‘Qoheleth’ is the narrator of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. This Hebrew name is often translated ‘Teacher’ or ‘Preacher’, and originally referred to someone who gathered a congregation together in order to speak to them. His most famous catchphrase was ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!’
from 'Third Way Articles'
‘About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God,
and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake,
so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken…’ (Acts 16:25-26)
In G.K. Chesterton’s novel 'The Ball and the Cross' (Wells Gardner, Darton & Co, 1910) a Bulgarian monk named Michael is described as ‘the happiest man in the world’ (p26); and, in the eyes of the authorities, he is therefore the most dangerous man alive; a man who needs to be locked away in the most inaccessible of cells deep within a lunatic asylum. Chesterton, like Paul, understood the revolutionary potential of true joy, and it is a theme that frequently recurs in his writings. For example, in his novel 'Manalive' (Thomas Nelson, 1912), the eccentric, larger-than-life character Innocent Smith carries a pistol which he fires at pessimists who have lost their sense of joy; not to hit them (for he was far too good a shot) but simply to give ‘a wholesome scare to those whom he regarded as blasphemers’ (p230), in the hope that the shock would awake within them a renewed sense of joy in living!
And Chesterton admired joy in others. For example, he wrote about Robert Louis Stevenson, ‘gaiety was valuable to Stevenson precisely because it is the most difficult of all the virtues… As most men have triumphantly maintained a level of sobriety, he triumphantly maintained a level of exhilaration. He discovered the new asceticism of cheerfulness, which will prove a hundred times harder than the old asceticism of despair… He rode on the great galloping gift-horse of existence with the joy of a horseman at once dextrous and reckless, and did not, like so many more ambitious philosophers, nearly fall off in his desperate efforts to look the gift-horse in the mouth… He could enjoy trifles, because to him there was no such thing as a trifle.’ ('A Handful of Authors' (Sheed and Ward, 1953) p2-3)
Paul also knew the importance of joy, giving it second place among ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal 5:22). It was while he was singing hymns in the stocks that an earthquake demolished the prison in Philippi; and when he later wrote to the church in that city, from another prison (Phil 1:14), and feeling that his life was being ‘poured out like a drink offering’ (2:17), he tells his readers: ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances… Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ (4:11, 4).
For Paul, the cultivation of joy was not a quick anti-depressive injection, or a selfish spiritual indulgence, but a profound spiritual discipline that required hard work and courage. It did not involve ignoring the realities of the world around, but experiencing them so deeply that in the midst of them he could trace the form and the face of the crucified one. He knew that to truly live joyfully in the midst of adverse circumstances unleashed a powerful weapon against the principalities and powers of this age. Politicians want us to believe the heresy that they alone can make a big difference to our happiness; and the consumer society we live in thrives on spreading abroad the even worse heresy of permanent dissatisfaction with life (or why else should we indulge in that costly pleasure, retail therapy?) To be truly joyful would be to know that there is nothing that we can buy that can add to our happiness; it would mean that we were no longer tempted by the promises of politicians, and no longer scared by their threats. Joy, like worship itself, is revolutionary, liberating, dangerous, and deeply counter-cultural, enabling us to resist the forces that would seek to enslave us, and to laugh at their absurdities; for the destruction of the Roman prison was symbolic of what was happening, more deeply, to the Roman empire itself.
Paul also knew that joy is seen most clearly against the background of adverse circumstances. Such events help to liberate us from our addiction to a life of predictable comfort, and help us to see God’s word and his world from positions of weakness rather than strength (for there are many things that we fail to notice when we are strong). Indeed, Spurgeon, who suffered severe ill-health for many years, once wrote, ‘the greatest earthly blessing that God can give to any of us is health, with the exception of sickness. Sickness has frequently been of more use to the saints of God than health has.’ ('The Full Harvest' (Banner of Truth,1973) p414). But joy does not consist in gritting our teeth and forcing ourselves, against our better judgement, to thank God for the many evils in this world. We must guard our own integrity. It may, though, mean consciously searching for elements of joy in any and every situation in which we find ourselves. Paul might have been in prison; but he can say, ‘what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ’ (Phil 1:12-13).
This is the sort of joy that is deeply attractive to people, and that can’t be counterfeited no matter how many choruses we might sing. It is an evangelistic joy, an infectious joy, a dangerous joy, a counter-cultural joy. Unfortunately, it is also a very rare joy. Or perhaps those who have it are locked away in deep, inaccessible cells…
(first published in 'Third Way' (Sept 2006) p20)
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