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.