Three Threats to the Joy of This Generation
What’s the point of my life? That was the question on Monday. And we talked about our joy in God and God’s glory being united together into one unifying vision of existence. And now today we field a question about joy from a listener named Shannon, who writes to say this: “Hello, Pastor John! I attended the most recent Cross Conference. There you said something that struck me — you said that your hope for us students is for there to be young people who are ‘joyfully serious.’ Can you explain this more? And what does this look like practically in everyday life?”
Well now, how shall I come at this? It touches on so many things. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I thought, “I should write a book on this. I should write a book called Joyful Seriousness or Serious Joy or something to try to capture the paradox of what I mean by this.”
“Life has been made serious when the unspeakably awesome realities of God, sin, heaven, hell, and the cross become real.”
What I’m trying to get at when I say “joyful seriousness” is a life that has been made serious because of the unspeakably awesome realities of God, and sin, and heaven, and hell, and the cross of Christ, and the necessity of faith, and the essential reality of holiness if we are to obtain heaven. In other words, the great realities of life are enormously serious, and weighty, and glorious, and beautiful, and awesome, and deep, and high.
To treat them in a glib, or superficial, or trifling, or trivial way is an utter contradiction. Flowing out of the weight and the wonder of these great realities, there is what the Bible calls, “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (see 1 Peter 1:8), which is as different from the slapstick and silliness and cleverness of so much so-called Christian banter and worship — it’s as different as lightning is from the lightning bug.
Charles Spurgeon said, “We must conquer — some of us especially — our tendency to levity. A great distinction exists between holy cheerfulness, which is a virtue, and that general levity, which is a vice. There is a levity which has not enough heart to laugh, but trifles with everything; it is flippant, hollow, unreal. A hearty laugh is no more levity than a hearty cry” (Lectures to My Students, 179).
My concern is that at least three things conspire today to threaten the joy and seriousness of this generation.
Heavy and Light
One is our native sinfulness as human beings, which tends to make light things heavy and heavy things light because it is by nature deceived and blind.
We’re always turning things upside down and getting them backwards. This is the first thing: my own sinful nature inclines me to make light of weighty things and to make weighty superficial things.
The other is the comfort of the Western world. Most people in the West know very little about the basic hardships of life that make life really serious for most people. For example, a life where you have to walk miles to get fresh water, or you have to chop wood to have heat in the wintertime. Or for example, a life where you have to cook your food at a fire that you collect wood for.
“It’s almost impossible to shift from a posture of levity to a posture that takes hell seriously and sheds tears over someone’s lostness.”
There are lives with no modern medical care; no food unless you grow it yourself; no indoor plumbing; no refrigeration; no police protection; no clothing unless you make it; no mention of TV, or smart phones, or iPads, or computers, or radios; and no access to books.
This is the way most of the centuries of the world knew things. And it’s the way millions and millions of people live today.
My wife and I are watching a documentary — or actually a fictionalized documentary — called Swedish Immigrants in the 1850s. It is about a five-hour show.
What overwhelms me is just how incredibly hard life was in the winter of Sweden or during the winter in Minnesota, where they immigrated. Everything had to be provided for themselves out of the ground, or out of the frozen lake, or out of the cow that may or may not continue to give some milk during the winter. Life was just hard.
We today take all these things for granted, and therefore, out of the womb, we are complainers about the slightest little thing. What we consider hardship is a computer whose Internet speed drops below 25 megabytes a second.
This makes for a very superficial kind of people who have little relationship to the threats of life, and especially the ones that were just common in other generations.
Then you add to that the ever-present entertainment industry on your phone, or your iPad, or your TV, or your computer, or the movie theater, which everybody takes for granted.
Everybody talks incessantly. Most of the talking is clever. It’s repartee. It’s banter. All of these together produce a life that results in a superficial, trivial, clever Christian banter, shaped for the Twittersphere and crafted for spreading on Facebook. I don’t think we can do real evangelism on the basis of this kind of ubiquitous levity.
It’s almost impossible to shift from a posture of levity to a posture that takes hell seriously and sheds tears over someone’s lostness.
“The pendulum has swung so far in one direction that we are far more adept at humor than tears.”
It’s almost impossible to walk into a worship service and suddenly switch off a whole lifestyle of silliness and try to become a reverent person before an all-holy God, when everything else in life has been training us to be glib, trite, and superficial.
Worse, many worship services have simply adapted to the superficiality of the media culture and tried to turn Christianity into something that fits this, with an ever-funnier approach to the great things of God, which doesn’t work. It doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t fit.
Another way to come at it is to say that I have a burden that we have lost our grip on what it means to be human — the glory of being human.
It’s not just that evangelism is made difficult and worship is made almost impossible and God is made almost inconceivable in his true greatness. The glory of being human is made thinner and thinner as we become cute and clever about things that don’t really matter. While the depth and the wonder of being created in God’s image, and living for his glory, and being transformed into his image someday — all that just fades away.
Tears to Start a Revival
What I’m lamenting when I plead for joyful seriousness is that it seems to me the pendulum has swung so far in one direction that we are far more adept at humor than tears.
The apostle Paul spoke of sinners by saying that he remembers them with weeping because they are enemies of the cross, whose end is destruction and whose minds are set on earthly things (Philippians 3:18). Without that weeping, there will never be, I think, the revival we need today in America. There will be no lasting spiritual renewal without that seriousness.
What would happen to a congregation if a pastor, with all earnestness and gravity and love and joy, would begin his Easter sermon with all those guests present, not with a joke or a cute story, but with the words of John Donne to his congregation on Easter Sunday morning, when he said, “What sea could furnish my eyes with tears enough to pour out if I should think that of all this congregation, which looks me in the face now, I should not meet one at the resurrection, at the right hand of God?”
That’s a flavor of what I meant by saying “joyful seriousness.” There’s so much more, but that’s probably enough for now.