Can you be an unhappy Christian?

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Dane Ortlund, author of Gently and Lowly recently tweeted this quote from Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones.

This has ironically left quite a few people unhappy. There is a risk with this kind of statement, especially without nuance and separated from context that it can give the impression that Christians are meant to walk around with fixed smiles on their faces, always jolly and a regular “hallelujah” on their lips.  It’s not like that though is it? First, some people seem to be of a naturally sunnier disposition than others, ironically again, I don’t recall seeing a picture of Lloyd Jones looking anything other than deeply sombre.  Was he an “unhappy Christian”  and if so what should we make of his words then?

More seriously, Christians will experience times of great sadness and through suffering and grief.  We’ve recently been through a double bereavement and over the past few months I’ve shed plenty of tears, would it have been helpful and wise to tell me that I was being a bad witness and that I needed to cheer up?

Furthermore, Christians can suffer from depression too.  So, what about the depressed believer.  I understand that the quote is from Lloyd Jones’ classic “Spiritual Depression.”  There can be depression that has been caused by or exacerbated by sin and in such cases, perhaps the doctor’s rebuke has weight but what about when the cause is something else, the consequences of trauma, abuse, exhaustion, suffering, illness or an unknown cause?  Is the unhappy Christian a bad witness then?

I write as someone who has not only experienced recent grief through bereavement but has suffered from depression too.  So, I want to be clear that no, it is not a bad witness to shed tears, experience grief or suffer from depression.  In fact, how we live in the midst of sadness and mourning can as much be a faithful witness as when we live through happier times.

However, again speaking as one who has experienced both grief and depression, I’m not so worried about the quote as others seem to be.  Like I said, it needs nuance and context. Twitter doesn’t always offer that but a quick look at Dane’s other tweets and his books would suggest that he doesn’t expect believers to be going around with a smile on their face all the time. Nor, do I think that Lloyd Jones expected Christians to always be cheerful in that sense.

Rather, I think we see here an example of the kind of proverbial rhetoric employed by preachers. What I mean is this. That the wisdom rhetoric of Scripture allows a speaker to make two statements that sound absolute and contradictory. We are to answer a fool according to their folly and we are not to answer a fool according to their folly.

A Christian should be both like the blessed or happy man of Psalm 1 and the man of sorrows of Isaiah 53.

I think there are ways in which we can be unhappy that are dishonouring to God and reflect badly on the Gospel.  By this I mean when our lives are characterised by discontentment and grumbling.  This kind of unhappiness is the kind that always thinks the worst of others and is quick to take offence.  This should not characterise the believer.

Furthermore, I believe that there is a true happiness, a joy and contentment in the Lord which transcends the sadness. I wrote a few articles in the aftermath of my mum’s death that pick up on the theme, see here and here.  This joy does not deny the presence of grief, this happiness does not in that sense replace the unhappiness but in a way takes it up and transforms it, enabling us to live through times of sadness, suffering, grief and depression with hope.

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