Serious Joy, Cultural Conflict, and Christian Humility

Thoughts on Christian Education

TCT/BCS Regional Conference | Memphis


Given my title and subtitle, let’s begin with a definition of education, and then turn to what makes education Christian, and then to the question of why that leads to the prominence of serious joy, which in turn leads to conflict with the culture, which calls for a peculiarly Christian humility.

What Is Education?

First, what is education? And here I don’t mean, “What is schooling?” Most education does not happen in school, as I am defining it. I’m asking about education in general, much of which does happen in schools, but not all of it. So, here’s my definition — and it is the one we build on at Bethlehem College & Seminary.

Education is the instilling of habits of mind and habits of heart that incline and enable students for the rest of their lives to:

  1. Observe the world (in books or in life, with all your senses) carefully.
  2. Understand what they observe clearly. (You might observe words and have not understanding.)
  3. Evaluate what you have thus understood fairly. (Understanding should precede affirmation and criticism, but learning to take your stand is important.)
  4. Feel that evaluated reality proportionately. (Don’t have explosive feelings about insignificant things, or insignificant feelings about massively important things. Experience proportion.)
  5. Apply these discoveries to all of life wisely. (Draw out the implications of what you have seen for the people and the circumstances around you.)
  6. Express what you’ve seen clearly and accurately and creatively and winsomely in words and deeds for the good of the world.
“Serious joy sets the soul free from dependence on cultural kudos and cultural conformity.”

Education is the instilling of habits of mind and habits of heart that incline and enable students for the rest of their lives to thus observe and understand and evaluate and feel and apply and express reality for the good of the world. And this refers to what parents do with children, what schools do with pupils, what universities do with students, what churches do with members, what all kinds of forums and societies and clubs and seminars and conferences are doing as well.

I would defend that definition of education among Christians and non-Christians. So, what turns this definition of education into a Christian enterprise?

What Makes Education Christian?

Education (as I’ve just defined it) is Christian when (1) all of it is pursued in conscious, thankful reliance upon the gracious empowering of the Holy Spirit; (2) Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners and risen from the dead, is trusted as the basis of our enjoyment of this gracious empowering; (3) all of this process of education is consciously pursued for the glory of God in Christ; and (4) every aspect of the process is governed by the truth and authority of the Christian Scriptures.

So, Christian education is the instilling of habits of mind and heart that incline and enable students for the rest of their lives to observe and understand and evaluate and feel and apply and express reality in reliance upon the generous help of the Spirit of God, purchased by the blood of the risen Christ, for the glory of God and the good of the world — all of it in accord with God’s infallible word, the Bible.

That’s our understanding of Christian education at Bethlehem College & Seminary.

Why Does Christian Education Make Serious Joy Prominent?

What do I mean when I say that looking at God’s word this way leads to the prominence of serious joy? I mean that when you look at the New Testament — when you observe it, understand it, evaluate it, feel it — what forces itself into prominence is a kind of joy that is pervasive and very strange.

Listen to these 14 phrases from the New Testament. This is what life is like for faithful saints in this fallen world:

  • “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property” (Hebrews 10:34).
  • “Count it all joy . . . when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2).
  • “When others revile you and persecute you . . . rejoice and be glad” (Matthew 5:11–12).
  • “In his joy he goes and sells all that he has” (Matthew 13:44).
  • “[They rejoiced] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41).
  • “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3–4).
  • “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:2).
  • “We are glad when we are weak and you are strong” (2 Corinthians 13:9).
  • “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad” (Philippians 2:17).
  • “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake” (Colossians 1:24).
  • “You received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6).
  • “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).
  • “You rejoice, though now for a little while, . . . you have been grieved” (1 Peter 1:6).
  • “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13).

Boiling it down: When we observe and understand God’s word, we see as very prominent

  • joy in trial,
  • joy in grief,
  • joy in affliction,
  • joy in being poured out,
  • joy in weakness,
  • joy in poverty,
  • joy in shame,
  • joy in selling all,
  • joy in persecution,
  • joy in being plundered,
  • joy in the cross,
  • joy in sharing Christ’s sufferings.

And when our sustained, careful, honest gaze at the New Testament brings this kind of joy to prominence, what are we going to call it? We call it “serious joy.” The most common biblical phrase I use to capture this truth is from 2 Corinthians 6:10, where Paul says he is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Which means that joy is serious because it is simultaneous with sorrow. Not just sequential: Sorrow, then joy, then sorrow, then joy. No. We are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” We think this strange and wonderful reality is captured by the phrase “serious joy.”

