It seems that we think that if we’re going to be good Christians, we have to be as serious as possible. If I make the right worship “stank-face” 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. It’s hard to be somber while doing that.
The struggle to only 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. During his time, King Nebuchadnezzar had taken Israel captive. He took them out of their homes and destroyed their cities, but after a time, Nehemiah was given permission to try and restore their old home. After some time had passed and they had fixed some of it up, Israel gathered around to listen to their old laws be read in public, which was something that they had done a few other times throughout their history. As the words were read, Nehemiah says people began to cry. Often times we pastors consider this reaction a “home-run,” but Nehemiah saw it as a problem:
“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.Nehemiah 8:9-12
Don’t hear me wrong, it’s okay to cry in worship (I once read a book that ticked me off when it implied otherwise), but at least in this particular case, Nehemiah saw things differently. Here was Israel standing in front of their rebuilt city for a holy celebration of sorts and they were weeping. What sounds like a holy moment to us in Nehemiah’s case was the opposite and so he corrected them. “Don’t cry! Eat! Drink! Be merry! It’s a holy day after all and the joy of the Lord is your strength!”
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” (The Sabbath, page 426). 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.
Perhaps our drive to somberness is a part of the reason the church isn’t known for its joy today. 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.
But 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” (Isaiah 35:10). That doesn’t sound too grim.
The Christian’s addiction to seriousness can be 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, it feels like the only weddings you don’t find dancing at are Christian ones.
One church I visited for a bit always ended their services on a slow song to keep the atmosphere serious and sacred. It was miserable. As service ended, you always had to sneak out of the sanctuary so that you could talk in the tiny lobby, because you would disturb the same five people inside who needed to stay somber at the altar every week. This wasn’t bad of course, but I never really left that church feeling all that joyful, because you always ended service by meditating on a sad slow song.
Don’t hear me wrong, seriousness, somberness, and contemplation are totally and completely acceptable in Church and our spiritual lives—and honestly, I probably spend more of my time in those states. But holy sacred moments also happen when Christians laugh at the dinner table. So it’s not that we are to choose joyful reactions over serious ones, but that we are to not think that we can only engage God if our brows our knit a certain way.
When we finally meet God, I think one of the biggest things 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.
Let us be joyful always in the Lord