This post originally appeared last November, the week our friend Clay Brewer won his battle with cancer. Cancer killed his body, but Clay is cured and in Heaven now, so trust me: he won. The day of Clay’s funeral was the day I had scheduled a retreat to finish my book and meet the upcoming deadline. I had one more chapter to write, the final chapter, about how to rejoice during a time of grief. I had to learn it before I could write about it, and in the end, it’s my favorite chapter.
You’ve got to be kidding.
That’s what it says, though. I checked.
“Consider it pure joy,” James says, “whenever you face trials of many kinds.” (James 1:2).
“We also glory in our sufferings,” insists Paul. (Rom. 5:3).
“But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ,” says Peter. (1 Pet. 4:13).
How can this be? Surely when the Bible says we should rejoice always, God only means when life is good, right?
Wrong. Always means always. And God is all about truth, so we know that He does not ask us to pretend pain isn’t real, or to put on a false face. It must be this, then: God is sufficient reason for joy even when our life is falling apart.
Peter says, “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” (1 Peter 1:6). We rejoice in “this,” in spite of whatever crummy thing is happening at the moment. What’s ”this?” Peter tells us in the preceding verses. No matter what our trials, we can rejoice in God because He has saved us, not only for the future, but also for the present:
Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! God is keeping careful watch over us and the future. The Day is coming when you’ll have it all—life healed and whole.
(1 Peter 1:3-5, The Message).
So we can have joy in the face a job loss, whether we find another or not, because we know God walks with us and loves us and provides all we really need. We can have joy during illness, however long it lasts, because we know God hurts with us and takes our infirmities upon himself. We can even have joy when death comes around, though it comes too soon, because we know it is not the end.
Each of these trials, and all the others we might have, still hurt. But the joy in God is greater than the pain. It would be crazy to hope we lose our job, or get sick, or hear that the doctors have done all they can, just to test these verses out. But if and when the crummy happens, our joy remains. It remains because it is not based on our health or our income or our physical life, but on the unchanging and perfect goodness of God.
That’s how Job can say, “Though he slay me, I will hope in him.” (Job 13:15). And that’s how Habakkuk can rejoice when all else falls away:
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
(Hab. 3:17-18). God is good and His love endures, period.
And while it is not joyful that a relationship fails or someone we love falls to cancer, we can nonetheless rejoice in what God can do through the trial. Our trials produce perseverance. (James 1:3). The endurance we gain from trials produces character and hope. (Rom. 5:3-4). And because our God fixes broken things, turns water to wine, and brings the dead to life, that’s just the start of what He can do.
We learned this anew this week in our Sunday School class. We said goodbye to our friend Clay, gone too soon after fighting cancer too long. We miss him. We grieve. We’re sad, and sometimes angry, about it. Can we nonetheless rejoice? Not in the pain that he faced, not in our loss, not in what his wife and daughters will feel in the days and weeks to come, but can we rejoice in the goodness of God in spite of “that” and what God might still be doing through Clay?
Oh yes. And here is one example of why: Clay’s death became an opportunity for a couple in our class to discuss eternal life with their young daughter. They explained where Clay is and how that came to be, and a sweet little girl became our sister. Clay, still being Clay,would not let something like his own funeral stop him from leading someone else to Christ.
It’s true then. We really can rejoice in our suffering, for no matter what, there is joy in God’s presence and “eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Ps. 16:11). It’s really true that “weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Ps. 89:16). It’s really true that “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Ps. 126:5). God really is great, even when our circumstances are not, and He really does cause good to rise up from our worst times.
So we sing. We sing “It is well with my soul,” and we sing it “whatever my lot.” We sing “Be thou my vision” and “heart of my own heart,” and we sing it “whatever befall.”
We cry, too. Of course we do. Even with all our reasons to sing, sometimes the pain is nearly more than we can stand. But when we cry, we do not cry alone. When we cry it is with the knowledge that one day all tears will be wiped away. And when we cry, we nonetheless ”delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.” (Is. 61:10a).
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