This is the day
That the Lord has made
Let us rejoice
And be glad in it
I can remember singing this at school in a Christian Union group, a guitar-playing teacher trying to manufacture joy in cynical teenagers. It didn't work. I can only remember thinking that this was the most banal of sentiments, set to a rather childish happy-clappy tune, illustrating the embarrassing truth that Christianity was not for serious-minded or thoughtful people.
Psalm 118 , from which this chorus comes, however, is poorly served by such a reaction (one of the risks of putting psalms to music – music is such an emotive phenomenon that if a tune doesn't happen to sit well with you, it can seriously damage one's response to the words – and vice versa – but that's a topic for another day).
Indeed, it can seem in contemporary Christianity that rejoicing and being thoughtful are at odds with each other. You can either follow a brand of Christianity that is big on music, celebration and joy, but short on theology and sermons, or you can be serious, emphasise Bible teaching and doctrine, and be anything but emotional.
In secular life I can understand this dichotomy emerging. This world is a fairly depressing place in which to live, and if there is no hope of redemption or eternal life, what reason is there to be joyful? There is an extent to which learned optimism is also learned denial.
There has been over the last decade or so a new outpouring of secular studies on happiness. The more scholarly ones are trying to put these two very things together – how to be serious about happiness. They point to things like the importance of contentment with life, mindfulness, conscious gratitude for blessings – yet all in the context of having no certain destiny in view that would promote contentment, no particular creator to thank.
Let's be a bit more intentional about Christian joy. It is not something to be drummed up by emotional manipulation, although music can be a superb vehicle for expressing it, as the psalmists know. It is something entered on the basis of knowledge and understanding, as the immensely joyful Psalm 118 expresses. God has acted, consistently and repeatedly, to save his people. He is trustworthy and reliable. He keeps his promises. He is creator who provides everything we have. Knowing that he is there and on our side is reason enough, and daily reason, to be glad.
More than that, the psalm's messianic overtones come through in the promise of the cornerstone, who will be rejected but will become the very foundation of life. Jesus quotes it against eh Pharisees in Matthew 21:42. I peter 1:4-5 and Ephesians 2:22 tell us that because of him, this cornerstone, we are ourselves being build up into the very house of God. We are the dwelling place of God himself. What better reason to be overwhelmed with amazed joy?
But it's easier to have forgetful joy – temporary feelings created by emotional manipulation, or easy pleasure. It's easier to find joy in activities that can be enjoyed without mindfulness of God at all – the camaraderie of sport, or the delightfulness of children, or friends, or art, or all manner of sensual pleasures. It's not surprising that happiness can be found in such created things – God created a good world for us.
But to have joy that lasts, that persists even in the face of suffering – the kind of distress, being surrounded by enemies and falling that Psalm 118 talks of – that kind of joy needs to based in serious thought. It needs to come from the daily and eternal knowledge that God is good, and his steadfast love endures forever. It needs to arise from thankfulness for a saviour who has acted decisively and completely for our salvation.
It's not so easy to cultivate as temporary pleasure (which, by the way, is no bad thing in itself). It is, however, much more reliable and more worth having.
Kirsten Birkett is on the staff of Oak Hill College and is a member of the Theological Work Group of the Latimer Trust.
This article was first published in the CEN in September 2013
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