You might read this question and think several things:
You might think, ‘But joy is not equivalent to humour and laughter’.
And of course you’d be right. Joy, in a New Testament sense is a hopeful rejoicing in light of the gospel, whatever particular circumstances we find ourselves in (Philippians 4:4). There is joy even, or particularly, in the midst of suffering and persecution. But I’d like to maintain that it all nigh but impossible to be joyful and for that joy not to find expression in humour and laughter, in some form of visible delight at life and in others.
You might think this is a rather silly and trivial question for this normally deeply serious and intellectual blog (!)
I’d like to suggest that it is perhaps one of the most serious and important theological questions we can think about.
You might think that this is a naïve question that could make those who struggle with depression and other mental health issues feel even worse for rarely ever feeling joyful.
Yes, that is a possibility, but I’m not suggesting a law or required behaviour. Joy and laughter cannot and should not be forced.
So here are some admittedly superficial musings on joy and the Christian life. They take two forms.
One is ‘ON SERIOUSNESS’ – where life is just too grave, earnest and significant to be distracted from what is truly important (this post)
One is ‘ON JOY’ – for joy to be a visible, tangible and frequent characteristic of a mature Christian faith (next post)
Feel welcome to add your own comments for either side.
Humour and joy are not exactly what come to mind listening to the news each day. The world is a very serious place. Here’s a particularly cheery vision of the future to brighten your day.
Is it therefore a sign of triviality to find joy and laughter in the midst of what can seem overwhelming darkness? A type of naïve superficiality indicative of a moral and intellectual failure to engage with the realities of the world? A retreat into self-absorbed self-delusion where we fool ourselves that the world is not as bad as it seems while amusing ourselves to death? (to paraphrase the late Neil Postman)
There are many Christians who say ‘Yes’ to these last three questions. They may not have worked out a formal ‘theology of non-joy’ but their theology is visible in their lives and faces and worship. (Like the old joke about Presbyterians being people of deep deep joy – so deep it never surfaces).
Such Christians are resolutely serious – there is, after all, much ministry to be done which has eternal consequences. There is much pain and suffering to try to alleviate – and to endure. There is much sin and injustice to confront. All this doesn’t leave much room for the self-indulgent superficiality of laughter.
After all, the Bible is not exactly a joke book. Indeed, from Genesis 1-11 onwards, much of its power and relevance comes from its stark unsentimental realism about the world and human nature. The history of Israel is true to our world of violence, power-politics, human pride, injustice and forced displacement. The wisdom literature of the OT faces the darkness and ambivalence of our human experience head on.
Jesus is the ‘man of sorrows’ and apocalyptic prophet of the kingdom of God – not a slick, easy on the ear, joke a minute preacher. The climax of the biblical narrative leads to a crucified Messiah. Darkness and evil are confronted at the cross. One day in the future all will be judged by a perfect and righteous God. Christian mission has therefore eternal consequences.
I can think of many sober and serious Christians I’ve known. Mostly I can think of their rather grim faces. (There is an Ulster saying about someone having a face like a Lurgan Spade. It was used to cut peat in the bog and was long and thin).
And I freely admit to belonging to this tribe at times – of sometimes despairing of hope when looking at the state of the world and man’s inhumanity to man – let alone my own sins and failures. It seems to me that without Christian hope, the only logical attitude to life would be nihilism. Atheist optimism seems to me to be whistling in the dark.
And there certainly is a type of ‘Christian’ joy that is a sign of triviality and self-indulgence. Where life is focused around ‘me’ and what makes me happy. Where I am in my own little bubble and either unable or unwilling to step outside it to listen to and help others. Where I am joyful if I have all I want and miserable if I don’t. Where God is there to meet all my needs and faith is little more than a resource to help me live a more fulfilled and happy life.
This is a pseudo-faith that finds happiness in a lack of engagement with a holy God, a lack of worship, a lack of repentance, a lack of lament, a lack of mission, a lack of self-sacrifice and a lack of service.
In contrast, authentic Christian faith is genuinely a serious business.
Comments, as ever, welcome.