When Jesus Meets Disability: How a Christian Hedonist Handles Deep Disappointment
The Works of God Conference
God's Good Design in Disability
A Christian Hedonist believes that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. As Jonathan Edwards says,
God is glorified not only by his glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in. When those that see it delight in it, God is more glorified than if they only see it. His glory is then received by the whole soul, both by the understanding and by the heart.1
Which means that we can never reduce God-glorifying obedience to the actions of our body or our reason. God-glorifying obedience always includes the state of the heart.
[As Paul said,] Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)
We can never reduce the virtue of giving to the act of giving. God loves a “cheerful giver.” He is more honored by joyful, hearty giving than by constrained, begrudging giving. And so it is with all our acts of love.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3)
Physical actions alone, even the offering our bodies to be burned for others, are not glorifying to God where joy in him — treasuring him — is not the ground and goal of our actions.
The Sorrow of Deep Disappointment
So this puts a very high premium on the state of our hearts. Which makes the issue of profound disappointment with all its sorrows especially urgent. How does a Christian Hedonist experience the sorrows of deep disappointment? The shock of a baby born with multiple disabilities? The jolt of an accident that leaves you paralyzed for life? The experience of growing up from birth to adulthood on a path of fifty surgeries? A marriage dominated by the never-ending vigilance over a child, then an adolescent, then an adult, who can’t care for himself? The onset of a disease that gradually takes away your muscles till all you can move is your eyelids?
I take it as a given that these things cause sorrow, grief, pain, heartache, groaning, frustration, and deep and long-term disappointment. The Bible has much to say about how to think about suffering, and how to deal with suffering. But the Bible never denies that there is suffering. It never denies that Christians experience the powerful emotional effects of suffering: we groan, and we hurt, and we weep.
So my question, then, becomes, how is all this sorrow and grief and pain and heartache and groaning and frustration and disappointment experienced by the Christian Hedonist? By the person who believes that God is glorified most in all of us when we are most satisfied in him?
The Preciousness of God's Sovereignty
So my focus in this message is mainly on the inner-workings of the Christian soul, not mainly on the theological foundations of God’s sovereignty. It is true that, without God’s sovereignty over disability, the inner-workings of the soul that I am going to talk about would be impossible. So I will say a word about it. But mainly I want to describe from the Bible the paradoxical emotional experience for disappointed saints who believe that God is most glorified in them when they are most satisfied in him.
The reason the inner-workings of the Christian soul are not possible without the sovereignty of God is that the strength of hope and peace and joy and contentment and gladness and satisfaction and delight in God that sustain the soul in sorrows of life-long disappointment are rooted in the confidence that God has the authority, the freedom, the wisdom, and the power to accomplish all the good he has promised to do for his embattled children. In other words, no obstacle in nature, no obstacle in Satan, no obstacle in the failures and sins of man can stop God from making all my experiences, all my brokenness, all my adversaries, serve my eternal wholeness and joy. If you listen carefully to that, you can hear that my exuberance for God's sovereignty rests not mainly on his causality in the past but mainly on his powerful capacities in the future. In other words, the main reason God's sovereignty is precious is that he has power to fulfill impossible promises to me in my seemingly hopeless condition. His ruling the past, including my brokenness, is simply a pre-condition of this hope-filled power.
So let me give a very brief glimpse at this sovereignty.
In His Hands
One of the most sweeping and foundational texts on the sovereignty of God deals directly with disabilities. In Exodus 4:11 God answers Moses’ fear that his eloquence is insufficient for the task, “The Lord said to him, ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’” Disability of speech impediments, disability of deafness, disability of blindness — God says, are in his hands to give and to remove.
To which we may respond by asking: What about natural causes? What about Satan? What about the sins of others against us, or even our own sin? And the answer is that these are real, but that none is finally decisive. If any of these play a role in our disability — and they do — they do so within God’s sovereign plan.
For example, Romans 8:22–23 makes it clear that our physical groaning with disease and disability is owing to the fact that our bodies share in the fall of all nature into futility.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
So one cause of our physical and mental brokenness is that we share with the whole creation in its subjection to futility. But that creation is under the detailed governance of God. Last Sunday I preached2 on this and gave texts to show that the roll of the dice, the fall of a bird, the crawl of a worm, the movement of stars, the fall of snow, the blowing of wind, the loss of sight, the suffering of saints, and the death of every person are included in the word of God: “I will accomplish all my purpose” (Isaiah 46:10). And in the word “He works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).
So yes, there are natural causes for our disabilities, but none of these natural causes is ultimate, none is finally decisive. God is.
