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True joy needs true grief

When Henri Nouwen says “joy and sorrow are the parents of our spiritual growth,” he’s hit upon a huge issue.  Grief exists with joy on a continuum. Try to limit the grief in your life by walling it off when bad things happen, and you’ll also limit the joy you can feel.  It’s a spiritual…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

When Henri Nouwen says “joy and sorrow are the parents of our spiritual growth,” he’s hit upon a huge issue.  Grief exists with joy on a continuum. Try to limit the grief in your life by walling it off when bad things happen, and you’ll also limit the joy you can feel.  It’s a spiritual principle.

Nouwen describes the linkage between the two this way:  “Joy and sorrow are never separated. When our hearts rejoice at a spectacular view, we may miss our friends who cannot see it, and when we are overwhelmed with grief, we may discover what true friendship is all about. Joy is hidden in sorrow and sorrow in joy. If we try to avoid sorrow at all costs, we may never taste joy, and if we are suspicious of ecstasy, agony can never reach us either.”

To expand the range of joy in your life, you have to fully process the grief you experience.  It’s like stretching your body’s muscles. If you only bench press heavy weights, you’ll become muscle-bound. To maintain flexibility, you have to stretch.

But embracing grief is a costly thing.  Ask Jesus.  “A man of sorrows, acquainted with grief” and the One who bore all our sorrows – physically carried them in His body on the cross so that no-one could ever say again “God, You have no idea how I feel.” 
Pause and think for a moment about how heavy your griefs feel, then imagine, if such a thing is truly possible, how it would feel to carry all the griefs of every man, woman and child who ever lived.  Whatever we feel, He knows because He has felt it even before we did.  Yet the book of Hebrews also says He was anointed with the oil of joy and my guess is He is probably the most joyful person who ever lived.

Like stretching out your muscles and your taut nerves in your body when you have been physically out of action for a while, it hurts.  Processing and embracing grief always hurts. 
There aren’t any two ways about it.  But there is tremendous gain to be had from the pain under the hand of a redeeming God. 
There is a joy that can only be fully felt the other side of the cross, and it was the anticipation of that joy that gave Jesus the perseverance to follow through the appalling pain to the place of saying “it is finished.”

To fully feel is to be fully human.  Grief is never something to go looking for.  It will find you all by itself in this fallen world.  To push it away, refuse to feel its depths and bury its effects  where they can’t touch you is to limit your ultimate ability to be free in joy when it comes.  It’s the emotional equivalent of folding your arms across your body, holding yourself in more tightly.  Folded arms can’t fly.  

The currents of His compassion are the winds beneath you, the strong eagle’s wings that swoop beneath the baby eagle struggling to learn to fly, catching and carrying and never leaving to fall.  The same eagle that eventually teaches the young to soar up high in strength gained while they learned.  (Isaiah 40:27-31)  To feel extremes does not make you extreme, but ultimately more whole.  It’s what you do with what you feel that makes the difference.

Thanks to Carol Chambers for helping me elaborate on this theme – I think that her perpetual joy indicates she’s done a better job of grieving than I have!

In this world, joy and sorrow are inseparable sisters, but in the end only one lasts.

Comments (10)

  • This was one of the most powerful things that I walked away with after the Breakthrough Conference this past October. Wanda Walborn’s teaching about learning to grieve was awesome. It was awesome to experience that weekend, but a few months later, I had a much bigger personal issue come up, and I was able to deal with it.

    I was having dreams about a situation that I felt had never been resolved. I was able to speak with that person and grieve the loss of that relationship with them. The dreams have stopped and I feel so much more complete. Thanks to Wanda for that teaching she gave.

    And interestingly enough, Rob Bell’s church is currently doing a series on “lamenting.” You can go to this site: http://www.marshill.org/teaching/index.php and click on the one that says “Learning to Lament in a culture of denial”really recommend that one.

  • Hi Seth! I was trying to deal with a certain sorrow today after a time of real joy. This kept me wondering and ask myself why this feeling of joy is so fleeting that even when it is there, sorrow just gushes in, as if to compromise for the former. This was the confusion I was walking around with when your blog post just explained what I was going through. Thank you for this one. I now realize how feeling fully makes me fully human.. and all I need to do is accept it, but, fold my arms and hold myself in more tightly… Thank You!
    Thank You, Lord.

  • Thanks for this post. I feel a bit validated. The other evening, after we were faced with a truly grievious situation, I asked my husband, “Aren’t you grieving?” He said, “I feel sad, but I don’t think it does my health any good to get upset.” I guess it’s the difference in our personalities, but when I am sad I really cry, and when I’m happy I really laugh. And I think both are good for my health. And my soul.

  • Seth,

    Grief has been hard for me. Not because I am unwilling to cry or feel things… but because I have felt like I needed to be strong ever since my father’s death in 99.

    As I have developed as a man, God has made 2 Corinthians 12:9 so vivid:

    But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

    When my father died in 99, I was in school to be a minister. My family leaned on me for strength. That made me not grieve. I chose to be strong when I deserved to be “weak” and allow me to “feel” the situation. Not feeling that situation left me with a wound. The wound being not to feel grief or weakness.

    It also made me agree that I had to be the “go to guy” for my family. That I could not be vulnerable around them or share my heart. That I had to be strong for them and offer advice etc…

    Thank God He is in the restoration business. I am now, 10 years removed from my dad dying and am just now learning to grieve.

    I love the CS Lewis quote:

    “If, as I can’t help suspecting, the dead also feel the pains of separation (and this may be one of their purgatorial sufferings), then for both lovers, and for all pairs of lovers without exception, bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love.”
    – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

    Since I have been able to grieve the loss of my dad… I am still the go to guy for the family but now I am able to offer real and authentic strength..

    Thanks for bringing this up Seth..


  • seth this was so great to read! i have been thinking a lot about joy lately. i just posted a blog about it the other day. you should read it if you want 🙂

    thanks so much! this was encouraging!!

  • Seth – I needed to hear this today. It’s been a crazy week with a lot of grief, a death in the family and a close friend who reached her breaking point. But through it all everything feels stronger, the joy and the pain. I’ve been struggling to embrace the pain and not close off. I love the words from Nouwen and I’m grateful that you wrote this, it’s beautiful!

  • Wow what amazing timing….this was posted on a day that might go down in history as one of the hardest but yet I just read it today….it is what i needed to be reminded of but was not ready to read until a few days later.

  • i grief a lot. i felt like the worst thing. but when I look up and I found your article and this is one of the most amazing articles i have read. God bless you and your ministries!😊

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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