You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth
and clothed me with joy.
I learned that I had cancer on a Thursday afternoon. The next morning I was planning to meet with a friend for breakfast. We have been meeting regularly for more than twenty three years. This particular Friday morning was to be our Christmas celebration. I had called her the night before to let her know about the diagnosis, but we didn’t talk long because we knew we would have time together the next morning and I had many other calls to make.
I can’t remember the Christmas present that she gave me that morning. Or the one I gave to her. But I do remember the words she wrote in her card. They were a soothing ointment to my raw nerves. They were especially powerful because they came from someone who had some credibility. This friend is a survivor of breast cancer, colon cancer and much else in life. Here is what she wrote:
Have a wonderful Christmas with your family—enjoy every moment! In the weeks and months ahead may you experience the power of Jesus’ presence in your life—light in moments of darkness, peace in the face of fear, courage in the unknown, love and security in the embrace of family and friends and joy in living.
I love you.
The words that stayed with me the most through the following months were: “Joy in living.” I asked my friend about them when I first read the card. “Yes, joy,” she responded. “While I drove here to meet you I was praying to be shown the joy that God has for me today. I ask for this every day.”
Joy was not exactly the first thing on my mind that morning, but I knew that my friend knew what she was talking about. She radiates joy. You can feel the warmth and light of genuine joy just being with her.
But joy did not come to me that morning, even though I was aware of feeling gratitude for the gifts I was already receiving. I was feeling more shock and anxiety than anything else.
But the joy did come. And when it came, it almost always came as a surprise.
Sometimes joy seemed to come out of nowhere. It wrapped me up and filled me up when I least expected it. On other occasions joy came leaping out at me after I set aside time to express gratitude for the gifts I was being given. Most amazingly of all, joy sometimes appeared after my deepest outpourings of grief. It was as if God literally did what the psalmist describes, as if God, at times, turned my wailing into dancing and removed my sackcloth to clothe me with joy.
I think there is actually an important connection between these things. I think the reason we sometimes experience joy after the expression of gratitude and grief is that expressions of gratitude and expressions of grief both ground us in the truth and open our hearts. Gratitude and grief are both vulnerable states. They are states of grace. They are moments when we let down our defenses a bit, when we soften, when we are receptive to God’s tender mercies in ways that might not be possible in the more ordinary moments of life.
Something happens in those moments of receptivity. I believe that God is always available to us—pouring life and love and peace and light and joy into our lives. When the soil of our hearts is defended and hard, however, the rain runs off. It is not received so it cannot nourish us. But when our hearts are softened by expressions of gratitude and grief, the sweet rain of God’s Presence is able to flow into us, nourishing and blessing us.
The connection between joy and grief is made explicit in a frequently misused text from the book of James: “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). The truth is I have never particularly liked this text. It sounds like pretending, like putting a good face on things, like some romantic, idealized but completely impractical notion. It doesn’t feel real. I have heard far too many religious people talk as if God expects us to always look happy, even blissful. But I know that the wisdom of Scripture also teaches us to grieve and to be honest.
So where does the joy come from? It certainly doesn’t come from pretending or from trying to be cheerful. It seems that the joy comes from being open to seeing that something is happening that is bigger than we are. That our difficulties, which occur for all sorts of reasons, always hold out gifts to us. They offer to challenge us. They offer to change us.
This is how this text from James says it: “Count it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of any kind, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4).
The journey to joy is like climbing a steep mountain. At least two things happen during the hike. One is that as we keep hiking, we grow stronger. We can’t see it but our spiritual bones and muscles and heart and lungs grow stronger. The other thing that happens is that as we get closer to the top, we begin to see a view that we otherwise would not have seen. We see the bigger picture.
Something else happens on the climb as well. Because the ascent is so difficult we are likely to see that we cannot do it alone. We need companionship. We need help. In the middle of struggling up the steep slope we find that we are not alone. Sometimes we are being guided. Sometimes we are even carried. By God. By others.
These gifts (stronger spiritual muscles, bigger perspectives, knowing we are not alone) all serve to deepen our faith. The joy that emerges out of difficult circumstances is that we gain a greater capacity to trust that in all circumstances we are held and safe, that we are known and loved.
Ultimately joy is about being loved. About knowing we are loved. About “remaining” (resting, living) in love.
It was in this way that the words “Count it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds,” came to be real for me. Many days I did not feel joy, but as I was given grace to persevere, joy had a way of emerging over and over again.
Since the day I received the Christmas card from my friend, I have remembered often to pray, as she does, to be shown the joy God has for me each day. I recommend it. Pray to be shown joy, whatever your circumstances. Joy will come.
When you don’t know what to do…stay open to joy.
Questions for reflection and discussion
1. What experiences have you had with joy during this or other times of difficulty?
2. What do you think was the source of this joy?