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The most important lesson I’ve learned about dark emotions is that, right alongside them, it’s possible to experience what the Bible calls joy. Jesus is our great model in this regard. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews describes joy as Jesus’ motivation in his sacrifice: “Jesus . . . for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (12:2 ESV).
At the same time, we have clear accounts that Jesus felt anxiety and sorrow leading up to his passion. In the garden of Gethsemane, contemplating his impending suffering, he tells his disciples, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38 ESV). He is also described as being “greatly distressed and troubled” and “in agony”at this juncture (Mark 14:33; Luke 22:44 ESV). The prophecies we find in Isaiah, looking ahead to the trials of the coming Messiah,bestow on him the epithet “Man of Sorrows” (53:3). The joy that was motivating Jesus did not consist in the absence of negative emotions or serious pain.
Joy and Happiness: Not So Different After All
Certain Christian thinkers try to get at this idea by saying that “joy is different than happiness.” We can experience joy even when we’re sad and suffering. At the same time, this kind of distinction between joy and happiness can be a bit misleading. Sometimes people will speak as though joy is somehow beyond our emotions: it’s the knowledge of God’s goodness even if we feel terrible. But this kind of attitude actually makes joy inaccessible and abstract. Joy must be something we can feel! And it must have something in common with happiness.
Matthew writes about the Magi looking for the one to be born King of the Jews. They arrive at Bethlehem: “And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (2:9-10 ESV). Another translation says “they were overwhelmed with joy” (NRSV). And one paraphrase puts it: “Their joy knew no bounds!” (TLB). This passage does not invite us to imagine the Magi stoically gaining deeper mental certitude about God; it leads us to imagine them breathless, rushing toward the star. They forget the ache of many months of travel as they drive the caravan forward. They are about
to meet the king!
Joy is not the simple happiness of painlessness. It is rather the deep happiness of confidence in God’s goodness and provision, which can be felt even in the midst of pain, right alongside the negative emotions that naturally arise from difficult circumstances. Joy is the well-being that springs from trusting that God’s goodness can never be removed from us.
Learning to Stand
But to learn that God’s goodness can never be removed from us, even in suffering and loss, we have to experience suffering and loss. This idea runs against our natural inclinations. Wouldn’t it make more sense for God to just make life better and better for his children? Doesn’t any good parent want to protect their children from suffering?
Katie and I have a goddaughter named Caitlyn. When she was first learning to walk, we witnessed her surmount obstacles of all kinds. As she pulled herself up on the furniture around the house, and began to find her own wobbly sense of balance, she exposed herself to all sorts of new risks. She could fall down. She could bump into things. But her parents didn’t prevent her from exploring, because they knew that life on the other side of standing is better. When Caitlyn was younger, we each had to hold her all the time. Now, we can take away our hand and see her standing fast on her own two feet.
When we’re in a season of consolation, grateful to God for the signs of his love in everyday things, he is holding us and supporting us. When we enter into a season of desolation, and the world turns to ash around us, he is letting us learn to stand.
We all admire people whose generosity and joy continues unabated even in the bleakest of circumstances. Suffering is the training ground in which such people are formed. When you know the joy of God’s goodness even when walking through the valley of the shadow of death, it solidifies into a deeper, stronger thing than before. It becomes a hard-wrought joy, one that no one can ever take away from you.
Joy in Suffering: A Story
The difficulties I have faced do not even begin to compare with those of so many others: the truly poor, the desperately ill, those who face degradation and persecution for their faith. So far, bereavement has played only a minor role in my life. But I have heard stories of people in the worst situations rising up into their best selves by the grace of God. And I’ve had the privilege of seeing this dynamic in the lives of a few people whom I personally know.
