One of the most famous lines from the musical “Oklahoma!” is “I’ve got a wonderful feeling. Everything is going my way!” We all have an easy time feeling good, wonderful, and quite happy when everything is going our way. When we are healthy, have money in the bank, get along with friends, have some success at work or school or sports, we feel joyful. Even when we experience seasons of genuine and lasting joy in God through prayer, worship, fellowship, and Bible study it is usually coupled with prosperous times in this world. For example, we are more likely to smile at church when life is easy and comfortable.
But what happens with the ease and comfort of life fade into the black night of suffering and sorrow? What then? On Sunday mornings we desire joyful worshipers and we want this joy to be evident by smiling faces. But this sort of thing cannot be forced. Commanding people to smile during a worship service is not only silly and frivolous, but it is also unbecoming and pretentious. Joy cannot be forced on the anguished soul. Too often worship pastors begin services with a spirit of light-heartedness and silliness with the purpose of making people comfortable when in all reality all they are doing is making a mockery of both the seriousness of Christ and the suffering of those in the congregation. Being commanded to smile for the sake of looking happy is a slap in the face to the weary soul and a very real problem in the church. Do we desire true joy? Or would we rather see smiling faces regardless of whether there is true joy in God behind them. When will we ever stop hiding behind our smiles? Sometimes, and for some, oftentimes, everything is decidedly NOT okay. For some worship pastors, smiles indicate happiness. But happiness or smiles are not what we should be striving for because smiles do not always indicate joy in God. Rather, we should be striving for heavy-hearted and sorrowful rejoicers in Jesus. We must strive to see believers come in soaked in blood and sweat and tears and dirt proclaiming, “Your grace is sufficient and Your Son is supreme!”
But no! We push and call one another to come in clean and neat and tidy and fake with a smile and a handshake. “Why aren’t you smiling?” This question is asked every Sunday! What we should be asking is “Why aren’t you suffering?” Because in a world that despises Christ and his gospel, a man or woman utterly sold out to his mission will suffer (Acts 14:22)! We must stop ignoring suffering with a smile and start embracing suffering with the supremacy of our Suffering Servant Savior Jesus Christ.
“But it is church! You should be happy to be there to worship God!” True. Believers should (note the emphasis) be joyful and happy during worship services. The sin of this world brings many exceptions. We must stop ignoring them. Whether this necessarily demands smiles is up for debate, but of course a room full of smiling faces is exactly what should happen because we are gathering in the presence of a holy God who has redeemed us from the guilt and eternal punishment of sin. What is there to not be happy about? But for some reason, despite these truths, some of us are still unhappy during worship because of the dire circumstances engulfing our lives. Some of us have lost children. Some have experienced miscarriages. There are those who have lost their jobs, health, relationships, reputations, and much more. The constant physical, emotional, and psychological pain that many experience could never be accurately or sufficiently described. Then there are those of us who just for some reason feel sad. Bouts of extreme depression plague many Christians. These same Christians question their salvation daily. They cannot find assurance regardless of their biblical convictions and confidence. This may be you today. The truth is many of us suffer on a daily basis in the worst possible way right between our ears. Our minds and emotions betray us. The reality is that life and the turmoil and anguish we experience in it causes our souls to grow weary, our hearts to grow faint, and our spirits to lack joy.
Is There Any Hope?
But is there a medium? For the clinically depressed or Christian in a suffering as a slave-prisoner in a labor camp or the Christian mother who lost her child to cancer or the Christian child who must move from Mom’s house to Dad’s house every week, dealing with divorce and its consequences, is there any hope for them? Is there any hope for us to rejoice and find joy when everything is not wonderful? When everything is going against us, when our enemies surround us, when the morning will not dawn on the darkness that plagues our souls, can we find joy?
Christians’ Dual Nature Suggests Sorrowful Rejoicing is Normal
The Bible seems to indicate that this is not only possible, but it is normal for the Christian. Firstly, the Christian lives in a peculiar predicament in this world. We are in Christ. We are righteous. We are holy. We are waiting and working by grace for a day when we will be perfectly glorified in Christ. Our citizenship is in heaven. We desire to please God through obedience. Yet, our sin still plagues us. Though we are free from sin’s power, we are not yet completely rid of it. Though we have been regenerated, our sinful nature still remains. We groan inwardly as we are new creations in Christ who ache from the aftertaste of being old creations in Adam. We feel like schizophrenic shells as we desire so desperately to be joyful in Christ and live in righteousness and strive toward holiness, yet we sin. This is the ancient Pauline struggle. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). So, if you feel depressed or unhappy even in worship services sometimes and do not understand yourself as you so desperately want to feel joy in God, Paul says, “Welcome to my world!” You are in good company. Feeling sorrow though you desire to feel joy is normal.
Sorrowful and Rejoicing?
This is only comforting if there can still be joy in the multitude of sorrow; if there can still be light in the dark cloud that looms over our lives. Is there not only double-desires, but also double-states of living for the Christian? Again, we turn to Paul. Paul commands that we rejoice in the Lord always (1 Thess. 5:16; Phil. 4:4) in and through all suffering (2 Cor. 6:10). Paul arguably suffered more than any other apostle and he was also more joyful than any other apostle in Christ (see his letter to the Philippians). Paul’s most joy-filled letter was written from prison! The suffering this man experienced was very real and at times was deserted by even his closest friends (2 Tim. 4:10). There was joy to be found in a prison cell. This was an unshakeable joy that not only coexisted with sorrow, but seemed to flourish and grow in times of sorrow and suffering.
