Since the introduction of our church’s small group ministry (Grace Groups), we have had some beneficial discussion, at least for those who have put in the necessary effort to work through the many issues considered, while being open and transparent to allow others to speak into their lives.
A while ago, near the start of Grace Groups, we were set with the task of identifying how we perceived our fellow Group members and how they perceived us. It was an interesting and informative discussion, especially for those who realised that what they thought of themselves was not necessarily a shared opinion. It came as a surprise to many to learn how others perceived them. Serious and intimidating? Really?
When you read the Bible, allowing it to mould and shape you, you come across passages that also identify with your perceptions of yourself and with the way things should be. In our recent Family Bible Hour study of the Pastoral Epistles, a recurring theme raised was that of a call to seriousness in the Christian life. Paul, under inspiration, wrote to Timothy and Titus as an experienced, well-travelled and observant believer, and sought to encourage and exhort these younger men to live the Christian life well. He clearly thought that such a God-honouring life required a degree of seriousness in. He repeatedly called his young friends to seriousness, nowhere more clearly than in the text before us (Titus 2, and especially v. 11).
The proposition that we will consider in this study is that, as Christians, we have been called to approach life with an attitude of seriousness—not seriousness on its own just for the sake of seriousness, but rather a robust, grounded seriousness that manifests itself in joy. We are called to serious joy or, if you’d prefer, joyful seriousness.
We all know people whom we regard as serious individuals, perhaps even to a fault. While these people may be effective and efficient, their influence is restricted because they are stern, cold and unapproachable. On the other hand, we also know individuals who are the complete opposite: Everything’s a joke. Levity and brevity trump deep thought and consideration, and even difficult situations are regarded lightly. Hopefully, none of us is characterised as being at either extreme. Where do we strike a balance though? Is it even necessary to do so? Can’t we be both serious and joyful at the same time? In order to think clearly about this issue, we need to adequately define and construct the principles of what we’re talking about.
A first consideration of the word “serious” will no doubt conjure different images for different people. For me, it is picture of an intimidating school headmaster, always walking around with a gruff face, and dropping his voice to a serious tone when addressing the school. But that is not what a Christian is called to emulate in his seriousness. Fortunately for us, we have the Scriptures, which show us clearly what seriousness looks like. I would propose that the first ten verses of Titus 2 provide us with an excellent basis for this consideration.
Paul teaches young Titus here what a serious Christian at various stages and positions of life should look like.
Verse 2 addresses older men. You will notice that notice that the apostle doesn’t give any age limits, and neither will we tonight. If you are an older man you probably know it already. If you think you are, then you probably are. Older men are called to be sober, reverent, temperate, and sound in faith, love and patience. Certainly, Paul was a keen observer of the human spirit, himself probably falling in to the category of an older man. His inspired call to older men is a distinct call to seriousness. Why are these men so instructed? There are a few reasons.
Perhaps Paul sees a general tendency for older men to fade in their serious approach to life. They may have endured many trying and tiring life experiences that may have sapped their resilience and strength and have replaced their former serious vigour with a nostalgia and sentimentality that serves no one but themselves. Perhaps they have been through the mental and spiritual work of nailing down what they believe and why they believe it, and now that that is settled they can afford to sit back and relax, leaving the young men to go through it now. These older men seem to conform to the Hollywood stereotype of the grumpy, old, impatient man next door rather than the wizened, experienced, caring teacher that they are called to be. In fact, I think that that is a very important reason for Paul writing to Titus with these instructions. The work and opportunity for sharing among the older men has not expired. The church needs them to get out of its regressive mindset and rather apply its accumulated wisdom and understanding of the Christian faith in a serious, non-sentimental, non-impatient way. Older men, heed the call to be serious in imparting the sound doctrine that you have tried and tested over many years to those who follow. Others need to know how to build a home, how to carry the full armour of God, and how to faithfully love their wives and lead their children. Be serious!
Older women should likewise approach life seriously, for the primary reason of setting a good example to younger women. Advancing age is no reason to let go of the standards and principles that you lived by in your younger years. Don’t assume, since you have successfully raised your brood and have seen them leave the nest, that your work is done and you can let your hair down. Au contraire, now is the time to avoid gossip and tippling and rather model what it is to be a serious and reverent teacher of good things. Paul’s instructions to older women through Titus basically amounts to this: Avoid whatever you see on soap opera television and in weekly news and gossip glossies. There is no instruction to frivolity, but every call to serious application of the essentials of life.
