The word on the street.
I’m in a lot of Bible studies. I love meeting new people, learning about the Bible and lets be honest, a good nursery. Love a good free nursery on a weekday morning. Along the way I hear a lot of perspectives from a lot of women on God and His Word. In these conversations the supposed dichotomy of sorrow and joy has struck me.
“God says to rejoice in the Lord always, so that’s convicting to me because I’m definitely not always cheerful and happy in every circumstance, and this says I should be,” said one woman.
“My life lately has been a pattern of the heights of happiness and then the depths of sorrow. God seems to give me something and then just as quickly, take it away. I wonder if there even are people who live for the Lord but also have joy. I don’t know. I’d love to meet one,” said another.
The Word from the Lord.
Underlying my friends’ perspectives is an idea that sorrow and joy are oppositional; as if rather than sorrow and joy, the paradigm should be sorrow versus joy. But the Word of God and the very life of Jesus show this dichotomy to be a false one.
God does tell us to rejoice in him and be joyful always (Phil 4:4; 1 Thes 5:16). But he also calls his perfectly obedient son a man of sorrows who was at times deeply troubled and even wept (Isa 53:5; Jn 11:33-35). So how can we be joyful and rejoicing in the midst of our sorrow and suffering?
Looking to Jesus, rejoicing in hope.
In Romans 5:1-5 Paul tells us we can rejoice even in our suffering by faith in hope through Jesus.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
When we think about sorrow and joy as conflicting emotions we don’t properly understand the essence of either. Joy is not equated with happiness and cheerfulness. Rejoicing is not necessarily feeling thrilled or jumping up and down with excitement. Likewise, sorrow does not amount to hopelessness and despair. If it did, Jesus could not have experienced sorrow because his faith was perfect, enduring even the cross for the joy that was set before him (Heb 12:1-3). The ability to rejoice while suffering is possible because the Creator never leaves us with just the pain of outwardly wasting away, but offers incredible hope that inwardly we are being renewed day by day, so we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:16-18).
The sinlessness of Jesus’ sorrow tells us that we are not commanded to perpetual cheerfulness in this world. So my first friend can say, “Praise God.” The command to rejoice always in the Lord is not a burden, but a lifeline in sorrow to hope to protect us from utter despair. We are therefore not at the mercy of despair, which is just sorrow with no hope. So my second friend, too can say, “Praise God.”
The compatibility of joy and sorrow is actually God’s grace to us. And through our persistence to find joy in our salvation through Christ, our sorrow in this world is free to grow, deepening our compassion and driving us to point other sufferers to Jesus, our hope.
Dorsey Swindall is a biblical counselor with One-Eighty Counseling and Education in Louisville, Kentucky. She and her husband have two children.