I don’t think I’m the kind of person that attracts misery. But somehow, I keep running into people who say they’re Christian, but are horribly and alarmingly miserable human beings. Where did all of these miserable Christians come from, and whatever happened to Christian joy?
Miserable Christians generally fall into one of two camps:
- Apathetic Christians: Some Christians go through the motions of faith (or pretend to), but don’t seem very excited about it. They’re apathetic about their spirituality and they’re miserable. Maybe it’s because they think spirituality is just about landing a golden ticket to the ever-after. But whatever the reason, it’s sad seeing them plod through their faith like it’s something to be endured.
- Angry Christians: The second camp of miserable Christians is more disturbing. These folks aren’t apathetic at all. Instead, they’re aggressive, bitter and angry. Somewhere along the way, politics or ideology or God-knows-what-else-has contaminated their faith. From Bible-thumping moralists to faith-based, ultra-conservative activists, these are the people who see their faith not as a source of hope and inspiration, but as a cudgel they can use to beat up anyone and everyone who disagrees with them.
When I see the misery faith inflicts on these people (or maybe it’s the misery these people inflict on faith), it really does make me wonder whatever happened to the idea of Christian joy.
Stephen Colbert on Christian joy
You’ve probably heard of Stephen Colbert. After a wildly successful tenure at Comedy Central, Colbert succeeded Letterman as host of The Late Show. He has one of the sharpest comedic minds on the planet and he’s succeeded in doing something that a lot of comedians never quite pull off — he pokes fun at people, but is still regarded as an all-around nice guy.
What you might not know about Colbert is that he’s also a deeply committed Christian. A lifelong Catholic, he makes no effort to hide the fact that he’s in the fold. In fact, until a few months ago, he regularly taught a catechism class at his church.
A recent Daily Beast report described an interview that took place between Colbert and Father Thomas Rosica, media attache to the Holy See press office. The interview is remarkable for a lot of reasons. But in Father Rosica’s words, it “shows that a modern (Christian) is someone who is fundamentally with joy, with truth, and with a sense of history.”
Did you catch that? A modern Christian is someone who is fundamentally with joy. Here are a few excerpts from the interview so you can hear Colbert’s take on Christian joy for yourself:
“I think, you know, one of the reasons why and listen, I’m a wealthy man, don’t get me wrong, but one of the reasons why we don’t help the poor, I think is that we think if we give it to them, we won’t have anything, you know, so again it’s fear that keeps you from experiencing the joy of helping other people.”
The “joy of helping other people”? It’s a novel concept, I know. But helping others is a big part of what it means to experience Christian joy on a daily basis.
When it comes to Pope Francis, Colbert is clearly a fan:
“Many of the things that the Pope has said have been seen as, I think probably in some ways, by people outside of the Church … as a sort of bomb-throwing, you know. (But) … to be a fool for Christ is to love …”
In the apostle Paul’s world, foolishness for Christ meant rejecting social conventions and priorities to joyfully embrace Jesus’ alternative way of life – the way of love. So, for Colbert, love is the epicenter of the foolishness and joy of the gospel.
“The Church is a flawed and human institution, for whom I always have hope. And I have no doubt that he (Pope Francis) is far from a perfect man, but he gives me hope that the message of joy that he wants to spread right now can be seen as not revolutionary, but a manifestation of something that was always there.”
Translation: Christian joy isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. It’s always been a part of Christianity and if you’re following Jesus without joy, you’re doing it wrong.
Finding Christian joy
Let’s get something straight: Christian joy isn’t about living in a constant state of euphoria. If you’re following Jesus because you want to live every minute of every day in religious ecstasy, stop now. That’s not what Christian joy is all about and it’s only a matter of time before you feel disappointed, angry and bitter.
Instead (and this is what Colbert gets about a life of faith), Christian joy is about having a sense of hope in the midst of hopelessness and peace in the midst of tragedy — without downplaying the gravity of suffering.
More than anything else, joy is about putting love and compassion for your fellow human beings above the need to be right.
Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? If you’re lacking in the joy department, here are a few quick tips to help you get back on track:
- Get to know Jesus. It’s impossible to know Jesus and not have joy. Sounds simplistic, but it’s true. If you don’t feel a sense of joy in your life, then maybe it’s time to put aside the Jesus you think you know and get acquainted with the Jesus described in the gospels — the Jesus of compassion, mercy and hope who came to speak words of life and healing to the world.
- Stop judging, start loving. Fingerpointing is a joy killer. If you’re expending your spiritual energy looking for faults in other Christians and people in the world at large, there’s no room in your soul for joy. Anger and judgmentalism are byproducts of fear (fear of difference, fear of not having enough, etc.). By naming your fear and letting it go, it becomes possible to love like Jesus loves — and that’s the fast track to experiencing joy.
- Learn to trust. There are very few things that you can actually control in life. Yet many of us live like we’re in control of everything. Like cosmic puppet masters, we pull this string and that string, believing that we have the power (and responsibility) to keep our own little worlds on track. Learning to trust God means giving up the illusion of control. Trust is at the heart of joyful living because no matter what happens, we know that God is with us and we’re not alone.
Christian joy is magnetic. If people actively avoid you, it’s not a sign that you’re fighting the good spiritual fight — it’s a sign your faith journey has wandered off course. When you have Christian joy, people will notice there’s something different about you and they’ll want to be around you.
Life is hard, too hard to live without joy. So, do yourself (and everyone around you) a favor. Get serious about finding Christian joy and start living the life you were created to live.