The Joy of Christianity
Intro: The writings of Paul and the letters and words of our brethren in difficult places in the world have one thing in common - joy in their situation. They, who suffer hardship and toil that we never encounter, seem happy and content. We, who live in the richest country in the world, often seem discouraged and discontent. How do we explain it?
Paul was clearly dealing with a similar problem with the Ephesians; they had not realized the full riches of their inheritance. He writes in Eph. 1:17-18, "That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: The eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints,". From that point, he proceeds to point out to them things God has done for them.
In Eph. 3:14-19 [read], he expresses his view of the riches of the covenant that God offers us. Itís apparent from reading this passage that Paul felt that joy, he felt the blessings of God on him all the time. Paul understood it and had absorbed it into the very core of his soul. And he wanted very much to get it across to the Ephesian brethren to whom he felt so close, and to us as well.
No one can question Paulís commitment to Christ. I Cor. 10-11, and especially I Cor. 11:16-33 detail his sufferings and the price he had paid to be a Christian. I believe this is a crucial factor in Paulís understanding of his salvation, and his joy in living for Christ. I believe that for us to feel that true joy in the Spirit also requires full commitment to God.
Being a half-Christian is not much fun.
The full Christian sees it differently.
In Eph. 4-5, Paul expounds on this very thing. He explains in detail how to come in "congruence" with the will of God, and thus to take advantage of and fully realize the grand storehouse of spiritual gifts God offers us. He details one thing after another that we can do to be like God. If we are immature and not fully committed to the goal, then we see these as difficult tasks to try to do. If we are mature, we see them as the keys to happiness, that secret elixir that man has sought since the beginning of time (c.f. Ecclesiastes).
God has revealed to us the mystery of the gospel, the good news (Eph. 1:9 - "Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure which he hath purposed in himself:"). He has told us the secret; we must recognize it as such, and be joyful in having found it, not discouraged in trying to accept it. Paul even says we were "created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." (Eph. 2:10) The human being is much happier when being good than when being evil, in spite of our tendency to value short-term pleasure over long-term contentment. We are made in the image of God, and departure from His nature is painful to us all at some level.
So how can we have this joy? How can we improve our own understanding of what God has done for us? One thing we must do is honestly examine our own sins, and the magnitude of what weíve done, and of what weíve been forgiven. We forget, or never realize, that sin is not an accident; we choose to do what is wrong. We openly rebel against God, but donít want to believe that of ourselves, even when we admit wrong. Our understanding of sin is incomplete, and is colored by our own tendency to excuse ourselves. We do not understand fully how bad sin is, and how bad God hates it. I believe this same lack of understanding contributes to our difficulty in loving God as we should and in forgiving one another as we should (Eph. 4:32).
We have to get away from our tendency to classify sins as "big" or "little" or "bad" or "not-so-bad". Take, for example, the sin of materialism. Thatís an easy sin, one that we can practice in private, and no one really has to know. Itís a nice, sophisticated white-collar sin, where as something like adultery or murder are blue-collar, low-down, nasty dirty sins. But in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man, whose only sin in the story was materialism, woke up in torment after his death. In torment, right there beside the idolaters and witches and liars and adulterers and murderers. In fact, reading some of the "sin lists" carefully yields up quite a large number of "white collar" sins. Morally, all sin is repugnant and abominable before God, regardless of how men view it.
Jesus dealt with this issue in Matthew 7:3-5 when he warns us to first take out the beam in our own eye before trying to remove the mote in our brotherís eye. The idea is not, as some have tried to make it, that you can only point out wrong-doing on othersí part if you are completely perfect yourself (which we will never be, in which case we would never be able to look out for each otherís souls). Instead, the idea is to make sure that we are as scrupulous in cleaning out our own house as we are when we go and try to clean out someone elseís. Donít ignore and minimize our own sins.
Another very simple thing that we can all do, today or tonight or tomorrow or whenever, is to make a list. Take a good old paper and pencil, and 10 minutes of our valuable time. Sit down without the TV or radio on, away from distractions. Then, think of how God is, and Jesus was here on earth, and compare ourselves. There are going to be some big differences. Ignore those for now, not because theyíre unimportant, but because we want to keep things simple. Again, our buddies the self-help gurus tell us that it is very important when beginning a long-term change to start with short-term successes. So start with little things, and make a list of 10 little things you can do to be more like Christ.
Little things make a difference, and we have to start somewhere. It doesnít matter how small the item is; make them as small as you want. Just make sure that for every item on the list, doing it would bring you closer, no matter how little, to God. Get moving in the right direction, and worry about speeding up your journey later.
We all need to spend some time thinking seriously about whether we really intend to be a Christian. Consider whether you are a half-Christian or a full Christian right now. We must ask ourselves some questions:
We can change ourselves, but we first have to recognize our faults. We have to realize the magnitude of what we have done wrong, and the magnitude of what God has done right. We have to recognize clearly the great gulf between a life of sin and a life fully committed to God. There should be no mistaking the change in our life when we become Christians.
And this is not something that we can do once every year. Itís not a New Yearís resolution list, a meaningless formality that we go through. Itís a serious and recurring examination of who we are and who we want to be, and whatís important to us. We have to stay the course, and remain steadfast in our faith. We have to do what Paul did and "finish our course and keep the faith."
How much of a Christian am I? We all have to answer this question. The scary thing is, God already knows the answer, because He looks at our hearts in truth, and we look at them through the prism of our own bias. We often look at ourselves and see only what we want to. Where we spend eternity is going to depend on the answer to that question. God knows where I really stand; do I?