When I was a child, the children’s pastor of my home church was a woman named Margie. She is still active in parish life today and was recently ordained. Margie has a profound gift of spiritual motherhood. When you are in her presence, you immediately feel known and loved. The same day I drafted this paragraph, I was speaking with one of our youth ministry leaders, who said the young men in his small group were crying as they shared vulnerably with one another following a talk Margie had given on the love of God. This kind of penetrating, heart-level ministry of teaching and pastoring is simply the norm with Margie. She also brings an infectious enthusiasm and disarming sense of humor into all of her work.
When I was in elementary school, Margie married John, our worship pastor. We were a small church at the time, and Margie invited all of the elementary school children to sing at her wedding. I remember watching Margie cry through the entire service. John had made the unusual choice of leading worship at his own wedding, but at the time it seemed perfectly natural to me. John was always the one leading worship at our church services! And when John led worship, it was like the whole room was lifted into the presence of God at once. He was an unusual man in many ways, possessed of a rare intellect and refined tastes in both opera and dining. His idiosyncrasies were matched only by the depth of his love for the Lord and for people in pain.
Over the next few years, John and Margie had two children named Charlotte and Josiah. Not long after Josiah’s birth, John was diagnosed with cancer. With treatment, he went into remission. Then, he was diagnosed again, with a more aggressive kind. His normal ebullience slowly withered into frailty and quiet. He had to stop working, and struggled daily with intense pain. Here’s a description of some of his symptoms that he wrote at the time:
“my bones continue to be shaky, shriveled, eaten up and made progressively convoluted. For example, my right rib cage has several tumors growing there, whether breaking down the bone, penetrating it, or using it as a basis to penetrate the lungs. I’ve noticed in the last few days that it takes more fast, short breathing even to walk slowly, or to speak full sentences or to vocalize loudly.”
It became clear John would not survive. Charlotte was five, and Josiah was two.
In this suffering, John still ministered the love of God to other people. Here are some selections from his blog during the final months of his illness:
“As for one of the more positive things that seems to come within our privilege, I’ve gotten to pray for several people at their periods of deepest pain where they are heading into hospice care[.]”
“I think I already mentioned how much I’ve come to love the way that my father and I can pray Morning Prayer and then Compline together. It is time more fulfilling than I’ve yet had with him in my life.”
“And I can’t stop without mentioning my mother: great conversations, daily shots and medications, freshly squeezed vegetable and fruit juices . . . [I am] incredibly blessed. I can barely imagine the riches at the end of each day.”
Margie also found strength in sharing her experience through a blog: “I have walked a journey of bare-bones humanity. I get up, I do what is before me. I listen for the Lord. My only gift is to simply say, ‘Yes Lord.’ My gift is to obey and trust. That is all that is possible. I see no other road.”
When John did pass away, our whole community grieved. In addition to her own bereavement as a wife, Margie was left with the challenge of being a single mom. In the years since, her children have grown up without their father. Yet Margie has borne out the life of God in this profound loss. She has raised her children with affection and wisdom. She has built up our church community. Countless people have drawn close to God in the midst of their own suffering through her ministry of listening and prayer. Her laughter is as infectious as ever.
Margie speaks sometimes on the subject of “redemptive suffering.” “Redemption” is an economic term: Katie and I recently redeemed some savings bonds. They were intrinsically almost worthless, just scraps of paper. But when they were redeemed, they turned out to be incredibly valuable. In our lives, suffering can be like that. It seems pointless. What good can come of it? But God can miraculously transform it into his life. He can redeem it for joy.
The image of redemption also reminds us that joy is God’s work. Jesus told his disciples,
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
John 15:9-11 ESV
It is the joy of Jesus himself that we enter into as we abide in his love. This is the work of the Spirit. It is not a joy that we manufacture; it is a joy that we receive. And, just like Jesus, we enter into it through laying everything down at God’s feet. We die with Christ, and we share in his resurrection life.
- When have you experienced genuine joy?
- What kinds of suffering are you facing right now?
- What would it look like for you to welcome Jesus into your experience of suffering?
Photo Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
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