Under God's Governance
So it is with Satan. He is real. And he is involved in damaging and hurting God’s people, including physically and mentally (Acts 10:38). But he is under God’s governance. In the book of Job Satan must come to God for permission to hurt Job (1:12; 2:6). And when he has done his work, striking Job with loathsome sores (2:7), Job says, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?”(2:10). And the inspired author of the book says, “In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (2:10). And later said that Job was comforted “for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (42:11).
So, yes, Satan is real and no doubt has a hand in causing many diseases and disabilities. But he can do nothing without God’s permission. And what God foreknows and permits, he plans. And what he plans for his children is always for their good.
Even Sin and Its Effects
And so it is with sins. We may smoke our way into emphysema, or we may lose a leg because a drunk driver crashes into us. But neither our sins nor the sins of another are finally decisive in what happens to us. God is. And the Christian may write over every attack of nature, Satan, or sin the words of Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” And the reason we can say this, even though we are undeserving sinners, is that God said it first over all the sins that brought his son to the cross for us. Herod, Pilate, cruel soldiers, shouting crowds — you meant my son's execution for evil, but I meant it for good (Acts 4:27–28). That's the foundation of all the good God promises in and through our disabilities.
And the good God has in mind for his children is has an immeasurable number of layers. He means it for greater faith: 2 Corinthians 1:9, “We felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” He means it for greater righteousness: Hebrews 12:11, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” He means it for greater hope: Romans 5:3–4, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” He means it for the greater experience of the glory of God: 2 Corinthians 4:17, “For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
You, Satan, you, natural causes, you, sinner — you all meant my disability for evil, but God meant it for good — the good of greater faith, the good of greater righteousness, the good of greater hope, the good of greater glory. Or, as John 9:3 says, don’t even consider secondary causes: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Only God Is Decisive
So this conference is based on the conviction that even though nature and Satan and sin may have a hand in disability, and should be resisted with prayer and truth and medicine, nevertheless, they are not decisive. God is.
And therein lies, for us, not mainly a theological problem with the past, but an invincible hope for the future. If God is sovereign then nothing is too hard for him. And by the blood of his son he has promised infallibly: I will meet all your needs according to my riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:19). My power will be made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). I will strengthen you and help you and hold you up with my righteous right hand (Isaiah 41:10). “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). I will not let any testing befall you for which I do not give you grace to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13). And I will take the sting away from your death with the blood of my son (1 Corinthians 15:55f). And I will raise you from the dead imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:52), and I will “transform your lowly body to be like my glorious body, by the power that enables me even to subject all things to myself” (Philippians 3:21).
And I will do this without fail because I am absolutely sovereign over everything and therefore, “I can do all things, and no purpose of mine can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). This is the foundation of our hope and the key to the inner-workings of the Christian soul.
How Christian Hedonists Grieve
So that is what I turn to now: What is it like for a Christian Hedonist to experience the sorrows of deep, long-term disappointment in view of this kind of news? Or, more specifically, what is it like for a Christian Hedonist to grieve deeply, sorrow deeply, hurt deeply, and yet never relent from the conviction that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him?
One true and inadequate answer to the question of how the sorrow of disability relates to the pursuit of joy in God is that they are sequential. We move from sorrow into joy and from joy into sorrow. Each is real, and each occupies our heart and different times. For example, Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” So there is a season of sorrow followed by a season of joy. (See also John 16:22)
That’s true. There are seasons of weeping followed by seasons of great rejoicing. But if we stopped with that, it would be very superficial. It wouldn’t account for the deepest inner-workings of the Christian soul. The question would remain: During those times of weeping, can God be glorified also by a simultaneous (not sequential) experience of satisfaction in God, a simultaneous joy?
That is the paradoxical emotional experience for disappointed saints that I want to point out from Scripture. The clearest expression of it is in 2 Corinthians 6:10 where Paul says, we are regarded as “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” Which is followed by “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Paul really means it when he says that he is sorrowful. The word (lupeo and congnates) is used 18 times in 2 Corinthians. This is Paul’s most grieving letter.
And well should he sorrow when you read the list of his burdens:
We commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities . . . imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger” (2 Corinthians 6:4–5). “. . . with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Corinthians 11:23–27).
When he says in 2 Corinthians 6:10 “sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” he means real sorrow. Real grief. Real pain. Not physical pain, but the emotional effect of pain. This is a real psychological state of Paul which we usually consider the opposite of joy. Sorrow tarries for the night; joy comes in the morning.
But that is not what Paul says here. He says, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” In other words, he really meant it in Philippians 4:4 when he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” He meant it when he wrote in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “Rejoice always.”
