Excerpt from Celebration of Discipline

In the spir­i­tu­al life only one thing will pro­duce gen­uine joy, and that is obe­di­ence. The old hymn tells us that there is no oth­er way to be hap­py in Jesus but to trust and obey.” The hymn writer received his inspi­ra­tion from the Mas­ter him­self, for Jesus tells us that there is no blessed­ness equal to the blessed­ness of obe­di­ence. On one occa­sion a woman in the crowd shout­ed out to Jesus, Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” Jesus respond­ed, Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27, 28). It is a more blessed thing to live in obe­di­ence than to have been the moth­er of the Messiah! 

In 1870 Han­nah Whitall Smith wrote what has become a clas­sic on joy­ous Chris­tian­i­ty, The Christian’s Secret of a Hap­py Life. The title bare­ly hints at the depths of that per­cep­tive book. It is no shal­low four easy steps to suc­cess­ful liv­ing.” Stu­dious­ly, the writer defines the shape of a full and abun­dant life hid in God. Then she care­ful­ly reveals the dif­fi­cul­ties to this way and final­ly charts the results of a life aban­doned to God. What is the Christian’s secret to a hap­py life? It is best summed up by her chap­ter enti­tled The Joy of Obe­di­ence.” Joy comes through obe­di­ence to Christ, and joy results from obe­di­ence to Christ. With­out obe­di­ence joy is hol­low and artificial. 

To elic­it gen­uine cel­e­bra­tion, obe­di­ence must work itself into the ordi­nary fab­ric of our dai­ly lives. With­out that our cel­e­brat­ing car­ries a hol­low sound. For exam­ple, some peo­ple live in such a way that it is impos­si­ble to have any kind of hap­pi­ness in their home, but then they go to church and sing songs and pray in the Spir­it,” hop­ing that God will some­how give them an infu­sion of joy to make it through the day. They are look­ing for some kind of heav­en­ly trans­fu­sion that will bypass the mis­ery of their dai­ly lives and give them joy. But God’s desire is to trans­form the mis­ery, not bypass it. 

We need to under­stand that God does at times give us an infu­sion of joy even in our bit­ter­ness and hard-heart­ed­ness. But that is the abnor­mal sit­u­a­tion. God’s nor­mal means of bring­ing his joy is by redeem­ing and sanc­ti­fy­ing the ordi­nary junc­tures of human life. When the mem­bers of a fam­i­ly are filled with love and com­pas­sion and a spir­it of ser­vice to one anoth­er, that fam­i­ly has rea­son to celebrate. 

There is some­thing sad in peo­ple run­ning from church to church try­ing to get an injec­tion of the joy of the Lord.” Joy is not found in singing a par­tic­u­lar kind of music or in get­ting with the right kind of group or even in exer­cis­ing the charis­mat­ic gifts of the Spir­it, good as all these may be. Joy is found in obe­di­ence. When the pow­er that is in Jesus reach­es into our work and play and redeems them, there will be joy where once there was mourn­ing. To over­look this is to miss the mean­ing of the Incarnation. 

That is why I have placed cel­e­bra­tion at the end of Cel­e­bra­tion of Dis­ci­pline. Joy is the end result of the Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines’ func­tion­ing in our lives. God brings about the trans­for­ma­tion of our lives through the Dis­ci­plines, and we will not know gen­uine joy until there is a trans­form­ing work with­in us. Many peo­ple try to come into joy far too soon. Often we try to pump up peo­ple with joy when in real­i­ty noth­ing has hap­pened in their lives. God has not bro­ken into the rou­tine expe­ri­ences of their dai­ly exis­tence. Cel­e­bra­tion comes when the com­mon ven­tures of life are redeemed. 

It is impor­tant to avoid the kind of cel­e­bra­tions that real­ly cel­e­brate noth­ing. Worse yet is to pre­tend to cel­e­brate when the spir­it of cel­e­bra­tion is not in us. Our chil­dren watch us bless the food and prompt­ly pro­ceed to gripe about it — bless­ings that are not bless­ings. One of the things that near­ly destroys chil­dren is being forced to be grate­ful when they are not grate­ful. If we pre­tend an air of cel­e­bra­tion, our inner spir­it is put in contradiction. 

A pop­u­lar teach­ing today instructs us to praise God for the var­i­ous dif­fi­cul­ties that come into our lives, assert­ing that there is great trans­form­ing pow­er in thus prais­ing God. In its best form such teach­ing is a way of encour­ag­ing us to look up the road a bit through the eye of faith and see what will be. It affirms in our hearts the joy­ful assur­ance that God takes all things and works them for the good of those who love him. In its worst form this teach­ing denies the vile­ness of evil and bap­tizes the most hor­ri­ble tragedies as the will of God. Scrip­ture com­mands us to live in a spir­it of thanks­giv­ing in the midst of all sit­u­a­tions; it does not com­mand us to cel­e­brate the pres­ence of evil.

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Originally published March 1976