Pain, suffering and Joy

Joy Ellen from Glasgow in her autobiography tells of her father. He was a Presbyterian elder. She writes, “He was entirely unselfish, and in his long life never committed a pleasure.”

H.L. Mencken defined Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy!"

I rarely meet such people and the stereotype is a lie.

Take the 16th century Puritans for example: “Actually, the Puritans welcomed laughter and dressed in bright colors (or, to be precise, the middle and upper classes dressed in bright colours; members of the lower classes were not permitted to indulge themselves -- they dressed in dark clothes). As Carl Degler long ago observed, ‘The Sabbatarian, antiliquor, and antisex attitudes usually attributed to the Puritans are a nineteenth-century addition to the much more moderate and wholesome view of life's evils held by the [Puritans]’.”

The Christian life really is about joy: 
it is about a future joy that goes beyond anything that we can imagine; 
it is about a deep present joy (the old song that talks of ‘the joy, deep deep down in your heart’), 

It is about a joy that is so much richer than many of the pleasures that our society offers us.

And Psalm 126 speaks of this joy:
‘We were like those who dream. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongue with shouts of joy!’

We don’t know the specific circumstances of this joy. It might have been the return from exile. It might have been deliverance from an enemy. It might have been a great harvest after several years of famine. We don’t know.

But this was real joy: 

Forgive me if I become slightly philosophical and do a little bit of thinking aloud about joy and pleasure. (I claim no authority whatsoever here!):

I do not think that in this world, because it is a fallen world – because it is not what it should be – I do not think that we can have joy without suffering. I think that pleasure (and ‘joy’ for me is an explosion of pleasure) comes from the release of pain – emotional and physical.

Epicurus (lived 300 years before Jesus) argued: Pleasure reaches its maximum limit at the removal of all sources of pain. When such pleasure is present, for as long as it lasts, there is no cause of physical nor mental pain present – nor of both together.”

The greater the pain, the anxiety, the pressure, the greater the joy when it has gone. To put it crudely, the person who has flogged their guts out to get to the peak of Mt Everest will know more joy than the person who flogs their guts out to get to the peak of Ben Nevis.

And there is the joy which comes when the baby is born; when the problem I have been struggling with is suddenly solved; when the beloved asks me to marry him or her or says yes when I ask her or him to marry me. There is the joy that comes from getting into a hot bath after a freezing match; or that comes from getting to the end of a good novel/film and the tensions are resolved; when the athlete wins the gold medal; when the team score the winning goal in the 5th minute of extra time; when we triumph in the interview and get the job; when the doctor tells us that the cancer has gone. Joy comes when the tension, the pain is released.

And if Epicurus is correct, then in a world in which there was no pain – physical, emotional or spiritual, there would be the greatest pleasure: we would live lives of joy.

And for Christians the greatest tragedy, the greatest pain is the fact that we are cut off from God, separated from him – and so when that separation is overcome, there will be the greatest pleasure.

And so for Christians the vision of God in the new heaven and the new earth, when heaven and earth are united, will be our greatest and eternal joy.

That vision is expressed for us in 
words like Augustine’s: ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’

Or we think of the great German hymn, which Bach turned into the chorale movement known to us as Jesu joy of man’s desiring

Jesu, joy of man's desiring 

Holy wisdom, love most bright

Drawn by Thee, our souls aspiring 

Soar to uncreated light 

Word of God, our flesh that fashioned 

With the fire of life impassioned 

Striving still to truth unknown 

Soaring, dying round Thy throne 

The original hymn continues with these words: 

Through the way where hope is guiding 

Hark, what peaceful music rings 

Where the flock, in Thee confiding 

Drink of joy from deathless springs 

Theirs is beauty's fairest pleasure 

Theirs is wisdom's holiest treasure 

Thou dost ever lead Thine own 

In the love of joys unknown

Our society lies to us. It tells us that we can have pleasure without pain or suffering. It tells us that pleasure is purely biological. It can be given us by changing the chemical balance in our body, by drugs or alcohol. Interestingly, alcohol, is a depressant. It works by depressing part of us – by taking away some of the pain caused by our shyness or sense of inadequacy, or whatever.
And our society tells us that we can buy pleasure by buying the latest music video, gadget or outfit. It tells us that holidays or sex or chocolate or food are what give us real pleasure.

And maybe they do give us some pleasure, because they do take away some pain. And so for instance sex offers us some sort of intimacy and ecstasy. It was GK Chesterton who said that ‘the nearest some men will get to a spiritual experience is knocking on the door of a brothel’. But of course those things do not really satisfy, and what happens is that we need to ratchet up the experience in order to give us the same pleasure buzz as before.

The bible also links joy with suffering, in this world.

