There used to be a saying among hyperactive preachers: “I’d rather flame out than rust out.” The problem with this is that either way they’re out. One we’re out it doesn’t matter much how we got there.
Often it is the people closest to suffering who have the most powerful joy. Friends of Mother Teresa say that instead of being overwhelmed by the suffering around her, she fairly glows with joy as she goes about her ministry of mercy. One of the English officers imprisoned at Flossenberg with Dietrich Bonhoeffer said of him, “Bonhoeffer always seemed to me to spread and atmosphere of happiness and joy over the least incident and profound gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.
True joy, as it turns out, comes only to those who devoted their lives to something greater than personal happiness. This is most visible in extraordinary lives, in saints and martyrs. But it is no less true for ordinary people like us.
One test of authentic joy is its compatibility with pain. Joy in this world is always joy “in spite of” something. Joy is as Karl Barth put it, a “defiant nevertheless” set at a full stop against bitterness and resentment.
Imagine Genesis if God approached his work as we so often do:
In the beginning, it was nine o’clock, so God had to go to work. He filled out a requisition to separate light from darkness. He considered making stars to beautify the night, and planets to fill the skies, but thought it sounded like to much work; and besides, thought God, “That’s not my job” So he decided to knock off early and call it a day. And he looked at what he had done and he said, “It’ll have to do.” On the second day God separated the waters from the dry land. And he made all the dry land ﬂat, plain, and functional, so that—behold—the whole earth looked like Idaho. He thought about making mountains and valleys and glaciers and jungles and forests, but he decided it wouldn’t be worth the effort. And God looked at what he had done that day and ‘ said, “It’ll have to do.” And God made a pigeon to ﬂy in the air, and a carp to swim in the waters, and a cat to creep upon dry ground And God thought about making millions of other species of all sizes and shapes and colours, but he couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for any other animals — in fact, he wasn’t too crazy about the cat. Besides, it was almost time for the Late Show. So God looked at all he had done, and God said, “It’ll have to do.” And at the end of the week, God was seriously burned out. So he breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Thank Me , it’s Friday”
Of course Genesis looks nothing like that. Instead, it throbs with the refrain “God said… And it was so… and indeed it was very good.”
There is more good news in that our season of life is not a barrier to spiritual growth.
A mother in our small group suggested that it was easier for her to “work on her spiritual life” before she became a mom. As we talked, it became clear what she meant.To her, reading the Bible and praying were the only two activities that counted spiritually. As a mother she felt that “time alone” was an oxymoron.
In this the church had failed her. She had never been taught to see that caring for two young children, offered daily with expressions of gratitude and prayers for help and patient acceptance of trials, might become a kind of school for transformation into powerful servanthood beyond anything she had ever known. Somehow having a “quiet time” counted toward spiritual devotion and caring for two children did not. It took creative effort for this mother to carve out solitude and stillness, and even then she could not free up the amount of time she had in college. But as a mother she opportunities for growth she did not have back then. Our season in life – whatever it is – is no barrier to having Christ formed in us. Not in the least.
Many of us have got the impression somewhere that for an activity to count as a spiritual discipline it must be something that we would rather not do. However if we are training for a life characterised by joy, peace, and affection, we should assume that some of the practices are going to be downright enjoyable. Many of us need to discover “disciplines” such as celebration that will regularly produce in us rivers of wonder and gratitude.”
If you ask people who don’t believe in God why they don’t, the number one reason will be suffering. If you ask people who believe in God when they grew most spiritually, the number one answer will be suffering.