Does Joy Come After Suffering, Or in It?
Today’s question comes to us from a listener named Matt, who emailed us this. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for taking my question. I know you often talk about joy inside suffering, like Paul did. And that leads me to my question. In Psalm 30:5, the psalmist says joy is found on the other side of suffering — weeping lasts the night, ‘but joy comes with the morning.’ But Paul’s testimony in the New Testament claims he found joy together with his suffering. He said this in 2 Corinthians 6:10, talking about being ‘sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.’ So does joy follow suffering? Or is there joy inside suffering? And did something change in the new covenant?”
My mother was killed in a bus accident in Israel in 1974. I was 28 years old. My brother-in-law called me and told me that my mother was dead, and my father was seriously injured and might not make it. That’s all he knew. He would keep me posted. I hung up the phone, and I told Noël what he told me. I went to the bedroom, knelt down by the bed, and wept for a long time.
Rock of Christian Joy
And in my weeping — in my weeping; simultaneous, not sequential — I was rejoicing. The weeping was owing to, of course, the overwhelming pain of sorrow and loss — massive loss of one whom I so, so cherished.
The joy was this: “Thank you that I had such an amazing mom. Thank you that you gave her to me for 28 years. Thank you that, evidently, she didn’t suffer very much. Thank you that she is in heaven and not in hell. Thank you for countless kindnesses she showed me growing up. Thank you that my father is still alive; please save him. Thank you that I will see her again. Thank you, Jesus, for dying for us and covering her sin and my sin and his sin.” Every sweet memory that tumbled to my mind made tears flow more and joy taste sweeter.
So, beyond any shadow of a doubt in my mind, it is not double-talk to say “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” — sorrowful, yet always, in the very sorrow, rejoicing (2 Corinthians 6:10). That’s not stupid; that’s not double-talk. That’s simultaneous reality. I’ve tasted it.
“The rock of joy is submerged in grief, but it is not dislodged, overthrown, or removed.”
And yet, it is just as true that my night of weeping would give way, in due time, to a tearless joy. That’s what I think the psalmist means when he says that joy follows sorrow. There are waves of sorrow and pain and loss that break, big waves that break, over the unshakable rock of Christian joy, and these waves submerge the laughter in the surging. You can feel it: the surging surf of weeping that wells up unbidden from your heart. But they don’t dislodge the rock, and the waves recede in due time, and the rock glistens again in tearless sunlight.
Paul and the Psalmists
Now, nobody should pay any attention to anything I just said, unless there’s some good biblical basis for it. Experience doesn’t settle things for us, so let me test what I just described as my experience with some Scripture. Psalm 30:5 says,
[God’s] anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
And Psalm 126:5–6 says,
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
Clearly there is an experience with tears followed sequentially by shouts of joy. And Matt wonders if there’s a conflict between this and 2 Corinthians 6:10, which says we are “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” So, we have tears followed by shouts of joy in Psalm 30:5, which is sequential, and joy always in sorrow in 2 Corinthians 6:10, which is simultaneous.
So, Matt wonders if the difference is because one is before Christ — before the new covenant, he asks — and another comes after Christ, after the work on the cross. Is that why there’s a difference between the Psalms and 2 Corinthians? And the answer is no, that’s not why. We know that because the same sequential reality that the Psalms described is experienced in the New Testament.
Labor of Joy
Let’s look at a couple of those, because even as we look at the sequence, we find that in this sequential description of sorrowful then joyful there is also joy in the sorrow.
So, let’s take John 16:20, where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament. . . . You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” That’s sequential: “Because I die and then live again” — then he makes the comparison — “you’re going to have joy.” But here’s what he says. This is the analogy he’s making:
When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. (John 16:21)
There is sorrow in the anguish of labor pains, followed by joy. Now, anguish is not owing to unbelief. The anguish is owing to pain: the season of pain gives way to the baby in the arms and brings a season of tearless joy.
But even in the cries of labor pain, there is what Paul calls the joy of hope. He says in Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope.” And in Romans 5:2–3 he says, “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings.” So, he put the two right together in Romans 5:2–3. We rejoice in our sufferings — our labor pains, you might say — because all Christian suffering is like giving birth: God makes it bring “an eternal weight of glory,” he says in 2 Corinthians 4:17. So, there is both sequential and simultaneous sorrow and joy.
Paul gives another example of sequential and simultaneous sorrow and joy. When Christians had died in Thessalonica, Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep [that is, those who have died], that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Clearly, they are grieving; they’re grieving over the loss of the loved one. But the day will come when those tears no longer flow like that — that sequence. There’s the overwhelming grief and loss and weeping, and then the season comes where that’s over.
“Hurting and joy are not opposites; they’re not contrary. They can exist at the same time.”
But even now, until that day of tearlessness, the tears are not like those who have no hope. And I take that to mean what Paul said in Romans 5:2: “We rejoice in hope.” The hope of glory does not contradict the tears that are flowing at the very same time of the joy of hope. It doesn’t even dry the tears — not immediately. But our joy is unshaken, immovable by the tears. The rock of joy is submerged in grief, but it is not dislodged, overthrown, or removed.
Every Tear Wiped Away
Here’s one other passage that may give the key to how there can be both sequential and simultaneous experiences of sorrow and joy. John describes the age to come in Revelation 21:4 like this: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
So, here he says that there’s a sorrow-to-joy sequence between this fallen age and that perfect age. Here there is suffering and pain, and there we have joy. This is the age of tears and mourning and crying. In that age, all tears will be wiped away — no more crying, no more pain.
But notice that tears are correlated with death: “[God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” And crying is correlated with pain: “nor crying, nor pain anymore.” I take this to mean that Christian tears and Christian crying are not owing to the loss of hope, nor owing to the dislodging of unshakable joy. Rather, tears are owing to death, and crying is owing to pain; we cry because it hurts. There’s real pain in the world — physical pain, emotional pain — and there’s no stopping the tears, right? When they come, they come. You don’t say, “Oh, I’m not supposed to have these.” No, it hurts. It hurts. And hurting and joy are not opposites; they’re not contrary. They can exist at the same time. That’s what creates the sequential experience of sorrow and joy.
Christian joy doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain. And when we feel it, tears come. We don’t decide for them to come; they just come. And the psalmist is saying, “They will be wiped away.” And Paul is saying, “They may for a season submerge the shining face and laughter of the boulder of joy in Christ like surging waves do, but they don’t dislodge the rock of joy.” We are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.