Nine years ago this month, my dad went home to be with the Lord. One of my sweetest memories of him is how he loved to sing hymns. Whether he was fixing stuff around the house or leading our church’s congregational singing on Sunday mornings, I remember my dad’s strong baritone lifted in praise. Among his all-time favorite hymns was Horatio Spafford’s “It Is Well.” Even now, I can picture him singing, with great gusto,
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well, with my soul.”
“Each day, our heavenly Father gives comfort for today’s sorrows and blessings for today’s joys.”
As a child, the words of this hymn held little meaning for me. I knew nothing yet of the billowing sorrows of life in a fallen world. But now, I think I understand why “It Is Well” was beloved by my dad. I too have felt pain and sadness; I too have experienced suffering and loss. But I have also tasted joy in the midst of grief. I have discovered, as my dad must have known, that it is possible to feel sad and happy at the same time; or as the apostle Paul put it, to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10).
How can we experience these contrary emotions at the same time? How can we learn to be “always rejoicing” in the midst of sorrow? We need the power of the Holy Spirit, to be sure. But Scripture teaches us to cultivate joy in the midst of sorrow through the daily habit of looking for God’s good gifts (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26). Each day, our heavenly Father gives comfort for today’s sorrows and blessings for today’s joys. Happiness in him comes one day at a time.
1. Don’t wish for yesterday.
Wishing for “the good ol’ days” or longing for “the way things used to be” will smother God’s gifts of joy for today. Here’s the thing about nostalgia: it’s often a cover for discontent, for dissatisfaction with God’s good gifts in the present. If we live in the past, wishing things were like that again, longing for some blessing we no longer have, we miss out on the joy and delight God has for us today. That’s why Solomon warns us, “Say not, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecclesiastes 7:10).
We often forget that yesterday had its sorrows too. We are also prone to forget the sustaining grace of God that carried us through those sorrows. If the present trouble is pressing hard, we may be tempted to think life was better before this trial. But longing for the past does not lead to wisdom or joy. So, let’s not wish for yesterday, but wisely thank God for yesterday’s mercies that are new again today (Lamentations 3:21–23).
2. Don’t long for tomorrow.
Sometimes we try to escape today’s sorrows by imagining a happier life tomorrow. Our impulse is to think that circumstances should be getting better soon, and then we will be joyful again. We conjure up images of the conflict magically sorted, the sickness miraculously healed, the work finished, the children all grown.
We tend to think,
- When I finally graduate, then I’ll be happy.
- If I get married, then I’ll be content.
- If I have a baby, then my life will be complete.
- When I get through mothering little ones, then I’ll feel rested.
- If I survive my life with teenagers, then I’ll be free.
- When I get through this trial, then my life will be good.
Not true! Tomorrow might not have today’s trouble, but it will have trouble of its own (Matthew 6:34). If we’re always imagining a trouble-free future, we miss out on the joy God has for us today. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble, and sufficient for the day are God’s gracious gifts of joy (James 1:17).
3. Live expectantly today.
If we are living for the future or pining for the past, we will be crippled by today’s trouble, and wind up bereft of today’s blessings. We cannot heed this well-known biblical exhortation: “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
“Tomorrow might not have today’s trouble, but it will have trouble of its own.”
How do we rejoice and be glad in this sorrowful day? By following the psalmist’s example of prayer and watchfulness for God’s blessings: “O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I prepare a sacrifice for you and watch” (Psalm 5:3). When I awaken to troubles aplenty and take them to the Lord in prayer and watch for his blessings throughout the day, I am frequently surprised and delighted by God’s goodness, and my heart is filled with a joy that transcends my circumstances.
The sorrowful yet ever-rejoicing Elisabeth Elliot learned this lesson over a lifetime.
I want to put it down right here that I have certainly “tasted the joy.” I cannot imagine a more wonderfully blessed life than mine. Faithfulness of a loving Father — that’s what I’ve found, every day of every week of every year, and it gets better. (Keep a Quiet Heart, 73)
4. Remember the greatest day ever.
But what if we pray and watch and still see no apparent blessings for this day of trouble? We must return to the place where we received the greatest gift of all. On a single day, over two thousand years ago now, God sent his perfect Son to die for our sins. He took our greatest trouble — the wrath of God we deserved — upon himself. He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, the very ones we feel so acutely this day (Isaiah 53:4).
No matter what sorrow we may be feeling today, we can sing (with great gusto!) this happy truth:
My sin — oh, the bliss of this glorious thought —
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.