Sorrowful, yet always Rejoicing1
Have you ever come across passages or phrases in God’s Word that make you think, this has to be a misprint? There’s simply no way a sane and spiritual biblical author could say such a thing!
I have that experience every time I read 2 Corinthians 6:10 where Paul describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing”. I want to say, “Make up your mind, Paul! You can’t have it both ways. Sorrow and joy are incompatible. They are mutually exclusive states of being. They cancel each other out.” If you keep talking like that people will begin to wonder if you’re suffering from schizophrenia.
It gets even worse in Colossians 1:24 where he says, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.”
What is going on here? You’re sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. You rejoice in suffering. Are you nuts?
In 1897 Samuel Zwemer and his wife went to the Persian Gulf to bring the gospel to the Muslims in Bahrein. They didn’t seem much success in terms of conversions. The temperature typically rose to 107 in the shade. In July of 1904, only seven years into their ministry, both his daughters, ages four and seven, died within eight days of each other. And yet 50 years later, in looking back on what he experienced, Zwemer said, “The sheer joy of it all comes back. Gladly would I do it all over again” (cited in Desiring God, 246).
How do you account for this kind of language and this perspective on suffering? Do you conclude from it that Paul and people like Samuel Zwemer were emotionally unstable, idle dreamers, men who lost touch with reality, or do you see in these words men who had a deep and profound grasp on what is of ultimate value? I suggest it is the latter.
Let’s be clear about one thing. If there is no life beyond the grave, people like Paul and Samuel Zwemer are certifiably insane. If this world is all there has been, is, or ever will be, it is senseless to speak of joy in the midst of suffering. The value system that accounts for Paul’s point of view is one shaped by a belief in the reality of eternity, a life everlasting in which never-ending good prevails over evil, an existence in which the beauty and splendor of Jesus Christ provide ceaseless and ever-increasing satisfaction that transcends anything this current life can afford.
Paul’s “sorrow” was very real. His anticipation of eternal joy did not negate the hardships of life, but it did make them bearable. We misunderstand the apostle, and Christianity as a whole, if we believe the Bible is telling us to ignore pain or pretend that it is less agonizing than it is.
The source of his sorrow was multi-faceted. He felt “great sorrow and unceasing anguish” (Rom. 9:2) over the lost estate of his Jewish brethren. His often tumultuous relationship with the Corinthians was the source of “much affliction and anguish of heart” (2 Cor. 2:4). Then there was “the daily pressure” of his “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:28), not to mention the sadness he felt upon seeing Christ scorned and mocked, as well as his own sufferings from persecution and slander.
Yet, we are told, he was “always rejoicing”! This can only be explained in light of two factors. First, he must have believed that even the worst of circumstances and the most oppressive of trials were subject to an overriding and gracious providence. Were it not for his belief that “all things work together for good” for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28), he could not have rejoiced simultaneously with his sorrow. It was not wishful thinking but the most rigorous spiritual realism that enabled him to endure, knowing that whatever befell him was sovereignly designed to facilitate his conformity “to the image” of God’s Son, Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29).
Second, there must have been a deep and abiding well of spiritual refreshment from which he regularly drew that provided his heart with incomparable and life-sustaining satisfaction, something so fascinating, enthralling, and captivating that no root of bitterness could thrive or disillusionment could displace. As we’ve seen repeatedly, it was the goodness and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ himself (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Even when joy in the present felt incomplete and distant and strained, Paul labored to savor the foretaste of future delight in God, no doubt constantly reminding himself that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Clearly, true joy is not dependent on pleasant circumstances. It is possible to rejoice in a way that is genuine and real and sincere and unfeigned while yet enduring trials that in themselves have the potential to bring only misery and despair.
And it’s not just Paul who feels this way. It’s Peter too! And we’ll look at what Peter says in the next post.