It's easy to be joyful when life clips along smoothly and things go as planned. But is that really joy? I think sometimes it is. We can be both happy and joyful. All too often, though, when happiness wanes, we find that we must dig deep to find an underlying joy. Walt Wangerin, Jr. says,
"The difference between shallow happiness and a deep, sustaining joy is sorrow. Happiness lives where sorrow is not. When sorrow arrives, happiness dies. It can't stand pain. Joy, on the other hand, rises from sorrow and therefore can withstand all grief."Wangerin then draws a connection to the church season of Lent, a time when many church folks mark themselves with ashes and put on grief and mourning, when we deprive ourselves in order to remember suffering and to bring forth...joy?
"In the sorrows of the Christ - as we ourselves experience them - we prepare for Easter, for joy. There can be no resurrection from the dead except first there is a death! But then, because we love him above all things, his rising is our joy. And then the certain hope of our own resurrection warrants the joy both now and forever."In the same way, the Jews taste the bitter herbs during the Passover Seder, to remember the suffering, to increase the joy. "When Adar comes, joy is increased."
So much of me is still resistant to this idea. Does this mean that God wills suffering? Even that God allows suffering for our own character development is too much for me. I can abide that God allows suffering because people have free will, and God allows for free will, and free will sometimes means that horrific things happen. But I cannot abide a God who allows suffering for my own character development. Maybe minor suffering - like reaping the consequences of my own mistakes. This is the kind of suffering I allow my children. I want them to learn from their mistakes. So, I don't step in and fix everything for them. But if something or someone else is threatening my child? You better believe I'll step in. You better believe I'll do everything I can to save them.
William P. Young takes on this idea in his book, The Shack, by suggesting that it makes a difference that we are all children of God. So, of course, I would defend my child against someone hurting them. But what if one of my children hurts one of my other children? Am I quite so ruthless then? Will I still go all "Mama Bear" when my child is being hurt? Most likely, the answer is more that I want to save both of them. I want the perpetrator to be spared...in case there's a possibility for a change of heart. I want the victim to be safe. I want them both to know I love them. I hope that my love has the power to change.
But then, the analogy also breaks down when we are talking about God because God has the power to bring about both outcomes, right? And it seems that at least some of the time God has stepped in to save some children, who need saving, and to destroy some children bent on destruction. The Bible tells us so. And then I come all the way back to the original question. Is suffering allowed because it brings about greater joy? Is it really true that we only know true joy in the face of (or aftermath of) sorrow? Is this why some suffering is allowed? I am afraid I don't have any answers. My hands come up full of ashes.
I know for sure that, as a human, I am, indeed, more aware of the joys in life when I have suffered, when I have been wounded. The joys, then, are piercing, poignant. I remember this beautiful scene in Tolkien's book, The Return of the King, when Frodo and Sam return after destroying the ring:
I know that feeling...when joy is like swords.
“And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.”
And I think that maybe this is something we can only understand in stories. It is something we only know in the living out of our lives. It isn't something that can be known in so many words or explained in the theology books. It isn't something that makes sense. It is something that is in the fabric of our humanness, and, perhaps, it is something of God's image in us. Joy following suffering, following the epic drama.
And does God allow it? Does God create it? I don't know. I know God uses it. I think I understand that God suffers, too. That God suffers with us. Mike Freeman in his blog, "wordhavering," sums up some ideas of Nadia Bolz-Weber and Richard Rohr this way (from his blog post: caged god):
"In our suffering we tend to experience God as outside of it all, watching, a omnipotent bystander who by all rights could and should be able to do something, but he just sits there, stands there, whatever, letting it all happen anyway. Helping it all happen anyway? And for his glory? Yes, let me slap that.
And that’s what I appreciate about Rohr’s musing. He taps right into main line of biblical teaching when it comes to suffering – though we seldom perceive it. God participates in our suffering. In all of it. He feels each deep wound, screams in each terror, groans in each injustice more profoundly than we can begin to fathom. We groan. Creation groans. God groans."And maybe the knowledge of God's presence in our suffering is where we find our source of joy?