One of the most beautiful sights is the smile on the face of someone who has just given their heart to Jesus. Their heart is so full of joy from the experience that the light of that joy bursts forth from every seam of their being. If you have experienced that change, you know what it means to feel that way, but even if you have not, you may have seen it in the faces of close friends or family. Better yet, you may have experienced that joy and shared it and had the opportunity to see it burst forth from the hearts you shared it with as they in turn gave themselves to Jesus. You wish that joy, that mountaintop experience would never end, but eventually it does. Why does that happen? What robs us of the joy that we had as newborn Christians? Can we do something about it?
Perhaps a contributing factor to Christians losing their joy is that well-meaning brother or sister who is all too eager to ignore the joy and deliver the message, “You aren’t doing it right?”
“What? How can I have this much joy if I am not doing it right?”
“You cannot let your joy be your guide. There are lots of things you are not supposed to do.”
“Well, for starters, nobody in this church stands up and lifts their hands and sways to the music like you do. You shouldn’t do that.”
“But I do that because I am happy in Jesus. I could just dance with Him forever!”
“I told you, you cannot let your joy be your guide. Trust me. I’ve been a member of this church for a long time. Do you see me doing that?”
“I guess not. Is there anything else I should know?”
“Lots. But I can teach you all about it. You notice that the men and women in the congregation wear suits and long dresses to church. You might want to think about that.”
“Even when it’s hot? How can they enjoy worship if they are uncomfortable?”
“Worship is not supposed to be comfortable. It is all about respect for God. You don’t want to offend Him in His own house do you?”
“No, of course not. OK. I’ll wear a suit and tie, even when it’s hot. I guess the comfort issue explains the uncomfortable seats and the lack of air conditioning as well.”
“Of course. We are not at church to be pampered. It’s all about God, not about us.”
“May I ask you another question?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“Do you have comfortable chairs and air conditioning at your house?”
“That’s not the point! I am not worshipping God at my house!”
“Perhaps you should!”
While this is only a modern day parable, it serves to illustrate a possible reason why we lose our joy and thankfulness while trying to live a new life as a Christian. Well-meaning members confront new Christians about all sorts of issues that range from dress to diet, from music to holiday observance, and a myriad of other issues related in the mind of the one presenting them to sanctification and the perfect Christian life. Why is this so? Perhaps it is because someone else did it to them. Once the cycle was begun, it became difficult to break from generation to generation. In this way, it could be similar to the cycle of physical abuse that exists in some homes over many generations. Like the physical abuser who still professes love for the one they are abusing, the one who engages in the abuse of playing Holy Spirit for another person’s spiritual experience professes they also are doing it out of love. However, the physical abuser is not interested in love but in control, control of every aspect of the victim’s life. In the same way, the spiritual abuser is often out to control every aspect of their victim’s spiritual life. They will not be satisfied until every spiritual decision the victim makes is a mirror of their own thinking. In addition, every time they discover some “new” requirement for sanctification, they will expect their victim to immediately accept it too.
This pattern of abusive “joy robbing” existed in the Apostolic church as well. Paul worked hard to set people free in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He strove to lift their burdens and place them in relationship with a God who cares for and loves them. But others who were jealous of their freedom in Jesus arrived to tell them, “You aren’t doing it right!” They began explaining that the Bible teaches that circumcision is an eternal sign of relationship to God, and if you do not have it, you are not one of God’s people. The more they pushed this point, the more joy was exchanged for concern and a feeling of inadequacy. Those who were troubling them took pride in their own circumcision as a symbol of how close their relationship to God was. With sincere assurances, they may even have promised that the new believer’s experience would be so much better once they were circumcised. But it was all based on a desire to control others. Paul was opposed to those who wanted to step in and control the experience of others. He warned Titus about these individuals, “For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach…” Titus 1:10-11, NIV
Certainly, those who would steal the joyful, Christian experience of others are a disrupting influence not only in church but in the members’ homes. Doing it to others because that is how we were treated when we became Christians is not an excuse. It only perpetuates the cycle. It may seem impossible to break that cycle or to even know how to begin, but in the words of Jesus, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Matthew 19:26, NIV If we are willing to trust God instead of our own lights to direct the church and the lives of those who are in the church, we will be able to avoid becoming those who steal joy from the Christian experience of others as well as lifting our own heavy burden. It is not a light thing to assume the responsibility for the spiritual walk of everyone else in the church. We cannot even overcome our own sinful propensities. How do we expect others to do so?
Paul knew that these individuals were not what they purported to be – people walking a higher spiritual path than others. Instead they were sinners who needed to find salvation and the joy of a relationship as well. He wrote, “Not even those who are circumcised keep the law, yet they want you to be circumcised…” Galatians 6:13. NIV Extrapolating this to the present, those who would control our spiritual experience with onerous requirements that they purport will raise our spirituality to a higher level are themselves no better off than we are. They are lawbreakers, condemned to death. (See Romans 3:23 and 6:23) The only hope they have is the same as ours – salvation in Jesus Christ. While they would rob our joy and replace it with their control of our spiritual experience, what they really need is to surrender all control, and find the joy and freedom of letting Christ have full control.
If there is any part of our spiritual experience that we feel we must be in charge of, it is exactly that amount of our lives that we have not yet surrendered to Christ. When we take charge of that portion of our lives, we diminish God’s ability to steer our lives toward heaven. In the same way, any portion of our spiritual lives that we hand over to the control of another human being is a portion we are no longer able to surrender to Christ. When we do this we are like King Nebuchadnezzar on the plain of Dura, substituting a human image of faith for the one offered by God. (See Daniel 2-3)
The great Protestant Reformers protested against the idea that any man should be allowed to place himself as intercessor between them and Christ. In that tradition, perhaps we would do well to question why we would allow the joy of a direct relationship to Christ to be handed over to another who would act as interpreter of what God’s will is for us. Why would we return to such a state? As Paul wrote, “…After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” Galatians 3:3, NIV And again, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:26-29, NIV
There are not divisions within the church based on differing levels of sanctification. If we are baptized, we all equally share in the promise of salvation. Again in the words of Paul, “Is Christ divided?…” 1 Corinthians 1:13, NIV Those who would work their way to heaven instead of trusting in God’s grace for themselves and others are like men in a sailboat who are traveling to their destination under a fair wind but insist on rowing anyway. Worse, they not only insist on rowing but insist that everyone else join them at the oars. In spite of the sail, they are not happy until all are straining so mightily at those oars that they do not have time to even think of the sail. Perhaps we would find more joy in our experience if we let go of the oars and gave thanks for the sail. It is all we need to get safely home.
Scripture marked (NIV) taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Used by permission. NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION® and NIV® are registered trademarks of Biblica, Inc. Use of either trademark for the offering of goods or services requires the prior written consent of Biblica US, Inc.