Formerly, if men were miserable, they went to church so as to find a rationale for their misery; they did not expect to be happy — this idea is Greek, not Christian or Jewish.
– Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, p. 38
I heard this quote paraphrased by Carl Trueman in an interview recently. It resonated. Why? Because of my own testimony of how Christ called me to himself. It’s good to remind yourself of the mighty works of God in your life. So indulge me.
I wasn’t raised in a Christian home. My parents were divorced in my early teens. My dad and I were basically two bachelors trying to figure it out. I wasn’t ready for college life at 18. I failed big-time. And it was my own fault.
After a year of partying, skipping class, and getting put on academic probation, I came home with my tail tucked between the limbs I walk on. But, in God’s providence, I came home to find that my grandmother was ill. I came home in May. She died the following October. She asked me to come to her house and visit as often as I could that summer. She knew she wasn’t going to be around much longer.
I never heard my grandmother talk about Jesus. But I knew she went to church. I knew she read the Bible. She told me at some point that summer that she read the Bible through each year. She had a Bible reading plan. She was weak. Would I please read to her? So I did. Several times. It got my attention.
I didn’t know anything about the Bible. But now I wanted to read it for myself. So I started reading it on my own. What else could I do but begin at the beginning?
Again, I knew nothing about the Bible. But I remembered that when I was a child, my family took a trip to Natural Bridge, Virginia. While we were there, we went to their ‘creation’ show. They still do this. You can find it on YouTube. It involved a man and a woman playing the parts of Adam and Eve, with someone reading Genesis 1-3 over the public address system.
I remembered that, hearing those early chapters of Genesis, I asked my dad, “Why didn’t they know they were naked?” He didn’t know how to answer the question. He just shrugged and it was never spoken of again. [Note for parents: no how to explain sin to your child].
Fast-forward to something like twelve years later. I’m reading Genesis 3: “their eyes were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”
It was like sticking a paper clip into an outlet. Electricity. I understood it instantly. The Bible was talking about shame. For the first time, Adam and Eve experienced shame. And reading that, it was the first time I truly experienced shame. It gave a name to all that I had been feeling but couldn’t put into words or apply to my heart. It changed me on the spot. I was in church the next Sunday.
I had a lot of baggage from my parents’ divorce that I didn’t know how to deal with. I had a lot of pain from some things that happened in high school. And I was partying my way through those things. I was numbing myself. I was acting like an idiot. Only I didn’t know this. Reading that Adam and Eve realized that they were naked and hid themselves from God made me realize that I was naked and hiding myself too. I was looking for a covering for my shame.
Genesis 3 gave me a rationale for my misery. It cut open my chest and exposed the guilt and shame of my heart. Did joy come from this? Yes. Because it led me to Christ, who is my joy. But I needed my miserable condition explained to me. I needed to understand why I did the terrible things I did (and do). I needed to understand how sin, guilt, and shame were abiding in my soul and how to confront them. I needed to know that I was naked before Christ could clothe me with his righteousness.
People who downplay the necessity of talking about sin see it as something negative; something that will get people down and depress people. On that day in the summer of 2000, I saw it as the explanation for all that was going on in my miserable soul. It made sense of everything – my feelings, my actions, my confusion, my mistakes. It was a supreme act of God’s blessing that he showed me my guilt. It was a positive thing that God showed me my sin, guilt, and shame. It wasn’t a downer. It wasn’t depressing. It was the thing that made sense of my whole life.
I am a pastor now, but I still go to church each week seeking a rationale for my misery. I need God to remind me week by week that I am deeply sinful. And then I need him to show me what Christ has done as the ultimate remedy. Then I need him to show me how I am still continually rebelling against the lordship of the one who saved me. And I need to be reminded that indwelling sin is the cause of that rebellion. Then I need to be reminded of Christ’s cross once again.
And it’s only through this – the rationale of my misery – that I am driven back again and again to the rationale for my joy – the love of Jesus Christ. Skip the rationale for misery and you have no rationale for joy.