Last Sunday morning, I was sitting on the toilet when I came across some good news.
I was dog-tired. I was helping at a camp for Kiwi teenagers – which means high-energy, late nights and early mornings. To make matters worse, a fire alarm had gone off at 4am – meaning less sleep for everyone.
But as I took a respite break in the bathroom, I realised something had fallen out of my jean’s pocket. Glancing down, I saw a familiar orangey-brown hue, and the gleaming glint of Sir Edmund Hillary’s eye looking back at me.
That’s right. It was a five-dollar-holla. My jeans had delivered – the magical money pants.
I was elated. I told my wife, smiling wide. Later, we used that gift from the pockets to provide us with much needed caffeine for the body. All was well.
We all know the feeling of discovering unknown money in our pockets. It’s good news – surprising, generous and feels like pure gift. It makes us smile. It changes the mood of our day. It’s delighting, fun and provides us with a dopamine boost.
Later that day, as I sat at my laptop to prep documents, a Facebook message pinged up. I clicked on it, and began reading a message from a friend. This person is a good friend of mine, and one I’ve had the pleasure of serving with in churches over the years. However, over the past few years they have become at odds with Christianity – and I hadn’t been in contact with them for about that long.
We’d been sending a few messages back and forth, updating each other and discussing the deeper questions of life. But in the midst of this camp, this friend sent a message – with one sentence that sung out to me.
They said that one day they walked into a different church from the usual one they attended. And the biggest thing that stood out?
“The same lack of passion that I saw everywhere else.”
This friend was hit by an omission of the church – the lack of passion. Now, this friend had been part of churches with big-budget music and production teams – so they weren’t talking about a level of energy or professionalism that was lacking. What they were craving was much bigger than louder guitars, or more driving drums.
Instead it was the lack of passion in the people that they met.
I found this critique particularly insightful from my friend – because I know what they mean. In many of the churches I have visited or attended, I’ve seen this same lack of passion.
Actions and words are said out of duty. Greetings are performative. People wish they were somewhere else. The glancing at the watch. The staring at the front, expression glazed as songs are sung.
One of the hallmarks of the early church was their joy. This wasn’t just expressed in their song – but also in their engagement with others. They cared for others with passion. They preached and engaged with the Scriptures with joy. They prayed with fervour.
And, see, the usual message would be now for me to encourage myself and others to become more joyful. Lift your hands! Shout out the words. Listen and bring yourself fully to the gathering. That’s not bad advice.
But I think my friend was onto something with their critique – perhaps more than they knew.
We tend to think the word ‘passion’ means ‘full of emotion’. But the history of this word is grounded in a much different meaning.
Originally, ‘passion’ meant ‘to suffer’. Or, more fully, to be driven by an external force, to the point that you are willing to suffer. That’s why the time of Jesus’ torture and suffering is often described as The Passion of Christ. This was not a particularly joyful time for Christ’s experience.
And yet the book of Hebrews has a fascinating insight around this moment in Jesus’ life. The writer explains that,
“For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God.”
The author of Hebrews notes that it was joy that drove him through the passion of suffering. It was the hope of what might be, that allowed Jesus to endure the passion. In that sense – this was the most passionate moment of Christ’s life – as joy and suffering met in a way that we will never be able to comprehend.
What does this mean for us? At the very least, perhaps it means that the lack of passion my friend saw in church could not be solved by simply playing faster songs, or trying to force ourselves to be happy.
But instead, it hints that true passion comes from a discovery – and rediscovery – of the scandalous good news of Jesus. Good news that Jesus said far outweighs anything the world can offer. Good news that means we are willing to commit to it – willing to suffer for it – because we know that this good news is so true, and delightful, and rich – that suffering pales in comparison.
See, I was telling people about the good news of my money pockets. It brightened my day.
At this same camp – whether you believe it or not – a teenage guy who came into a service on crutches and in pain – suddenly started dancing and lifting his crutches over his head. The pain and discomfort was gone. He couldn’t stop running around camp, telling people what had happened.
The depth of his joy came from a rediscovery of the surprising grace of God. And perhaps that’s what we need. Perhaps it’s a relearning and re-experiencing of the goodness of Jesus, the forgiveness that’s present – and the fact that our God is God of the present tense – that will bring joy back in our midst, smiles back on faces, and delightful stories among the joyful suffering followers of Jesus.