For today, we are hitting pause on our series through Mark for a two-part Christmas series on this topic: Receiving Joy in a World of Sorrow. Is that even possible? Is it possible to receive joy in the midst of sorrow -- in the midst of pain and suffering?
Well, here’s what we do know. I don’t have to sell you on the fact that we live in a world of sorrow. If anything is a common denominator amongst this group -- among the human race -- is pain and heartache. It’s disappointment and broken relationships. It’s fear and sadness. From the moment of the fall with Adam and Eve, when sin was introduced, it says that thorns were introduced in our work (making it harder and more frustrating) and conflict and tension became inevitable in our relationships. People and our work create a world of sorrow. And that’s not even mentioning the travesties that we hear and read about on the news.
So I don’t have to convince you of the fact that there is a lot of suffering in our world. But what is not so easy to sell you on is that you can have joy in the midst of that mess -- that joy and sorrow can actually coexist. We don’t believe that. The reason I know that we don’t believe that is by simply observing how we deal with the unavoidable pain that life brings. For the most part, people fall into two groups. (I’m going to paint with broad strokes here, but think about which one you more closely identify with.)
The first group are those who believe that this world is full of too much pain and brokenness to feel anything but sadness and anger. Joy is not possible with the state of this world being what it is. There are even some in this group that believe it’s wrong to be joyful -- they feel a little guilty for having too much fun and they don’t like anyone else to be joyful. If they are a “spiritual Christian” they would say, At least we have heaven to look forward to. That’s the hopeful pessimist that believes that joy is for another world.
That’s one group. And then there’s another group that is trying to find joy in all of the wrong places. They have equated joy with the pursuit of pleasure. They believe that to live a full life one must reject and distance themselves from any negative emotions and experiences. This group avoids vulnerability. This group avoids negative feelings whatsoever. There’s a lot of suppression and numbing taking place with this group. And because of all of that, they can’t ever be present and attend to their own pain or the pain of others.
I know that these are two extreme depictions. But most of us fall into either one or the other. But there’s another group that we can be a part of. We want to be in the group that embraces joy and sorrow as coexisting realities -- the group that rejects the idea that we have to choose one or the other. We don’t want to constantly be “woe is me” or “woe is us”. And we also don’t want to pursue joy in an escapist type of way -- where we laugh at the world but we’re not able to face the brutal realities. I want to convince you that it is absolutely possible, and necessary, for us to be at peace and full of joy while being present with the sorrow of this world and with our own brokenness. And the birth of Jesus, and even his life and ministry, gives us a great picture of how we can bring together these coexisting realities.
Luke 2:8-12 NIV
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
I know that these were shepherds who were not related to Joseph and Mary, but can you imagine with me for just a moment your mom coming to see your new baby boy and finding that the conditions in which he was born is a barn? A nasty, smelly barn! Would that bring her joy? Yes and no. Yes because she is a grandma. But heck no because no child should be born in those conditions; especially her grandchild.
What do you think the shepherds thought when they heard that the Messiah that they had long been awaiting as a people was now being born? When you hear that first part there is great joy. But then they hear that they will find him not in a palace, not in a home or hotel, but in a manger; in a feeding trough; in a stable. It doesn’t take away the joy, but it’s perplexing. You have joy in the middle of a mess.
In a similar way we live in a messy world. Things don’t always work out the way we hope. Just walk around our city and you will encounter pain and suffering, filth and brokenness, violence and injustice. When we look at the problems facing our city we tend to have two natural responses: an overwhelming feeling of heartache and hopelessness, or avoidance. Sometimes the hopelessness leads to the avoidance. But the account of the birth of Jesus is a reminder that God comes to the messiest places to shine a light, to bring hope, to bring joy. The birth of Jesus shows us that joy is possible in a world of sorrow.
But how do these seemingly opposing ideas come together? How do we hold them together?
Have you ever gone from laughing to tears; or tears to laughter? I prefer the latter. When my dad was in the hospital two years ago in a diabetic coma, my three sisters and I found ourselves having some difficult conversations, making difficult decisions, and comforting each other in our grief that wasn't fully yet realized (but would be shortly). And in the midst of that, right there in his hospital room, with machines beeping and the oxygen machine keeping him alive, we would tell stories about my dad, things that we loved and things that absolutely frustrated us about him. But so many times we would go from sadness and tears to hysterical laughter because of the joy those memories brought us.
Now to some who may have heard our laughter and knew the state of our dad's condition, it's possible that they viewed our behavior as irreverent or uncalled for. But I call it healthy. I call it God moments. Keep in mind that we were moving in and out of these emotions together. We weren't trying to manipulate the situation and force someone to feel something that was inappropriate. That's unhealthy. But I believe that openness to those moments of joy allowed us to better process our grief.
You would think that the only thing that would change our sadness into joy is to have the circumstances change -- it’s to have my dad get better. But no. There was a fundamental belief in all of us that this wasn’t the end even if he were to pass. There was hope that we would see him again because of the promise of Christ. And strangely enough, there was great joy because we weren’t suffering alone -- we were in it together.
What would happen if you would allow the joy of Christ to come into your life -- in the midst of your pain and suffering? Notice that I did not say what would happen if your circumstances improved. Which is what we all want and we should pray for. But most importantly, you need him. You need the hope that he brings. The joy that he brings.
