If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. (Gal 5:25-26)
It’s another Sunday and you’re at church. You enter through the front doors, say hi to the people on welcoming, grab one of the handouts and go sit down. Maybe you have a little chat with the people around you—talking about the week just gone and the various things that are happening in your lives. The service begins, and even though you sing and pray along with everyone else, and sit under God’s word as it’s read and taught, you can’t help feeling a little flat—a little lifeless. Is this how church is supposed to be? you wonder. Isn’t being a Christian supposed to be more satisfying—more joyful?
Joy in Christian community often seems to elude us as Christians. My observation as a churchgoer is that it’s because we are fairly insecure people—insecure, that is, in the gospel. We think we have a handle on biblical theology and we confess evangelical convictions—maybe even with great vigour. But in practice, we don’t really demonstrate rich gospel faith that leads to spiritual security.
In this article, I want to try to work through a couple of blind spots—three common reasons why joy eludes us in Christian community. I say they’re common because they’re what I’ve observed in the churches that I’ve been a part of and what I’ve heard from other people in their own church experience. But they’re also problems that I think are featured in the Bible—particularly in the epistles where they’re addressed by the Apostle Paul. So they aren’t necessarily new, but we may find them today in different and even attractive new dress. I hope to expose their worldliness and the false joy they promise, and then turn your attention to see how the gospel actually provides a better and truer joy.
Three ways we negate joy in Christian community
1. We conceal, rather than confess, sin
The first reason why joy eludes is that we are more comfortable concealing, rather than confessing sin. I had coffee recently with one of my dear friends at church who is a lovely brother about twice my age. He said to me, “I want to talk to you about some sin.” He wanted to talk to me man to man—Christian man to Christian man, brother to brother—about struggles in his own Christian life. He wanted to share and confess those things with me. And I thought, “Wow! All right!”
The trouble he had, he said, was that usually in his own Bible study group and in his own close networks—at church and so on—people are really reluctant to be transparent. People don’t share real struggles they’re having. They don’t want to move beyond superficial matters. In Bible study, they stay guarded—even behind information they can provide about the text, rather than exposing their own hearts and lives, and letting that text actually penetrate their lives and maybe expose sin in their own hearts.
I suspect that our church communities have largely embraced the broader societal expectation that we keep our business to ourselves. In fact, we hide our business from others so that we can advance in life. We tell ourselves, “Success in life is keeping my life together.” So we conceal our sin from others, rather than confess it in gospel freedom.
In church, this is not a new problem: I think this is the main issue Jesus addressed when he critiqued the Pharisees. They were a self-righteous mob who “had it all together,” and he said to them,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt 23:27-28)
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer made an interesting remark about the church where everyone saves face:
The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone with our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. The fact is that we are sinners!1
We are sinners! We act like we’re not. We act surprised when we find one. But secretly, deep down inside, we are sinners! One of the greatest challenges to realising joy in our communities is this misunderstanding that to be part of the community, you must be without sin. That’s false—because that is not who we are.
In church, one of the more seemingly gloomy elements of our corporate worship is the confession of sin. You may ask, “Why is it that we keep going on about sin? Why not focus on more positive messages of self?” The answer is that we want to be realists, not idealists. Never has our community been made up of people who are self-made; the foundational element—indeed the principle of unity—is that we are sinners, saved by God’s grace shown to us in Jesus Christ. We are a desperate people, and even after we know Jesus, we don’t ever become less dependent upon him.
Our lives as Christians cannot be compared to little children. I have a one-year-old who is fiercely dependent upon my wife for life: she can’t eat, bathe, move around (much) or stay safe without her mother. But I also have an nine-year-old and a seven-year-old, and they are much more independent: they can eat by themselves; they can bathe themselves; they can ride a bike, and be fairly responsible and safe in most environments. But they can’t cook or drive. One day I hope they’ll reach full independence when they will be able to live and thrive without me or Amy. But your spiritual life is not like a child growing up: as you mature, you recognise all the more your deep dependence on Christ. Never do you break free from him. Never do you need him less. Never do you have life apart from him. You will always need him. In fact, one of the marks of Christian maturity is the expression of the deep need for Jesus in your need for his people, and in serving others and striving to meet their need for you.
