The Pleasures of True Christianity
I recently read a biography on William Wilberforce, who almost single-handedly abolished the slave trade in Great Britain and, decades later, slavery altogether in the early 1800’s. He began the fight at the age of 21 and the final law to abolish slavery was passed three days before his death over 40 years later. He was truly a remarkable man, one who was absolutely relentless in his pursuit of what he knew was right, despite his efforts constantly being thwarted and voted down. Wilberforce, a devout Christian who thought the evils of slavery to be unthinkable as a man of God, was also described by his friends as a shockingly happy and joyful fellow. He was known to hum hymns as he went about his work and laugh so loud he could be heard the next door over. Even his opponents, who hated his morals and pursuit of freedom for all (because it meant their financial loss), acknowledged that he was endearing to everyone, likeable almost to a fault.
What would make a man, so intent and ferocious about abolishing wickedness, also pleasant to be around? What kept him so cheerful in the midst of such a ruthless and disgusting battle? What rock was his joy built upon that it helped him withstand 4 decades of defeat, slander, and even serious illness?
The answer is God. The love of God made him happy.
Wilberforce did not understand his fellow Christians who were often so gloomy and sullen. He saw being a Christian and failing to be happy as a contradiction. He is quoted as saying:
Pleasure and Religion are contradictory terms with the bulk of nominal Christians.
To Wilberforce, the Christian experience was, by its very nature, a happy one. To know the love of Christ and friendship with God on such a personal level could only lead one into a joyful life; there are simply no other outcomes! He viewed his brothers and sisters in Christ who were unable to rejoice in their salvation as people who had not experienced true Christianity. Instead, they simply did not “get it”. They had knowledge of God in their heads but not in their hearts. The realities to which they ascribed did not seem to strike them as true in any personal way.
He wrote of such Christians:
O! Little do they know of the true measure of enjoyment, who can compare these delightful complacencies with the frivolous pleasures of dissipation, or the coarse gratifications of sensuality…The nominal Christian…knows not the sweetness of delights with which true Christianity repays those trifling sacrifices.
In other words, Wilberforce considered the joy of Christianity not worthy to be compared with lame and inept joys found in extravagant living or sexual fulfillment. Though many aim to find their happiness in such endeavours, those people are settling for lesser pleasures. Perhaps most painfully, the nominal Christian, he thought, who of all people ought to know the fullness of joy, were so often those who thought the service of God to be a great burden. The nominal Christian was one who considered obedience toward God a mere duty, and not a delight. They fail to understand that the commands of God are meant to lead them to life and joy, not strip them of it.
It pained Wilberforce that Christians were putting forth such a miserable front towards the outside world. Others would look on at believers and see their inability to enjoy life and wonder, what’s so great about Jesus? What is so good about the good news that its application in one’s life seems to make them nothing but cranky complainers who can’t even crack a smile?
The Scriptures know nothing of such a faith. Rather, the Bible presents Christianity as the fullest and truest joy a person can know. It is an experience that (dare I use such a word?) can be described as pleasurable. Yes, I dare use such a word, for the Word of God uses such a word.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:11)
To know the love of Christ and have friendship with God is a wondrous thing! It is the path to true life, the fullest experience of joy, and the most enduring pleasure available to mankind. Yet, like many Christians in Wilberforce’s day, we simply don’t get it. The average believer today may profess to have faith in Jesus – and, therefore, joy in Christ – but their lifestyle betrays their confession. So many followers of Christ find their joy in the shifting sands of material wealth or good health or success or even sinful desires. This ought not to be! Such an individual has not had an experience, as Wilberforce put it, of “true Christianity”. The true Christian experience is one where the love of God has found a home not only in the head of a Christian but also in their heart. It resonates so deeply within him or her that it bursts forth into song and a joyful life of praise. Christian duty is no longer considered merely a duty but also a delight. The commands of God are not seen to be restricting but rather life-giving. And the calls to radical Christian sacrifice are considered to be “trifling sacrifices”. In fact, they are no real sacrifice in the true sense of the word, for in giving up of one’s own life we find true life. Is this not what our Lord Jesus taught, that those who lose their life for his sake shall find it?
Christian joy is not an add-on to salvation. It is salvation. It is not wrong to say that conversion to Christ happens when one, through the new birth, finds Christ preferable to sin. The unregenerated heart loves sin, but the new heart loves Jesus. This is the very heart of Christianity.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)
If it costs a person everything they have in order to gain Christ, this is not only a trade they will make, it is a trade they will make with joy. No second thought is necessary. The comparison isn’t even close! When one sees Christ as their true treasure and joy, they willingly give up anything in order to gain him. It is an exchange they are happy to make. This is true Christianity.
Therefore, joy in Christ is not optional for the believer. It is essential. One cannot be a Christian but not find their joy in Christ, at least not in a permanent, decisive sense. Certainly there are fleeting moments of temptation where we are lured away by the deceiving pleasures of sin, but the true Christian is remorseful and repentant of such actions, regretting that they saw sin as more enjoyable than God. Therefore they come back to their faith and make their heart right again. But the one who persists in finding joy in sin, despite claiming to be a believer, is exposing themselves to be otherwise. There is no such thing as a Christian who gets more pleasure from the world than from God, long-term.
Joy that is rooted in God is like having built one’s life upon an immovable rock. God never fails, therefore we will never lose our footing. The storms of life may come, bringing genuine heartache and trouble, but with the Apostle Paul we will be able to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”. Hardship will hurt, but it will not be able to uproot our joy, if it is rooted in God. Nothing can do that, not even the fiercest attack from our Enemy. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?
Fellow believers, let this be a call to pursue joy in Jesus. May we so find our pleasure in God that the pleasures of this world look to us to be what they really are: lesser, fleeting pleasures that lead to misery and death. May the outside world look upon the Church and see such a radical difference that they are compelled to know what it is. Let us be so satisfied in Jesus that no earthly trial will shake us irreparably. My we be the kind of people who cannot help but burst forth in praise, in service, in selfless sacrifice, that others cannot help but glorify God because of us. May our Christian experience become so real and true to us that we Christians are the happiest people on the planet.