Their smiles haunted me for weeks. They lingered in my mind as I lay in bed.
These men had suffered the loss of all things, literally — disowned by their families, beaten by their enemies, threatened everywhere they went. All because they believed the same truths I believed. Had I lived and served in their shoes, I would have received the same. Their clothes could not cover the bruises. Their bruises, however, could not hide their joy.
Our team had come to Andhra Pradesh, in southeast India, to strengthen and equip pastors. As I stood before them, though, I felt as if God had opened an ocean for me to walk through. Each smile exploded with the kind of power that raised Jesus from the dead. Their deafening voices sang louder than anyone I had ever heard. They set up massive speakers so that everyone, even their oppressors, would hear what they had seen. Everything about them said, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy” (2 Corinthians 7:4).
Those men taught me that deeper reservoirs of joy are running through the worst I might one day suffer. They taught me that Christians can suffer for Christ not only with hope, but with expectation.
New Worlds of Light
Years later, I read a poem that brought their stunning joy to life again. The last stanza of “The Comforter” by Thomas Moore (1779–1852) reads,
Then sorrow, touch’d by thee, grows bright
With more than rapture’s ray;
As darkness shows us worlds of light
We never saw by day.
Could anything more convincingly prove we know God like the strength of our joy when no one expects us to have any at all? Few things shed more light on the great object of that joy than the dark clouds of life on this earth. What we see and experience with God in suffering often surpasses the highest pleasures without hardship. There are worlds of light in the valleys we so desperately want to avoid. We miss so much of the vitality and vibrancy of reality because we close our eyes in the dark places — instead of looking for more of God there.
Sometimes God turns out the lights to show us something we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. We realize we needed to be blinded by darkness to learn how to really see.
Shepherd in the Valley
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” writes David, the poet-king, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). Whenever we find ourselves walking, in Christ, through the low ground of the valley, we walk with “the Father of lights” (James 1:17), the one who raises the sun every 24 hours to remind us that darkness cannot stand before him.
God said, “Let light shine out of darkness” (2 Corinthians 4:6), and then, when the world went black with sin, he sent his Light into our darkness (John 12:46). The good shepherd took on flesh and became the Lamb. He knows how to navigate our valleys because he died in his own. The Lord Jesus is our shepherd (Psalm 23:1); therefore, we shall not lack anything necessary for our final good. He restores our souls and leads us in paths of righteousness, not with the sympathy of a distant relative, but with the empathy of one who suffered the same and more.
Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). He floods our valleys with light — even our valleys — by swallowing our darkness. When he climbed that awful tree, however, the darkness could not extinguish his light (John 1:5); the darkness only intensified the rays of his glory.
He swallowed the darkness by choice. “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17–18). He suffered horrific injustice, yet he was no mere victim. He was, at every moment, the Victor. He rules the deserts and the oceans, the mountains and the valleys, uniting them all in himself and his plan for the universe (Ephesians 1:10).
“For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus knew there were worlds of light waiting in his darkest hour — depths of joy he would not have tasted in the safety and security of daylight. So, he bids us come and die, with joy.
Light of the World
By suffering and dying for joy, Jesus paved a shining path of life right through the darkness in front of each of us. When he said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden,” he knew just how much darkness we would endure to shine that brightly (Matthew 5:14). The light does not immediately eliminate the darkness — the stain of sin, the trouble in our relationships, the curse of sickness, disease, and death — but it does and will overcome the darkness, slowly for now, but one day completely. Then, Christ’s world of light will be the only world we know.
Therefore, “we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:16–17). As the waves of suffering come, threatening to drown us, we know that they’re actually slowly renewing us, and preparing us for glory. We would not ask for them, but in the end we also will not trade anything for what they have produced in us.
And we would not trade what our joy in the waves says about God. Paul writes, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7). We live, and suffer, so that as others look in on our lives, they marvel at how powerfully Christ upholds and satisfies us with his light (2 Corinthians 4:11).
Let Your Light Overflow
How does the light of God prevail in and through us? The same way it shone through those persecuted Indian pastors, through the relentlessly afflicted Paul, and through the executed Christ: in self-giving love for others.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4)
The blessing of God’s comfort climaxes not merely in being received, but in being shared. That should not surprise those who follow and treasure the crucified one — but it does. However difficult it may be to believe in the moment, we will see more of his light in the darkness when we focus not on ourselves, but on others in the valley.
In one of his letters, Paul mentions some extraordinary sufferers who, like those remarkable pastors in India, would have loved Thomas Moore’s poem. “In a severe test of affliction,” the apostle writes, “their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2). Light had filled their darkness to full and overflowing. Having found worlds of light by night, they flooded this world with Christ, drawing us all into their light, their love, their joy.