July 4, 2020

“It Seems the Joy of the Lord Isn’t Your Strength” (An iMonk 101 Post)

Yes, that’s one of the comments I’ve received via e-mail regarding the official iMonk photograph.

(And- at least in my experience- it’s always a woman. Why is that? Does maternal instinct want to see baby smile?)

I’ve been fighting this battle for quite some time, and I don’t plan to give up. It’s a small thing, but it’s all about what it means to be a human being and what it means to be a Christian.

Millions of unbelievers are far more emotionally healthy than we are because we have a crowd running around telling us we can’t be human, can’t feel human emotions, can’t be emotionally honest and so on. Instead, we have to be high, giddy and smiling like we’re possessed by grinning aliens so that we have a “testimony.” Ugh.

I’m so not going there. This, friends, is the person Jesus loves. I’m fat. I’m not giddy. I don’t feel the least bit of responsibility to telegraph to anyone that I’m full of happy thoughts, because I’m not.

So here’s the record of my battle for the right to not smile all the time:

He Wouldn’t Smile for the Camera. Mark Heard is the patron saint of unsmiling Christians. (I need a Mark Heard icon…a real icon.)

“You Need To Smile More.” Brrrrrrr. I deal with the situation directly here.

Can A Christian Sing the Blues? Michael Horton brought this up, and it’s why so many of us can’t stand most of the art produced by evangelicals. It’s one emotional lie after another.

Check out “Singing the Blues With Jesus” by Michael Horton.


  1. You hit the nail on the head, once again.

  2. Thanks for this. I remember when Mark Heard was derided for not smiling. Man, I miss him.

    It was no shock that a recent fallen pastor scandal involved accusations of meth use. One would almost have to be on something to pull of the true evangelical/charismatic persona. Where do Christians turn when the spiritual thrill is gone? Drugs? Alcohol? Sex? Pornography? The grim statistics may speak for themselves.

    But Christians have a reason to be optimistic.
    Maybe its the difference between “power of positive thinking” and hope. Positive thinking is self-centered and is based upon what I do; hope is God-centered and based upon what Jesus accomplished forever on the cross and from an empty tomb. Positive thinking needs to yield results in the here-and-now; hope will be ultimately fulfilled in the return of Christ. Positive thinking is neurotically turned inward; hope is lovingly turned outward toward ones neighbor.

  3. Ahh yes, I’ve thought about writing about this very topic before. As someone who deals with depression, I know what you mean about other Christians thinking we should be “smiling all the time.”

    Let me cast my vote for your right not to smile.


  4. I know how you feel. I suffer with depression (one of my “thorn(s) of the flesh” I suppose). I used to get pretty irked with people who told me to be happy all the time. I said I preferred to be honest.

  5. So true. I like the realism of an unsmiling Christian, to witness to the world-transforming rather than world-replacing power of Christ…

  6. That is why I like the song “I’m not all right” by Sanctus Real. Also love the blues. You’re a great looking guy Michael! LOL


  7. Sounds like you’ve been attacked by the Smile Nazis.

    I smile a lot. I’m a happy guy. But I don’t smile all the time. I think a lot, and if I smile while I’m thinking, people think I’m up to no good. (Probably ’cause I’m up to no good.)

    Nor do I smile for photos. It’s fake, and my photo smiles subsequently look fake, as do most people’s. Well, I’m not interested in perpetuating falseness and hypocrisy. Joy, perhaps, but not the illusion of joy. No Christian should be.

  8. I was sure tempted to take that photo and and apply a little photoshop magic to it! 🙂

    Seriously though, what about Joy? It is listed as the second fruit of the fruit of the Spirit for a reason. Can we simply dismiss it and say it doesn’t matter?

    I understand that Joy does not equal happiness, but the Christians I have met who I would like to model my own life after all seem to have a certain way about them that says “no matter what my circumstances I am going to have a positive outlook on life as I live for God.”

