In Ministry, Joy and Sorrow Don’t Cancel Each Other Out

Article
07.15.2019

For many years, forgiveness and joy were the cornerstones of my faith. My reasoning was pretty straightforward—God had forgiven my sins, so be joyful! I attended a church that followed the same logic. Sunday worship consisted of rousing praise songs exhorting us to sing with joy about God’s grace followed by a sermon that expounded the same ideas. As far as I knew, that was “the gospel.” And for a season, it was very helpful as far as it goes.

But after many years as a professional counselor, I found the singular focus on forgiveness and joy more and more troubling, even painful. My day-to-day life involved long hours with troubled, broken, and suffering people. As a result, I began to suffer much myself—and the disconnect between what I felt and what I saw on Sunday mornings became more and more  jarring. I felt like I was being asked to paper over my feelings.

This dissonance made me wonder: do I really get the gospel? I yearned to know that Jesus cared about my suffering, and that it didn’t make me a spiritual failure. Eventually, I realized that joy and sorrow don’t cancel each other out, like values on opposite sides of a spiritual balance sheet, but rather that both can be important expressions of Christ’s love.

UNION WITH CHRIST

We are members of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:27). We are to clothe ourselves with Christ (Col 3:12). He dwells in us and we dwell in him (John 15:4). Here and in other passages the Bible teaches us that God has united us to his Son. That’s more than a legal transaction. In a mysterious and very real way, our lives are an expression of his and so increasingly conform to Jesus’ own life. As we mature, his joys and sorrows increasingly become our own.

This is the case for all Christians, and pastors in particular need to remember this. The pastor’s calling is not simply to teach about Christ, but to reflect him as best he can to his people. As Paul wrote, sincere love rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). Rejoicing and mourning are both essential expressions of Christ’s love for his people. The pastor’s task, then, isn’t so much to find a balance between joy and sorrow, but to appropriately embody them as he ministers to others.

If someone is experiencing joy, then I enter into that joy. If someone is experiencing sorrow, I enter into that sorrow. Sometimes, they’re mixed together. Sometimes, we enter into long seasons of each. And sometimes, of course, there will be times when the pastor needs to shepherd the sorrowful toward joy and the joyful toward sorrow depending on the need of the moment. But it’s important not to think of the goal as replacing sorrow with joy.

TAKE UP YOUR CROSS AND FOLLOW ME

The last six years have been a season of suffering for me. During that time, both of my parents have died as well as my brother. Others close to me have suffered from chronic illness, depression, and personal tragedy. I was processing all of this recently with a friend noting surprising moments of compassion and love through it all. As I was reflecting on Jesus’ words, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24), my friend showed me a small painting of Ignatius of Loyola at La Storta as he beheld a vision of Christ carrying his cross and calling him into that same service. In the background, the artist depicts other clerics carrying a wounded man. My friend explained the significance of the painting, “Ministry isn’t just about carrying your own cross, but helping others to carry theirs. That is the consolation you are finding.”

Bearing with and even carrying others in their sorrows manifests the love of Christ, and it’s an important part of our calling as pastors. Thinking of ministry as helping others to carry their cross has cultivated in me strength, courage, and, somewhat paradoxically, hope. Why am I suffering this? Why are you suffering that? Often it’s impossible to know, but what we do know is that God intends us to walk through it together in love, bearing one another’s sorrows. Our sorrows are contained and seasoned, then, with the love of Christ.

RESURRECTION LIFE

Of course, Jesus crucified is not where the gospel ends! The cross of Christ is a beautiful expression of God’s power and love in itself, but it’s the resurrection of Christ that displays God’s plan of redemption in full bloom. Our hope and our joy is anchored in the promise that Jesus’ resurrection prefigures our own. The victory of sin and death and the presence of suffering are only temporary in light of Jesus’ resurrection. So our joy, even when diminished in this life, is anchored an unshakable promise of future deliverance.

And yet, this victory isn’t entirely in future tense. In a very real way, the work of the resurrection has already begun. Consider what Paul tells the Ephesians. He prays for the church, that they may know Jesus’ “immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph. 1:19–20). In other words, the power of the resurrection is already at work in us.

This is an important source of joy for us especially in seasons of suffering. While we’re always experiencing death to some extent in the present age, we’re also at the very same time experiencing resurrected life. While in some ways we seem to be wasting away, in other ways we’re being renewed day by day (2 Cor. 4:16). When we begin to look for and actually see the ways God is renewing us, we cultivate joy. When we experience joy that’s rooted in God’s presence and activity in our lives, especially in the darker moments of suffering, we’re connecting with a joy that will endure and grow.

NOT BALANCE, BUT LOVE

Paul’s theology is often characterized as the “already, not yet.” Christ has redeemed us, and yet we’re not all that we will be. In other words, our life in Christ is a mixed bag. We experience both the joys of God’s love and salvation while we live with ongoing sin and suffering in a broken world. The goal isn’t so much to balance those realities but to engage them in love. Sorrow will ebb and flow as will joy, but we enter into it all in love so that Christ’s presence and power is made more manifest to all.

By:
Winston T. Smith

Winston T. Smith is the rector at Saint Anne's Church in Abington, Pennsylvania. He is also the author of Untangling Emotions (Crossway, 2019).