This is a good time to define joy. Joy is not happiness; although joy is frequently expressed with and accompanied by happiness. But happiness can be here one moment and gone the next. But Joy is an overwhelming sense of peace and contentment that is present despite the circumstances. Joy is lasting. It can endure and remain through heartbreak and tears. Because Joy is not attached to circumstances, it is attached to a person.
But you might say, Will, you don’t know what I’ve been through. You have happy memories about your dad; but I can’t say one good thing about my mom or dad. You talk about hopelessness, brokenness, and injustice in our city; but I live it. Will, you don’t know how I’m suffering in isolation; how can I ever experience joy? I want you to know that I hear you. More importantly, God hears you. The promise of great joy is for you. When the angel says to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. “All the people” includes you. I’m not saying that to be cute. This announcement was given to shepherds; not to the religious leaders or the rich. One commentator writes, Luke often uses the phrase “the people” to refer to the common folk. To those who didn’t have it easy. To those who weren’t financially set. Jesus Christ came for you. And when you trust him it changes everything, even though nothing may change.
I had the privilege a couple years back of visiting our partners in Vietnam, Lighthouse Church. Esther, who is one of the co-pastors, shared the story of how she and her family came to become Christians. She talked about how they grew up in poverty, many nights not having anything to eat. Chaos and hopelessness were permanent fixtures in her big, broken family. But one day they ended up at a church. And one by one they came up to accept Christ as their Savior. And all she could remember is the overwhelming joy that came upon her. Even though her circumstances hadn’t changed, she was changed -- and her life and the world opened up for her. And if you meet her today, she is one of the most joyful people you will ever meet. She gives Lindsey Lee competition on who can smile the most.
This is my story too. At 18 years old I felt like the biggest loser after failing my first year of college. I was hopeless and scared of the future. But then I had an encounter with Jesus that filled me with so much joy and moved me to tears. My circumstances hadn’t changed -- I was still a college dropout -- but everything had changed.
This doesn’t just have to be my story and Esther’s story; it can be your story. The birth of Jesus, the messiah being born, is God’s invitation for you and I to step into joy. A joy that surpasses our circumstances.
But how do we remain joyful? As Christians we are called to engage with this broken world, which can be so deflating. So how do we remain joyful when we confront the brutal reality of sin and evil, and when life continues to throw us curveballs? Let me close with the example of Gary Haugen and Jesus and a few practical tips.
Gary Haugen is the founder and president of IJM, the International Justice Mission. Gary is a Christian. He is also a lawyer by trade and works towards bringing justice for the most neglected people groups, in some of the most unjust places in the world. To give you an idea of some of the work that Gary and his team does, and the atrocities that he has to confront, let me just share with you one of the early assignments that Gary had in his career. He was sent by the US government, I believe in his 20s, to investigate the Rwandan genocide within days of things settling down. He had to meet with victims and perpetrators and figure out how such a thing could happen. And his work and assignments ever since have only been just as hard.
I was listening to someone who recently met him and he was sharing how he expected such a person that does that kind of work to be almost serious and melancholy. That's what he expected. But he came to find the complete opposite. He found Gary to be one of the most jovial individuals he’s ever met -- just fun to be around. And he mentioned that to Gary. And Gary said, "I have worked hard and been intentional at becoming this way. Because if I didn't, I wouldn't be able to do the work that I do."
Sometimes we believe that in order to do our best work in the area of justice that we have to be angry all of the time. And I get it. It’s hard not to be angry or stay angry when you see the injustices that people suffer. But anger is the wrong kind of fuel for the work that we are called to do. Yes, Jesus got angry at times. But his predominant posture was love. In fact, if you look closely, Jesus’s anger is always a result of his great love for his people that are being mistreated or his love for his Father who is being misrepresented.
The writer of Hebrews (12:2) tells us that Jesus endured the cross because of the joy set before him. What was the joy that was on the other side of his obedience? It was the joy of having us fully set free; the joy of having us fully for himself.
And so what is going to allow us to lean-in and keep doing the hard work of serving the poor, and taking in orphans, and giving our lives for the sake of others? It’s not constantly being angry at those injustices. But the fuel comes when you and I realize the life change that is possible when we get involved. There is no greater joy.
I want to leave you with two practical tips. I mentioned earlier that the birth of Jesus is an invitation to receive joy in our world of sorrow. So first, I want to encourage you to receive joy today -- either for the first time or once again -- by placing your trust in Jesus. There is a two-word Bible verse and command in 1 Thessalonians 5:16 that says, Rejoice always. This week, I heard someone define rejoice in this way: it’s to return to the source of your deep pleasure, happiness, and peace. Again, we can’t do that always, or in an ongoing way, if our joy is dependent on our circumstances. So Paul’s encouragement is to constantly return to and trust in Jesus, the source of our joy. A famous preacher once said, "If you want more joy in your life, put more Jesus and less of you at the center of it." (Ben Pilgreen)
So that’s the first tip. But secondly, receive joy and bear sorrows in community. As Romans 12:15 says, "We are to weep with those who weep. And rejoice with those who rejoice." I mentioned earlier how my sisters and I did this in my dad’s hospital room. And I discovered that day that really is true that our joy is multiplied and sorrow divided when shared. in a loving community. This is what Jesus did when he asked a few of his disciples to stay and pray with him because his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow. (Matthew 26:38)