Home » Sermons » New Testament » John » A Note On Cheerfulness

 

A Note On Cheerfulness

 

John 16:33               Romans 12:8

 

Cheerfulness. Is it an emotional high like excitement, frenzy? Or is it an act of the will like determination, resolve? Emotional highs we may have from time to time but we shouldn’t expect to have them most of the time. After all, no one can live at a constant, emotional high. On the other hand, if being cheerful is an act of the will, an intensified act of the will (like determination), then we may have it from time to time but we shouldn’t expect to have it most of the time. After all, no one can live at a constant intensity of will. The truth is, cheerfulness is neither an unusual emotional high nor an unusual intensity of will. Cheerfulness is a settled disposition. Cheerfulness is a settled outlook on life and settled input into life. Of course we have bad days, and will continue to have them. Nonetheless, it’s the settled disposition that counts. It’s the backdrop against which our life is lived. Cheerfulness is the atmosphere we live out of ourselves and the atmosphere we breathe out on other people.

Cheerfulness is crucial. We have to be cheerful if we are going to be life-affirming. Mental health experts tell us that the major symptom of low-grade depression isn’t feeling sad. (Many depressed people don’t feel sad.) The major symptom of low-grade depression is what psychiatrists call “psycho-motor retardation”, or what we’d more commonly “dragginess”. Someone tells us he doesn’t have any energy, can’t seem to get going, can’t seem to get interested, is always weary — because he had the ‘flu five times last winter. But nobody gets the ‘flu five times per winter. He’s not ‘flu-ridden; he’s depressed. Without cheerfulness we can’t be life-affirming.

You must have noticed that cheerless people are an emotional dead weight. They strike us as being dead but somehow unable to fall over. Not only are they emotionally inert themselves, they are an emotional drain on others. If we are around cheerless people for any time at all we feel our own vitality being bled away. Soon everyone is left feeling anaemic. The cheerless person debilitates. Then plainly cheerfulness is important. Scripture mentions it again and again. It’s obviously part and parcel of the Christian life.

 

I: — But why would anyone be cheerful, then or now? We read the newspaper, contemplate world-occurrence, ponder our own struggles — and we aren’t moved to much cheerfulness. The truth is, no apostle ever pretended that we are made cheerful by looking around us. When the apostles looked out around them they saw an army of occupation. They saw grinding poverty. They saw betrayal at the hands of political leaders and religious leaders alike. They saw unfairness, disease, suffering, and untimely death.

Martin Luther maintained that when the Christian looks out upon the world what she sees contradicts the gospel, contradicts the truth that God loves each one of us more than he loves himself. (Didn’t he give up his Son for us?) Yet Luther was anything but cheerless. Luther, you see, distinguished carefully between eye and ear. What we all see with the eye contradicts what “hear” with the “ear” (i.e., hear with the ear of the heart.) What we hear – the gospel – persuades us of God’s truth: we are loved in a way that world-occurrence can never confirm but can only deny.

Luther then, and the apostles first, insist that all disciples of Jesus Christ may and must be cheerful. They insist as well that such cheerfulness isn’t rooted in what’s going on around them; rather it is rooted in the call they have heard, in the response they have made to that call, and in the reception their response has been accorded.

(i) Call   Blind Bartimaeus isn’t merely one blind man. Blind Bartimaeus is included in the gospel story because he’s every man and every woman. One day Bartimaeus is sitting around in his customary semi-depressed dragginess – perfectly understandable, in view of the fact that he’s blind — when a neighbour says, “Be of good cheer. Jesus is calling you”.

(ii) Response   A woman who has suffered from an embarrassing complaint lasting twelve years one day finds herself adjacent to Jesus. She responds to his tacit invitation by reaching out and touching him. As she responds he says to her, “Daughter, be of good cheer. Your faith has made you well”.

(iii) Reception   A son comes home to his waiting father, Jesus tell us in that parable which everyone knows, and the reception the son receives is a reception he never expected. His father doesn’t listlessly pussyfoot around, “Well, son, we had better wait and see. For now, you’re on probation”. Instead the father exclaims four times over in a few verses, “Let’s make merry.”

The ground of our cheerfulness is never what’s going on around us. The ground of our cheerfulness is something else. It’s the call — to live in the company of Jesus Christ. It’s the response his call has freed us to make. It’s the reception our response has been accorded. This is where our cheerfulness is rooted. His call has quickened our response; and our response has met with a reception characterized by merriment. Now we know why and how we can be cheerful.

 

II — But cheerfulness doesn’t mean much when we are hassle-free or relaxing in the bathtub.   Cheerfulness does mean a great deal, however, when we are being harassed. Knowing this, Jesus said something profound when he looked his followers in the eye and said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

It’s easy to believe the first half of our Lord’s pronouncement: “In the world you will have tribulation.” Tribulation? Difficulty? Affliction? We can’t get away from it. When I was very young and my mother was feeling overwhelmed she would sigh heavily and remark, “There’s always something.” Yes there is. And the fact that there is “always something” puts the acid test to our cheerfulness. It’s easy to believe the first half of Christ’s pronouncement “in the world you will have tribulation”. What does the world offer besides tribulation?

Our Lord found it easy to believe this concerning himself. His parents didn’t understand him. His mother found him to be an embarrassment. His brothers and sisters thought him deranged. His disciples disappointed him. (One betrayed him, while the others forsook him.) Church authorities molested him. The crowds turned on him. The shadow of the cross fell upon him, as John Calvin reminds, throughout his life, at all times and in all circumstances.