    One of my own struggles in life is that I used to have a severe stutter. That didn’t stop me in high school for running for and winning a student council position, even though I had to record my speech one phrase at a time and play it back on a tape recorder. Or later in life, being willing to pursue a ministry position despite a district superintendent (bishop) telling me that if 100 applied for a pastoral position that my resume would always be at the bottom of the pile because of my speaking disability. Or how about the fact that I have never gotten a job when I have stuttered in a job interview. Never.

    But then I look at how much God has given me, and I can’t help but be filled with joy. And quite frankly I find it hard not to share that joy with others.

    I am always looking for ways to encourage others, and I must admit that this is one reason why I visit this site daily. There is so much written by both iMonk and others that really lifts my spirits here. Did you realize that 15 posts in just over the last two months have the word “encourage” in them?

    Maybe there is a little more joy lurking here than your picture communicates.

  9. The Bible never commands anyone to smile.

    It’s the distinctive of Christian joy- Spirit produced joy- that it is not dependent on the “flesh” at all. Therefore, it exists in suffering, etc.

  10. Sometimes it’s helpful to understand the backgrounds of the word we use … we think that “happy” and “joyful” are interchangeable because in this day they have sorta become that way. But they really aren’t.

    I did a quick etymology search on the roots of “happy” and found this:

    “1340, “lucky,” from hap “chance, fortune” (see haphazard), sense of “very glad” first recorded c.1390. Ousted O.E. eadig (from ead “wealth, riches”) and gesælig, which has become silly. O.E. bliðe “happy” survives as blithe. From Gk. to Ir., a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.” An exception is Welsh, where the word used first meant “wise.” Used in World War II and after as a suffix (e.g. bomb-happy, flak-happy) expressing “dazed or frazzled from stress.” Happiness is first recorded 1530. Happy hour “early evening period of discount drinks and free hors-d’oeuvres at a bar” is first recorded 1961. Happy-go-lucky is from 1672. Happy as a clam (1636) was originally happy as a clam in the mud at high tide, when it can’t be dug up and eaten.”

    It mostly has it’s roots in the likes of chance, gambling and luck. Those are good reasons for smiling like a fool all the time (or not, when your luck runs out).

    Joy, on the other hand, resulted in this definition:

    “c.1225, “feeling of pleasure and delight,” from O.Fr. joie, from L. gaudia, pl. of gaudium “joy,” from gaudere “rejoice,” from PIE base *gau- (cf. Gk. gaio “I rejoice,” M.Ir. guaire “noble”).”

    Personally, I think the Christian walk results in joy which may or may not be reflected in a “happy” face. But a fruitful life. Which I hear every time I read this blog … thanks for all you write here, Michael.

  11. What about the numerous instructions to “rejoice and be glad”?

    These are all about expressing the inner joy.

    Psalm 68:3 (among many) “But let the righteous be glad; let them rejoice before God: yea, let them exceedingly rejoice.”

    Hard to imagine them doing that without some sort of smile on their faces.

  12. I agree.

    I smile a lot. I rejoice in the Lord.

    But I don’t smile all the time, and I don’t believe there is any command that says I should.

    Many in scripture are lamenters and are even “men of sorrow.”

  13. I just read “Wretched Urgency” I & II from the archives, based on your comment in podcast 108. Put those articles together with the ones mentioned here, and a lot of things start to make sense. Be miserable and be happy about it. I lived under that edict for years.


  14. I’m definitely not a giddy Christian. I’ve always been told I’m too serious. And, right now I have family members who are ill and probably dying. And no, I don’t think there is going to be a supernatural rabbit pulled out of a hat and that Jesus is going to make everything alright for me. But….you asked ‘What is it with women and smiles?’ If it’s a gender-related thing: to me, a smile is a welcome and means that the other person is happy for me to just be there with them. I know one guy who doesn’t smile at all, ever, and I have to confess that I wonder if he finds my presence a pain in the ass. So, alternatively, ‘What is it about men and not wanting to smile?’

