Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. (Rom 12:12)
The church is talking more about suffering, and that is good. We talk about suffering. We talk about it with each other, and preachers are very aware that, though congregations may look happy on the surface, there is hardship in most every human being. Sufferers continue to hear supreme stupidity from friends and acquaintances—perhaps its eradication is coming—but we cannot deny that the church is more welcoming to suffering people.
There seems, however, to be a trade-off. When we take suffering seriously, when we shun platitudes and anything that could be perceived as minimizing hardships, and when we perceive denial of pain as a great danger, we devalue joy. Our use of the word wounded or broken suggests this. They are useful words, but they typically indicate a permanent condition that will always be dominated by suffering. We rarely encourage the wounded or broken to aim for joy and nothing less.
Why don’t we encourage sufferers to aim for joy? Perhaps we think of suffering and joy as a two-step process, as if what we see in Psalm 126:5-6—we go out weeping and return with shouts of joy—is the pattern. This view sees suffering and joy as fundamentally incompatible and unable to be experienced simultaneously. But that can’t be true. Scripture indicates that life in the age of the Spirit will have the hardest suffering and the greatest joy—and both can be experienced at the same time. The Apostle Paul illustrated this as one of the many of the implications of the gospel: “in all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Cor 7:4).
This means that even when we are in pain, we can go in search of joy with the expectation that it will, indeed, find and surprise us. Think about the end of war and enemies defeated (1 Chron 16:33, Ps 27:6), water in the desert (Is 35:6), how the Lord delights in the welfare of his servants (Ps 35:27), how the Lord comforts his people (Is 49:13), how the Father, Son and Spirit take joy in each other and, through Jesus, we are brought into that joy (John 15:11). Think about how forgiveness of sins has secured for us all the promises of God, which are summarized in his unceasing presence with us. This presence, and the future glory of seeing him face-to-face as we are brought fully into his love, is to be at the very center of our joy.
But in this search we still have a problem. The prevailing treatment and dominant metaphor today for alleviating pain is medication. We take a pill and wait for it to be effective. We give the treatment limited time to show its worth before we move on to a new prescription. Joy does not follow this pattern. It does not come quickly. In fact, if we expect quick results, we are not actually seeking joy and it will never come. Joy does counterbalance pain, but that is a side effect of joy rather than its goal.
Joy comes from the Spirit and by way of the various means of grace God has given us. And God has been pleased to give this fruit to those who earnestly seek it. It is the gladness that comes when our hope and love rest in Jesus above everything else.
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pet 1:8)
A version of this blog appeared in September 2013 on the Society for Christian Psychology website.