A few years back when I was serving another church, the Staff-Parish Relations Committee decided that I needed more “people skills” (hard to believe, I know) so they recommended that I go to a Dale Carnegie course. Some of you have taken this course—you know, “how to win friends and influence people.” Really it’s a course for those in sales and who have to do a lot of public speaking. It’s a good course, though not exactly what I needed at the time.
But I went, a little bemused, and since I already kind of had the public speaking part down I won all the awards, including the Highest Achievement Award which was this lucite cube with a book in it. Actually, not to brag or anything, but I also won most of the daily awards, too. Basically, I kicked some Dale Carnegie butt. I don’t think it accomplished what the SPR wanted, but I did bring home the hardware and an armload of free books.
One of books had a title I found intriguing, How to Stop Worrying and Start Living. I am kind of the designated worrier in my family, so I read it in hopes that it would help. See, I was trained from an early age to always run to the worst case scenario in any situation, which is also result of my natural pessimism (you know the definition of a pessimist – an optimist with experience). Worry served me well as an infantry officer because no good plan ever survives the first steps across the line of departure and I was quick with contingency plans several levels deep. On a personal level, however, worry and fear has been a constant nagging pain the neck (sometimes literally).
Dale Carnegie’s book, however, offered what I thought was some good advice. Basically, he advocates doing three things if you have a worry problem: 1) Ask yourself, “What is the worst that can possibly happen?” 2) Prepare to accept it, if you have to. 3) Then calmly proceed to improve on the worst.
That’s the kind of advice a pessimist can grab on to, but as I thought about it some more, I realized that worry, even if you deal with it this way, can be debilitating. Carnegie dealt with the symptoms but not so much with the root problem. I mean, where does worry come from?
Well, for me, some of it comes naturally, some from losing a parent at an early age, but I came to realize that a lot of it comes, unintentionally, from the religious environment in which a lot of us were raised. I remember hearing this question a lot, for example: “If you were to die tonight, where would your soul spend eternity?” Well, of course, we knew that if you believed in Jesus you could answer, “Heaven,” but even then it was a worry-inducing question. How can you know for sure? I mean as far as worst case scenarios go, ending up in hell is about the worst and not that easy to accept. And that was the case for most of us kids, which was why every year at church camp at Friday night campfire, when the speaker gave us our annual impassioned plea to make sure we knew our eternal destiny, we all went to the altar—every year. Can’t afford to miss the opportunity to make sure, to not-so-calmly improve on the worst case scenario!
Indeed, it seems like many Christians are conditioned to worry. We worry about salvation—who’s in, who’s out. We worry about measuring up to God’s standards, we wonder when the sins of the past are going to catch up with us, we dwell on death and the afterlife, we worry about when Jesus is coming back (that was a big one for me, too—I wanted Jesus to wait at least long enough so that I could get married and have legal sex before he returned). It’s no wonder, then, that you don’t see a lot of joy in Christianity—there’s a lot more moralizing, complaint, criticism, and hand wringing instead. Instead of people of joy, most churches seem to be populated by the frozen chosen—our worship tentative, our faith a bit shaky.
John Wesley knew what it was to deal with that kind of worry. Even though he was ordained as an Anglican priest in his 20s, Wesley struggled with assurance of his salvation—in fact, he struggled mightily. His journals are filled with debilitating doubt and questioning his faith and salvation. He struggled with temptation and made some colossal mistakes in relationships. He was a failed missionary, having come to Georgia to preach to colonists and indians, only to leave by cover of night when things went bad. In his mid-30s his worry and doubt had reached crisis proportions when he met with some German Moravian Christians. Wesley confessed to one of them, Peter Bohler, that he had a hard time preaching faith because he didn’t seem to have it himself. Bohler famously answered him, “Preach faith until you have it, and because you have it, then you will preach faith.” He encouraged Wesley not to give up.
A while later, after returning to England, Wesley went to a meeting on Aldersgate Street in London and had his famous moment of conversion, where his heart was “strangely warmed” by God’s grace and Wesley said, “I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Before Aldersgate, Wesley was like many Christians—wondering if they had done enough, believed enough, repented enough to be assured of God’s grace. What happened that night, I think, was the Wesley suddenly came to understand that the good news wasn’t about what he was doing, but about what God had already done in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t just some good advice about what to do to secure his eternal future; rather, it was the good news of what God has done to secure the past, present, and future of everyone who calls on him.
So, when Wesley wrote The Character of a Methodist, he included the notion that Methodists, rather than being a morose and worrisome lot, were actually characterized by happiness. “[A Methodist] is happy in God, yea, always happy, as having in him ‘a well of water springing up into everlasting life,’ and overflowing his soul with peace and joy,” he wrote. That’s pretty happy, but let’s define what Wesley means by happiness. It’s not merely a smiling countenance—not a “don’t worry, be happy” way of thinking. It’s not happiness in terms of getting everything you want, like advertisers would have us believe. It’s not the happiness of pleasure, which is easy to get and quick to lose.