  15. Sorry, my last comment seems even more confusing than usual. I meant that iMonk really articulates the spartan, “wartime” Christianity that I have known for most of my life. Not only was there the constant urgency to evangelize, but there was also the fear and loathing of the cultural war. Everything was both urgent and foreboding. Every service ended with an altar call offering yet another opportunity to publicly admit what awful, ineffective Christians we were. At the same time, we were always supposed to be smiling and happy.

  16. I have suffered (and surrendered to) chronic and clinical depression throughout my life.
    I sought help at the famed Minirith-Meyer clinic.
    What a crock. After 6 weeks of inpatient treatment, which differed in no way whatsoever from secular treatment, I was told I can’t be helped because my therapist had the same problems I have.
    Thanks for 6 weeks of my life and several thousand dollars for nothing.
    It is one of the reasons why I absolutely refuse to do business with the folks who have the little fish symbol in their Yellow Pages ad or on vehicles or advertise “Christian Business”.
    They are more likely than anyone to either be ready to screw you or be incompetent. Often both.
    If you are that good in your trade and serving Christ in your business it will show.Customers will come.
    I digress.
    Depression is a by-product of anger.
    Generalized anger is a by-product of being aware.
    Being aware is a by-product of intelligence.
    I’m not saying all exuberently happy and giddy folk are stupid. I don’t know.
    However, I’m just saying………..
    And someone brought up “Christian” entertainment and art. It’s almost always bad and almost always some hacks attempt to get into legitimate show biz or art. Personally, It all makes me want to throw up and deepens my depression if, for example I hear more than 2.39 seconds of any CCM or look for more than 1.56 seconds at what is considered Christian art. Michelangelo and Charles Wesley are spinning in their graves.

  17. I guess I don’t care much about the not-smiling thing, but to me your photo looks like a man without hope, and I’m not sure what kind of message you are trying to send by picking that one to be your *official* photo.

  18. Anna,

    There are a number of things I don’t care for about the internet, but that a person would look at anyone’s picture and say- to someone they don’t know personally- you look like you are a “man without hope”- is truly an amazing demonstration of 1) saying far more than you know and 2) far more than is necessary.

    The ability of some Christians to make judgments beyond the bounds of the rest of us is truly amazing.

    I cannot imagine myself saying such a thing to another human being for any reason.


  19. If weakness is a wound
    That no one wants to speak of
    Then “cool” is just how far we have to fall

    I am not immune
    I only want to be loved
    But I feel safe behind the firewall

    Can I lose my need to impress?
    If you want the truth, I need to confess

    I’m not all right
    I’m broken inside
    And all I go through
    It leads me to you

    Burn away the pride
    Bring me to my weakness
    Until everything I hide behind is gone

    And when I’m open wide
    With nothing left to cling to
    Only you are there to lead me on

    Honestly, I’m not that strong

    And I move closer to you

    I’m not all right…that’s why I need you

    -Sanctus Real, “I’m Not All Right”

  20. One night years ago after evening service a college kid was strumming on a guitar. No big deal. He started a blues riff and the pastor’s daughter exclaimed, “Don’t play the blues in church!”

    I know my story has more to do with legalistic reaction to genre of music, but I get the feeling that most evangelicals don’t want anybody to be down, to suffer, to experience the blues. Not because they don’t want others to suffer, but because they don’t know how to deal with it.

    Thomas Kincade? No comment.

  21. I like your picture. Of course, I’ve been reading your blog(s) for quite a while, so I have some small sense of who you are. The photo reminds me of something, but I can’t quite remember what. Like another picture I’ve seen somewhere. It’s probably the brush effect.

    And I just have to say, your reasoning is maybe somewhat similar to why the people depicted in icons aren’t smiling – obviously they know joy, but they also know pain and suffering. Even (or especially) Mary, the Theotokos. But they’re not “sad” either. It’s more… sober peacefulness. While I love icons, I’m not an expert on iconography so take this for what it’s worth.

