"Sorrowful yet Always Rejoicing"2
I don’t like sorrow. You might respond, “Of course, who does?” But I really don’t like sorrow. My natural instinct is to flush it out as quickly and aggressively as possible. I don’t want to think about what is wrong, and I especially don’t want to talk about what is wrong. I want to smash my pain into a tiny ball and launch it into outer space.
For a long time I equated my instinct with godliness. The Bible teaches that God loves me and that his purposes are always good; therefore, it commands me to rejoice always (Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16), and to give thanks in every situation (1 Thess 5:18). It even commands me to “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 4:4). Therefore, I assumed that if I allowed sorrow to persist, I was either failing to believe what I knew to be true about God, or I was failing to submit to his will. Therefore, I felt justified in following my instinct of pushing out sorrow as quickly as possible. I believed that joy and sorrow are incompatible.
But the longer I did pastoral ministry, the harder it became to flush sorrow. The weight of my responsibilities became heavier as did the spiritual battles I watched people fight and sometimes lose. Every time I grieved, I tried to drive out my sorrow and experience what I thought was joy. But my understanding of joy and sorrow began to change when I studied biblical joy for a sermon series, and it has continued to grow as I have meditated on the subject.
Are Joy and Sorrow Mutually Exclusive?
My thinking began to change as I noticed how many of the biblical heroes experienced sorrow. We commonly call Jeremiah the “Weeping Prophet,” and in Lamentations he reflects on his sorrow rather than running from it. The Gospels record many instances where Jesus (the perfect Son of God who always experienced perfect joy) grieved over the spiritual condition of his disciples and of Israel (Mark 10:14; Luke 19:41; John 11:35) and felt deep sorrow over the prospect of his death (Matt 26:38).
But Paul’s example especially impacted my thinking. He talks over and over in his letters about the importance of joy (Phil 4:4) and his experience of joy (Phil 1:18). But Paul also talks openly about the sorrow he experienced doing ministry. For example he says of writing a previous “severe letter” to the Corinthians, “For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote to you, with many tears.” You can almost hear the heaviness in his voice when he states that the capstone of his sacrifice for the churches is, “What comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation?” (2 Cor 11:28–29). Paul’s love for the churches brought him a lot of deep pain, and he did not see this pain as conflicting with biblical joy. Rather, he characterized himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Cor 6:10). This statement especially impacted my journey toward understanding biblical joy. Paul saw no conflict between sorrow over the failures of those he loved and a deep-seated biblical joy. Quite the opposite, Paul experienced deep sorrow as a result of the ministry, and he made no apologies for his sorrow. He even says that sorrow is a necessary part of life in community when he commands Christians to, “Weep with those who weep” (Rom 14:15).
Therefore, I came to understand that joy is not antithetical to sorrow; rather, joy is the ability to rest in God’s wisdom and love and to give thanks for his will because I know it is good. Paul illustrates the stability of Christian joy when he speaks of being “content” (Phil 4:11) no matter his circumstances “through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). Paul is not saying that he went skipping through the woods when he suffered persecution and loss or, as I had thought, that he refused to feel the pains of life. Rather, he had a stable joy that was greater than his circumstances because ultimately he knew that God is good and his will is good and because God gives grace to endure. In sum, sorrow is unavoidable in a sin-cursed world. Rather than running from it, we must learn how to rejoice in the face of sorrow. This raises the question, how do I pursue joy in the face of sorrow? I’d like to offer six steps to pursuing this joy.
Step #1: Resist Bitterness and Self-Pity
Joy is not antithetical to sorrow, but joy is antithetical to bitterness and self-pity. If you are going to honor God and experience his grace through the pains of life, you must recognize the difference between holy sorrow and sinful self-pity. This is where we often go astray. Life hurts, and we don’t just grieve over our pains, we begin to wallow in them. We develop a “Woe is me” attitude and lose perspective on our pain. We think that it is more than we deserve and worse than it actually is. We become bitter against God because we think he has been unfair, and we become bitter against our neighbor because we believe that he is enjoying the blessings that should be ours. If you are going to maintain godly joy in the face of sorrow, you must recognize the line between grieving over legitimate loss and self-pity or bitterness. By the grace of God, refuse to go there. Instead jump to step #2.
Step #2: Pray
“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:6–7). These verses highlight two important principles for maintaining joy in sorrow. First, anxiety is wrong. You must resist the urge to worry, and instead you must pray. Second, maintaining Christian joy in the face of sorrow is only possible in the strength of Christ. Paul reiterates the same principle a few verses later in vv. 10–13. I can only have true contentment “through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). Don’t try to walk the tightrope of joy and sorrow by yourself, or you will fall into the pit of bitterness and self-pity. Develop a habit of immediately running to God in prayer when sorrow strikes.
Step #3: Humble Yourself before the Lord.
When someone is grieving, we often quote 1 Peter 5:7, which states, “Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.” But we often miss the fact that “casting” is grammatically dependent on the command in v. 6. Casting my cares on the Lord only happens as I obey the command to, “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God” (1 Pet 5:6a). Therefore, when sorrow comes, I must humble myself before the Lord, meaning that I acknowledge my limitations and God’s sufficiency to solve my problems. And when I humble myself this way, I can give my cares over to him, knowing that he can handle them and that he cares for me. This is an important aspect of maintaining joy during many sorrows. Much of our sorrow is often the result of putting far too much trust in our own ability and, therefore, trying to shoulder an impossibly heavy load. I must humble myself before the Lord and trust him to solve problems that are beyond me. Exercising this kind of humility brings joy and rest.
Step #4: Stay Anchored to the Character and Promises of God.
In the face of immense sorrow, Job declared, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and He shall stand at last on the earth; and after my skin is destroyed, this I know,that in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25–26). Very often our sorrow is multiplied by the fact that we don’t see a purpose or a resolution to our pain. When we feel like we are walking in the dark we must hold tightly to the handrail of what we know to be true about God. He is good. He is wise. He is in control. He will give grace. He will accomplish his good purposes. Someday you will be with Christ in heaven, and he will eliminate all sorrow and tears. By the grace of God that you have already prayed for, cling to these truths. As you do, you can have joy in the midst of deep sorrow because you know that your Father is accomplishing his good and wise purpose, and that he will carry you to glory.
Step #5: Embrace God’s Purpose for Your Suffering.
Many people respond to sorrow with flight. They mask their pain with drugs and alcohol. But Christians have many “sanctified” ways of pretending everything is okay. We may run from our problems using television, food, exercise, or work. There is value in distraction or laughter for handling sorrow (Prov 17:22). But God also commands us, “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing” (James 1:2–4; cf. Rom 5:3–5). Sorrow and suffering are necessary to my sanctification, and my sanctification is far more precious than my temporal comfort. When life hurts, I must not run from my pain; instead I must embrace God’s purpose for my suffering believing that his will is good. When I do this, I can rejoice knowing that God’s ultimate good is being accomplished.
Step #6: Love Your Neighbor
Paul said, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor 1:4–5). One of the most practical steps you can take to have joy in sorrow is to view it as an opportunity to grow your ministry. Rather than wallowing in self-pity, give thanks for how God can use your experience to help others through similar experiences. Anticipate what God is going to do, resist self-pity, and focus on manifesting the grace of God through your pain.
Sorrow is a necessary ingredient to my sanctification and to my ministry to others. Therefore, these six steps are not a cure for sorrow; rather, they are God’s means to have joy in sorrow and to grow through sorrow. I am so thankful that our sorrows are not meaningless or endless. They have a purpose, and they will end in glory. May God help us learn how to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”