Like him, you and I meet with resistance; we meet with a resistance which afflicts us as soon as we attempt to accomplish anything worthwhile, to do anything of real human help and healing. We feel like a hockey player who is trying to score: the closer he gets to the goal, the greater the resistance he meets. The closer he gets to the goal, the greater the hammering he takes from opponents. The hockey player who parks himself in front of the goal where he can deflect the puck for a sure score takes a terrific beating. (Look for it the next time you see a game “live”.) When he’s a hundred feet from the goal nobody’s bothering him. But where he is likely to score he is hammered incessantly.

In life we shall be harassed very little as long as we have a “don’t care” attitude, as long as we “go with the flow”, not caring where we drift. But as soon as we take a stand; as soon as we aspire after something worthwhile and pursue it; as soon as we attempt to move towards a goal we meet resistance. If you exercise any leadership or responsibility at work, at church, in a school, a service club, an organization of any sort, you will survive longest, and survive longest scar-free, by doing nothing, planning nothing, saying nothing, being nothing — just drifting. But as soon as you recognize the goal and begin moving yourself and others toward it, the hammering starts. Now you have to contend with the dead weight of the lethargic ones; as well as with the jealousy of those who envy your leadership; as well as with the hostility of those who resent your visibility. As soon as you attempt to do anything of genuine kingdom significance you learn a great deal about tribulation. If Jesus had merely sawn a few boards and patted a few children on the back of the head he too would have been hassle-free. But instead he says and does what he knows he must be about. At the same time as he asks as much from you and me he states, “In the world you are going to have tribulation”. Does he need to remind us?

Certainly he needs to remind us of the second half: Nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world”. Even as we are resisted and harassed we can be cheerful, and we must be — for our Lord has overcome everything which harasses us, and he now shares his triumph with us.

“Be of good cheer.” Is it a pipedream? Romantic exaggeration? Or is he pressing something genuine upon us, something which will be hidden from most people but known to us in our innermost heart and confirmed in our day-to-day experience? There is only one way to find out. We have to immerse ourselves in those situations where we are hassled. In looking to him there, and stepping forward with him there, we shall be surprised by our very good cheer, for he does include us in his overcoming of our world.

During the last war military fliers were instructed in the technical details of their parachute. No doubt the flier understood adequately the words which described how parachutes function. But one day he would find himself in the midst of a “tribulation” when he had to move beyond understanding the instructions and step out into thin air, seemingly. The test was upon him; namely, was he going to trust that his parachute was as effective as the manufacturer had said it was — or was he going to perish?

“Be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”, says our Lord. When we are harassed the test is upon us. Now we have to step out, step forward, entrusting ourselves to him whose promise we have understood up to this point, but whose promise we now have occasion to prove. And like the flier, we shall find that we are gently saved. We shall find ourselves marvelling at the good cheer which has stolen upon us. We shall confirm our Lord’s promise in our own experience: he has overcome the world, and we can be of good cheer. Therefore we shall persist in doing what we know we should be doing.

 

II:(ii) — Cheerfulness is necessary for a second reason. Cheerfulness is necessary if that kingdom-good we endeavour to do is going to be life-giving, profoundly life-imparting, life-enhancing, humanly upbuilding. Imagine someone standing at your door one evening. He has a face as long as a horse’s. He tells you, miserably, that he is collecting on behalf of the Canadian Diabetic Association, or the Heart and Stroke Foundation. It’s obvious that he would rather be doing something else. But he has “virtuously” given up an evening to go out and “do good”. One look at his horse-length face and you would say, “Brother, the diabetics don’t need you ”. Of course the fellow can pick up a few dollars in the short run. But in the long run what real, human helpfulness and healing is going to come out of a cheerless do-goodism? Now you understand why Paul writes to the Roman Christians, “If you are doing acts of mercy, be sure to do them cheerfully.” A cheerless act of mercy may appear merciful, but the very cheerlessness of it contradicts the appearance and makes it — an “act of mercy” — an act of cruelty.

In his letter to the church in Corinth Paul writes, “God loves a cheerful giver”. Shouldn’t God be pleased with having us givers, whether cheerful or not? But the apostle is correct in insisting that where the giver isn’t cheerful there’s no gift given at all., The “gift”, so-called, is then merely a compulsiveness arising from a psychological quirk or social conformity arising from social embarrassment. Insofar as the “gift” is generated by psychological quirk or social embarrassment it isn’t properly gift at all. How many times have we received — or watched others receive — something that was given grudgingly? The grudging spirit turned the gift (so-called) into a millstone; it turned the occasion of helpfulness into an occasion of torment and humiliation. We’d all rather be left alone — whatever our need – than be “helped” grudgingly. Cheerfulness saves help from being a humiliation even as it saves comfort from being cruelty-in-disguise.

When Paul writes, “God loves a cheerful giver” the Greek word he uses for cheerful is HILAROS. It means a joyful readiness that is eager and prompt to do something. The Greek word HILAROS gives us the English word “hilarity” and “hilarity” suggests a party atmosphere. Cheerfulness is necessary if what we do is really going to contribute to the healing of minds and spirits. Without cheerfulness we have only a do-goodism that is humanly demeaning and is resented by those who are supposed to benefit from it. But with cheerfulness we have an act of mercy that can raise the dead.

 

We began today by noting that the cheerless person leaves us all feeling drained. We noted too that the cheerfulness of Christians isn’t rooted in our surroundings but is rooted rather in Christ’s winsome call to us, our self-abandoning response to him, and the joyous reception he accords our response.   Rooted in this cheerfulness we shall find our Lord’s word confirmed in us as he tells us again and again to be of good cheer just because he has overcome our turbulent world. And we shall know with the apostle that what is offered to God and given to our neighbour our hilarious cheerfulness renders a life-bestowing act of mercy.

 

                                                                                                     Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                        

July 2005