September 25, 2020

iMonk Classic: “You Need to Smile More”

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
from May 2007

Every day this summer school term, around 9:30 in the morning, I drive two blocks to the post office during a ten minute break from class. I get my mail, which often involves retrieving a package from the postal employee at the window. I know the postmaster well, but on days he’s off, he has an assistant. The new one just arrived and I don’t know her yet.

And today, the conversation went something like this.

“Hello. Spencer. Box 313.”

The young woman, maybe 30 years old, gets my mail and packages.

“Are you a preacher?”

You have to be a preacher to know what that question does to you.

“Yes, among other things. I preach, teach Bible and English up at the school.”

“You need to smile more.”


“That’s what people tell me.”

“I guess it’s just not your nature.”

***Quelling desire to say — “Like making personal statements to customers is your nature.”***

“I guess so. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

This isn’t the first time this has happened.

A few weeks ago, I was in the office of a new administrative employee. A preacher’s wife. Verrrry friendly and chipper. I have to stop in every so often to pick up and return files, and that means enduring something like this.

I say…

“Good morning.”

“Good morning Mr. Spencer. You need to have a better smiiiiiiile.” (Stretched out, very musical, delivered with a big grin.)


I pick up the folders. “Thank you. I’ll try.”

A couple of days later, I meet the same lady outside. She’s across the street, but that doesn’t stop her from shouting at me.

“Are we smiiiiiiiiiiiiiling today?”

***awkward wave. phony smile. Sort of like Nixon in a Christmas parade.***

I could regale you with these stories for a while longer, but you get the point.

I am not the smiling guy. Preacher or not, I’m not a perennial grinner. Neither, by the way, is my son. My wife is a a smiler, and my daughter has a beautiful smile (but there’s no telling what’s going on behind it, Ryan. Beware!) I do smile, I just don’t always smile. But I get the folks who don’t smile.

I get Mark Heard. I get Johnny Cash. I get Jeremiah.

I don’t get Joel- the smiling preacher- Osteen at all. In fact, watching Osteen’s endless grinning makes me want to break things.

I get the blues. I get rock and roll. I get why people are mad and sad and not glad when they read the paper.

I was taught to sing “I’ve got joy joy joy joy down in my heart,” but most of the time I don’t feel like it’s my job to look at my students, many of whom have fairly rotten situations they deal with in their families and personal lives, and cheerlead them in a bouncy soundtrack.

I get Easter, but I also get Good Friday. Jesus wept, yes he did. Paul was not giddy. Revelation — and the rest of scripture — are full of Lament. As Michael Card says, tears are older than the rain.

I may be a bit depressed sometimes myself. My parents are gone and I miss them. My kids have moved and I miss them. I feel old and I’ve got some serious stuff going on in my world right now that simply isn’t at the grinning stage. I’ve never thought that it made much sense to take in all of life, then filter out whatever moves me to sorrow, leaving only a southern Gospel chorus about mama and heaven.

I laugh a lot. I laugh at some of the right things. I laugh at some of the wrong things. I tend to be aware, most of the time, of what’s wrong with the world. The fall still reverberates with me. Shakespeare’s tragedies make perfect sense and his comedies are sometimes a little silly. What makes me want to smile is the reconciliations at the end of The Tempest or the weddings at the end of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Jesus gives me joy. The life that cost Jesus his- my messed up life- doesn’t make me happy, but the Gospel makes me happy. Part of the happiness is the sorrow now.

And these good folks who want me to smile more? God bless them, but listen: it wouldn’t be the work of the Spirit. It would be the work of the flesh entirely. It would say something that’s not true, preacher or not.

I’ll guess that both my amateur psychologists are 1) sincere in wishing me to be happy and 2) somewhat under the illusion that preachers are to have the temperament of Santa Claus. I’ll also wager that they believe ministers have the job of bringing a smiling ray of sunshine into your world. It wouldn’t be hard to kick up a lot of guilt for my lack of a smile for my co-worker and the lady at the post office.

If I have genuine joy, however, it won’t be a facade. It will be kind of joy that belongs to grieving people, dying people, people who are alone, people who’ve been turned away, and the last, the least, the lost and the little. This joy comes in the midst of the world that Jesus wept over. It is the world that sees Lazarus’s tomb as well as his rags on the floor of an empty tomb.

I often wonder why I haven’t had more opportunities to minister in local churches. Then I stop and watch the local religious television stations with the local pastors holding forth in mountain style, and I listen to the area preachers on radio and sometimes in person…and it’s not really a mystery why I’m not preaching in one of these churches.

Religion here in the mountains is a kind of high, an escape. It is victory over the devil, miracles and answered prayers. It is happy preachers and shouting pews.

It’s not the Gospel that I believe, and it’s not the human journey that I am on or want to be on. What God has shown me is not a facade, but the face and heart of Jesus.