“God is high and I am low. God is powerful and I am weak. God is wise and I am foolish.”

And we believe it is so central to life in Christ that we call our entire educational endeavor “Education in Serious Joy.” We think this is warranted by Paul’s willingness to describe his entire apostolic ministry like this in 2 Corinthians 1:24: “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we are workers with you for your joy” (my translation) Or when he said to the Philippians, summing up his reason for gladly remaining on the earth, when he would like to be with Christ: “I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy of faith” (Philippians 1:25, my translation).

We believe this is at the heart of Christian education — whether in the home, in the church, or in the school: We are workers with you for your joy; we stand by you for your progress and joy of faith — in life and death. That is, we pursue “Education in Serious Joy.”

Serious Joy in Conflict with Culture

Which leads now to the next question. Remember, our title is “Serious Joy, Cultural Conflict, and Christian Humility: Thoughts on Christian Education.” So, why does the prominence of serious joy in the Christian life lead to conflict with the culture?

It’s because serious joy sets the soul free from dependence on cultural kudos and cultural conformity. In other words, when your joy comes from God through Christ, and is absolutely unshakable through grief and affliction and weakness and poverty and shame and persecution and loss, the culture loses its power to control you. If you take a stand the culture hates, and speak a word the culture condemns, and they shame you, and persecute you, and plunder you, but your serious joy remains, they’ve lost their power to control where you stand and what you say.

If your joy comes from the world — its benefits, its comforts, its kudos — you’re like a leaf in the wind. Yours is not a serious joy. It’s a secondhand joy. You are not free. Serious joy sets people free. And makes them the most secure and subversive people when it comes to cultural control.

This has always been true, for two thousand years. Serious joy in Christ through pain has always been radically liberating from cultural control. In getting their joy from heaven, Christians become free on earth. This has always been true. The new thing today is that social media has created an intensification of old-fashioned cultural control tactics.

It’s known as the call-out culture, outrage culture, cancel culture, coddled culture. One of its marks, which Jonathan Haidt has described, is that it teaches people “to see words as violence and to interpret ideas and speakers as safe versus dangerous, rather than merely as true versus false” (The Coddling of the American Mind, 158). So, if you take your stand and speak your truth, you may be subject to call-out, outrage, being canceled, because you have not sufficiently coddled. Serious joy is the great liberator from this kind of cultural control.

Let me give you an illustration of this effort at cultural control through call-out, outrage, canceling, and shaming that totally failed because it could not conquer serious joy. It’s found in Acts 5:40–41. The Jewish Sanhedrin is trying to silence the voice of Christian leaders — just like our culture often tries to do. Here’s what happened in Acts:

They beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. (Acts 5:40–41)

I call that serious joy. It’s the only kind that matters, because it’s the only kind that survives and that magnifies the name of Jesus.

Which now brings us to our final question: What does this have to do with Christian humility?

What Is Christian Humility?

If you reject the cultural command not to speak in the name of Jesus — and the apostles did reject it — the very next day (Acts 5:42: “They did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus”), you will be accused of arrogance. Who do you think you are, to presume to speak for God in this world (see John 8:53)? So the question is: Will that accusation silence you? Will it silence the people you have been charged to educate?

God hates arrogance. He loves humility. We need great clarity here. Because already a hundred years ago, and more so now, the world highjacked the word “arrogance” and equated it with conviction, and highjacked the word “humility” and equated it with uncertainty.

In 1908 the British writer G.K. Chesterton saw it coming:

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert — himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason. . . . We are on the road to producing a race of man too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. (Orthodoxy)

“Humility does not feel a right to better treatment than Jesus got.”

So, if humility is not the abandonment of conviction or the embrace of uncertainty, what is it? What is humility when we are called to have such confidence that beatings will not keep us from telling the truth, indeed, such confidence that beatings for the truth will cause someone to write over our lives, “[They rejoiced] that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41)? That’s my last question.

God has told us at least five things about true humility, and that is what I want to leave with you — humility that does not lack conviction, and will not be silenced, and will rejoice with serious joy in being shamed for the name of Christ.

1. Humility begins with a sense of subordination to God in Christ.

A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. (Matthew 10:24)

Humble yourselves . . . under the mighty hand of God. (1 Peter 5:6)

Do we feel this? Not just know it, but feel it, sense it? God is above. We are beneath. We are not worthy to untie his shoes. The distance between God and us is infinite. His greatness, his power, his wisdom, his justice, his truth, his holiness, his mercy, his grace are as high above ours as the heavens are above the earth.

