Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Don’t Hinder Joy by Waiting for Pain and Sorrow To Be Removed

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How often do we think of joy as something that requires the absence of sorrow or pain? We wait and wait for the pain to be taken away so that we can be happy again. As long as the pain remains, we resign ourselves to having to wait for joy to replace it. This gives suffering and sorrow domination over us, while we believe we cannot experience joy until they leave. But it shouldn’t be this way. It is possible to experience deep, sustaining joy even in the middle of sorrow or pain.

Christian joy is not a childlike innocence, unaware of the troubles of the world and therefore undisturbed. Christian joy is a triumphant and victorious declaration that Christ has conquered sin and death, bringing us together with God in a way that can never be separated again. Christian joy reigns over suffering and earthly sorrow. It does not need to wait for them to give way. It is stronger than they are, and can cover them and overwhelm them. Your joy can be stronger than your sorrow even while the sorrow remains. Paul could say he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” all at the same time. (2 Cor. 6:10). He could even say “we rejoice in our sufferings” (Romans 5:3), and that he rejoiced in his sufferings for the sake of the Colossians (Colossians 1:24). The Word of God demonstrates that joy in the middle of sorrow is possible and powerful.

As Christians grow and go through the years, we usually discover for ourselves this strange co-existence of suffering and joy. While we are on this earth, the sorrows of this life do not disappear. But we begin to discover that joy can flourish even in the sorrows. This is not to say it is easy. It is often overwhelming and numbing, and we need our friends to bear us up and pray for us and fight through the numbness. Our comfort is knowing for ourselves that even in suffering, joy can break forth and shine. I found Elisabeth Kincaid’s insights in An Elusive Joy at Easter, from her readings of John Henry Newman, to illustrate this beautifully:
Newman gives us permission not to confuse this joy with the sentiment he would most likely dismiss as enthusiasm. Christian joy at Easter does not need to be unalloyed and unrestrained. It is not the joy of children, but rather of convalescents, who are in the process of getting well, who see the promise of health, but are still regaining strength rather than fully healed.
When the crisis is past, the illness over, but strength not yet come, they will go forth to the light of day and the freshness of the air, and silently sit down with great delight under the shadow of that Tree, whose fruit is sweet to their taste.

Kincaid reflects that even the gracious work of healing is not always quick. She recalls Diggory’s mother in C.S. Lewis’s The Magicians Nephew, who is healed by an apple from Aslan in Narnia. But she does not heal quickly. In fact, it is so gradual that at first Diggory is doubtful it is working.

Perhaps we (often, although not always) should expect our healing and our rejoicing to look more like Diggory’s mother. Often, it is too easy for many of us, especially those raised in church cultures that place a high premium on subjective experience, to fear that the perceived lack in our joy is due to our own weakness and sinfulness. While this may at times be true, Newman challenges the belief that it is always true, rejecting the lie that “since it is the Christian’s duty to rejoice evermore, they would rejoice better if they never sorrowed and never travailed with righteousness.”

Sorrowing and struggle are necessary for this joy; they do not preclude it.

Worrying about my own perceived emotional lack — or feeling so overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world around me that I cannot raise my head to rejoice — may not be the solution, and in fact, may be part of the problem. Refusing to let go of my disappointment with my own brokenness and that of the world shows a failure to recognize not only the reality that in this world “the languor and oppression of our old selves” will continue, but also the reality of the new life given me. The solution is not to emote more or blot out the sorrows of this world, but rather to turn in prayer, not inward, but upward.
We must beg Him who is the Prince of Life, the Life itself, to carry us forth into His new world, for we cannot walk thither, and seat us down whence, like Moses, we may see the land, and meditate upon its beauty!

Easter joy does not require us, then, to leave ourselves or the world of this present hour behind. Rather, Easter joy may only come when, like Diggory, we return to the brokenness of this world — and our own and others’ brokenness — with the comfort of Christ’s presence and the instruments of grace that he has provided for us throughout the annual miracle of the paschal season. In this return, perhaps, joy silently comes, wearing a different guise, but deeper and better than anything we can ever expect.

These words prompted a comment from fellow contributor Charlie Clauss: “maybe our task is the active reception of joy.” Instead of trying to get past suffering so we can be joyful, we need to be willing to receive the gift of joy from God right in the midst of our brokenness. And, like Newman says, we pray earnestly for the gift to come.

What we often miss in trying to hide from suffering and isolate joy all by itself is that the deepest joy is formed from being healed and restored. You can be happier because you are renewed than you would be at just being new. Stop and try to think about why you love Christ, without including in your mind anything negative that He has saved you from. Take away what He suffered and what He saved us from, and what is left to show the depth of His love for us? I cannot sum this up more beautifully than Katy Hartman did in 2014:
"Everything that happens on the surface of this dappled planet, from the deepest joy to the most unspeakable tragedy, is a tangle of grief and celebration. We spend our days trying to separate the one from the other, yet we're baffled that we cannot.
"We live between overlapping realities—one broken and another being healed. Joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, cannot be locked away in separate compartments. Yet that's what we try to do. Looking at one without the other means we see only a portion of the whole story of this broken world being healed. When we look at grief on its own we fail to see that God is healing the world through the work of Jesus, that he is making things beautiful and turning darkness into light before us. When we live only in light of reasons to celebrate, as if joy is the only reality, we banish all thoughts of grief and turn a blind eye to the brokenness in ourselves and in the world. We forget how much we have been rescued from, and we ignore the fact that we still need healing. We ought not to be surprised when we find traces of pain in joy or beauty in sorrow, for this is the nature of living in a broken world being redeemed.
"The cross itself is the ultimate example of this intricate web of sorrow and joy. Jesus experienced sorrow incomprehensible, dying a gruesome and lonely death to absorb the entirety of God’s wrath toward evil in our place. This immense suffering is what leads to his ultimate exaltation in Revelation 5:12: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” Somehow, this gruesome, tragic event of his crucifixion is the very thing God uses to redeem the arc of history, reconcile sinners to himself, and heal every aspect of the world he created. We were not made to know death or pain or loss, and the cross guarantees that one day, all of creation will be restored to its rightful design."

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