As I type this, my English students are watching Little Women. Jo is about to watch Beth die, and in the aftermath, she will write her story. In the vacancy of a lost sister, she will find the voice she long searched for, and it will be a voice filled with power, truth and the deepest love for family. But only in the loss. Only in the moments when we are reborn in this fallen world by the Spirit of God and take our place in the sufferings and resurrection of Christ.

Ironically, it all makes me smile.



  1. Joseph (the original) says

    well now, this article actually made me smile…

    after all the BS of life i have endured the past 3 years, i find i am smiling more, whistling more, hoping more…

    my ‘normal’ introspective, melancholy self has been transformed thru the divine disruptions that have characterized my life journey in the recent past. a sort of liberation or recognition of the ‘green pastures/quiet waters’ meadow after exiting the Valley of the Shadow of Death…

    yeah. smile. and in the midst of the challenges yet to come, know that God indeed is good & we have a very empathetic High Priest knowing first hand what we endure here in this land of both brokenness & light…

    thank you Jesus…

  2. Lukas db says

    And here we are, caught in a world where pain brings wisdom and suffering is caught up close embrace with joy.

    I’ve been smiling a lot more lately. It’s because I was sad and lost for a while before. I always bump my head against this vivid world, ever unexpectedly shaped and iron-hard, and stagger in pain. Then I laugh about it later. I’m always amazed at how high joys and destinies are so involved with the pain and unexpected realities of the world. Almost like it was designed that way. It takes the unguessable to change us into the unimaginable.

    At the same time, I’m starting to see how smiling a lot can be addictive. People find you friendly, trustworthy, attractive, so long as you don’t overdo it. When I smile, people open up and girls look at me more. It can be a rush. I always need to remember: would I still be smiling if no-one was watching? All the best smiles I’ve seen have been on faces that didn’t know they were being watched. I remember, for instance, a smile I saw years ago when a woman walked outside and saw that it was snowing. I was the only one around, and she didn’t see me sitting there on that cold bench.

    If I ever forget that, smiles are just a facade. One of the things you use to make yourself seem good and interesting. I remember reading a post on this blog about how you need to do boring things to become an interesting person. People who are always doing exciting things simply don’t have time. Perhaps this is similar. The unaccustomed, unpracticed smile of the thoughtful is far more interesting than the perfect practiced smile of the socialite.

  3. “What God has shown me is not a facade, but the face and heart of Jesus”
    “only in the loss…”
    One dear friend lost her Mom a week ago, and today the father of another dear friend is taking his final breaths.
    A facade is not sufficient for this world – for this pain.
    I am so grateful for the face and heart of Jesus.

  4. Right on.

    One of my favorite movie scenes never made the final cut. It’s from Bruce Almighty. “God” shows Bruce a picture of Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France and comments, “To paint a picture like that, you have to use some pretty dark colors.”

    Life is not all sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.

    We are told to weep and wail in scripture in several places. I don’t remember one injunction to smile.

    I’m not emo by any stretch, but sacharine happiness is just that–fake.

  5. David Cornwell says

    When I hear someone mention that a person is always “chipper” it makes me want to avoid that person, especially if that person is also into a lot of “God talk.” And Joel Osteen’s smile of never ending good cheer really does not reflect that he has ever understood the real hurt that in the world. It represents a cheap gospel that really isn’t gospel at all.

    But I do like people to smile at me. And when I can I smile back, especially at clerks in the checkout line working toward the end of hot day that has been full of trying customers. But our smiles should be honest ones.

  6. David Cornwell says

    Have you ever noticed a certain brand of politicians that seem to be smiling with one side of the mouth, and frowning with the other? I can think of at least three without even trying.

  7. Danielle says

    “If I have genuine joy, however, it won’t be a facade. It will be kind of joy that belongs to grieving people, dying people, people who are alone, people who’ve been turned away, and the last, the least, the lost and the little. This joy comes in the midst of the world that Jesus wept over. ”


    What an excellent essay, and one that reminds me of a lot of things I appreciated about Michael Spenser. First, Spenser called people to quit thinking that a bunch of pretending and nonsense is okay, even spiritual; second, his periodic return to the message that life is hard and messy, and not some big carnival ride with Jesus and a soundtrack running in the background.

    I have nothing at all against naturally upbeat people, who smile and mean it. But I have been in communities where there was a lot of manufactured happiness–not always intensional, but a bit contrived nonetheless–where people had come to understand that the way to show that they were properly spiritual, relate to others, and “minister” to them meant putting on a cheery exterior and drumming up the kind of conversation, worship, etc. that encouraged others to do likewise. There was always something deeply awkward about the habit of such people to pop up out of the blue and say, “How is your spiritual life going?” Besides the invasiveness of that question, one always knew that the appropriate reply was something drippy and upbeat, or some kind of heartfelt confession wrapped up with, “But it’s all OK because…. Jesus!” … which generally had the effect of canceling out the first part of the dialog, making it comfortably non-threatening and unreal.

