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Mandatory Happiness

This was originally posted on July 16, 2015

The mandatory happiness that we require inside the church perpetuates pain

- Tullian Tchividjian

The thought of impressed happiness, the forcing of someone else to put on a happy face, would seem like an oxymoron. The truth, if we are honest, is that this happens much more than we would care to admit, specifically in church and ministerial settings. My argument is that we need to stop. We need to allow people to suffer, and rather than making all those bad feelings go away, or impose such a task on the sufferer, we teach them to engage with God through the pain.

I have even heard it prayed of someone going through hard times, “Lord, give her a calm of spirit to know You are on the throne”. While I certainly understand the good intentions that we may have, there is some dangerous thinking concerning God and His dealings with us in our pain that can lead us away from the Giver of Life. It is not that the peace of God cannot reign in our hearts, or that we should not pray for that in the lives of those who suffer. The Bible does not mince words when it says that the peace of God is better than even understanding. Rather, what I have heard is something more dismissive, which ignores the presence of struggle and prescribes over-simplistically. My contention is that God invites us to engage with Him through our suffering, and that through the grappling of our soul with our Creator we do find peace with Him, and a deepening of our relationship with Him.

But self-proclaimed wisdom and opinion is rather unhelpful, so there are a couple texts I would like to consider.

Isaiah 1:18 

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord:

though your sins are like scarlet,

they shall be white as snow;

though they are red like crimson,

they shall become like wool.

This is not an unfamiliar text, but perhaps one we do not always see in the light of worship. But the context here is one of worship. The statement is addressed to national Israel, and begins with a plea for repentance based on the fact that their sin has pummeled them into the ground. God is asking them, “Have you not had enough?” He follows with an expression of disgust for their outward airs of worship that they imagine masks the inward grotesqueness of unashamed sin. They are using people, ignoring those with real needs and caring nothing of the human wreckage they leave in their wake. It is no wonder that God is disgusted with the lifting up of hands in worship that are stained with the blood of their fellow people (v15). He wants nothing to do with the festivals, music and prayers that are backed up by a life filled with a complete disregard for what really matters to Him.

What He tells them to do is the exact opposite of what we do. We tell people to enter worship and disregard what they bring with them. God has a different approach. He begs us (Please, come…) to lock horns with Him, engage, wrestle, fight. The word translated, “reason”, means to argue, reprove, correct, etc. A particle is added for the “together” meaning, so the implications here are huge. God is inviting sinful Israel to engage with Him, to lock horns and argue it out. The result is not immediate annihilation for them either, it is transformation. The deepest red stain is taken completely out, not just smeared around until it’s a pale pink. No, engaging with God, especially in an uncomfortably personal and honest way, is transformative. God is never interested in us putting on a happy face and walking into worship. Rather, through worship, He expects us to grapple with Him in our struggle, to face the ugliness of ourselves and the world around us, and to allow Him to transform us in that encounter with our Creator.

But that does not bode well for our “good little Christian” image at church, does it? Could we really say the kinds of things you read in the Psalms?  Consider the words you find in Psalm 13 and Psalm 44 (the ones that don’t make it onto Christian inspirational posters), such as:

“Psalm 13 - How long, O Lord will You forget me forever? How long will You hide your face? How long must I… have sorrow in my heart all day? Psalm 44 - You have rejected us and disgraced us… You made us like sheep for slaughter… You sold your poeple for a pittance… we have not forgotten You… yet You have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death… Awake! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Why do you hide Your face and forget our affliction and oppression?”

How awkward would it be if someone stood up during a time of testimony and said those words? Would anybody know how to respond beyond the cliches like “God is good”, and “All things work together for good”? These may be true, but what do we do about the Psalm 44 days? If we are honest, there are days that we feel like God has abandoned us and left us to die by ourselves surrounded by jackals. It feels like He walked away from the control board and all the red lights are blinking.

See, what is interesting is that Psalm 44 expresses great hope and trust, while intermingling those feelings with great despair and doubt. The truth is that the way to happiness, to the truest joy, is to deal with the sorrow, doubt and pain that we experience. We don’t get there by ignoring all the negativity or pain we feel.

Need more evidence? Consider Jacob wrestling with God in Genesis 32. Think about that, Jacob wrestling with God. That alone seems unthinkable. How do you wrestle in the most literal sense with your Creator and not be crushed? While I would admit this application is probably not the primary direction Moses was headed with the account, it does illustrate what you find in Isaiah 1 and Psalm 44 - we wrestle with God. And when we come out on the other side, we are transformed. Every time. 

Let us bring this back around to worship then. When we enter into corporate worship on any given Sunday, we are bringing baggage with us. It might be baggage we readily admit to, more than likely it’s baggage we are trying to ignore and pretend does not exist. But it’s there. So what does God tell us to do? Yes, we are to cast all our cares on Him, but that is not justification for ignoring what is going on in our lives. God invites us to contend with Him, to argue it out, to wrestle with our innermost feelings and emotions, even the ugly ones that we don’t think we can say out loud. He invites us to bring it, raw and wart-ridden and bleeding, because then He knows our heart is exposed to Him.

This is beyond the old adage of “come as you are”. It is not an invitation to blatantly ignore our sin or imagine that God does not care about that. Isaiah 1 makes that clear. Rather, it is an invitation to bring our messiness and ugliness and sinful thinking before the Lord so He can transform us. It means that we don’t turn down the wrestling match with our Creator out of some feigned piety, we grapple with Him because we crave Him, because our hearts long for something more than what this troublesome life affords us. It is the longing for heaven, the craving for a soul filled with the meaning and purpose for which we were made. We find that only in our relationship with God, and we find that through our wrestling.

And lest you think this is something buried in the Old Testament, consider the apostle’s words in 1 Peter 4:12-19

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved,     what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”
Therefore let those who suffer according to God's will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.

Peter’s point should be clear - we must suffer well. It does not matter whether that suffering is the trials of life, persecution or physical ailment, we must suffer well. His point is clear in v19 - Let those who suffer entrust their souls to a faithful Creator. That does not mean ignoring our Creator’s plea to enter into dialogue with Him, to work things out and have an honest, open relationship with Him.

Worship pastors, let us facilitate this kind of honest worship. Let us not invite people to ignore their struggles and wrestlings with God, but let us open the scriptures and aid them in walking through life’s most difficult battles. According to Ephesians 4, it is our job to equip the believers for the ministry, and life itself. Let’s do that and stop imagining that what people need is a break from their struggles. They (and we) need something real, something raw and honest, with our God.

Believer, this Sunday as you gather with your church to worship, do so honestly. Please stop pretending that everything is okay when it’s not. Engage with God, through His word, through the singing, through your thoughts. Grapple with your Creator and find that He is there to grapple with you, because then you will be transformed. Even if your situation never changes, if your trial does not end this week, if you only get more bad news or your expectations are never met, you will be changed. Just like Jacob, just like the Psalmist, just like Israel.

“Come, let us wrestle together. Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, they will be white as wool.”

For further reading, try this article:

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