Living the Mystery of Joy in Suffering
In the fall of 2012, Bethlehem Baptist Church hosted a very powerful and memorable conference on disability. It was titled “The Works of God Conference: God’s Good Design in Disability.” The entire event was God-centered and inspiring and faith-building. I encourage you to watch it all. But in that conference, there was one particular bit from John Piper’s contribution that really stood out to a podcast listener who sent us the clip to feature on APJ. Here in this section, Pastor John is applying the testimony of the apostle Paul, when Paul said of his life that he was “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — it’s a paradox and a miracle and a mystery. And it needs to be applied to our lives, as Pastor John does here.
I’ve got a concluding statement and five brief applications. The conclusion goes like this: God is so sovereign over the disasters and the disappointments of our lives, that he is able to make every one of them serve our everlasting joy. He is so sovereign over all the disasters, all the disappointments of our lives, that he is able to take all of them and make all of them serve our everlasting joy.
This sovereign grace is the ground of your joy in sorrows — not after sorrows, but in the sorrows of deep disappointment. So, the Christian Hedonist does not merely pursue joy after sorrow; he pursues joy in sorrow, in disappointment. The watchword of your life then becomes “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
Sorrowful Yet Rejoicing
Now, here are five implications or applications of this. And it really is quite profound what happens in a church when this takes hold, and what happens in you and your family.
1. You will be free from pretending.
If you experience this paradox of emotions — sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — you will never have to pretend again. Your sorrow will be real. Your joy will be real. You won’t ever have to be ashamed of saying, “I am very sad,” because your sadness will not contradict or exclude being very glad.
2. You will survive under the heaviest suffering.
If you experience this paradox of emotions — sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — you will be able to bear the weight of sorrow that is inevitable in this world of sin and brokenness. The joy you know in the very moment of heavy sorrow will keep the sorrow from crushing you. It doesn’t make the sorrow less weighty. By strength, it makes the sorrow less destructive. So, the second one is this: this experience, without minimizing the sorrow, prevents it from destroying you.
3. You will enter others’ sorrows and joys.
If you experience this paradox of emotions — sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — your sorrow will not ruin the joy of others, and your joy will not offend the sorrow of others. This is delicate. This is the way we want to be, right? You want to walk through life in and out of relationships that are either sorrowing or rejoicing, and you don’t want to ruin them. You don’t want to hurt anyone. You don’t want to offend the sorrowing. You don’t want to rain on the party.
“Your joy will be deep with its roots in the springs of God’s grace, the very same grace that sorrowing souls need.”
Your joy will be deep, with its roots in the springs of God’s grace, the very same grace that sorrowing souls need. Your joy will be rooted down in grace, and it will understand grace as what people need, and you’ll have discernment as to how to bless them. Your sorrow will not be morose, gloomy, self-pitying. I’m speaking to myself mainly here. This is my battle. I am defending sorrow in this message. I’m not defending moroseness; I’m not defending gloominess; I’m not defending self-pity — I’m hating those in myself.
This sorrow that you have will have real love in it, and love cares for the good of others, so that you don’t ruin their party. I just think there’s a huge amount of selfishness in sorrow that walks into a happy room and says, “Y’all wouldn’t be happy if you knew what I knew about me.” And you just ruin it. You just spread your gloominess everywhere. So, you’re the center of the universe here? Get a life. You don’t have to ruin this party. Jesus can sustain you for an hour tonight. He can put a smile on your face. He can have you play some of the games. And then you go home and cry some more. That’s not hypocrisy — that’s love, because it’s different.
The sorrow that is being sustained by interpenetrated, simultaneous joy is of a different kind than worldly sorrow. Worldly sorrow has so much selfishness in it. And godly sorrow is real sorrow, but it’s just been changed, profoundly changed by this underpinning of peace and contentment and satisfaction and joy in a sovereign God, so that when you walk into a broken situation, your sorrow enables you to sweetly empathize, and when you walk into a happy situation, your joy rises to enable you to be a part of it.
