When I was an Anglican priest I used to walk from my apartment over to church for evening prayer every day. On the way I would walk past the house of a Jehovah’s Witness. This particular JW was the sort of man who always had his hair combed, the car washed and probably went to bed wearing a necktie.

Well, he began to watch my daily walk and took to standing by his garden fence to try to engage me in conversation. He’d say things like, “Excuse me, but have you ever thought that we might be living in the end times?” or “Pardon me, but have you ever considered the prophecies of Daniel in light of the present situation in the European Community?” You know the sort of thing…

I usually made a polite response and moved on, but one day I finally said, “You’re a Jehovah’s Witness, aren’t you?”

“Yes. That’s correct.”

“May I just say that I am never going to become a Jehovah’s Witness. Never. And do you know why?”

He looked nonplussed. “Why is that?”

I laughed, “Because my friend, you always look so miserable. If your religion hasn’t made you happy why should I join it?”

He never appeared at the fence again.

I said “happy” but I should have said “joyful,” because joy and happiness are different qualities.

A person with a true religion is joyful. They have an inner peace and confidence that exudes from them even when they are not laughing and being outwardly joyful. They have joy even when they are in pain. They have an inner peace even if they are suffering from depression. They have a joy, even if it is a dark joy.

One of the most consistently joyful people I ever met was a Poor Clare nun called Sister Mary Lucy. She was blind and had a deteriorating bone disease, which meant that she was in constant excruciating pain. For decades. But she was always incredibly joyful.

There is a lot of religion out there and a lot of religious people, and if you ever want to ascertain whether this particular person, pastor or priest is the real deal, or whether this sect, religious group, special ecclesial community, Catholic subgroup or pressure group within the Church is the real deal, give them the joy test.

Are these people joyful? Do they have a deep, abiding peace combined with a fountain of true joy in their lives? Do you like being around them? Are they real, loving, joyful, Spirit-filled people?

They don’t have to be perfect, but it’s not really that difficult.

Don’t get me wrong. I am NOT saying that Christians always have to be externally, happy-clappy, smug and satisfied and smiling all the time. We all know how fake that can be. Neither am I saying that people who are going through depression are not joyful Christians. I have known people in the midst of depression who have said, “Even here in the darkness, I know God is with me.” And that gave them a grim kind of joy.

I’m referring to the sort of religious people who are constantly grim, always blaming others, always negative, always guilty.

They do not pass the joy test.

If they make you feel guilty, dirty and ashamed, they do not pass the joy test. If they make you angry, aggressive and afraid, they do not pass the joy test. If they make you blame others, see only the negative and tell you every other person but them is wrong, they fail the joy test. If you feel down, afraid, guilty or resentful after being with them, they do not pass the joy test.

If they do not pass the joy test they’re poison.

Wave goodbye and clear out of there.