Can Joy Come in Sorrow?

Lessons for an Authentic Christian Life

Virtual Conference in Europe and Asia

One of the most natural questions in the world is to ask how joy relates to sorrow in our lives. Or we could rephrase the question: How does happiness relate to pain or weeping?

The reason I say it is a natural question is because all of us experience both of these regularly. Sad, painful, disappointing, frustrating, damaging realities come into our lives more or less regularly. Sometimes they’re big. Sometimes they’re small. But no human goes very long in this world without something happening which we would call sorrowful or painful or disappointing.

And it is just as true that virtually everybody, some more frequently than others, experiences moments that make us happy, cheerful, pleased, content, satisfied. For some, the pain is dominant. For others, pleasure is dominant. But it is natural — indeed, inevitable — that we experience both, whatever the proportion.

So, it’s a natural question to ask how these two different experiences relate to each other.

Age-Old Question

Not only is it natural for me personally to ask this about myself, but also, in my experience, people around me are regularly asking this question. For example, my son Barnabas just published a book called Hoping for Happiness. I just finished reading it three days ago. And there it was again, right there in chapter 7, titled “Living in Times of Trouble.” Now, how would he handle this? I wondered. Here’s the key section from page 84:

The Bible reframes happiness for us by [making it more complex]. We tend to think of being happy or sad, but Scripture depicts a sort of happiness in the midst of sadness. In this life we will have trouble, but in this life we will have happiness. And this doesn’t mean being on an emotional yo-yo (even though it will sometimes feel that way), but rather experiencing two things at once: one being the damage caused by sin and the other being the happiness given by God. (emphasis added)

“The present, fallen, sinful age in which we live is the season of tears and mourning and crying and pain.”

So, he’s putting the emphasis on the experience of happiness and sadness at the same time. He’s arguing that this experience is what’s special about being a Christian. Is that right? If so, what’s it like? Does the Bible describe it for us, and help us live our lives that way?

Here’s another example of how this issue is pressed in on me recently. Just last week I sat down to record five sessions of Ask Pastor John. And the first question that Tony, the host of the program, pitched to me was this:

In Psalm 30:5, the psalmist says joy is found on the other side of suffering — weeping lasts for the night, “but joy comes with the morning.” But Paul’s testimony in the New Testament claims that 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?

In other words, do Christians have a new kind of experience on this side of the cross, which the psalmists did not have on that side of the cross? So here we are in this message about joy in sorrow, and I am brimming with fresh thoughts about an old topic, because of having to think about these things from several new angles recently, and because of drawing in some texts that I had not thought about in this regard before.

Strategy for Theology

Here’s what I think will be helpful — at least, this is helpful for me. First, we will walk through a series of biblical passages that puts the focus on the sequential nature of sorrow and joy — first the one, then the other. Then, we will walk through a series of biblical passages that emphasize the simultaneous experience of sorrow and joy — not one after the other, but both at the same time. Then, we will step back and ask, How can this be? What kinds of qualifications or definitions do we have to apply to sorrow or suffering, and to joy or happiness or pleasure, in order for both of these groups of passages to be true?

I hope you see the importance of doing it this way — that is, gathering two groups of passages that express truths that don’t seem to fit together, and making sure that both of them have their say, and then going deep to the common root of both of them, so that we can see the more profound meaning of each.

So many times, we make mistakes in biblical thinking because we focus entirely on one group of passages that support something we like, or condemn something we don’t like, and ignore the other passages that seem to say something different. What I have found over decades is that, because the Bible is God’s word, and therefore is consistent and doesn’t contradict itself, there are deeper things to be seen when both groups of texts are put together than if we only focused on one group or the other. The upshot of this approach is that we not only see the deeper unity between the texts, but we see with greater clarity what each group itself means.

“Christian joy doesn’t mean we don’t feel pain. And when we feel it, tears come.”

So, I hope you see a strategy of doing theology here. And not just doing theology, but preaching and building up the congregation, and the effort to raise up a mature people. Imagine a church whose pastor only preached and taught that there are seasons of sorrow and they are followed by seasons of joy: sometimes you’re in the one, sometimes you’re in the other. And that’s all he ever said. You would not have a mature congregation. Their experience would not be fully biblical and mature.

Or imagine a church whose pastor only preached that every time you are sorrowful, you should have joy in that sorrow. And he never mentioned texts like “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). You wouldn’t have a biblical and mature congregation. They would only have half the truth. Half-truths don’t make mature people.

So, what I’m doing here is both an effort to understand our real experience of sorrow and joy, and how we as church pastors and leaders can grow biblically rooted, mature, stable Christians.