Rather, it is the deep happiness of knowing that God’s love, as we talked about last week, has accomplished something profound, the result of which is that the world is a different place and our lives, our worst case scenarios, have been dealt with. The God who created us in his image will not let that image degrade in us. He has done something powerful and happiness is our best response. It is the happiness of “blessed assurance”—that he has taken away
our sins and saved us from the law of sin and death.
Wesley lists the ways in which a Methodist is “happy in God,” and when you read the list it’s clear that this is basic Christian doctrine seen through the lens of God’s love:
Atonement – God’s love was given to us by Christ, who atoned for our sins on the cross. God did this for us, even when we didn’t deserve it.
Forgiveness of sins through the redemption of his blood – Because of what God has done in Christ, our sins are forgiven—the burden of fear and worry about our past is erased and new life is made possible. Wesley says that having found this forgiveness, we cannot help but rejoice when we look back on the “horrible pit” out of which we were delivered. All of our transgressions are “blotted out as a cloud.” The past is past. As Dale Carnegie puts it, we don’t have to keep sawing sawdust.
Justification and peace with God – Biblically speaking, justification is the movement of God by which we are declared to be part of God’s family. We are reconciled to God because of the faithfulness of Jesus, and when we accept his invitation we find real peace, knowing that we belong to him.
Children of God by faith – Indeed, Wesley reminds us, “Because [the Methodist] is a [child] of God, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into [the person’s] heart, crying ‘Abba, Father!’ And the Spirit itself beareth witness with his spirit that he is a child of God.” We find our identity in being children of God, being part of the family.
And we have the “hope of glory” – we need not fear because the worst case scenario has been dealt with. Death will be defeated, a new creation will renew the old, and God’s glory will reign over earth and heaven. Wesley quotes Paul who expresses this joy: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten me again to a living hope—of an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away…”
Notice that all of this is at God’s initiative—God makes the first move toward us with grace. We don’t have to worry about whether we can find God or measure up to him, and we don’t have to fear his coming—God is for us, so who or what can be against us? When we receive this truth, when we order our lives around it, we can live free from fear and worry. This flips Carnegie’s advice on its ear a little bit: The worst that can happen has been already been dealt with, and when we accept that, then we can begin to improve and live in light of the best case scenario.
It’s only in light of what God has done for us that we can experience real joy. Without that knowledge, the words of James sound masochistic: “My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy.” In our Gospel lesson, Jesus gives a paradoxical view of happiness: Happy are the poor in spirit, the humble, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. In fact, “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me.” You can be happy, you can have joy, you can be blessed because Jesus has already dealt with the worst case scenario! No matter what others may do to you, as Paul puts it in Romans 8, nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
A Methodist rejoices in this truth, rejoices in the God who has already done the work of salvation, redemption, and resurrection for us. It is joy that gives us the confidence and courage to move past fear and live in God’s perfect love—after all, perfect love casts out fear, as we learned last week from I John 4.
The early Methodists were able to transform 18th century England and colonial America because joy drove them into places no one else would go. Wesley risked being torn to pieces by hostile crowds in the market places of England and yet won over many because his preaching exuded a joy that was contagious. Methodist circuit riders in America risked untold hardships to take the gospel out on to the frontier and yet did so without fear—it was joy that drove them to ride mile after mile in all kinds of weather at the risk of their own lives. They understood the worst case scenario and knew that God had already dealt with it. The accounts of early Methodist worship are full of incidents of people becoming so overwhelmed by joy that they wept openly.
Are we Methodists as “happy in God” today? It’s often hard to tell. Clergy are burning out at an increasingly higher rate. Denominational meetings are conventions of pessimists. Churches are filled with religious consumers who jump from church to church based on what’s in it for them. Gossip and backbiting fill parking lots and blog posts. We scramble to find ways to soothe our personal needs and desires. Joy is in short supply.
And all of that stems from the fact that we have forgotten who we are and, more importantly, we’ve forgotten who God is and what God has already done. We’ve constructed a myriad of gospels that aren’t the real thing: the gospel of moralistic therapeutic deism (don’t worry, be happy!), the gospel of social change, the gospel of sin management, the gospel of what’s happening now.
At best, these gospels have elements of truth in them, but they are not the real gospel. They will not lead us to real joy, only to some temporary sense of self-satisfaction.
When the angels appeared to the shepherds on a hillside in Bethlehem they announced good news of great joy to all people—the good news was a person, Jesus Christ—the good news that God had come to deal with all our worst case scenarios in person. Notice how many times in those verses we hear the admonition, “Do not be afraid!” Something had happened, the result of which is that the world is a different place.
Friends, hear that good news—it’s very good! God has come in person to set his world right. He has come to set us right so that we can join with him in the redemption of all creation. The future is settled, the worst case scenario solved. We can live fearlessly in the present because of what God has already done. How about a little joy!
Peter Bohler told Wesley to preach faith until you have it and then, because you have it, you will preach faith. I think the same is true for us. We need to live joy until we have it, and then because we have it we will live joyfully!
I didn’t learn much new from that Dale Carnegie course—that cube didn’t bring me lasting joy, nor did it necessarily make me a better person or make me worry-free.
I need the gospel for that. To really believe it. To live in joy. To be happy in God. When that is in place, everything else falls into place.