Monday, August 8, 2016

Fighting for Joy - Against the Easy Road

C.S. Lewis makes this famous analogy about how we are too easily pleased - a child who stubbornly wants to keep making mud pies in the streets because he cannot imagine a holiday at sea. It's a beautiful picture, the sort I regularly trot our for sermon illustrations and Sunday School classes.

But, like a lot of really beautiful pictures, it doesn't look much like my life. Or rather it looks exactly like my life, except without the compelling vision of the holiday at sea. I am, as Lewis notes, "far too easily pleased." I am an expert in the culinary art of mud pies.

Here's what I mean. Every once in a while, I have one of those perfect days. Where I wake up and have fruitful and focused times of prayer, eat a good breakfast, really pay attention to my kids. I knock off a bunch of items from my checklist and study and pray some more. I have intentional, present conversations with people. I exercise. I get home and really spend time with my kids, listening to them and being with them. I put them to bed, and maybe do some projects around the house, and have a good face-to-face conversation with my wife, and go to bed.

But seriously, those days are only every once in a while. Like, maybe once or twice a year. Which is why they stick out to me. Most days I do some of that, but it's intermixed with the other things. The laying in bed, the reading Facebook posts that just make me angry while brushing my teeth, the sitting in my office obsessing about whether I'm being faithful or whether people like me, the not exercising, the being barely present with my kids as I think about other things and the watching Netflix until I fall asleep.

I would tell you that none of that stuff has the beauty and energy of the first kind of day, but it is often where I live. Why? I think it's because we're confused about the nature of joy. We think that the opposite of joy is sorrow, but it isn't. It is indifference. This is the thing that we all so easily miss in our world. We have mistaken the joyful life for the sated one, good life for the entertained one.

We think that the opposite of joy is sorrow, but it isn't. It is indifference.

There are two failures that underlie this indifference. One is that we have lost a sense that we need to be disciplined in our pursuit of joy. Disciplined. Which might sound like a contradiction, but isn't when you recognize that what is best is never what is easiest. I feel good after running a few miles. I don't when I lay in my recliner and eat a bag of Doritos. Yet the latter is absolutely easier. To pursue joy means we need to fight against the allure of ease in the name of what is truly good.

Think about the way Scripture views rest - an idea different from, but somewhat related to, that of joy. Sabbath, in Scripture, is a disciplined pursuit. It is not the default state of humanity. Truly resting requires planning and struggle. You have to fight for it. Likewise joy in all its forms - we are repeatedly commanded by God to rejoice, which inclines me to think it's not something we're going to stumble into.

On a deeper level, though, I think the enemy of our joy is our unhappiness. Or rather, our inability to acknowledge our unhappiness. The philosopher Blaise Pascal famously said that “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Which is fair enough, but then Pascal asks why people find it so discomfiting to sit alone. And his answer is that we cannot bear to face "the natural poverty of our feeble and mortal condition, so miserable that nothing can comfort us when we think of it closely."

That is a bit bleak, but gets at something that has always resonated with me. To be able to really rejoice rather than just be distracted, we need a level of comfort in our own skin. We need a measure of peace. Which is where the gospel meets me in this struggle.

See, here's how it works for me. To really pursue joy involves the continual risk of failure. More than that, really - the guarantee of failure. I have neither the self-discipline nor the holiness nor the energy to be the parent, spouse, pastor, friend, and Christian that I should be. I'm going to fail at this. It is too often fear of that failure that drives me toward the easy path. Because here's the thing about indifference - you aren't risking much.

We need the discipline and dedication to press onward, but we can only do it if we have been set free from what lies behind.

Which is why we need the gospel for our fight for joy. One of the most beautiful results of the good news that Christ has secured for us welcome and belonging from God based on His work rather than ours is that it frees us to fail. We can fall on our faces every day - indeed, the pattern of Scripture makes me think we all will. But there is not longer shame or condemnation in those failures. They are covered in Christ, so we can get up and keep running.

There is an incredible burden of shame that most of us carry in this life. We know we have not been what we should be. The danger in this shame, at least for us as Christians, is that it easily leads us to believe that we cannot be more than we are. This is where the gospel meets us - it doesn't offer us an easy road, but it allows us to honestly acknowledge that shame and then to know that it doesn't define us anymore.

This is how the Apostle Paul views the Christian life. "One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 3:13b-14) That is the two sides of it. We need the discipline and dedication to press onward, but we can only do it if we have been set free from what lies behind. In Christ, the chains of our past sins and failures are loosened and the snares of our future ones lose their power to ultimately tear us down. In Him we all can chase the promise of joy. We can begin to imagine a holiday at sea.

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