I used to think that godliness consisted largely in my ability to be happy.
I love God passionately. He is the heartbeat center of my thought and desire, the source of all the beauty I love. I run hard after him. But to my great irritation, I find that I am a struggler, a soul who grapples with questions, who flings needs and doubts up to God and then feels intensely guilty for her impertinence. There is a restless hunger at my core that is always driving me to question, always forcing me to strive. Jacob and I have quite a bit in common. But easy joy, and stillness of heart are rare feelings for me. And recently, I have begun to feel quite guilty about this.
I think it is a recurrence of my assumption as a new Christian that walking in the Spirit meant a sustained and daily spiritual euphoria. I got past that one real quick as I found that obedience wasn’t always companioned by an easy joy, and an act of faithfulness, no matter how sincere, was no guarantee for lightness of heart. Of course as I grew, I learned to accept dullness of spirit and choices of will when emotion was absent to be simply part of the journey. But underneath it all, I think I still assumed that maturity, or a little more knowledge of spiritual life would eventual guarantee me a daily, almost giddy happiness.
But it’s been quite a few years now. And nothing has changed. Or rather, things seem to be harder. Well, maybe not so much harder, as just a little more heartbreaking. Godliness still isn’t easy and to make it worse, goodness sometimes seems to be inextricably linked with tears. I find a lot of grief lately in my own life and the lives of people near me. There is heartbreak stalking the days of the godliest people I know. Struggle and sorrow accost me, seeming somehow strongest when my heart is the most turned to love God. There are so many ways to know brokenness; in body, in relationships, in dreams unfulfilled. I can’t help but grieve. But the grief is accompanied by a quick guilt because I feel that if I were truly loving the risen Christ, then I would walk in his victory, live effortlessly in his hope.
But a foray into the book of Psalms has brought me a cupful of relief in the past days. I don’t know why I had forgotten them as I grappled with my unease, because they are full of a hearty and quite uninhibited lament. David never thought twice about stating to God just how dark he thought the world was looking and just how absent God seemed. I felt a long lost ease suffusing my thoughts as I read, a relief in these expressions of woe from some of the most worshipful souls in history. They reminded me of why I love what I’ll call broken-souled music. I find a strange kinship in Sarah MacLachlan sort of songs that state in stark outline just how fragmented human reality is, and how keenly our spirits mourn that fact. Sometimes I feel a relief when listening to that sort of music, as if my soul takes a deep breath and stops pretending.
This is how it is. I love Christ, I believe in the coming of his kingdom, but I am still here. Still here in the shadows, still caught in the cords of human frailty, still doomed to grieve for everything that should have been and is not.
But it seems that God doesn’t condemn me for my grief. The psalms pushed me to read on, to find this God to whom David cried. If David was a man after God’s own heart, and God didn’t strike him dead for his highly articulate complaint, then God must be much more tolerant of sorrow than I had thought. I searched my Bible with softer eyes and found that happiness was never an expected condition of the godly. I found that God in man Himself was called the Man of Sorrows. I found the presence of a God who lived my frailty. My guilt stemmed from the fact that I thought God expected me to happy, I thought it was my job to have enough faith to never feel sad. I find instead that God quite clearly expects me to be met almost daily with sadness. But I am not required to gut out a rush of positive emotion. Even Jesus wept. But Jesus, man of sorrow, and God of victory turned his face back to heaven and declared for all the world that God’s would have his way in the end. I take my cue from Jesus. I weep. And I do it freely. But then, oh then, like Jesus at Lazarus’ tomb, I turn my face back to the God who collects my fallen tears, and I tell him that my hope in his making everything whole again is the only way I can live. My task becomes a faithful belief in the promised, advancing redemption of God. It’s not here yet. But it is coming, coming, coming…
And so is the joy. Not happiness, mind you. Just a shy, almost timid gladness. As I’ve lived my last few days in light of what I have found, the guilt has fallen away. The sorrow is still here, even the daily struggle for goodness. But there is an unobtrusive, very quiet joy that seeps into my thought and makes me glad to be living, thankful to draw breath even in the confines of this fallen world. I’m not happy yet, but maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s what being a Christian is all about. My life is based on a day beyond this one.
And when that day comes, godliness really will equal happiness. Thank goodness.