    Also, honestly, I think seeing a picture of you smiling might freak me out a little. 🙂

  22. My favorite book of the Bible is Ecclesiastes.
    My favorite movie director is Ingmar Bergman.
    My favorite writer is Dostoevsky.
    My favorite musician is Coltrane.
    I reckon if I had a blog my official photo would look more like Michael Spencer’s than Joel Osteen’s.

  23. I once wrote and sang a blues song for an offertory at a previous church. (I’m A/G) I still fondly remember an older lady in the front saying really loud afterwards:

    “What was that? 🙂

    Anyone heard “Deathbed” by Relient K? (not blues, but I was captured by it)

    A great worship song I appreciate is called “Invitacion Fountain” by The Violet Burning (Michael Pritzl)

    Your photo reminds me of my friend Mark who suffered greatly with pancreatitis. I haven’t seen him for many years.

    Thanks for doing what you do.

  24. Interesting that Andrew Stephens-Rennie had this to say on Empire Remixed, http://empireremixed.wordpress.com/2008/08/21/ill-at-ease/
    Seems to be common. More than we admit…

  25. MS,

    I surely did not mean to offend you. And I did not mean to say that you WERE a man without hope, only that that was how you seemed *to me*. It was a subjective impression, not a judgment. It made me wonder, I guess, what you see in that picture to make you pick that one instead of any other – as in, whether you picked it to make a point about not having to smile, or if there was something else going on there. But I apologize if I made you feel criticized; I did not mean to. Peace!

  26. I think you look like Santa.

  27. I was wondering what all the fuss was about so I clicked on the photo and I have to admit, it’s not so much your not smiling, you look kind of miserable. But, a sad face is good for the heart.

  28. Blank Slate says

    Hi Mike!

    Awesome picture of you, it was so real without the gliter. It was cool without you having to have a soul patch. My question…. How did you make it?


  29. Christopher Lake says

    Hey Craig, from one not-always-smiling Christian to another– I love your favorites, especially Bergman. Coltrane is great too. I do like Dostoevsky, but I’m even more partial to Flannery O’Connor, a lover of Christ who definitely didn’t “smile all the time.” Her humour is similar to mine– darker, almost cynical about humanity, but saved from cynicism by God’s grace.

    As for God’s Word itself, I think that we should have more praise and worship songs based on Ecclesiastes. 🙂 Or maybe we should just sing more Psalms in church.

  30. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    If you want to put on the Stimpy Happy Helmet, there’s a lot of churches and televangelists who’ll be glad to provide one. (“Happy! Happy! Joy! Joy!”)

    Internet Monk is NOT one of them.

    If you want to wallow in Wretched Urgency, there are also a lot of churches who’ll be glad to provide you the hair shirt and spiked whip.

    Internet Monk is NOT one of them.

    A writer contact of mine in Louisville originally OD’d on Stimpy Happy Clappy Helmet Christianity. What turned him around was a comment by a travelling evangelist: “Have you ever considered that depression might be your spiritual gift?” Often it’s the strong and dark emotions that put power behind writing and art; Happy Clappy Joy Joy is as out-of-balance as Nihilistic Depression, resulting in subcreations of cotton-candy fluff instead of the other out-of-balance’s depressing despair.

    And I have seen both directions of out-of-balance in Christian art & fiction.

  31. dumb ox wrote:
    “Maybe its the difference between ‘power of positive thinking’ and hope.”

    GREAT point! Hope doesn’t ignore the reality of life. It doesn’t insist on a stupid grin or the pretense that everything is peachy. But hope is what keeps us truckin’ when life’s got us down. Life sometimes sucks, but God’s bigger than the suck and will see us through one way or another.

  32. Great post. Please don’t think too badly of me, but reading it did make me smile. (just a little).


  33. Thank you so much for this post.
    eschew smilies