I have been sad for months. My sadness has made me impatient with worship songs that insist I be happy. I heartily sing, and believe, the songs that celebrate all that God has given me: forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, and the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. These are mine through the lavish grace of Jesus. Yet, I recently found it hard to declare, “It is well with my soul.”
It is, of course, well with my soul. And if all my happiness depended only on me and the condition of my soul, I could sing. But I am broken and fragile. I have seen a brother in Christ fall back into drugs, sin, and now prison. People I love are self-destructing. I have seen relationships and marriages blow apart—dreams shatter. My community is full of drug abuse, domestic abuse, theft, and broken families. Our church limps along even though longing to have an impact on the community. I should be sad.
It is a weird and ironic truth that I would be a more joyful Christian if I cared less about others. This may not be saying much, but I am probably as spiritually strong as I have ever been. I am abiding in God’s Word and consistent in prayer. But I have never shed so many tears. All this, however, does not fit the standard description of the victorious Christian life.
My response to a lot of contemporary Christian songs about God keeping us through the storm is, “Yes, yes, I know, but it’s not all about me and my salvation.” What about my family and friends that are not saved? Can we talk about them—their current misery and eternal fate? What about the suffering of kids whose parents are incarcerated for selling meth? By the way, the band Offspring has a song titled “The Kids Aren’t Alright” that perfectly expresses many of the sources of my sorrow. What about believers who have fallen away?
Of course, some well-intentioned friend will clobber me with Paul’s words, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:1). This is, however, the same Paul who said, ” Telling you the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience is bearing witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish myself accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” Paul is so sad he would give up his own salvation if it would bring his fellow Jews to faith in Christ. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and was described in Isaiah 53 as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. One of our least understood beatitudes may be, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The promise is comfort—strength that comes alongside—not the removal of the things we mourn.
So what is the outcome? We are indeed to rejoice always—but in the Lord. Paul rejoiced always while having unceasing grief for others. In Jesus Christ I am wonderfully and eternally blessed, and I can declare Jesus worthy of all praise, glory, and honor. But in this broken world, I will weep and intercede for others.
Yes, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God” and are “called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). But this does not mean all things are good; it means only that God is able to bring good from even truly evil things. God may use a woman’s sexual assault to equip her to help other women find healing—but this in no way means we shouldn’t mourn or regret her assault. A lifetime of abusing drugs can be used by God as a testimony to God’s ability to save and restore the most damaged life, but we can still mourn that the addict didn’t raise his or her children and wasted years in sin and prison.
Yes, both Jesus and James talk about rejoicing when faced with persecution and various tests of our faith. Jesus says, “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” Matthew 5:12. James echoes this, “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” Some will cite these verses as evidence we should be happy about all things. But I believe Jesus and James are both talking about persecution for the sake of Christ. Paul speaks of the privilege of being counted worthy to suffer for Christ. There are, however, some things we should mourn rather than celebrate.
We should not “consider it all joy” when those we love say no to the light and yes to the darkness, and walk away from Jesus. We should not rejoice in the suffering of the innocent. We should not rejoice over injustice to others. We should not rejoice in the destruction of marriages and families that leave so many wounded for so much of their lives. We should not rejoice that the church in many places has little impact on their communities and is being abandoned by many believers. The healing ministry of Jesus suggests we should not rejoice over sickness, but rather seek God’s healing touch. We can rejoice in strife that poisons and divides the Church. However, we should always find joy in the love of God.
In fact, the more joyful our own experience of Jesus, the deeper our sorrow for those who refuse to find rest, peace, and healing in His arms. It is our joy and security in God that empowers us to look steadily at the misery of the world and weep over it with the tears of God. We need not escape this sorrow through shallow religious clichés about God being in control. God does not always get his way. The Bible says God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” II Peter 3:9. Unless we are universalists that believe in the end all are saved, we must confess that God is not going to get what he desires—some will refuse to repent and be lost. This is sad.
The dangers and consequences of sin are real—the choices are real. Jesus says of Jerusalem, “How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling. Behold your house is being left to you desolate.” Notice it is not God that was unwilling.
Paul greatly feared that people would forsake the gospel and it might turn out that all his labor was in vain. A failure to bear fruit should worry and sadden us—and drive us to repentance and intercession. Jeremiah wept over the coming judgment and exile of God’s people. Daniel wept over the captivity of Israel. Nehemiah wept over the ruins of Jerusalem. Loving God’s people means weeping for them.
I suspect the call to be simultaneously filled with sorrow and joy is merely a call to maturity. It is humbling, and honestly, embarrassing that only now I am realizing I must do both at the same time and not ride the emotional roller-coaster from joy to sorrow. It is a call to live in the midst of a spiritual and emotional paradox. It is, I think, a call to be like Jesus.