God is high and I am low. God is powerful and I am weak. God is wise and I am foolish. God is rich and I am poor. God is self-sufficient and I am totally dependent. To know this and to tremble at it — to fear God — is the beginning of wisdom. Or, as Proverbs 11:2 says, “With the humble is wisdom.”

2. Humility does not feel a right to better treatment than Jesus got.

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household. (Matthew 10:25)

Therefore, humility does not produce a life based on its perceived rights — a sense of entitlement.

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. . . . When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21, 23).

Much of our anger and resentment comes from the expectation that we have a right to be treated well. Decades ago, George Otis said, “Jesus never promised his disciples a fair fight.” We should assume that mistreatment is normal. “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12).

We do not need to get the last word. We do not need to win the argument. We do not need to be vindicated in this world (Romans 12:17–19). God will vindicate us in his time. And that frees us from the need to proudly demand our rights in this world. Humility does not feel a right to better treatment than Jesus got.

3. Humility asserts truth, not to bolster the ego with control or with triumphs in debate, but as an honor to Christ and as love to others.

Paul said that love “rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6).

  • If truth is an instrument of salvation — which it is (“[They] are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.” [2 Thessalonians 2:10]) — then to speak it is a part of Christ-exalting love.

  • If truth is an instrument of sanctification — which it is (“Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” [John 17:17]) — then to speak it is a part of Christ-exalting love.

  • If truth is an instrument of liberation and joy — which it is (“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” [John 8:32]) — then to speak it is a part of Christ-exalting love.

In other words, speaking the truth, that others need to hear, but may not want to hear, is an honor to Christ and love to others.

4. Humility knows and feels that it is dependent for everything on grace — dependent for all knowing and believing and acting and breathing.

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 16:17)

The most basic knowing of who Christ is, is a gift of God.

By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8–9)

Faith is not finally our own doing. It is the gift of God.

Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)

All of our growth in grace, all of our meager successes in sanctification are the work of God in us. And even the simplest plans that we make should be submitted to God, knowing that we will not even live another hour apart from his grace, let alone accomplish our plan.

You ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:15–16)

Therefore, I say, humility knows and feels that it is dependent on grace for all knowing and believing and acting and breathing.

5. Humility knows and feels that it is fallible, and so considers criticism, and learns from it; but also knows that God has made provision for unshakable human conviction, and that he calls us to persuade others.

Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)

A wise man listens to advice. (Proverbs 12:15)

We are not God. We are sinners. We are finite. We are culturally conditioned. Therefore, we are fallible, and make many mistakes with our mouths, as James says (3:2). Therefore, we should remain ever teachable. “The wisdom from above,” James says, is “open to reason” (James 3:17). That is, teachable, open to correction, not defensive, not afraid of the ego-cost of having to admit error.

Nevertheless, humility knows that God has made provision for unshakable human conviction, and that he calls us to persuade others.

Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. (2 Corinthians 5:11)

Exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you. (Titus 2:15)

You can’t seek to persuade anyone humbly if you have no convictions. You can’t speak humbly with authority if you have no convictions.

Remember, relativism that often passes for humility is just as likely to be a cloak for pride as conviction may be. Because if there are no objective truths that you can know, then you are free to be your own god. You can create your own truth. You can be judge and jury in every controversy. Relativism is attractive because it permits you to act like God. It looks humble; it’s not.

“Christian Humility in the greatest cultural conflicts is the fruit of serious joy.”

But humility submits to objective reality. It can’t play God. It can’t shape reality to suit its preferences. Humility is a servant of truth.

Humility knows that its grasp of reality is fallible, but it also knows that there is such a thing as objective reality, and that God’s grace enables us to see truly (if not perfectly), and to submit to it and proclaim it.

Stand Firm in Serious Joy

At the bottom of these five traits of humility is this: Humility senses that humility is a gift beyond our reach. If humility is the product of our reaching, then we will instinctively feel proud about reaching it.

Humility is the self-forgetful gift that receives all things as gift. Or as Paul says, it’s the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). It’s the fruit of the gospel — knowing and feeling that we are desperate sinners and that Christ is a great and undeserved Savior. Or one could say: Christian humility in the greatest cultural conflicts is the fruit of serious joy — joy in the immeasurable, unshakable, undeserved riches of Christ.

So, my closing exhortation to all Christians is: Submit to Christ as supreme; don’t expect better than he got; tell the truth in love for Christ’s sake; receive all of life as grace; be teachable, but not wishy-washy. Be done with all boasting in men, for “all things are yours . . . and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21, 23).

Stand firm in serious joy.