Confessing sin to a brother or sister is a prime way to express our need for God and others. I love the practice of corporate confession, where we all say the liturgy together and hear words of absolution together. But I believe that private confession to one or two brothers or sisters is also very important. In fact, Bonhoeffer counted it one of the most important steps in realising gospel joy in the community. He wrote,
Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother.2
Bonhoeffer believed that the act of confession is part of bringing our sin out from the darkness where it will fester and corrupt our whole self, and into the light where it is then exposed and rendered powerless. This, of course, is humiliating—which is why it’s so terrifying. But it’s also part of the joy, because in our humiliation over facing up to the reality of our sins, we identify with Christ, who was publicly humiliated for our sins on the cross.
I suspect that our fear of confessing our sin to others is actually our fear of not being accepted. We put up a front and we work to save face, because we are deeply afraid of being alone. So we seek to be okay as we are—or rather, as we pretend to be. But this only exacerbates our feelings of fear and insecurity, because who we are accepted as is a lie. The Christian community, at its heart, is one where everyone is desperately needy all the time. There can be no posturing in Christian community, nor can there be any ranking. Christ is the one in whom we all stand. I am not there because of my righteousness, nor are you there because of yours; we are there because of Christ’s righteousness given to us. So we must confess our sins, rather than conceal them, if we are to capture joy in our Christian communities.
2. We envy, rather than encourage, others
Secondly, joy eludes us because in our communities, we are guilty of envying, rather than encouraging, others. In today’s society, the great Australian virtue of “equality” actually serves as a mask for the vice of envy. Seeing others have what we want is unbearable. So we cut the tall poppies.
I fear that in our churches, we can’t stand to see others “promoted” above us. For me personally, my sin shows through in how I feel when a well-respected leader or a colleague is criticised for poor performance in preaching. I am quick to jump on the critique, because it is a chance for me to show that they aren’t that much better than me.
In my own life, envy showed through in a terrible way when I was a student minister in a church. My senior minister was five years older than me and the youngest mega-church pastor in America. In my heart, I used to say, “What does he have that I don’t? Why does he get asked to preach at certain places?” Envy festered in me. I was covetous of his position. Do you know what became most confronting to me? He was so humble and godly. At some point, it became very clear to me that the problem was all in me: I couldn’t stand that he had something I didn’t—that his gifts were recognised and mine weren’t.
In the mid-twentieth century, Dorothy Sayers shrewdly reflected,
Envy … hates to see other men happy … Envy is the great leveler. If it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouth are “my rights” and “my wrongs”. At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer; rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.3
I fear that in Australia, we have this problem of envy as much as anybody anywhere. It’s built into the fabric of society. Cutting the tall poppies may be deeply Australian, but we need to recognise that it is absolutely un-Christian. Why? Firstly, it leads to destruction rather than edification—deconstruction rather than construction. And secondly, it leads to joylessness, rather than thankfulness and rejoicing. When we always look for what is wrong, it’s hard for us to appreciate what is right. If our orientation is towards discovering all that is bad, will we actually appreciate what is good?
Remember Paul’s exhortation to the Romans: “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom 12:9-10). Likewise, remember Paul’s challenge to the Thessalonians: “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess 5:11). Envy is a spoiler of joy in community, because it is severely self-interested. It uses others for personal gain, rather than serving others in love. Most importantly, it isn’t what we learned from Christ. In view of Jesus’ example to us of self-sacrificial love, Paul charges us to “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).
New life in Christ means a basic contentment about our place. We are in Christ: that is our identity. When we envy, we betray our sinful desire for something more than Jesus. What is it that Christ has given you that isn’t enough? When we recognise all that we have in Christ, we’re free to view others as gifts to us. We are free to appreciate them in their difference to us, and in the qualities or gifts that they have that are better than ours.
Bonhoeffer, again, wrote,
Because God has already laid the only foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.4
So we must encourage, not envy one another if we are to capture joy in our Christian communities.
3. We focus on compatibility, rather than communion, in our gatherings
Thirdly, joy eludes us in our communities because we have set compatibility, rather than communion, as the focus of our gatherings. I suspect this will be the most controversial of the points I am making in this article. But let me be forthright about what I mean: I’m saying that the regular pattern for ministry in many churches is such that it undermines the gospel structurally.
