I Sing My Way Through Pain
Three Lessons in Resilient Joy
Joy is found in the strangest places. Take this parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). When we read this, we may assume the field is attractive, something we would love to purchase anyway: a sun-drenched meadow dappled with wildflowers, or a garden plot with rich soil ready for tilling.
But life is not like that. We can see the field in this parable as representing what God would have us embrace for the sake of our joy. His lot for you may not be attractive; it may resemble a sandlot with broken bottles, rusty oil cans, and old tires scattered around. It may be a bleak field, with nothing about it even hinting of wealth.
Until you discover it hides a treasure. Then the scrap of hard dirt and weeds suddenly brims with possibilities. Once you know great riches are concealed there, you’re ready to sell everything to buy it. It’s what happened to me.
Early on in my paralysis — and almost by accident — I unearthed an unexpected treasure. I opened the word of God and discovered a mine shaft. I dug my paralyzed fingers into a weight of incomprehensible glory, a sweetness with Jesus that made my paralysis pale in comparison.
In my great joy, I went out and sold everything, trading in my resentment and self-pity to buy the ugly field nobody else would want. And I struck gold.
After decades of using the pick and shovel of prayer and Scripture, my field has yielded the riches of the kingdom of heaven. I have found a God who is thunderous, full-throttled joy spilling over. His Son swims in his own bottomless ocean of elation, and he is positively, absolutely driven to share it with us. Why? As he puts it, “[so] that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Jesus is after nothing less than our full joy.
“Jesus is after nothing less than our full joy.”
But deep in the bedrock of Scripture, my shovel hit something hard and unyielding. God is nobody’s water boy. As the solemn Monarch of everything and everyone, he shares his joy on his own terms. And those terms call for us to suffer — and to suffer, in some measure, as his beloved Son did when he walked on earth (2 Timothy 2:12).
Rejoice in Hope
No one understands the relationship between joy and suffering better than the Son of Man. My God became human, his love insisting that I not be alone in my struggles. When I hurt, he knows. But Jesus does not merely sympathize with me; he’s done something about it. Through his death and resurrection, he has freed me from sin’s power and, in part, from the suffering that results from it. And he will free me fully in the age to come.
That coming age is my joyous hope! It’s hope that sees Jesus on his throne with his kingdom filling every corner of the cosmos. Hope that envisions sorrow and sighing erased from the face of the universe. Hope that eagerly awaits the moment when pain and tears will be banished and evil punished.
But that hope — the better country of Hebrews 11:16 — is still in the future. I’ve likely got miles to go before I sleep, and it’s getting harder to adjust to the harsh encroachments of older age and increasing pain. I could easily throw down my pick and shovel, collapse by the edge of my ugly field, and say, “God, I am so tired of this. Please, no more.”
So I stoke my hope. I am heartened by my precious Savior and the way he endured unthinkable suffering for the joy set before him. I follow him, parking my wheelchair on Romans 12:12: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” Now, it’s easy to see why God commands us to be constant in prayer, for it can be a struggle to pray when you’re suffering. And we understand why God commands us to be patient in tribulation, for it’s hard to muster patience when you’re in misery.
But it’s really hard to rejoice in hope — hope can feel so far off, vague, and nebulous. Yet God commands it. For if Jesus laid aside his robes to put on the enormous indignity of human birth for our sake, then his Father has the right to command our joy. He has the prerogative to call forth in us a happiness that’s commensurate with his Son’s sacrifice. We are to cultivate a joy that’s worthy of Jesus, our Blessed Hope (Titus 2:13).
Rejoice in Suffering
“We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3). I cultivate a habit of welcoming trials because it produces perseverance that results in godly character — the kind of character that easily grasps the appeal of Christ’s loveliness and yearns to see his magnificent denouement with his kingdom completed. This marvelous hope is enlarged every time I choose joy in my afflictions.
Hope then no longer seems far off, but very near. Not vague and nebulous, but concrete and real. Hope fills my vision with Jesus, making my pain seem light and momentary compared to the glory to be revealed. So when suffering begins to wither my resolve, I stoke my hope by taking several steps.
I sing my way through suffering. Whenever I feel downcast, I ask a few friends to pray, and then I worship Jesus with robust hymns filled with solid doctrine. Hymns that focus on the worthiness of Christ have enough spiritual muscle to barge into my discouraged soul and shake awake a hopeful response. When my weak mind is too foggy to put two sentences together in prayer, my heart defaults to hymns I’ve memorized, like “Crown Him with Many Crowns”:
Awake, my soul, and sing
Of him who died for thee,
And hail him as thy matchless King
Through all eternity!
I busy my heart with good things. I’m no fan of television. If a story does not convey moral virtue or truth that points to God, it will dull my heart before the first commercial. Why yield the precious real estate of my brain to that which flattens my spirit? Instead, I busy my heart with good books and videos, art, memorizing Scripture and poetry, and pursuing uplifting friendships that nourish my soul. “It is entirely fitting that our hearts should be set on God when the heart of God is so much set on us,” wrote Richard Baxter. “If God does not have our hearts, who or what will have them?” (The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, 102–3). When suffering overwhelms me, I crowd my heart with Christ.
I serve others who hurt worse than I do. There are always people in worse shape than I am, and my job is to go find them and encourage them in Christ. It’s what Jesus did in his last hours on the cross. In spite of his unfathomable pain, he looked out for the interests of his mother and the thief next to him, and he even pronounced forgiveness on the brutal men who tortured him (John 19:26–27; Luke 23:34, 43). I want to serve like Jesus in the same manner, so I invest my time in Joni and Friends and minister to the world’s families that struggle with disability. It’s always better — and more joyful — to give them relief than for me to receive it.
As we rejoice in our suffering, we experience a joy that’s otherworldly. It never asks, “How much more can I take?” but readily adapts to difficult situations with enough elasticity to spring back into shape if disappointed. Resilient joy makes hope come alive, so much so that we can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). I can be enjoying a glorious symphony or watching a breathtaking sunset, delighting in my backyard roses, or thanking God for his awesome creation, and still, there will be an accompanying sorrow. Part of my sorrow is related to my paralysis and pain, which never goes away; the other part is a heart-wrenching awareness that my crucified Lord gave his life so that I might enjoy the beauties of this world.
“As we rejoice in our suffering, we experience a joy that’s otherworldly.”
Suffering has made me hypersensitive to God’s joys. Such joy is an emotion and a fruit of the Spirit — it is deep and profound, yet tickles at the edges with an almost giddy delight over the prospects of its heavenly hope.
This sort of hard-fought-for joy swells Christ’s heart with gladness. The day is drawing near when Jesus will completely free us from all sin and suffering and present us “before the presence of his glory and with great joy” (Jude 1:24). And when joy becomes a way of life in your suffering, you prove the exceeding worthiness of Christ, which, in turn, will increase his joy in presenting you before the Father. I do not want to diminish that wonderful moment in any way. So joy is not an option. It is commanded for the sake of Christ.
That crowning day is drawing close for this aging quadriplegic. There’s no time to waste. So, it’s back to my sandlot of broken bottles and weeds with my pick and shovel. Back to the bleak field of pain and paralysis, for which no one would even put up collateral. From the beginning, God had set his eye on that ugly field for me, and I couldn’t be more grateful. And I certainly couldn’t be more joyful.