We experience both the joys of God’s love and salvation while we live with ongoing sin and suffering in a broken world. The goal isn’t so much to balance those realities but to engage them in love. Sorrow will ebb and flow as will joy, but we enter into it all in love so that Christ’s presence and power is made more manifest to all.
For many years, forgiveness and joy were the cornerstones of my faith. My reasoning was pretty straightforward—God had forgiven my sins, so be joyful! I attended a church that followed the same logic. Sunday worship consisted of rousing praise songs exhorting us to sing with joy about God’s grace followed by a sermon that expounded the same ideas. As far as I knew, that was “the gospel.” And for a season, it was very helpful as far as it goes.
But after many years as a professional counselor, I found the singular focus on forgiveness and joy more and more troubling, even painful. My day-to-day life involved long hours with troubled, broken, and suffering people. As a result, I began to suffer much myself—and the disconnect between what I felt and what I saw on Sunday mornings became more and more jarring. I felt like I was being asked to paper over my feelings.
This dissonance made me wonder: do I really get the gospel? I yearned to know that Jesus cared about my suffering, and that it didn’t make me a spiritual failure. Eventually, I realized that joy and sorrow don’t cancel each other out, like values on opposite sides of a spiritual balance sheet, but rather that both can be important expressions of Christ’s love.
Union with Christ
We are members of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:27). We are to clothe ourselves with Christ (Col 3:12). He dwells in us and we dwell in him (John 15:4). Here and in other passages the Bible teaches us that God has united us to his Son. That’s more than a legal transaction. In a mysterious and very real way, our lives are an expression of his and so increasingly conform to Jesus’ own life. As we mature, his joys and sorrows increasingly become our own.
This is the case for all Christians, and pastors in particular need to remember this. The pastor’s calling is not simply to teach about Christ, but to reflect him as best he can to his people. As Paul wrote, sincere love rejoices with those who rejoice and mourns with those who mourn (Rom 12:15). Rejoicing and mourning are both essential expressions of Christ’s love for his people. The pastor’s task, then, isn’t so much to find a balance between joy and sorrow, but to appropriately embody them as he ministers to others.
If someone is experiencing joy, then I enter into that joy. If someone is experiencing sorrow, I enter into that sorrow. Sometimes, they’re mixed together. Sometimes, we enter into long seasons of each. And sometimes, of course, there will be times when the pastor needs to shepherd the sorrowful toward joy and the joyful toward sorrow depending on the need of the moment. But it’s important not to think of the goal as replacing sorrow with joy.