Young women, the list grows longer for you. Listen to the call to be serious in all areas of life so that the Word of God is not blasphemed. Older women have modelled seriousness for you as they were instructed, in obedience to the Word. Your obligation now is to obey and conform your life and attitudes to the patterns in Scripture. Notice that Paul is not explicit in detailing exactly what loving your husband and children looks like, but the overall tone is certainly one of serious determination and commitment to do so. One of the reasons that Paul tags these groups with specific instructions is that, again as a generalisation, each group has specific proclivities and temptations that they need to work through. This world, with the burgeoning juggernaut of social media, feminism, and misconstrued gender equality, provides all of us, and young women in particular, with temptations that would seek to make them indiscreet, unchaste and unwholesome, and that would cast aspersion on their desire to be homemakers and to lovingly subordinate themselves to their husbands. With this in mind, the ethics of engaging with this culture and interacting with it needs to be carefully considered in light of the calls to serious application of Scriptural truth. Perhaps there should be less Facebook and more face in the Book!
The longest section of instruction for seriousness is reserved for young men because, as any person with a heartbeat will tell you, they need the most encouragement in this regard. Young men are given the triple challenge of needing to work on their seriousness in what they think, say and do. In their thinking, they need to develop wholesome, reverential and incorruptible patterns, which are far different from the prevailing culture of superficial entertainment, sports and technological attractions. It is fair to say that their speech must be seriously different from the prevailing cultures. Their words are to be wholesome and pure; they must bring no offence and provide no foothold for evil. This is not going to happen without serious and intentional application of all of their faculties and lots of hard work, which is going to obviously mean that what they do and the pattern of good works that they set will be the result of serious application to their tasks. Much could be said here about X-Boxes, about studying hard, about getting a job, a license and a car, about service to others instead of self, about foregoing perceived rights and opportunities to play for the sake of setting a good example. What but a serious approach to life in these areas is going to ensure that sceptics and opponents are ashamed and cannot say anything evil of you?
The call to seriousness for all of us is hard to hear—isn’t it?—especially when it gets pointed and pokes the areas we like to relax in. But we must be serious! And it is not just a pet interest of Paul, who was no doubt a serious guy, or him trying to get everyone else to be serious too. No, indeed, outside of the Pastoral Epistles, where such calls for serious sobriety abound, we see the same theme repeatedly throughout Scripture. Has our study of Leviticus not pointed us to this fact? Of course it has! In fact, every time we are confronted by God’s Word we realise that this life is not a trifling matter, or something to be scoffed at or taken lightly. Our very life is owed to God, who made us for a purpose.
That idea of being serious in our lives naturally extends its roots into many other areas not specifically mentioned here. Serious Christians hate sin, squash pride, serve others, store for themselves riches in heaven and not on earth, place bodily exercise into the right perspective of being beneficial but not as beneficial as godliness, and think about growing God’s kingdom and not their own. We could go on, but before we get morbid, introspective and even morose, we must consider what seriousness does not look like. This message, up to now, could be misinterpreted as saying that we must just be sombre individuals, shoulder to the wheel, nose to the grindstone, and that we must work, obey, serve and be serious. Indeed, some branches of Christendom have embraced that philosophy, and in doing so, have missed something that is part and parcel of and intrinsic to the serious Christian life.
But before we move on to discussing joyfulness, we must address the question that asks, can one be too serious? The answer to that question is simply, yes and no. Yes, it is possible to be too serious when what you’re being so serious about doesn’t warrant the devotion you apply to it. Things like sport, hobbies, work and even self can be taken far too seriously. But when it comes to things of eternal significance, like the eternal destiny of your soul and the souls of those around you, putting to death of sin in your life, suffering for His name, and serving his body in the church, none of us can ever be serious enough.
Perhaps the best summary of a serious approach to life is to remember that, in everything you do, you are to be worshipping. Worship is not just standing in church before the sermon, singing and (not) clapping, but rather a pervasive intentional disposition to see every activity and every moment of your life as being lived under the Lordship of Christ. Therefore, you can play and work, chillmout and concentrate, celebrate and mourn. If you do all of these things, heeding the instructions to seriousness for your particular age group in Titus 2, you will be worshipping truly.
This idea of serious living is supported throughout scripture and so is the theme of living with joy. The same apostle that instructs Titus to be sober and serious tells Timothy, and the Philippian, Galatian, Ephesian, Colossian and Thessalonian churches to be joyful in all circumstances. The tenet of serious living is not in conflict or contradiction with that of joyful living. Indeed, we are commanded throughout Scripture to be characterised by both.