Consider Jesus. The anguish Jesus suffered in Gethsemane did not diminish his joy. He was sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (Heb. 12:2). Though the pain and suffering and anguish of the cross and judgment of God he was about to face was enough to make him sweat blood (Luke 22:44), he found tremendous joy in the future glorification of not only himself but also his Father and his brothers who would later believe in him. Jesus glorified God in the sorrow of the cross. Jesus obeyed the Father through all obedience. But it was not reluctant. It was willful and in a real sense joyful.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” –Hebrews 12:1-2
Though the dark cloud of sorrow permeates our lives and hovers over us as a constant reminder of pain and suffering, there is joy to be found in Christ. When your heart and mind remind you of the pain of this world, remind yourself of the future glory that is to come. Remind yourself that the more you suffer, the more you identify with Christ. The more you experience pain and anguish, the greater the opportunity to show Christ and glorify him in this world (Col. 1:24). You can be a light in this world even when you are personally plagued with the darkness of depression. In fact, your expressed and experienced joy through the pain and through the night will shine forth like a glorious light–a light that would otherwise blend in with experiences of comfort, peace, and prosperity.
The question before us now is not if this is a possibility or not–to find joy in sorrow. The question is, “Is this an existential reality or merely a philosophical notion and possibility?” In other words, how can we experience joy amidst sorrow? I think a practical answer can be found in the work of the Puritan Robert Asty (1642-1681). Asty once wrote, “[Rejoice] in the dawnings of the day, even when you cannot see the sun in its noonday brightness.” This is a beautiful analogy that teaches us to fight the good fight of the faith even when the darkness will not lift. So, here are a few implications of being sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.
1. When you do not desire to read, study, and meditate on God’s Word, worship through song, giving, service, or obey God in any other way, do it anyway! Sometimes joy in God will follow after saturating yourself in the things of God even if the initial desire to do so is not there. Do not allow a sinful lack of desire for God or joy in God lead you into a further sin of ignoring God. This means that sometimes it is necessary to sing on Sunday morning without a smile! Instead, let the biblical truths you sing from your heart change your heart and alter your desires. A smile may still not come, but your heart may still rejoice in the Lord. Joy that is found in the remote and deserted field of pain and sorrow is a beautiful treasure indeed. Hold it tightly.
2. Pray for a desire for God. Pray for God to grant your soul with joy in him. Remember, joy cannot be forced on anyone. However, God can provide your soul with more joy-evoking things than any other pleasure this world has to offer multiplied ten times over! Use John Piper’s prayer acronym IOUS to find joy in your sorrow. This has proved very helpful for my own Christian walk when I stumble in the darkness of despair.
I- Incline my heart to your testimonies (Psalm 119:36).
O – Open my eyes to see wonderful things in your Word(Psalm 119:18).
U – Unite my heart to fear your name (Psalm 86:11).
S – Satisfy me with your steadfast love (Psalm 94:11).
Joy is Found in Christ Alone
We live in a fallen world and we ourselves are marred by sin. At times we will simply not desire God. At times we will sulk in depression and despair. Still some of us struggle medically with clinical depression. In all of these things, know the grace of God empowers us to obey his command to rejoice in the Lord! The joy of knowing Christ and being found in him is far greater than any measure of despair or anguish. If you struggle with finding joy in God today, look to Christ! Meditate on his work on the cross. He came from heaven and sought you, bought you, and sealed you for God. No temptation of despair deterred him from his mission–a mission of blessed joy, eternal joy in his vicarious death and glorious resurrection. All our hope is in him and all our joy as well. The means to relieve your sorrow rests in him. Come to Christ and drink from the streams of eternal joy for the satisfaction of your dry and desolate heart. The only solace for your mourning, the only comfort for your anguish, the only joy in your suffering can be found in Christ. Remember the Five Solas to experience joy in suffering. Joy can be found amidst suffering in by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone! The gospel promises a future joy in the presence of an eternally joyful God (Ps. 16:11). But when the darkness will not lift, when your pain and sorrow do not subside, trust in the steadfast love of the King of Glory, the Blessed God, the Man of Sorrows to sustain you. Learn with Paul that his grace is sufficient (2 Cor. 12:9). Find joy amidst suffering in Jesus’ suffering, and in his glory.
So, at the next worship gathering, sing whether you feel like it or not. Don’t smile. Cry. Genuine worship and sorrowful rejoicing will glorify the risen Savior. And in the words of Robert Asty, be willing to continue “walking in the dark” for as long as God will keep you there. His sovereignty is your comfort. His suffering is your example. His glory is your future.
Preach this to yourself every morning if you are walking in the darkness of depression and despair:
Fear not, soul, do not weep over your empty bottle, do not weep over your lost estate, do not weep over your past comforts, but look up to the fullness of Jesus. He hath enough for your relief, He can command the fullness of the earth into your condition, and give it you by what hand He pleaseth.–Robert Asty
I plead with Asty from my soul to yours,
O, come and draw thy comforts from Christ, and do not draw them from the creature; do not draw them from secondary helps, but draw them from the Fountain; do not sit down at the streams, but away to the Fountain, to the Ocean, that is always full!
For those of you who are suffering and struggling to find joy in God, let the words of this hymn soak into your anguished soul.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
His oath, His covenant, His blood,
Support me in the whelming flood.
When all around my soul gives way,
He then is all my Hope and Stay.
Here are two books to consider if you are experiencing a season of sorrow and are struggling to find joy in God.