Of all the cultural mandates I despise, fake smiles might be at the top of the list. I work with the public and I see it every day. I remember one time consciously pondering the fact that a lady I worked with, years ago, could go from being the grouchiest, snidest person I’ve ever been around to being the nicest person you’ve ever met, with the brightest smile, at the drop of a hat – as soon as a customer came around. Let’s call it glibness, or, perhaps, an external joviality.
I struggle with glibness. I see it often. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty much, I think, what’s expected of most people on a day to day basis, at least in some settings. You may be having the most miserable day of your life, but you’re called upon, by others or by yourself, to do a 180 and put on the smile, fire up the small talk, and be happy. After all, you don’t want to be considered a grouch.
Have you ever faked a smile, a laugh, a good mood when your soul was really in the depths of despair? Have you ever seen a picture of someone on Facebook whose life is an absolute train wreck? I bet they looked perfectly happy in the pictures. Whoda thunk it?
The implicit problem with acting such a way is hypocrisy. Christians are called to be truthful, not hypocritical. I was always of the opinion that it would be better to keep a straight face in truth than to smile as a hypocrite. But not all agree with this.
Of course this raises problems for me. I am a self-professing Christian Hedonist. I agree with John Piper that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. I agree with the Westminster Shorter Catechism that man’s chief end is not only to glorify God, but to enjoy him. How can I reconcile the fact that it is my joy that glorifies God with the fact that I am not always joyful?
The major touchstone of the issue is that Christian joy is not the same as what the world considers to be joy.
The Apostle Paul does not shy away at commanding Christian’s to rejoice (see Philippians 4:1). Yet it is clear that his idea of joy is not one of glibness or outward joviality. He never commands anyone to smile.
Twice he charges to Thessalonians to be ‘sober.’ For instance:
- 1 Thessalonians 5:8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.
The word sober in Thessalonians means something to the effect of ‘even keeled’ or ‘even tempered’ (it can be translated ‘temperate’). To be sober is to be in the middle, not too far up, not too far down. Paul commands this multiple times elsewhere including his letters to Timothy and Titus. The Apostle Peter similarly charges us:
- 1 Peter 1:13 ¶ Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Aside from this, Paul speaks of Christians as ‘groaning’ :
- Romans 8:23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
He speaks of himself as having the appearance of being sad:
- 2 Corinthians 6:10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
His point here is that outwardly the world looked upon him and counted him as one who was full of sorrow. But in truth, in the inner man, he was full of joy. I would not deny that inward emotion has any effect on outward appearance. But perhaps that effect is a bit overrated.
Jesus himself said,
- Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4)
The Christian life is a life of mourning and a life of joy, and the two cannot be disconnected. We mourn because of our sin. We mourn because of death and loss and the sad state of the now. Yet underneath this mourning and alongside of it is an abiding joy in Christ and the salvation he has wrought. In, and because of, the gospel, we are constantly mourning, and constantly being comforted.
C.S. Lewis’ idea of ‘Joy’ is helpful here. There is an innate longing in all mankind – even in the Christian – for another world. There is a longing for a happy ending, a longing for peace, a longing for bliss. The gospel breaks into the now and gives us a glimpse of it, and an assurance of its ultimate accomplishment, yet we still do not see the happy ending in full view. Even the departed Christians, the martyrs, who have entered into the full joy of their Master in the presence of God, continue to long that, in the words of Sam Gamgee, all sad things will come untrue:
- Revelation 6:10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
So the already and not yet rings true. We’re already rejoicing, but not yet fully, for the longing remains. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is a crash course in the joyful longing of the Christian (in Middle Earth terms) – so much melancholy, so much loss, so much uncertainty, so much mourning, and yet such hope, bravery, boldness, fearlessness, friendship, joy, happiness.
Likewise, when you read C.S. Lewis you cannot escape the idea that committing yourself to Christ is to commit yourself, in some sense, to sadness. For it is to commit yourself to self-destruction (the mortifying of the old man) and self-denial. As C.H. Spurgeon put it,
When we took Christ’s cross to be our salvation we took it also to
be our heavenly burden.
Yet in the midst of this self-destruction, self-denial, and cross-bearing there is a true joy. And it is a joy that broods within, and cannot always find expression outwardly (or at least its expression is not the glibness and joviality the world expects).
Martyn Lloyd-Jones put it well in his sermon on Matthew 5:4:
…Christians ought not to affect this appearance of such a wonderful joy that they always wear a bright smile on their face in order to show the world how happy they are (Sermon on the Mount, p. 47).
In other words, joy isn’t something you put on, it’s not a bright smile, it’s not glibness. Whatever it is, it’s not that.
He goes on,
[The Christian] is always serious; but he does not have to affect the seriousness. The true Christian is never a man who has to put on an appearance of either sadness or joviality…The Christian is not superficial in any sense, but is fundamentally serious and fundamentally happy. You see, the joy of the Christian is a holy joy, the happiness of the Christian is a serious happiness. None of that superficial appearance of happiness and joy! No, no; it is a solemn joy, it is a holy joy, it is a serious happiness; so that, though he is grave and sober-minded and serious, he is never cold and prohibitive (Ibid, p. 51).
That last quote is pure gold, and a balm to my soul. Our happiness is a serious happiness, a solemn joy. It is grave, but not cold. Why do moderns condemn ‘puritanism’ (which is really only a caricature of Puritanism)? It was cold, joyless, looking to keep people from having a good time. God forbid. They were just more serious about their joy than most of us are.
Does this mean that Christian’s can’t smile? Of course not. It means we don’t fake smiles – or frowns for that matter. It means we are who we are, by the grace of God, and can be nothing else without betraying the truth.
Consequently, if you see me and I don’t fake a smile, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like you, and it certainly doesn’t mean I’m not happy. I’m seriously happy and solemnly joyful – fundamentally serious, fundamentally happy. I am not under the tyranny of the smile police. I have been set free from such nonsense. The freedom of the gospel is a freedom to mourn, and yet have happiness in the midst – that’s one thing the world can never have apart from Christ and his gospel.