I've never had to convince anyone that joy is good, but sorrow is a tougher sell. Sometimes we Christians describe a life following Jesus as something straight out of the pages of a pretty magazine. The house is beautiful, the kids have clean faces and matching socks, the refrigerator is full. We confuse the favor of God with the benefits of living in a blessed country during an era of relative prosperity. However, the words of Jesus himself in John 16:33, "In this world you will have trouble," defy the idea of a picture-perfect existence in our preeternal world.
The Bible doesn't run from sorrow, but rather encourages us to see it as one of the blessings born on the battlefield. I have experienced at least three distinctly beautiful benefits from sorrow.
1) Sorrow connects us to the comfort of God's presence.
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus's most extensive monologue, and is the best foundation we have on which to build a theology about the blessing and favor of God. In it, he mentions eight specific "blessings," including poverty, hunger, and persecution. One has grown near and dear to my heart: "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Matthew 5:4).
I realize that comfort seems like a cheap consolation prize for mourning. It's like, "Blessed are those who break their arm, for they shall get a shiny new cast!" This promise, however, is so much bigger and better than that.
The Greek word for comfort is the word parakaleo. It's formed from two words: para, which means "close or near," and kaleo, which means "to call, invite, invoke, or beseech." Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be invited to come near. God's beautiful, intimate presence is the blessing in our sorrow. When we are suffering, he comes near. He calls us near. He draws us out of our hurting and into his healing. It's not just because we need to be with him, it's also because he loves to be with us. Here's another verse just to prove it:
So the Lord must wait for you to come to him so he can show you his love and compassion. For the Lord is a faithful God. Blessed are those who wait for his help (Isaiah 30:18).
Every time I read that verse, I picture the Lord earnestly waiting. I can see him searching for a chance to meet with me, hoping that I will turn to him, run to him, and sit in his arms without squirming away. I find myself longing for the gift of his matchless, unbroken companionship and wondering how I can find that in my life. Well, the next verse tells the whole story, and the story matches the words of Jesus's sermon perfectly:
O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem, you will weep no more. He will be gracious if you ask for help. He will surely respond to the sound of your cries. Though the Lord gave you adversity for food and suffering for drink, he will still be with you to teach you. You will see your teacher with your own eyes (Isaiah 30:19-20).
God is gracious to us at the sound of our weeping. He uses adversity and affliction to draw us to himself and to reveal himself to us in ways we have not seen before. God's comforting presence is an extravagant reward, one that we can undervalue … until we are in the heat of a battle.
That was certainly true for me. I had never asked for suffering so that I could experience his comfort. I hate to cry. Hate it. Yet in the past months I have spent more time immersed in the murky waters of weeping than I have in all my previous days combined. In the beginning, when sadness pushed tears to the surface, I beat them down. I excelled at distracting myself by changing my thoughts as frantically as possible or by trying to Bible-verse my way out of the pain. It works for a bit, and then—eventually—the waves cannot be held at bay and the crying just comes. I have abandoned my old method.
Now when the battle gets hot and sorrow overwhelms me, I hear in my heart the word parakaleo. God is near to the brokenhearted, and my tears are bringing me near to his healing. Weeping has become a supernatural tether that draws me back to the arms of the only one who can give the comfort I need. I can try to gut it out on my own, or I can let sorrow usher me right into the presence of Jesus.
2) Sorrow connects us to the heart of Jesus for His world.
When I was little, my Sunday school teacher challenged the class to memorize a verse in the Bible, so I chose the shortest one: "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Though I committed these two words to memory, I had no clue as to the depth of their meaning until I was much older. The story is this: Jesus's friends Mary and Martha had lost their brother, Lazarus, to a sudden illness. They had sent Jesus a message before Lazarus died, but Jesus had chosen to stay where He was rather than go to them. When he did arrive, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days and the sisters were mourning their loss. Though Jesus knew that Lazarus's condition was temporary, he was not numb to the grief of those around him. John painted a beautifully emotive picture of the scene: "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' Jesus wept" (11:33-35).
Jesus wept because his friends wept. He felt what they felt. He felt the sting of sorrow because he loved them. Let this one stunning truth wrap around your heart like a soft blanket on a cool evening: Jesus weeps with you. The one who created the concept of emotion does not live in a state of anesthetized indifference. He hurts for the hurting.
Here's another astonishing encounter from the pen of Mark: "And they brought to him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment, and they begged him to lay his hand on him. And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, 'Ephphatha,' that is, 'Be opened'" (7:32-34).
This passage doesn't tell us Jesus wept; it tells us he sighed. Sighing doesn't sound dramatic, but the Greek word in this verse is stenazo, and it means "to grieve and groan." Even though Jesus was going to heal the deaf man, that didn't stop Him from sharing in the man's suffering.
In Mark 3 Jesus healed a man with a withered hand. He grieved over the hardness of the onlookers' hearts. I'm telling you, Jesus feels deeply for us. He feels sadness with us and for us. Sorrow led him to lay his life down for us. When we experience sorrow, it helps us understand his heart for the world that lies trapped beneath the sway of the heartache of sin.
When we taste sorrow's tears, we become more like Jesus by learning to share in his suffering. If we'll let it, sorrow can keep our hearts connected to his heart of compassion for our world. This is a great gift from the battlefield because it makes us effective, capable colaborers in the kingdom, and it brings purpose to our pain.
3) Sorrow connects us to the hearts of those who suffer.
My friend Sue is sought after as a mentor by the women in our church and in our city. People turn to her and trust her with their story, not because she's a well-known author or speaker, but because they know she's been there. Talking to her, they feel the depth of her empathy; she understands suffering. She doesn't minimize sorrow; neither does she allow for it to be the end of the road. Sue encourages women in a fierce fight to find the beauty, become more like Jesus, and then turn to help someone else. That women trust and turn to her is one of the greatest joys of her life, and it is a direct result of the battles she has faced and fought with faith. The sorrow she has experienced has qualified her in a unique way for the joy of walking in her calling.
Do you have a heart to help the hurting? Don't be surprised by sorrow. Sorrow in our own battles enables us to experience a new compassion for others in battle, and this makes us more like Jesus. It molds us into more effective ministers of the gospel, and I believe that the inevitable result will be a whole new level of joy.
Are you seeing the delicate dance that takes place between sorrow and joy? It's beautiful, and it produces deep, divine things in us that just can't happen another way. Again I'll reiterate that God does not cause sorrow, but he is brilliant at using it to create a perfect work in us because he loves us just that much.
Adapted from Beautiful Battlefields. Copyright © 2013 by Bo Stern. Used by permission of NavPress.