Joy and suffering seem to be opposites. You can’t have one and have the other. If we are suffering, we are bereft of joy. If we have joy, we have avoided suffering. Right? The world around us has conditioned us to think this way and we spend a great deal of time trying to avoid suffering, pain, grief, and anything that makes us feel less that on top of the world. In our world, joy and suffering are mortal enemies, locked in a competition for our very being.
Think about the way we grieve losses. Grief brings with it sorrow, tears, and a host of other “negative” emotions that must be bad for us. On top of that, people will think badly of us if we show them. The current trend in grieving is to rush past anything like a funeral, a mourning period, a time of naming the pain straight to the laughs and the sandwiches. It is better to “just get over it.”
This is all nonsense, of course. Suffering and joy are not opposites. They are companions. Joy is only found when we can deal with the pain and suffering head-on. Joy is a transformed state that rises from suffering. Joy never denies the suffering that is woven into the fabric of life.
In the marvelous book, The Book of Joy, by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama – two of the most joyous people one could meet – they discuss the inseparable connection between joy and suffering. (We are studying this book on Wednesday evenings). Reflecting on the decades that the Dalai Lama has spent exiled from his homeland of Tibet, “The Archbishop asks, “why are you not morose?” The Dalai Lama responds, when you experience some tragic situation, think about it. If there’s nothing to be done about it, there’s no reason to worry or be dejected.”
The first step in the encounter with suffering is to assess what you can do about the situation. Often, we can do little or nothing. In that case, practicing the art of letting go of our anxiety and fear allows us to assert control over what we suffer instead of it controlling us.
The Dalai Lama then “recommends expanding our perspective.” Try to practice finding the opportunity or lesson to learn in the suffering instead of focusing on the pain. For him, exile in India has meant being much more open to the world than he would have been if he remained cloistered in the palace in Tibet. It is what Joseph practices in Genesis when he finally meets the brothers who sold him to slavery – “What you meant for evil, God used for good.” (Genesis 50) We can also see how our suffering unites us with others and releases us from personal anguish to compassion for others. (pp. 36-37). Archbishop Tutu explains, “The question is not – how do I escape [pain]? It is: how do I use this as something positive?”
Jesus Christ is our example. He never avoided suffering, even when it came to death on the cross. On that cross, he prayed for his persecutors saying, “Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23:34) The path to joy leads directly through the valley of suffering. The path to despair takes every detour we can find to avoid the suffering of life.
In Christ, in the community Christ created – the Church – we can walk together through the suffering and pain and find true joy.
Tim Olson – Lead Pastor