    On a related note, Americans love an old-time religion that is always throwing the world’s biggest revival or a trapping into the new move of the spirit and producing Exceptional Saints with Big Missions and Good Stories. That’s a spirit of real hunger behind that, and some very admirable goals. But its also a glimmer the same kind of craving for that over-the-top happiness I’ve-been-fixed-for-good-ness behind the excessive grinning. Is it really better to be miraculously healed, or to have the most dramatic tent meeting, or Biggest and Best Whatever, than just to hang with some people who need the company and help each other through life? The latter is just ordinary life …. but its where almost everyone lives most of the time. If there isn’t grace there, then what good is grace? I’m more inclined by far to trust happiness that coexists with life in trenches… the kind that comes along with doubt or pain or sadness, and not the kind you profess to have after one’s demons have been banished.

  8. Adrienne says

    BRILLIANT POST! Have a nice day 🙂

  9. My reply to people who tell me O need to smile?

    I tell them “I am smiling”. Confuses the daylights out of them.

    Now I wish I could hand this “post” to people as well 🙂

  10. This reminded me of a quote from Doctor Who, “The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. Good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.” I’m not the all smiling, jazz hands kind of person either and it’s good to read that someone has the same line of thought. Wonderful article.

  11. I am one of those naturally chipper people and I can tell you that I tire equally as quickly of the people who tell me I need to “tone it down”. That is as antithecal to me as smiling was to CM. Why can’t we all just leave everyone to be who they are? I agree with the fake stuff – I don’t like the fakeness either and don’t spend any time with fake people. But I also think it’s sad that there are people who refuse to camp with me because I wake with the dawn and am joyous first thing in the morning. I don’t wake anyone up singing or anything, if you want to grump in your tent until mid-morning, that’s fine, but allow me to be myself as well.

  12. I’m going through some very large changes in my life right now, and honestly I don’t want to smile anymore. I will, because life is up and down, but right now it’s all valleys and darkness.

    What makes my suffering worse, is people who seem to judge my character by whether I fit their view of happiness or not. I tire of being held to their distorted view of happiness, like LA says, we all have a right to be the way we are. If you want to be eternally cheerful, have at it, good for you. Just don’t try and convert me or guilt into making you feel better about yourself.

    I love when Michael wrote things like this, I connect so deeply with what he is saying. I hope they have beer in Heaven because I’m going to buy him one and tell him about how much his writing continues to touch my heart, even after he left us.


  13. Possible replies (much too belated, I realize):

    1. “I ain’t that kind of preacher.”

    2. (Smile) “You’re going to hell.”

  14. I was reading Matthew 7 in the Message this afternoon and it was too perfect not to share on this article.

    “Be wary of false preachers who smile a lot, dripping with practiced sincerity. Chances are they are out to rip you off some way or other. Don’t be impressed with charisma; look for character. Who preachers are is the main thing, not what they say. A genuine leader will never exploit your emotions or your pocketbook.”

    This paraphrase is pretty different from the original language, but I do think the Lord gave Eugene Peterson some wisdom to hit the nail on the head here. There is something wrong with those who smile all the time. They are hiding or denying something. I used to be like that, and am grateful that a brother called me out on it.

    I am glad Michael, by the Lord’s grace, always “kept it real”. I like a preacher that can sing the blues, too.

    • I actually resent that. I smile all the time and it’s just because I’m naturally upbeat and chipper and even if things aren’t going well in my life, I try to follow the story Jesus gave us to not wear our sufferings and sacrifices on the outside. That doesn’t make me up to something, fake, or unreal. I just don’t think I need to drag everyone around me into my pit of despair on the rare times I’m actually in the dumps about something. Keeping it real does not mean to ensure everyone around you knows you’re in the dumps. It does speak to sincerity – if I smile at you, it means I’m happy to see you regardless of the troubles in my life. I’m very very private about my troubles and if I don’t share them, that’s not being unreal, that’s just feeling that my pits of despair are my own and nobody’s business.

      • Hey, sorry if that rubbed you the wrong way. Please notice, though, that Peterson is saying be wary, and talking particularly about oreachers. So he’s not saying everyone who smiles all the time is being fake, but if nothing else it’s a yellow light.

        I am also a generally cheerful person, but it was helpful for me to realize that being spiritual does not mean you have to be bursting with joy all the time. Negative emotions are not sinful, even if our responses to them often are. And it’s okay to answer the question how are you doing with something besides good or great, And I agree with you that we don’t have to share our troubles with everyone but it is helpful to have at least a few friends we can bring into our pits of despair,

        • Gotcha! And indeed there are a select few that I bring into my pits of despair. But I have been regarded with suspicion and have found myself admonished for being too joyful (of course, I’m not joyful at inappropriate times). Which is why I likely took your comments to heart. I’m not up to anything and it’s sad that my natural disposition gives people pause to be wary. But so it is.

          But I have seen the fake, too, though it generally looks different than my naturally bubbly personality. We have a staff member at our church who says the same positive thing to everyone…which cheapens it when they say it to you. It may be sincerely heartfelt, but after the 50th person you hear him say the exact same thing to, it feels perfunctory and faked.

  15. great post thanks!