Peter tells us that one of the marks of the early church was that they were filled with inexpressible joy (1 Pe 1:8-9). Is the church still marked by that joy today? It seems that we think if we’re going to be good Christians, we have to be as serious as possible. If I make a serious face during the music I’m getting closer to God, right? The more serious and desperate I look the more present he is, yes? Try telling that to David who was so overwhelmed with joy at the return of the Ark of the Covenant that he danced around in his underwear, completely embarrassing one of his wives. It’s hard to be somber while dancing in your underwear.
The struggle to be serious and somber in relation to religion isn’t new. It goes all the way back to the Old Testament. Take Nehemiah’s account of Israel for example. As Israel gathered around to listen to their old laws be read in public (something that they had done a few other times throughout their history) Nehemiah says people began to cry. Often times we pastors consider this reaction a “home-run,” but Nehemiah saw it as a problem, telling them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep” (Ne 8:9).
Don’t hear me wrong, it’s typically okay to cry in worship, but at least in this particular case, Nehemiah saw differently. What sounds like a holy moment to us in Nehemiah’s case was the antithesis and so he corrects them. Nehemiah’s call is echoed by Jewish scholar Abraham Joshua Heschel who said,
It is a sin to be sad on the Sabbath day. For the Sabbath is a day of harmony and peace, peace between man and man, peace within man, and peace with all things.
Most of us Americans don’t know the first thing about Sabbath, but we imagine that if we practiced one it would be a somber and sad experience. That’s how the sacred works, right? Not by Heschel’s standards.
Our expectation to find seriousness and sadness in the sacred has become so prevalent that we can’t help but bend our service direction that way. We’ve taught that a good church puts on their “Sunday best,” chants monotone expressions every once and awhile, follows old traditions, and sits quietly through service. And of course, if there’s one place you aren’t allowed to run in, it’s a church, right?
If you truly want to have a moment of holiness then joy should be a part of it. After all, Isaiah told us that there was a highway called “the Way of Holiness,” where the ransomed of the Lord shall go “with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is 35:10). Sounds pretty good to me!
The Christian’s addiction to seriousness is a problem. We pastors long to preach the most serious life-changing message ever. Most of us usually wait for the initial faster worship songs to end so we can actually start worshipping. On top of that, the only weddings you don’t find dancing at are the Christian ones.
I’ve been to churches that always ended their services on a slow song to keep the atmosphere serious and sacred. It was miserable. You never really left that church feeling all that joyful, because you always ended service by meditating on a sad slow song.
When we finally meet God, I think one of the biggest things modern day Christians are going to be caught off guard by is his laughter. If you want to avoid that confusion and enjoy Christianity more while you’re here on earth, then embrace the Holy Spirit’s inexpressible joy. It isn’t profane—it’s a sacred mark of the Christian.
This is an excerpt from my book, A Taste of Jesus.
Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Sabbath. New York, Farrah, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 31. Referencing Sefer Hasidim, ed. Wistinetzki, Berlin, 1924, p. 426.