At 5:36pm on January 19th, 2016, my mother texted me as I sat down for the first lecture of my final semester in college: Grandma passed away.
We had learned in the beginning of the summer that my grandmother was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, and that she would be lucky to even make it to August. When I heard, it felt like my heart had been replaced with a boulder. My grandmother—the woman who lived with us since I was 2 years old, the woman who cooked me dinner every night after coming home from school, the woman who would sob and plead with God whenever I was remotely sick—was dying. And there was nothing I could do.
But when I got the text I didn’t feel angry, or resentful, or even confused. By the grace of God, I did not doubt that He is good all the time. Instead, I felt numb. Apathetic. Hopeless. I knew in my head that God was working all things for my good, 1 but my heart was overwhelmed with anguish. One of David’s Psalms came to mind, “There may be pain in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” 2 I remember questioning when the night would end and when the morning would come.
As believers, we’ve all been told in some capacity that throughout suffering we can persevere, because we know that God is sovereign and His plans are for us and not against us. 3 Understanding this idea logically is one thing—believing it and rejoicing because of it is another.
What I didn’t realize is that suffering and joy are not polar experiences that cease when the other is present; they coexist. The difference between Christian joy and worldly joy is that our joy is present in suffering. The Bible tells us that we will suffer in this world, but it does not mean that we will not have joy.
We know that joy is possible in hardship because Jesus promises it. Before He is arrested, Jesus comforts the disciples by saying, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” 4 Jesus—who is about to be crucified for people who hate him—takes his last few moments with his disciples to tell them that their sorrow will turn into joy. Jesus—knowing that the disciples are going to be persecuted, mocked, and maybe even killed for the sake of the gospel—encourages them to take heart because He has overcome the world.
Joy is not optional—it is inevitable. There is absolutely no way that I could have produced any joy for myself while seeing my grandmother in so much pain. I wanted nothing more than to remain miserable and hopeless because it was easy, it was familiar, and it was comfortable. But slowly and steadily, the Lord gave me no choice but to abide in His love and rejoice in Him. Paul writes to the Philippians, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” 5 I cannot cleanse myself of my sin or my darkness; it is God who is the author and perfecter of our salvation. 6 It is God who causes us to persevere amidst suffering, and it is God who points us to a reason to rejoice in Him. And we have one perfectly sufficient reason—because He gave His Son to die for us.
Jesus’ joy was taken away to bring us joy. The physical, emotional, and spiritual pain He endured is greater than any pain we have endured or will ever have to endure—the most perfect, infinite, and holy relationship that has ever existed was torn apart for our sake. God the Father abandoned Christ the Son on the cross so that we could come to know Him, Who gives us a joy that is greater than any kind of happiness we may find on this side of paradise.
As believers we should be pursuing joy. The First Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” 7 It is significant that these two actions are part of the same end—we cannot glorify God unless we are enjoying Him, and we cannot enjoy God unless we are glorifying Him. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. 8
Even when we are not satisfied in Him, Paul reminds us of why we continue to persevere with the saints: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” 9 We endure suffering and hardship and we rejoice because Christ is worth it, and because Christ promises us future glory.
The last time I spoke to my grandmother, she told me “Rachel, I’ll be in heaven soon.” And as much as I believed it to be an encouragement to me, I also believe that she was reminding herself of this truth. Even in the most painful of her days, she set her eyes on our loving and gracious Father in heaven, knowing that her suffering was momentary compared to the glory of spending eternity with God.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18