But rather than finding joy just in the absence of suffering, the New Testament (and here I feel I am standing on more solid ground) finds that there can be joy in the presence of suffering – because we have

·         an awareness of the presence of God with us now,
·         and a hope of the greater joy that waits for us.

We have a hope of a greater joy that awaits us.

Romans 5:3ff, “More than that, we rejoice 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”.

James 1:2f,  “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

As we grow as Christian disciples, followers of Jesus, we become increasingly aware of the tension between the world as it is - in rebellion against God, and the world as it should be.

We also become increasingly aware of the tension within ourselves – of what we are now and of what we are called to be.

So Paul writes, “So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:21-24)

But in the tension, we have hope. Paul goes on to say in “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23)

And so we rejoice now – even in sufferings, even in the tension - in the hope of the joy that will be ours then – when all tensions are resolved – when (in John's vision in Revelation 21) heaven and earth are combined, when all pain is removed, and there is no longer death or mourning or sickness.

So Jesus speaks to those who are insulted and persecuted because of him, and he calls them ‘blessed’. And he tells them to rejoice ‘because great is your reward in heaven’. (Matthew 5:11)

But for the Christian the Holy Spirit also gives us glimpses of this future joy here and now:

-          the fruit of the Spirit is ‘Love, joy, peace..'
-          this is the joy that comes from the awareness that God is in control: we think of Jesus (Luke 10:21) ‘full of joy’ as he praises God for choosing the weak and the foolish to carry out his plan.
-          CS Lewis described his conversion as ‘surprised by joy’
-          Flo at St Mary Mags
-          personal dream
-     the face of Lucy in death

Paul in Philippians tells us ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice!’ (Philippians 4:4)

1 Peter 1:8 “Though you have not seen him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible (‘joy unspeakable’) and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls”.

I need to add that this experience of joy is not a constant. There are many times when we feel crushed and broken by the sadnesses and pressures of life. There will be many times when, like the Psalmist, we will go out weeping with our seed to sow. 

But if the experience of joy in this world is not constant, for the Christian the hope of joy is our constant.

And here, in Psalm 126, the Psalmist is clearly in a situation when there is little joy. But he recalls the joy that God gave them in the past, and he calls out to God for joy in the future; “Restore our fortunes, O Lord”

Again, we do not know the specifics – it could well be to do with the need for a good harvest – given the two illustrations that he uses. The Negev was in the South of Israel and was a dry and barren place. But when the water began to flow in the streams, the land became green.

And then this verse, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him”

The hope of the Psalmist is that there will one day be joy.

And our hope is our joy. It is our hope that one day God’s Kingdom will be established, that death is not the end, that what is right will be lived and will be seen to be right, that there will be justice and peace, that we will be transformed into the image of his Son.

Christian hope and Christian joy cannot be separated.

The reason that this is so important is because we were made for joy and God longs to give us joy, real joy – and the joy and the pleasure that most of us seek is a half joy.

CS Lewis writes, "If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

If you want real joy, put your trust in God and live for this hope. There will be many many days when you go out with your seed weeping. There will be times when you suffer for this hope, when you are abused and ridiculed and spat upon, treated as a fool, or as a killjoy (as the Puritans were). There will be times when it seems that everything is barren, that there is no life and no hope. There will be times when we suffer the natural consequence of being part of this fallen world.

But the prayer of this Psalm can be our prayer: ‘Restore our fortunes, O Lord’ – restore them here and now, yes (that is the timescale of the Psalmist) – but restore them ultimately there and then.

John 16:24: "Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete".

And to those of us who are Christians, I wonder to what extent we do live our hope. It does not seem surprising to me that the ones who take the radical steps of costly obedience for Jesus are the ones who most know his suffering and also share his joy.

If we risk nothing for God, we will know no joy. We will become the caricature of the black coated, non-smiling vulture that some people would love to draw us as. But if we are prepared to step out in costly faith and obedience, we will know life and joy.

Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus chose to go to the cross and to die on the cross for the joy that was set before him

And in the end Christian faith is built on the great joy:
The resurrection is the resolution of all tensions: of pain, of suffering, of separation and of death.
The tension between this world as it is and the world as it could be.
The tension between what you and me are, and what you and me are called to be.

Jesus just before he is crucified, tells his followers

“I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” (John 16:20-22)

And that was the case:
Matthew 28:8 “So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.”
Luke 24:41 “And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, "Do you have anything here to eat?"”

So may God give us joy, real joy, a joy that explodes throughout our whole being. May he give us the joy which comes from the knowledge of his forgiveness and of his presence. May he give us a glimpse of the joy that will be ours. May that joy be our strength. And may he give us the certainty of the hope that one day we will see him as he is, and we will be filled with that joy for eternity. 


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