This time of year can feel quite miserable. Christmas is well past, and summer is nowhere near arriving; even Easter eggs are still some way in the future. Bright, crisp winter days may be lovely, but it’s more likely to just be grey and raining. If your New Year’s Resolution has survived until now, then congratulations – but we all know that you are probably in the minority, and that most of us might be feeling like we have failed. Motivation and energy can be difficult to summon.
Since you all know that it’s the Vicar writing this column, then you might now be expecting me to say something about how ‘all this can change if you just let Jesus into your life’. The Christian life, a life lived to the praise of God and following the example of Jesus Christ, is indeed a source of great joy. But it is not a guarantee of constant cheerfulness – and nor would I want it to be. If I thought that I had to be smiley all the time, that I was never allowed to be a bit grumpy or to complain about the weather, that I couldn’t ever feel tired, then I don’t think I would want to be a Christian at all. I certainly wouldn’t be recommending it to anybody else. So if you’re after a quick fix, a guaranteed way to lift your mood, you might have to look elsewhere.
Thankfully, that is not what being a Christian is about. Yes there is great joy, but that isn’t the same as forced, false cheerfulness. As Revd Giles Fraser once wrote in his column in Church Times, ‘Being happy is not a theological category. (Revd Giles’s Church Times column is long since discontinued, by the way, as is his old ‘Loose Canon’ column in the Guardian. Podcasting seems to be his preferred medium now – check out one he hosts called ‘Confessions’.)
It must be over ten years since I first read that sentence. But it has stuck with me, ‘Being happy is not a theological category’. Ironically, it makes me quite happy, because I’m not happy all the time, and that’s okay. The joy of the Christian life is a deep joy. It is the joy of knowing that I am loved by God, of knowing that my eternal salvation is in Jesus Christ – and of knowing that these things do not change with my moods. I am still loved by God when I wake up in a bad mood because I haven’t slept very well, and it’s raining, and my ‘to do’ list seems to be getting longer rather than shorter. I am still loved by God when I am made sad by bad news.
I’m not saying that our moods don’t matter at all. I’m sure that God wants me to be happy. I know that I prefer being happy. But sometimes it’s easy to be happy, and sometimes it’s more difficult. For a lot of us, for a lot of reasons, it’s not easy to be happy at this time of year. The joy of being a Christian is all about knowing that when there are things to be sad about, when things feel miserable, even when I’m just being grumpy, there is the joy of God’s love underneath it all.
That’s not because I’m in any way special, and it is certainly not because I am the Vicar! God loves each and every one of us, and he is offering all of us that deep joy of salvation in Jesus Christ. It won’t make the weather any brighter, or summer arrive any sooner. It doesn’t mean that annoying things, or bad things, won’t happen. It doesn’t mean we will never be sad. Christian faith (or any religious faith) is certainly not a magical cure for depression or other mental health challenges – see your doctor and take their advice, because medical science is also one of God’s gifts.
That deep foundation of joy, however, is more than happiness or sadness, just as it is more than sunshine or rain. God loves us, and yes he wants us to be happy – but no matter how miserable we might be, he loves us just the same. That’s a love and a joy that nothing and nobody can take away.