We live in the Between, this now and not yet time stretched by our waiting for the Kingdom to come on the one hand and by its grand arrival in the ascension of Christ on the other. Our eschatology is firmed realised, present and not yet present. The Kingdom is here, the Kingdom is not yet here. We live in the Twixt, the time between the times.
That’s who we are, a Holy Saturday people.
To live in the Between is to grieve. To be a Christian is to carry great grief about the world. Every Sunday we grieve. To live in the Between is to be surprised by joy as it appears, fleeting and fulsome, casting forwards to a day after this day, to a living land. Our longing for another land is the ground of our joy, that’s where it starts. Every Sunday we delight in God.
We are constantly looking at what is ahead of us with anticipatory joy, and we are constantly grieving that while the Enemy has been cast from the heavens he has yet to be hurled into the lake of fire. We are always longing for the feast to come and grieving the state of our lives as we wait for the clock to strike dinnertime.
This is the Christian life. It is a naïve escape from reality to think otherwise. We are pulled between the poles of longing and lament. As we sit in the tension—and it is like being pulled taught between two poles—we learn that thanksgiving is what keeps the proverbial elastic band from either snapping or slackening from the strain.
It’s ok to feel the tension. It’s ok to notice that we’ve let one of our ‘ropes’ grow slack, our next step is to consciously lament or consciously rejoice as we embrace the life of the Between.
You’ll find some disagree. Even back in the apostolic period we find some strange ideas floating about. The Shepherd of Hermas, one of the books belovéd by the early church that they didn’t add to the canon of Scripture (because, if there’s doubt here, it was demonstrably not the word of God) suggests that cheerful people do good things, and grieving people “always do evil.”
Hermas also asserts that “the intercession of grieving people never has the power to ascend to … God.” This is the sort of argument that we should honestly laugh at: it’s such a saddeningly small view of the human life and it misses the contours of the story of scripture. We must be broken like bread to be anointed as kings. That’s what Adam refused to do, and what Christ embraced for all of us.
It’s the pattern of our lives too as we followed our crucified King.
Sadly, it’s not uncommon though, even today, that the tension I’m arguing for is outright mocked as not being sufficiently joyful. It’s common in my charismatic circles, I’m ashamed to say.
It is true that we are supposed to be a people to joy. Which is why we grieve our pain. It’s the gap between the joy of longing, which we fuel by giving thanks for all things (1 Thessalonians 5), that causes our grief at sickness, at death, even at the torrent of tiny disappointments that drag at our heels.
I suspect much of the confusion comes because people conflate joy and happiness. Therefore, since Christians should be full of the joy of God (Philippians 4), we see those who respond in proportionate pain to suffering they experience as somehow lacking in joy. If joy were happiness this would make sense, though we would have to tear Lamentations out of the Bible. And most of the Psalms. And probably the Crucifixion.
Joy is not happiness, though sometimes they look similar. Joy can coexist with sadness. Joy can ache. Joy can cause deep tears of sorrow to burst from us because we see the beauty of the Lord, and this joy is our strength (Nehemiah 8). We see God and our own sinfulness or the scars on our faces from the Enemy’s claws cause us to weep. This is still what we call joy.
If we want to embrace everything God has for us, we have to abandon our pursuit of happiness—by which I mean a delight in circumstance or things—for a pursuit of pure joy. Joy is the delight of our hearts in God for God’s own sake. Joy grows from the longing we feel for the age to come when we compare the ash heaps we live in with the city that will descend from the clouds.
Joy comes from suffering. Larry Crabb says that only pain exposes our commitment to happiness for what it really is: a cheap love for comfort. He calls it an arrogance that displaces God from his rightful place as the King of our loves and desire of our hearts.
You want to know joy? I’m afraid there’s no substitute, you’re going to have to be broken. You’re going to have to actually look at the ash of your life, and see the darkness you’re surrounded by. Barbara Brown Taylor says that it is in the dark that we see “how shabby a faith based on benefits really is.”
We can cultivate joy. We can learn joy. We can choose joy—in fact you have to, it won’t come naturally. But there is no shortcut to joy. There are no five steps that will get you there. We simply have to realise that nothing we have is worth anything all that much when viewed eternally, that the Kingdom is glorious beyond all wonder, that we have no right to be there, but that we are loved and wanted and known by the God who has committed to getting us there.
To truly get it we must be broken like bread until there is nothing left for us to find happiness in. Then, right at the bottom of the pit, we’ll find a wonder, a treasure, a true and everlasting joy.
His name is Jesus, the Lord of Hosts.
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