The Early Christians Experienced Happiness in Christ Despite Suffering; So Can We

Recently Nanci and I saw the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ. We were both surprised at how dark it was, focusing almost exclusively on Rome’s brutal violence done against Christians and their children. Paul is suffering in prison nearly all the movie, and even the flashbacks are either him suffering or inflicting suffering on others.

Of course, historically there was plenty of such violence, and we don’t want it whitewashed! That’s not my concern. But Paul’s life contained many events that were beautiful—including strong relationships, miracles, healings, demons cast out, and radical conversions with infusions of happiness. We wished for a few happy flashbacks of the joy he experienced knowing and serving Jesus, as seen throughout the book of Acts. (Given the good reviews I read, no doubt God is using the movie in some people’s lives. And if you’re among them, that’s great!)

It also seemed odd to show the community of faith’s suffering endlessly without depicting their joy. In the movie, the believers in hiding are portrayed as divided and squabbling and nearly always distraught. I’m all for realistic portrayals of suffering and hardship (I’ve written three books on the problem of evil and suffering), and certainly first-century Christians experienced much heartbreak and persecution. But they also experienced happiness, celebration, and the abundant life in the midst of difficulty. Their lives were punctuated by feasting and singing and laughing and rejoicing. (It almost feels like there’s an underlying assumption in this movie that God has called His people to unhappiness in this life and that happiness is unspiritual. I address this issue here.)

Nanci and I felt like the takeaway was, “Christians live miserable lives now, but in the end Heaven will make up for it.” Well, true, Heaven will more than make up for a miserable life, but the early Christians, while enduring some miseries to be sure, were characterized in this life by a transcendent joy and hope and peace.

The Early Church’s Happiness in Jesus

We see the seeds of the early church’s happiness right away after Jesus ascended (Luke 24:51-52): “While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” The CEV says, “They returned to Jerusalem and were very happy.” Because Jesus was alive, and because he promised to be with his followers always and return for them one day, their joy went deep and overflowed the banks of their lives.

The early church enjoyed both the Lord’s Supper (breaking bread) and “love feasts” (Jude 1:12). Acts 2:46 describes the gatherings of the believers: “Day after day they met together in the temple. They broke bread together in different homes and shared their food happily and freely” (CEV).

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Source: epm.org | Randy Alcorn