And people will watch over the long haul. They won’t miss your pain if you’re real. If you’re walking in a church’s life and you’re just living a normal life, week in and week out, they’ll know your situation, and they will love you for not raining on the party, and not being glib and silly at the funeral.
4. You will worship with the aroma of Christ.
If you experience this paradox of emotions — sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — the ministries of your church, from the worship service, to the youth group, to the ministry of disability, will be free from silliness and trifling, and will have the aroma of Christ with his wonderful paradoxes. Your ministries will have the aroma of Christ, who wept over Jerusalem like this: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). And yet he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Luke 10:21). He wept and he rejoiced over the same city because of the same condition. What a strange Savior.
We need people like that in the world who are inexplicable in worldly categories. We need church services that people walk into and there is joy here, but it’s quite serious. But the seriousness is not heavy. It makes people say, “I can’t figure this out here. This is different.” And many, many thousands of our churches are throwing this away in the name of being cute or clever or slapstick or like the latest TV show or movies or anything to make it feel like something familiar. You don’t want them to feel familiar. You want them to be stunned, as if God had showed up from another world and created something new on planet Earth — not the latest movie or the latest comedy or the latest talk-show host. Why would you want to have the people feel at home with that? You want them to taste something so stunningly strange.
“If you experience this paradox of emotions — sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — you will never have to pretend again.”
So, that’s what I’m trying to do: just talk about the strangeness of the Christian life. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — what does that feel like on Sunday morning? What does a youth ministry feel like? What does a disability ministry feel like when that paradox, that strange miracle, has taken hold? The spirit that will pervade your church will be joyful seriousness and serious joyfulness. It won’t be morose. It won’t be miserable. It won’t be self-pitying. It will have a profound gladness about it.
I don’t do many welcomes anymore because of my present transition, but I used to stand right here, and at the downtown campus, and welcome the people every Sunday. I loved it. I loved to have that little informal moment, because in the pulpit I’m “Mr. Authority,” and down here I’m Daddy in the living room. And I was so profoundly aware: I’m going to welcome these people in such a way that those who are coming out of the funeral and out of the wedding feel good about this moment.
That’s impossible. Isn’t that wonderful, to have an impossible job? You know what it makes you do? Pray. It makes you desperate, makes you want miracles to happen. “Let me have a demeanor down here so that the hurting can say, ‘He knows,’ and the ecstatic can say, ‘He knows; he gets it,’ and everybody knows they have a Daddy in heaven who gets it.” If you catch the paradox of these emotions, it will affect your whole church.
5. You will look like Jesus.
And the last one is this: if you experience this paradox of emotions — sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — the beauty and the worth of Christ will be exalted, because he is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.
And if you’re always rejoicing, there’s always some flavor of his excellency in your life, some flavor of his worth and his value and his beauty. There’s something about you that means you’re loving Jesus, you’re valuing Jesus. He’s precious to you right now, with all the tears flowing down.
And on the other hand, the tears that are flowing and the genuineness and the authenticity of your sadness show you’re not out of touch with the ugliness of sin in this world and the horrors of its effects in human life. You’re not out of touch. You’re not glib. You’re not silly. You’re not superficial. You’re not blind. You’re not naive. When you get that in one person, the joy reflecting the infinite worth of Jesus and the sorrow reflecting the ugliness and the horrors of sin, you meet somebody more like Jesus, and you want to be like them.
Show Us More, Lord
So, we end. Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing — may the Lord work this paradox, this miracle. And please don’t over-read this man. I speak as one trying to understand and do this as a dad, as a husband, as a pastor right now. I’m speaking over my head. I’m saying words that I wish were more true for me.
Don’t walk out of here and say, “Well, I guess some people have got that wrapped up.” Nobody’s got this wrapped up. I’m lifting up a possibility that we’re all looking at and saying, “Really, Lord? Really? Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing? Oh, show me, show me what that would be like in my life!”