Texts for Joy Following Sorrow

Let’s put the first group of texts in front of us: two from the Psalms, one from Jesus, one from Paul, and one from John.

Psalm 30:5

[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.

In some sense, the joy that comes in the morning wasn’t there in the evening of weeping. And presumably the weeping that was there in the evening went away in the morning. That’s a real sequence. And a real experience.

Psalm 126:5–6

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.

The picture is that the farmer is weeping while he sows his seed, and then at the harvest, there are shouts of joy. That’s a real sequence: first one, then the other.

John 16:20–22

Here we have the words of Jesus about what it will be like for his disciples to see him die and then live again:

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 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. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.

The disciples walked through hours in which there was sorrow followed by rejoicing. And Jesus compares it to a woman in labor pains followed by the joy of holding the little baby. Those are very different experiences. First, the cries of birthing and, then, the joys of the baby that was born.

Romans 12:15

This is a simple command from the apostle Paul:

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

“Tearful joy in God will be replaced with tearless joy in God. Painful joy in God will be replaced with painless joy in God.”

In other words, just because Paul says in another place, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4), don’t plan the funeral as though it were a festive wedding. And just because Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting,” don’t throw a blanket of gloom on the bride’s joy by bringing your weeping to the wedding celebration. “For everything there is a season . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4).

Revelation 21:3–4

Finally, in this group of texts, a word from the apostle John about what we might call the cosmic sequence of sorrow and joy:

I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 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.”

There is a sense in which we can say that the present, fallen, sinful age in which we live is the season of tears and mourning and crying and pain. Then Jesus comes at the end of this age, and all of that is over — “the former things have passed away.” So, there’s a kind of cosmic, or historical, sequencing of weeping and rejoicing — an age marked by much, much weeping and pain, followed by an everlasting age with no weeping and no pain.

There we have the first group of biblical texts — namely, the ones that focus on sorrow followed by joy, rather than joy in sorrow. Those texts are really there. They really do mean sequence, and so they describe a real dimension of true Christian experience.

Texts for Joy in Sorrow

Now we turn to texts that focus on the simultaneous experience of joy in weeping, joy in pain, joy in sorrow. If you’re like me, you’re starting to get impatient, because you want me to give a clear definition of joy and of sorrow and sadness and pain. I don’t blame you for wanting me to define those as soon as I can. I think that’s a good instinct for you to have. Speakers ought to define their terms so they don’t create unnecessary controversy or confusion.

But in this case, I think the definitions need to come after we see the texts, instead of before, because it’s the apparent conflict between these groups of texts that demand certain definitions for joy and sorrow. So here are some of the passages that focus on joy in sorrow. Let’s start with the one we have seen already.

Philippians 4:4

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

He did not have to say “always” — “Rejoice in the Lord always.” And what makes this even more striking is that immediately before that verse, he’s dealing with the painful disunity between Euodia and Syntyche. And five verses before that he says, “Many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18). Paul had just said before that in verse 17, “Join in imitating me.” And the first act he gives them to imitate is tears over the enemies of the cross — followed in a few verses by, “‘Rejoice always,’ and lest you think I’m writing carelessly, I’ll say it again: ‘Rejoice.’”

Paul is not a careless writer. So, I conclude that even while the tears are flowing for the enemies of the cross (according to Philippians 3:18), there is a kind of joy in Paul’s heart that can’t be shaken. The enemies of Christ cannot succeed with emotional blackmail against Paul — that is, they cannot manipulate him by demanding the ruin of his joy because of their unbelief. Paul’s tears for their sake do not undermine his joy in the very Christ he wants them to rejoice in. How could he weep over their not rejoicing in Christ, if he ceased to rejoice in the very one he wants them to rejoice in?

Lest we think that Paul’s sorrow over the unbelief and the perishing of lost people is perhaps just an occasional interruption to his joy, listen to Romans 9:2–3,

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.

The issue in those verses is that Paul’s Jewish kinsmen are rejecting Christ and therefore are accursed and cut off from Christ and headed for eternal destruction. Paul lives with this sorrow day and night. He calls it “unceasing anguish.” That’s amazing for a man who says, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Either Paul is a careless communicator or has a poor grasp of his own experience. Or Paul carried in his heart a constant anguish for lost loved ones, and along with it — at the same time — unceasing joy in the very Christ that he wishes and prays they would rejoice in (Romans 10:1).

Consider just two more passages from Paul about joy in suffering, not just after it.

Romans 5:3–5

We rejoice [or exult] in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

“There is no condemnation now or forever. And Jesus is an all-satisfying treasure and friend.”