A Paradox of Christian Experience
This is not a sequence of sorrow and joy. This is simultaneous sorrow and joy. Charles Hodge comments on this passage:
This is one of the paradoxes of Christian experience. The believer has more true joy in sorrow, than the world can every afford. The sense of the love of God, assurance of his support, confidence in future blessedness, and the persuasion that his present light afflictions shall work out for him a far more exceeding and and eternal weight of glory mingled with his sorrows, and give the suffering child of God a peace that passes all understanding. He would not exchange his lot with that of the most prosperous of the children of this world. (Commentary on 2 Corinthians, 164)
“Sorrowful yet always rejoicing” — this is the paradoxical emotional experience for disappointed saints. Paul is testifying that sorrow and joy are both possible at the same time in the same soul.
Same Time, Same Heart
Here is another example of it. This hits very close to home for any of us who may have family members or people we care about very deeply who are not saved. Paul says in Romans 9:1-3
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. 3 For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.
“I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish.” Has Paul forgotten what he wrote: "Rejoice always, and again I says rejoice!" There is no reason to think he has. If you asked him, I do not doubt that what he would say is: “Anguished, yet always rejoicing.” Unceasing anguish. Unceasing joy. Not sequential, but simultaneous.
From a different angle he says the same thing in Romans 12:15, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” You might think that this can be sequential. But not really. The more people you know, and the more you care, the less sequential this can be. Right now you can probably think of someone you care about who is grieving. And you can think of someone you care about who is rejoicing. Paul’s testimony is that we can have deeply felt empathy for both of these people at the same time, in the same heart.
Discipline and Delight
This paradoxical experience of the Christian soul is less surprising when you realize that in the Scripture God himself is pictured as having this same capacity for paradoxical emotions. Consider Proverbs 3:11–12 which is quoted in Hebrews 12:5–6,
My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12 for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.
It’s the word “delights” that captures our attention. Because it’s in tension with “the Lord reproves him.” It won’t work to say that he is reproving the behavior and delighting in the person. No, he is reproving the person and delighting in the person. God can and does delight in us because of Christ and because of evidences of his own grace in our lives. But he also sees our defects and does not delight in them. God has pleasure in me, and displeasure in me at the same time. In fact, I would say, it is his pleasure in me because of Christ, that keeps his displeasure from being contempt, and makes it healing.
So let me draw the pieces together in a conclusion and then give you five applications.
A Summary Statement
God is so sovereign over the disasters and disappointments of our lives that he is able to make everyone of them serve our everlasting joy in him. This sovereign grace is the ground of our joy in the sorrows of deep disappointment. Not merely the ground of our joy after the sorrows of disappointment (as true as that is), but in the sorrows of disappointment. The Christian Hedonist does not merely pursue joy after sorrow. He pursues it in sorrow, in disappointment. His watchword in this life is 2 Corinthians 6:10, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
- If you experience this paradox of emotions (sorrowful yet always rejoicing) you will never have to pretend. Your sorrow will be real. And your joy will be real. You won’t ever have to be ashamed of saying, “I am very sad,” because it will not contradict, “I am very glad.”
- If you experience this paradox of emotions (sorrowful, yet always rejoicing), you will be able to bear the weight of sorrow that is inevitable in a world of so much sin and brokenness. The joy you know, in the very moment of heavy sorrow, will keep that sorrow from crushing you. It doesn’t make your sorrow less weighty. But it does make your sorrow less destructive.
- If you experience this paradox of emotions (sorrowful, yet always rejoicing), your sorrow will not ruin the joy of others, and your joy will not offend the sorrow of others. Your joy will be deep with its roots in the springs of God’s grace — the very same grace that sorrowing souls need. And your sorrow will not be morose or gloomy or self-pitying. It will have real love in it that cares for the good of others, and will not ruin anyone’s party.
- If you experience this paradox of emotions (sorrowful, yet always rejoicing), the ministries of your church — from the worship service, to the youth group, to the ministry of disability — will be free from silliness and trifling, and will have the aroma of Christ, with his wonderful paradoxes. The aroma of Christ who wept over Jerusalem: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:41–42). Yet who “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children’” (Luke 10:21). He wept and he rejoiced over the same city in the same condition. The spirit that will pervade your church will be a joyful seriousness, and a serious joyfulness.
- If you experience this paradox of emotions (sorrowful, yet always rejoicing), the beauty and worth of Christ will always be exalted — because you are always rejoicing in him (and he is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him) — and the ugliness of sin and all its effects will be shown for they are — because your glad and healthy heart is made sorrowful by it.
Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. May the Lord work this paradox — this miracle — in our lives.
1Jonathan Edwards, The “Miscellanies,” ed. by Thomas Schafer, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p, 495, Miscellany #448; see also #87, pp. 251-252; #332, p. 410; #679 (not in the New Haven Volume). Emphasis added.
2 "The Sovereignty of God: 'My Counsel Shall Stand, and I Will Accomplish All My Purpose,'" November 3, 2012