I have often puzzled about a comment made by Dr. Samuel Johnson, as reported by his biographer James Boswell. He had often tried to be a philosopher, Johnson said, “but cheerfulness kept breaking in.”
It makes me wonder what philosophers Dr. Johnson had been reading. I certainly know of a lot of gloomy philosophers—Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, to name two obvious cases—to say nothing of many of the thinkers today who claim the “postmodern” label. But I don’t see gloominess as somehow intrinsic to philosophy. Some philosophical perspectives are gloomy, and others cheerful. Still others try to cultivate a healthy tension between the two moods.
The same holds for theology. I have to admit that I tend a little too much at times toward theological cheerfulness. My kind of Calvinism has to be constantly on guard against triumphalism. My theological hero, Abraham Kuyper, is famous for having declared that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” I basically endorse that manifesto. It acknowledges the reigning Kingship of the ascended Christ, who is above all principalities and powers and who has guaranteed the ultimate victory over the forces of evil.
But the cheerful disposition that this perspective encourages needs regularly to allow some gloominess to break in. I cultivate this, not only by making sure that I pay close attention to the horrific realities of human suffering, but also by occasionally reading, among others, Martin Luther.
My favorite Luther essay is his “On Secular Authority,” where he discusses, among other things, the calling of “the Christian prince.” If a Christian leader is to be assured that his exercise of authority is pleasing to God, Luther says, the leader “must anticipate a great deal of envy and suffering. As illustrious a man as this will soon feel the cross lying on his neck.”
This is good advice to all of us who want to serve the cause of Christ in the present age—a time when the ultimate victory over evil has not yet been made manifest. Not that we should be masochists, reveling in suffering. But we should, as Luther puts it, anticipate that some degree of suffering will be our lot. And we should not refuse to accept that lot when it comes our way.
More importantly, we should actively take on the suffering of others. If we do not regularly feel the cross on our necks we should worry about our spiritual state. Abraham Kuyper was right about how all of those square inches are under the rule of Christ. But a lot of human beings are pretty miserable these days as they live out their lives on those square inches. Cheerfulness about the ultimate outcome is certainly appropriate–indeed it can be an important motivating factor in keeping at the work of the Kingdom. But we should not be afraid to allow some gloominess about human suffering to break in during the here and now, particularly when that gloominess leads us to action.