I have recently been reading the account of a Christian minister who, upon arriving in his new parish some time in the nineteenth century, found that there was little joy in that church and a tremendous lack of assurance. The people he spoke to could not be sure that they were the objects of God’s love in Christ.
Whenever he preached, whatever he preached, they seemed to hear only a demand that they should be what they were called to be. Even the invitation to put their trust in Jesus was heard to be simply one more thing they must do. The Christian life was, for them, burdensome, punctuated by doubts about whether they were really Christian at all. Freedom, confidence and joy seemed a million miles away from their experience.
Yet the Bible’s picture of those who come to Jesus is one of being freed and released, of having burdens lifted, new life given, life to the full enjoyed.
“The kingdom of heaven,” Jesus once said, “is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).
Once you’ve noticed this feature of the Christian life as Jesus describes it, you begin to see it everywhere. Life under Jesus’ rule is the abundant life (John 10:10). The faithful servant enters into “the joy of [his] master” (Matt 25:23). We are encouraged to ask in Jesus’ name, “that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
Paul told the Romans that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). “Though you have not seen him, you love him’, Peter wrote. “Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9).
The gospel of Jesus is astonishingly good. His kingdom has arrived and everything that stood against us has been dealt with forever. He gave himself as a ransom for many. He reconciled us to his Father. The accuser has been silenced – “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). He broke the bonds of death and guaranteed life as one of God’s children forever.
Even the summons to repentance and faith is not a burden. These things are given before they are demanded. The Spirit of God enables us to repent and believe. So why, even for some Christian people, does Christian discipleship seem like one long list of obligations and restrictions?
Christian joy arises from the grace of God. It is not cheap grace. It does not merely overlook the past and it is not indifferent about the present or the future. Jesus died so that our sin could be dealt with and so that we could enjoy eternal life with God now. Those who have been brought from death to life cannot simply go on as if they were still dead, still caught up in patterns of thinking and behaviour that deny the one who saved us.
There is an appropriate call to be who we are in Christ, to put off and to put on, to live out the life of those redeemed at such tremendous cost. But precisely because of all that has been done for us, and all we have been given, this is not a burden. The Christian life and life in the fellowship of Christ’s people is a joyous affair – joy even in the midst of suffering and struggle. Even though sin and failure are all too real.
All of this is well and good, and I assume that most of us would agree wholeheartedly. Yet right now there is quite enough going on to make this difficult. The public profile of the Christian churches has suffered for a range of reasons. Yes, some of these come from outside but we cannot ignore a number of spectacular “own goals” by Christian leaders and commentators over the past few years that have added fuel to the fire. Talk of religious freedom just sounds self-serving if we do not use that freedom responsibly.
In the midst of the sexuality debates British Christian psychiatrist Glynn Harrison wrote a book entitled A Better Story: God, Sex and Human Flourishing. It is a great book but one of the best things about it is the title. It was a reminder (to me at least) that rather than harping on about what is wrong with the world we have the opportunity to present a better story than the one that is being told by so many of our contemporaries. The gospel penetrates through the illusions those around us are satisfied with. In the end they are satisfied too easily and with too little.
The freedom we have in Christ is far richer than any freedom that can be conferred by legislation or the judiciary. Guilt and shame and fear assault us in the quiet moments beyond the reach of public commentary, but these are so wonderfully dealt with by the cross, the resurrection and the ongoing intercession of Christ in heaven. Freedom from these things brings joy even when our circumstances are oppressive. How amazing it is to hear of the joyful faith of Christians suffering under oppressive regimes in various parts of the world, of those who are still able to rejoice despite facing a daily battle with their health, their relationships, or their financial situation.
Christians cannot help but be optimists – not in the unrealistic Pollyanna-ish sense but in the knowledge that a day is coming when every wrong will be righted and when the one who saved us will be seen for who he is, the Lord of all (Philippians 2:10-11).
We know, in Paul’s words, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). So, we don’t need to be dragged down by the triumphalist cries of those who oppose Christ, his word and his people, nor by the heartbreaking failures in word and deed by some who were entrusted with Christian leadership. What we are waiting for, and have just a taste of now, changes our perspective on everything.
So, since we really do have a better story – about life now as well as life then – shouldn’t the world see that we are already free and already joyful? A proper Christian freedom and joy, arising from the gospel rather than some manufactured experience, is in itself winsome. It stands in stark contrast to the reality of life under the façade of enlightened progress and liberation from constraint. It allows love really to be love, a concern for the welfare of the other that is not simply something that serves our own interests.
There is quite a lot we could complain about in the world around us and even in the churches. But the challenge I have felt is to concentrate on telling the better story and to point to its supremely attractive central character, the perfectly righteous, crucified and risen Lord. He frees us from uncertainty and legalism but also from the illusory satisfactions of the opposite, self-assured licence. He, wonderfully, is the reason why that great Anglican liturgist, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, could write of “God the author and lover of peace, in knowledge of whom stands our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom”.
The Rev Canon Dr Mark Thompson is principal of Moore Theological College.