Joy is not an emotion that we typically associate with suffering. Sadness, anger, loneliness, depression, anxiety, yeah sure. Those fit well with suffering. But joy? How can we be joyful while we are suffering?
Suffering comes in all shapes and sizes. It is not mine, or yours, to judge whether or not a person is suffering. It depends on their maturity, their experience, their locale whether a situation or circumstance crosses the threshold of suffering. For some, the loss of a job may not seem like a huge deal, but for others it can be devastating. For some, a chronic illness is just a part of life, but for others, it can be considered suffering. I think we can all agree that when life is not as it should be we always experience a level of suffering. There are times in life when this is felt more acutely than others.
If a person was in pain or grieving a loss I would not blame them for experiencing all sorts of negative emotions: fear, anger, anxiety, sadness, depression. I might think there was something wrong with them if they did not experience those emotions. That is a natural response to life when it is not as it should be.
But Joy? In Suffering?
As a Christian, we are told to expect suffering in this life. We understand that we live in a broken, fallen world. Suffering is inevitable. We are also told–even commanded–to be joyful in all things. All is a pretty comprehensive word and I assume it would encompass suffering. How can I be joyful in suffering?
Well, first, is it even possible? I think it is. Joy is something we experience in relationship. Neurologically speaking, joy is the feeling one gets when they see someone who is happy to be with them. When a person’s eyes and face communicate that they are delighted to be in your presence, that is joy. We can enjoy loving relationships with people even in the midst of grief or pain. We instinctively do this; why else do we gather as a family following the loss of a loved one? To share our grief with people who love us and are happy to be with us.
As Christians, we believe that we are in relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. We believe that God is always present with us. And, believe it or not, God is happy to in our presence. God delights in us. We are his prized creation and his precious children. And relational attachment to God helps us experience joy in our suffering. Relational attachment to others who love us brings us joy in our suffering. When we know people are willing to endure our suffering with us, we can experience joy.
Joy is Necessary for Enduring Suffering
Furthermore, joy is an absolute necessity if we are to survive suffering. Joy does not replace negative emotions, but it does come alongside of them and help to regulate them. Several years ago, when I lost my job, I was angry. And I was sad. And I was scared for my future. However, my wife and some close friends surrounded me and listened to me and encouraged me. My anger or my fear didn’t disappear, but the joy I received from those loving relationships helped to keep me from spiraling further into those emotions. It kept me from despair. Joy is necessary for enduring suffering.
Look at the Apostle Paul. He was in prison when he wrote his letter to the church in Philippi. Yet, you wouldn’t know it from reading that letter. He is constantly talking about joy. He is able to experience joy because of the friendships he has made with the Christians in Philippi and, most importantly, because of the relationship he has with Jesus Christ. Paul gladly endured imprisonment and other forms of persecution for the sake of Jesus and his Good News. It was the joy he found in fellowship with Jesus and his fellow believers that carried him through. Paul lived the words of Nehemiah: “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”
The Example of Jesus
Of course, Jesus is our paradigm of joy in suffering. We look to him in our suffering because he bore all suffering on the cross. Hebrews 12:2 puts it this way: “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (NIV).”
In our race of faith and in our search of perseverance, we fix our eyes on Jesus. Remember where joy comes from? From the look on a person’s face when they are happy to see us. We look to Jesus to find our source of joy. He is happy to be with us. But furthermore, he bore all suffering and shame on the cross. And he did it “for the joy set before him.” Jesus experienced joy even on the cross. He could do so because of his perfect relationship with God the Father, knowing that his Father delighted in him. Secondly, he knew that his suffering would make it possible for us to be in relationship with him. Because Jesus delights in us, he was delighted to suffer on our behalf so we could be in relational harmony with him.
If God cares about us deeply and delights in us, why would he allow us to go through suffering? Why not just rescue us from it? Short answer: I don’t know. It is certainly a mystery of faith, and a question I have repeatedly asked God without receiving a satisfactory answer. The one thing I do know is that God is suffering by my side as I suffer. He knows my pain and my grief, my fear and my anxiety, my anger and my sadness. Knowing this allows me to find joy even in times when it is difficult to do so. That joy helps me carry through to the other side of my suffering.