, like the proverbial child at his grandfather's farm, tearing through the manure pile to find the pony he knew must surely be there, they took up the work of restoration with gusto, and their shouts of joy drew even the weeping old men into the task, lifting and renewing their souls.

Meanwhile, the prophet Haggai paraded around the work crews, haranguing them with the promise of what was yet to be: "That sorrow you know, you won't know forever! That joy you are experiencing is chump change compared to the riches of rejoicing that are yet to be! Let us together grieve for our loss, and rejoice in our present blessings; but let us look with hope to the coming day of glory, when the Desire of All Nations will come and fill the world with glory and rejoicing such as we cannot even begin to imagine!"

Haggai's hope bolstered the weeping, reinforced the rejoicing, and blended these opposite affections into spiritual and physical energy to do the renewing and restoring work of the Lord. What was true in Israel in Haggai's day is equally true in ours.

The full range of affections

We need to take up the challenge of bringing the full range of affections into our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Knowing that the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), we cannot leave our affections to chart their own course. Nor must we embrace such an insipid and idiotic idea as that God wants us to be happy above all else. God wants us to be obedient, and obedience to the Lord involves hating and weeping over our sins, mourning and grieving with those who suffer loss, rejoicing over even the smallest of daily blessings, gladly and eagerly taking up our daily callings from the Lord, and hoping to encounter Him in His glory in the quiet moments of solitude, meditation, and prayer, so that we can be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ and live to His glory in even the most familiar and mundane areas of our lives (Romans 5:1; 2 Corinthians 3:12; 1 Corinthians 1:31).

We need the full range of our affections, working together, properly focused and intensified, in order to be whole people before the Lord. But this will not simply happen, and it certainly won't happen at all if we make happiness an idol to be pursued and sustained by every means.

The place to nurture proper affections is in the presence of the Lord. With His Word open to us, His Spirit searching and instructing us, and us responding to Him in meditation and prayer, we can discover the whole rich tapestry of affections. In the quiet with the Lord we can examine the state of our affections. We can improve our understanding of what they are and how they work. We will be able to examine the state of our own affections, and seek the help of the Lord in focusing and intensifying them appropriately. Then we will be in a position to let our affections do their proper work of motivating and guiding our actions and practices throughout the day.

But if we're hooked on happiness and determined only to pursue that in the Name of the Lord, we'll avoid all circumstances and people that might make us sad; or we'll feel a burden to spread a smarmy veneer of happiness over situations where entering into weeping with others would be more appropriate; or we'll paste on a happy face no matter how we feel, just so our fellow believers will know that we've got it all together in the Lord.

The banner of Christian faith does not unfurl to the strains of "I want to be happy" but to those that celebrate the "Man of Sorrows! What a Name for the Son of God Who came, ruined sinners to reclaim! Hallelujah! What a Savior!"

For reflection

How much do you understand about affections and how they work in the life of a Christian? Why not get some friends together, share this essay, and talk about it?

T. M. Moore is dean of the BreakPoint Centurions Program and principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. Sign up at his website to receive his daily email devotional Crosfigell, reflections on Scripture and the Celtic Christian tradition, or sign up at The Chuck Colson Center to receive his daily email, ViewPoint, studies in Christian worldview living. T. M. and his wife and editor, Susie, make their home in Hamilton, Va.