by Joanie Butman
Not an easy feat given the amount of suffering in this world. Yet as a Christian, joy is what I celebrate today. Joy is the Easter basket I wake up to every morning. Christ’s story is at the heart of my story and my identity. He is the source of my joy. However, the joy I choose each day comes at a great cost to Him, which introduces the Christian paradox of joyful suffering. And what better time to discuss it than on this joyful conclusion of Holy Week? It’s no wonder this has been the topic of many conversations recently.
I met a woman last week and the subject of joy came up. She said something profound, “Whenever I see someone who is truly joyful, the first thought I have is to wonder what they’ve been through. I’ve learned that only those who have gone through great suffering can know the true meaning of joy, and it radiates from them.” I couldn’t agree more.
Joyful Suffering: a divine oxymoron if I ever heard one. The role of suffering in a Christian’s life is illustrated so painfully yet beautifully throughout Holy Week. Good Friday is the most important part of God’s plan because without the pain of Good Friday, we wouldn’t have the power, the miracle, the JOY of the resurrection. Don’t be afraid of the Good Fridays in your life or of those in your children’s lives because that is where God’s miracles and blessings occur. It is why Christ’s message “Do not be afraid” is the most repeated command in the Bible. (366 times, one for every day of the year including leap year.) Without the PAIN of Good Fridays you can NEVER experience the JOY of your own resurrections as you pass through suffering. From a Christian viewpoint, regardless of our suffering, we can rest in the joy of knowing that we will be given the power to rise from whatever ashes life creates in our lives.
Two quotes come to mind regarding suffering. The first is the way my brother describes our Catholic school experience. I believe it is from Nietzsche. The second is from a man I met on a plane recently.
“That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”
“Embrace what you hate the most or it will kill you.” Mr. W didn’t realize he was stating the heart of Christianity; but yes, we embrace our suffering because it brings us closer to God.
The biggest obstacle many people face with this subject is that they confuse joy with happiness, and they couldn't be more different. Happiness is circumstantial. Joy is a lightness of being, an enduring, underlying peace and contentment regardless of the circumstances. Make no mistake, Joyful Suffering doesn’t imply we enjoy suffering. No one does, and no one likes to watch their loved ones suffer. Suffering is painful, and I don’t know anyone who is happy going through it, but as Christians we have a joy that transcends this mortal life because we’re linked with Christ, especially in suffering. Without this Christ-based joy, our pain becomes Meaningless Suffering and Wasted Tears. If the goal of a Christian is to become Christ-like, suffering is going to be an integral part of our stories just as it was for Him. And through this suffering our character will be transformed into the masterpiece we were created to be. And that gives me cause for great joy!
Think of it this way:
If you never knew darkness, would you appreciate light?
If you never knew tears, would you appreciate laughter?
If you never knew rain, would you appreciate sunlight?
If you never knew noise, would you appreciate quiet?
If you never knew hunger, would you appreciate fullness?
If you never knew cold, would you appreciate warmth?
If you never knew illness, would you appreciate health?
If you never knew evil, would you even recognize good?
If you never knew despair, would you appreciate joy?
The list goes on and on.
We will all travel our own hero’s journey in life, at the end of which we find something or someone – maybe even ourselves. An Easter egg hunt of a different kind. It is an arduous journey of suffering, discovery and, hopefully, positive growth. Don't underestimate the speed and pervasiveness in which destructive things grow - like weeds. Sorrow, hatred, despair, bitterness and anger seem to increase exponentially unchecked, and can choke the joy out of anything in their vicinity. It depends on what we allow to take root and choose to cultivate. That's what the journey is all about. It forces us to process our suffering and choose whether to move forward stronger and wiser or to remain stuck in the mire of our own pain.
My journeys are spiritual in nature, but that’s not the case for everyone. It doesn’t lessen the power of the journey. There is spiritual growth and natural growth. Either way, the process changes us; but it’s up to each of us to determine how. And it is not a one-time event. For most of us, it will happen many times in life, and each time; hopefully, we will grow stronger because of the journey not despite it.
There is something else we receive through suffering, and it is at the crux of the Choose Wisely! effort. It is the privilege and the power to choose to use your pain to inspire and encourage others. We want to hear about your hero’s journey and how it changed you. In Richard Rohr’s, Everything Belongs, he describes the privilege and power to which I refer:
“Finally, all we have to give away is our own journey. Our own story. Then we become living witnesses. The only authority we have in other people’s lives is what we ourselves have walked and what we know to be true. Then we have earned the right to speak…We must believe in such a way that we give hope and meaning to the next generation…That’s what our lives are for; to hand on the mystery to those who are coming after us, which means that we have to appropriate the mystery ourselves.”
I will end with this thought. My definition of joy is the comfort and relief of climbing into God’s everlasting arms and allowing Him to walk me through life and carry me through my suffering. Not around it, over it, or under it. Do you know the children’s book, Going on a Bear Hunt? Every time they reach an obstacle they chant, “Uh, oh. Can’t go around it. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it. Gotta go THROUGH it.” And they do, TOGETHER. That, my friends, is my life with Christ and my path of true joy.
Suffering is a fact of life. It’s unavoidable. About that we have no choice. BUT there are times when our suffering is of our own making, an undeniable consequence of our own poor choices. Regardless, what we do with our pain and how we choose to go through it will be the story we tell and the legacy we leave behind.
Do you have your own story of joyful suffering you'd be willing to share?
What is your definition of joy?
What is the source of your joy?
Do you choose joy despite your circumstances?