This is the most extended probing into the reason why Christians can exult in suffering and not just after it. Suffering, he says, produces the endurance of faith, and when faith survives and flourishes in a crisis of suffering like that, it reveals a character that God approves, and that steadfast approvedness confirms that we are real and strengthens hope, and that hope does not let us down, because it is sustained by the work of the Holy Spirit pouring into our heart the real experience of being loved by God.

Isn’t that amazing?! Paul actually believes that such a sequence of solid, experiential, theological argumentation in the mind and heart of the believer can keep joy alive in the midst of suffering. Amazing. There are so many people who think that truth, and the interlocking of truths, can’t produce powerful affections in the heart that sustain us in the worst of suffering. If that’s what you think, you should rip Romans out of your Bible and throw it away. And while you’re at it, most of the other books are going to have to go as well.

2 Corinthians 6:10

Finally, the passage that we quote around here most often to sum up this group of passages about simultaneous joy and sorrow is 2 Corinthians 6:8–10:

We are treated . . . as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich.

Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.

Lessons for the Christian Life

We’ve seen two groups of biblical texts: one group focusing on the fact that rejoicing follows sorrow, and the other group focusing on the fact that Christian joy is real in sorrow. Now let’s step back and make three observations that I think make sense out of this, and become really important lessons for living an authentic Christian life.

1. Reasons for joy and sorrow can converge.

One of the reasons there can be joy and sorrow simultaneously is that the reasons for each of them are different, and those reasons can both be true simultaneously in our experience. The best way I can make this clear is to recall the way I experienced my mother’s death.

I was 28 years old and married with a 2-year-old son. My mother and father were leading a tour in Israel. I got one of those dreaded phone calls from my brother-in-law, and he said, “Johnny, your parents were in a bus accident, and your mother is dead, and we don’t know if your dad is going to make it. That’s all we know. I’m sorry. I’ll keep you posted.”

I gave my wife the facts, went to the bedroom, knelt down, and wept for a long time — as I had never wept before, with uncontrollable sobs. And as I wept, joy kept bursting up out of the depths:

  • “Thank you, Father, that she was a spectacularly good mother to me.”
  • “Thank you, Father, that I had her for 28 years.”
  • “Thank you, Father, that in recent years we had cleared the air from teenage years of ingratitude.”
  • “Thank you, Father, that evidently she did not suffer long but died quickly.”
  • “Thank you, Father, that she is happier right now in the presence of Jesus than I am sad.”
  • “And thank you, Father, that my father is alive. Please save him.”

I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is not a contradiction to say that I was profoundly sorrowful and profoundly joyful at the same time. Because the different reasons for both of them were true. The loss of a person you cherish is painful and brings tears, unbidden. And yet, reason after reason poured out of my memory for joyful thanks.

2. Pain and joy are grounded on different realities.

We can see from Revelation 21:4 that tears correlate with death and loss, and crying correlates with pain. “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.”

Pain and loss hurt. And hurt brings physical weeping and emotional sorrow. That’s what pain is. Pain is what causes weeping and sorrow. 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 come. And the Bible speaks about that pain in relation to joy in two ways — two real, true ways.

“Nothing can dislodge this boulder of joy in all that God is for us in Jesus.”

When the psalmist says, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5), he means tearful joy in God will be replaced with tearless joy in God. Painful joy in God will be replaced with painless joy in God. The tears will be wiped away, the pain will be healed. You can’t stop pain and tears from coming, but you can keep joy from going. Because the pain and the joy are grounded on different realities.

3. Nothing can dislodge our joy in Jesus Christ.

My third observation is a word picture. Picture joy as a great granite boulder on the rugged seacoast of your life. It is solid because it is built out of the sovereignty of God, and the forgiveness of sins, and the preciousness of Christ. God is in charge of what happens to you. There is no condemnation now or forever. And Jesus is an all-satisfying treasure and friend. This is an unshakable boulder of joy — real gladness, real satisfaction in all that God is for you in Jesus.

In the calm seas and the sunshine along the coast of your life, the granite glistens and shines with silvery laughter. And when the storm comes and the waves rise, they crash over that boulder and submerge it out of sight. The bright, shimmering laughter disappears, and on the surface, all is tears and the surging of the waves of weeping and sobbing.

But nothing can dislodge this boulder of joy in all that God is for us in Jesus. It cannot be broken in pieces, and it cannot be sucked out into the sea. And when the waves recede — as the grief of my mother’s loss eventually did — the boulder shimmers again in the sunlight with laughter. Tearful joy gives way to tearless joy.

So, I urge you to embrace all the Scriptures about joy and sorrow. And grow your families and your churches into mature, strong, biblical Christians who know from experience and from Scripture that weeping lasts for the night, and joy comes in the morning. And who know that the night of weeping is also a night of unshakable joy.