In the most recent edition of the Pastor’s Pen, a fellow elder wrote about the neglected discipline of joy. He did an excellent job of describing what true biblical joy looks like and what it doesn’t look like. He wrote, “If the Israelites followed the guidelines of worship they would experience true joy.” In the light of what we have already considered in this study, it is not difficult to see that that sentence could be easily restated to say, “If the Israelites were serious about worship, they would experience true joy.”
You see, seriousness is not something we work up just for the sake of being serious, but is rather an expression of our understanding of the work of God in and through our lives. And this, then, is the reason that we say that a serious-minded approach to life is not a hardship but a joy, which enables us to see the benefits and effects of seriousness in that it produces joy—real joy, the type we were really made for. After all, you will remember that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.
To illustrate the interplay between seriousness and joy, consider the analogy of a miner toiling for hours, deep beneath the surface of the earth, in harsh conditions. Surely he does not do so day after day because he enjoys drilling and blasting and removing rock while subjecting his body to severe physical stress. Nor does he do so because it keeps them out of the mischief that he would be in if he wasn’t working so hard—even if that is a good reason. No, he works and labours because he knows the joy and reward that comes from finding a big gemstone hidden in the earth’s crust. He would not experience nearly the same joy and deep satisfaction of finding the jewel if he had not been seriously looking and working for it. If it was just handed to him in a box tied up with a little bow, he might think it nice and attractive, and may even be pleased, but his personal satisfaction and enjoyment of it would be nowhere as rich and meaningful as if he had laboured and toiled for it himself.
If we extend the analogy, we see the deficiency of the world’s understanding of joy where the seeming joy and heights of instant gratification are soon replaced by the depths of emptiness because they are experienced outside of the realm of a serious approach to life. Joy in the world is a quick fix, an emotional and physical high. It is often an expensive high—easy come, easy go! When the momentary joy passes it is replaced by discontent and displeasure instead of the bedrock of potential joy waiting to be explored in all seriousness.
For people disposed to bouts of depression and lack of joy, an understanding of the source of joy is extremely encouraging. You see, we are not called to specifically go out and acquire joy. It’s not an app we need to download to our tablet; it comes preloaded on the system. Galatians 5 describes the fruit of the spirit as being comprised of love, joy, peace, and so on. We don’t wake up in the morning and determine that today we will be more loving or joyful. We are already that, even though our appreciation and realisation of it may be faulty. We do not have to work up joy, because joyfulness is already an intrinsic part of the Christian life, which now really just needs expression and exposure.
The most well-known Scripture commanding joy in a believer’s life is found in Philippians 4, where believers are commanded, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (v. 4). This instruction is not isolated and does not come to us like a bolt out of the blue or a disconnected instruction. Rather, it is inseparably related to the fact that, as a believer, your name is written, with indelible ink, in the Book of Life. Joy is there and it wants out. The key to unlocking it is to be serious about God, to be serious about what God is serious about, to worship Him in all sincerity. There are no biblical injunctions or examples (tell me if you know of any) that indicate that we need to pursue joy in and of itself, but there are dozens of references in which we see that joy comes as a result of living seriously.
To be sure, joy is presumed to be present, but its expression and appreciation is altered by various dynamics. Joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit, and the Spirit enhances our joy, but since we all waver in the degree to which we walk with the Spirit, it makes sense that we will have fluctuating levels of joy in our lives. The implication is that the experience of joy is variable and determined by various input factors. What are some of those factors?
First, consider the instructions of the apostles Paul and Peter, who both told their hearers to consider that suffering and persecution for the sake of Christ is all joy. Be joyful when you are counted worthy to suffer for His name!
Consider, secondly, how Paul and Peter claimed to derive great joy from the faithfulness and perseverance of God’s people. Your faithfulness, your spiritual growth and enjoyment of God is not only a blessing to you but also to those who walk alongside you in this world.
Third, see how sin kills joy. Just ask David, or read his understanding of it in Psalm 32. Sin killed his joy and made his bones ache, but repentance and confession made him glad in his heart and caused him to shout for joy.
But the fourth and greatest dynamic causing joy to arise in a believer’s life is the appreciation of the person and the work of his Saviour Jesus Christ. Couple these realities with the sure hope and promise that He’s coming again to receive His people to Himself, and you have every reason to jump for joy. Read vv. 11-14 again.