In most parishes, congregations are organised according to demographics. I think of one church I was previously involved with that operated something like this: you begin in the crèche, you graduate into the kids’ ministry, then you move to the junior high ministry, then the high school ministry. Next, you attend the evening congregation, which (and I quote) “is a place for tertiary students, young workers, and young marrieds without children, but all are welcome” (!). Then when you marry and have children, you move to the church plant just for families. When your kids reach the age of youth ministry, you go to the middle-aged adult contemporary service, where you stay as an empty nester until retirement. Once retired (or perhaps when you just wake up so early, you need to be home for a mid-morning nap), you go to the “traditional” service in the early morning. Then you die. Birth to death, there is a congregation for each stage of life.
There are, of course, many other varieties of how we can and do divide the people of God. Historically, we have done this for seemingly good practical reasons: like attracts like, and so if we want to see people come to Christ, we need to provide a place where they can relate and find people like them to connect with.
But what is wrong with this picture? The subliminal message attendees receive is that church is about me: it’s a place where I can find people I like. I can find me. However, this structuring of our communities absolutely undermines the gospel. We may preach the gospel faithfully; we may give people wonderful programs for growth. But our form communicates something about what we believe: we are communicating that Christian community is just like the world: our unity is in superficial affinity. Christian community is a place where you can find what you like; where you can be around people just like you; where we’ll make you feel comfortable. All of these messages aren’t the gospel.
True Christian community sees the gospel break barriers. It brings together young and old, allowing the older members to impart wisdom and the younger members to stoke enthusiasm. It brings together single and married, providing a space for mutual service and demonstration of true love among brothers and sisters. It brings together people of varying needs and gives them a place for care. It is a body of believers that demonstrates that no member is insignificant.
For too long now we have allowed our structures to cut our legs out from under us. We have made compatibility the focus of our gatherings, rather than the communion we share in Christ. In doing so—in all our efforts to give people a place to belong—we have made church a place where we’ve actually excluded them. There are times and seasons in life when people have to leave church—times when they simply don’t feel they can belong. But is that true Christian community? The only viable barrier I can imagine for our communities is one of language. Why? Because at the core of our gatherings is the word of God. We gather to partake in gospel truth together. If we can’t understand one another, then there may be good reason for us to separate into groups where we can understand and be understood.
The more genuine and the deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.5
So we must make communion, rather than compatibility, the focus of our gatherings in order to capture joy in our Christian communities.
The key to true joy in our Christian community
The short answer that I have been arguing is that the key to finding joy in our Christian communities is the gospel. But, as I have tried to demonstrate, this isn’t easy. There are many things that we do with good intention that actually hinder us from realising joy. The title of my article is appropriate: joy is elusive. But when we recognise Christ as the foundation and focus of our communities, then we capture joy. This requires more than rattling off familiar doctrines; it requires living according to them.
Just as our individual spiritual transformation involves that painful spiritual work of putting to death the flesh, we also recognise that there is a painful process of community transformation too. Like all recognition of sin in our lives, we must be willing to trust in the sufficient work of Christ humbly and be willing to repent of our sins.
I have aimed to show you how self-righteousness, envy, and self-centeredness all creep into the community in dazzling dress. My petition has been for us to envision ourselves so captured by gospel truth that we are willing to expose even these blind spots and see the gospel realised in our community life and structures. This will mean change. It will call for boldness and prayerfulness. It may mean a significant sea change in your own life or your church’s life together. But I am confident that the Lord is happy to give us all that we need.
I offer one final word from Bonhoeffer as an encouragement as we seek to live according to the gospel. We are often tempted to keep measuring success in our communities—perhaps identifying key performance indicators or other measurables. Let me suggest that one key to success will be getting on with the work—keeping on and doing so with simple thankfulness. Bonhoeffer advised,
Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.6
May we be thankful for all that the Lord has given to us as we enjoy our life together in Christ.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, translated by John W Doberstein, Harper One, New York, 1956, p. 110.
2 Ibid, p. 112.
3 Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2004, p. 94.
4 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 28.
5 Ibid, p. 26.
6 Ibid, p. 30.