A few weeks ago, I examined the problem of gloomy Christianity and suggested the imagination as a helpful remedy in the post Eros Comes from Beauty Beheld. This started me thinking about other sources of gloomy Christianity and other remedies for it.
I want to be clear about what I mean by gloomy Christianity. I certainly do not have in mind people who have substantive reasons to grieve, such as those with illness, loss, addictions, or other areas of real brokenness. There is no Christianity without the Cross, and one great strength of Christian theology is the realism with which the gospel addresses concrete suffering. I also hope no one will interpret me as saying that Christians must always be chipper, or that those who have a more quiet, less type-A personality are not fully walking in the joy of the Lord.
Instead, I have in mind an entirely avoidable disposition of chronic theological grumpiness. People with this disposition give the impression that being a Christian involves a perpetual low-level headache. It’s not that such people never smile or never have fun, but rather that they smile about anything else instead of God. As soon as God enters the conversation or they show up at church, things become very grave.
I notice this more frequently in those who were raised in solid churches than in those who experienced adult conversions, and the development of gloomy Christianity in church kids seems to follow a pattern. First, throughout childhood, church community and Christian ways of living form the taken-for-granted background of their lives. Second, in adolescence they begin to notice sparkling, fun, enjoyable things in the world. They play a few video games, watch a few movies, and shop a little at the mall. They find these things fun—way more fun than anything at church. Third, somewhere along the line, a parent, a mentor, or simply a good Christian friend offers a rebuke and points out the ways that these objects of enjoyment are polluted by the sin-system of the world. Fourth, the adolescents who were having so much fun either repent or harden. Either way, they tend to develop the impression that the reason for rebuke was not the worldliness of what they were enjoying, but rather the fun they were having, the enjoyment itself.
This can happen in a less direct way through years of sermons where the preacher rightly points out and condemns sinful practices. If people in the pews are disposed to enjoy such practices, and especially if nearly everything they enjoy most falls under condemnation, they are likely to think that the problem is not so much the particular practices as much as it is the enjoyment itself. The preacher says, “Addiction to Netflix is idolatry,” but the person hears, “God doesn’t like it when you have a good time.” This explains why such people can smile as long as you don’t bring God up. Like any moderately healthy human psychology, they do laugh at things. They have formed in the back of their minds, however, the notion that they should later repent whenever they laugh. They can only really laugh, therefore, as long as they can distract themselves from God.
When this mindset becomes even worse, the frown turns onto other people. This develops into a dreadfully unpleasant religious personality that many people know all too well: that person at church who not only feels guilty about their own smile, but also knows that sin must lurk behind other people’s smiles too.
The remedy here is not more fun. Frequently, I see young Christians rebel against this kind of gloominess (real or merely perceived), and their solution is to simply indulge more deeply in things that satisfy their flesh. They double-down on entertainment, on food, on sex (or not-quite-sex relationships), on loud music, or on staying out late. Frequently, they try to hide these things from the gloomy Christians, and this only makes things worse later on because it reinforces a view of the world in which all the goodness is in the world and all the gloom at church.
I also see many youth groups take the approach that the solution is more fun. Here, the kids are offered entertainments that dimly echo versions they experience in the world, only sanitized of overt sin. All too often, however, the less overt underlying sins such as covetousness and idolatry remain. Even if all the sin can be cleaned out of the games, the real problem remains unaddressed because the church kids still learn that good times are to be found by aping the world, by looking away from God.
The real solution is to learn that God is beautiful, to see that God is beautiful, to meet Beauty Himself. God designed our psychology for enjoyment and delight, and the proper object of these faculties is not cheep entertainments but beauty. Our hearts are fitted to beauty as a lock is fitted to a key, and only in its presence can our soul open up to flourish fully. As CS Lewis famously says in “The Weight of Glory”:
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
In rightly rebuking the sinfulness of sin, therefore, we must be careful to present the alternative, especially for the young members of the church. We must be careful to make clear that repentance involves both rejecting something once enjoyed and embracing something far more enjoyable in the end. We will do this most effectively if we ourselves have learned to smile before the face of God.