The Joy We Know Only in Suffering
The longer I walk with Jesus, the more I see that sufferers often have secret access to happiness.
I used to think Satan loved suffering, that it was his weapon of choice against our faith. But while he certainly (and viciously) tries to make the most of it, I now suspect Satan secretly hates suffering. He’s simply seen it draw too many people closer to Christ. He has watched, for thousands of years, while God has taken all that he meant for terrible evil and worked it for undeniable good (Genesis 50:20).
The apostle Paul, for instance, was imprisoned over and over, beaten with rods, slandered by his enemies, flogged with lashes five times, stoned almost to death, often deprived of food, water, shelter, and sleep — “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” (2 Corinthians 11:26) — and yet always rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10). The chief of prisoners could write from the loneliness, injustice, and distress of his cell, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
Paul used to seem abnormal and extraordinary, even spectacular. I thought he was an anomaly. Until I began witnessing more and more men and women like him today, braving inconceivable trials — conflict and cancer, betrayal and abandonment, persecution and loss — with surprising joy in God. They prove what we all experience in one way or another. If we look to him when we’re thrown into the wilderness of suffering, he will lead us to secret sanctuaries of peace, strength, hope, and even joy.
My Soul Will Be Satisfied
King David was driven from his home by betrayal and mutiny, running for his life in the desert, and yet he could write,
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night. (Psalm 63:5–6)
The psalm doesn’t make clear whether David was running in the wilderness from Saul early in life or from his son Absalom later on. We do know someone wanted him dead: “But those who seek to destroy my life shall go down into the depths of the earth” (Psalm 63:9). Yet, while his life was threatened by an army of unseen enemies, his soul would be satisfied by what the eyes of his heart could still behold: his God. Even while he was hunted outside the city gates, meditation upon his Beloved brought him to a royal banquet.
And David feasted. So much so that we still feast from his table in the wilderness. No author in the Bible speaks more about joy than him. He crafted the majority of the language we use about our happiness in God, and yet, he spent much of his life running from men who wanted to kill him. If we look closely enough at his suffering and hope, his sorrow and joy, we will find comfort for our wilderness — for the days, or weeks, or even years God carries us through pain, weakness, loss, or suffering.
Well-Fed in the Wilderness
David feasted upon what he saw. His delight began in the mind and was digested in the heart. This food and drink was available to him in all circumstances. But what did David see?
He hadn’t met the Messiah yet, but he tasted what Jesus has become for us. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, he sings from the valleys of suffering, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands” (Psalm 63:3–4).
David’s song teaches us that true joy in God can be heard in the wilderness from lips that have considered God’s steadfast love. His enemies had cast him out of the holy city. Satan tried to drive him far away from God — and instead Satan delivered him into God’s hands. David was miles and miles from the temple, but God had made him a sanctuary of worship in the wilderness — a sanctuary with higher walls of safety and deeper wells of satisfaction.
David’s once comfortable and secure life was ripped apart, but his joy remained. And deepened. Even in the desert of desertion and deception and insurrection, his soul was well-fed as he beheld his God.
Your Sanctuary in the Wilderness
But real joy in God does not always look or feel full. Just a few verses earlier, while David’s heart aches with sadness and anxiety, admitting his dryness through the fires of affliction, he cries out with joy in his anguish,
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. (Psalms 63:1)
So, is David starving or feasting in Psalm 63? The ambiguity calls with hope for weary and fainthearted followers of Christ. Real joy doesn’t have to be put-together and smiley — not in Paul, not in David, and not in you or me. It is just as often tear-stained and worn out, crawling after God with whatever strength and longing we can muster. Our joy will prove strong and durable, even invincible, because God will keep us, but it will run low and feel fragile along the way.
And God does not look any less satisfying when we are weak, or fragile, or spiritually hungry, if in our weakness we cry out to him, if in our fragility we lean on him, if in our hunger and thirst we know that he alone will satisfy.
God looks just as magnificent in the desert of verse 1 as he does at the banquet table of verse 5 — “My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food.” Our desperation for him in the hardest days glorifies him every bit as much, and even more, than our delight in him when all is well. We can expect to see more of him when we have less to hold on to here.
The Suffering Satan Hates
Satan may despise our suffering because he knows how often it backfires on him — when we face hunger and need and worse with contentment (Philippians 4:11–12); when we treasure what our sufferings can produce in us (Romans 5:3–4; James 1:2–4), and for us (2 Corinthians 4:17); when we rejoice in the tested genuineness of our faith, refined through fire, more precious than the finest gold (1 Peter 1:6–7). When suffering begins to serve our joy and not undo it.
God can build a blazing and refreshing sanctuary in the wilderness. He turns our deserts into places for us to explore and express greater depths of delight in him. Instead of being a threat to real joy, he often makes our suffering a means to even more.