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldy lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for himself His own special people, zealous for good works.
Do you see it there? See the call to be serious about putting off sin and to be serious about putting on Christ. This is necessary and obligatory because of who Christ is and because of what he has done and because of what he will do. And the promise contained in the serious observance of these instructions is of a blessed hope, a joyful certainty, a joy producing anticipation of the final and full exaltation of Christ and His union with His bride.
So, we are to be serious and we are to be joyful; therefore, we can say that we are to be seriously joyful, or even joyfully serious. We must be both at the same time. The two cannot be compartmentalised. We cannot be serious at church and joyful on your bike, or serious at work and joyful while singing or sharing a meal with the Young Marrieds. There are many people who struggle with this concept. Praise the Lord if you don’t. Perhaps their conflict arises in that they don’t see it being lived out in reality. There are many examples of serious people who are devoid of joy. And there are others who are externally happy but not necessarily joyful. If seriousness produces joy, why are some so glum? And if joy comes from the deep well of seriousness why are some happy people so shallow?
Clearly, there could be the wrong estimation of what joy really is. Joy doesn’t mean a bouncy, happy, smiley, sunny disposition all round, but rather a firm settledness that God rules, He’s in control and He’s working out His sovereign plan over all things. I’m prepared to go with that.
Tied closely to this is the very pervasive chasing after the meaningless joy of the world. And we all battle with this. While there is nothing wrong with getting thrilled by your favourite sport’s team victory over their arch rivals, or the acquisition of something that you have and nobody else has but wants, we must realise that those feelings of delight and satisfaction are really just the result of endorphins and enkephalins being released from your pleasure centre. That is vastly different from the deep, all satisfying, all-encompassing joy of knowing that God is in control and steering your ship!
Other people can be serious and joyless because they may be serious just for the sake of being serious. They have not come to appreciate the God-designed intention of seriousness, which is to make us completely satisfied and joyful in Him. If we refer back to the miner analogy, these people are digging away, doing as they ought to, but as they come across a gem they simply pick it up and toss it into a bucket for processing later. Their serious application yielded a gem but they have not been conditioned and primed to realise what a treasure it is to find something so satisfying in the midst of their working. That is how we are when we get so caught up in the process and the rules and responsibilities of life that we fail to appreciate the nuggets and gems that the Lord is revealing to us of Himself. In other words, it is highly feasible that someone can get seriously into doing the hard things that they were instructed to in Titus 2—they can attend every service, always do their Grace Groups homework, sing in the choir and drive the transport vehicles every Sunday—and still be completely bereft of joy. Ask God to show you joy amidst your seriousness.
What then does it look like to live with serious joy, to be joyfully serious? Wonder no longer for we have three case studies, starting with 1 Chronicles 13 and 15.
David wanted to bring the Ark of the Covenant back at the tabernacle. When he carried out this task seriously, as God had commanded it should be done (chapter 15), and not just the easy comfortable way (chapter 13), he and all the people experienced resounding joy. Seriousness produced joy (chapter 15), lack of seriousness brought calamity (chapter 13).
As a second case study, consider the apostle Paul himself in Philippians 2. See if you pick up on the theme of serious joy in his life.
Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or laboured in vain Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. For the same reason you also be glad and rejoice with me.
There it is: joy and rejoicing based on being poured out as a sacrifice of service. That’s a pretty serious approach to life, but what was the end result? Profound and unshakeable joy that was contagious and inspiring. We all want to experience such joy, but surely we must then ask ourselves if we are willing to be to determinedly serious.
The final example of serious joy is the best example. It is the perfect example displayed by the Lord Jesus Christ. We see this in Hebrews 12.
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us [be serious], looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
I’m so glad that Jesus was serious about the task to which the Father had appointed Him. His work on the cross now made serious living a joy. The cross became a symbol of joy! The vile and cruel form of capital punishment that represented so much human anguish and suffering became the vehicle to the grandest joy. The reason that Jesus endured the excruciating, unjust and shameful death on the cross, and the reason we can seriously work towards living with the same intensity and passion in our lives, was that He was focused on the end. It is in heaven that we will have the full and ultimate fulfilment and experience of joy. Modern prosperity preachers and authors get it completely wrong because they neglect the most profound joy that lies in our future and instead aim to help us achieve that joy in the here and now. Talk about over-promising and under-delivering!
There is nothing more joy-provoking than being united with Christ, before the throne of God Almighty, ever to be with the Lord. What a joy! What a Saviour! What a God!