Have you ever been to the beach on a day when the red flags were flying and tried to swim in the surf only to be knocked down by the first wave that came along and, before you could get up, adjust your swimsuit, and wipe the salt water from your eyes, you were knocked down again by the next wave? If so, then you will know what the Christian life can so often feel like for many of God’s people. Wave after wave of disappointment, failure, and hardship can so frequently overwhelm us and knock us to the ground. And before we have time to get up and reorient ourselves the next wave is bearing down upon us.
I can’t think about this idea without thinking about a couple in my congregation who lost both of their sons and one of their daughters-in-law within a span of a few short years. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for them to deal with losing one child, let alone three in such a short period of time. How does anyone continue to stand in the midst of this kind of devastation as wave after wave after wave knocks us to the ground? How does anyone even put one foot in front of the other much less “rejoice always” and “give thanks in all circumstances,” as Paul calls us to do in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17?
These are questions we will all wrestle with at some point in our lives. We know this is true because the Bible explicitly states that hardship and difficulty are unavoidable for everyone who takes up their cross and follows after Christ. Not only is the Christian life one of incessant cross-bearing, but it is also one in which trials and tribulations are a necessary part of the world in which we live, as Jesus Himself promises in John 16:33: “In the world you will have tribulation.” We are not, therefore, to “take heart” in the absence of trials and tribulations but in the fact that Jesus has already “overcome the world.”
Peter, echoing the words of Jesus, warns us that we ought never to be surprised when the “fiery trial…comes upon” us “as though something strange were happening” to us (1 Pet. 4:12). Hardship and difficulty and grief and pain are exactly what we should expect to experience because we live in a world that has been infected and affected by sin and which is inhabited by people who have themselves been infected and affected by sin. The apostle John, moreover, associates weeping and mourning with death in Revelation 21:4, which clearly implies that until Jesus returns sorrow, grief, and pain will be as unavoidable as death. Not only will we all die; but we will also all experience the death of friends and family members as well. This fact ensures that we will all necessarily go through seasons of sorrow and mourning, sometimes to greater degrees and sometimes to lesser degrees. We will all face heartbreaking disappointments, debilitating setbacks, and demoralizing defeats. Thankfully, we won’t all have to deal with the loss of three children one right after the other; but we will most definitely experience some amount of disappointment, pain, and loss. We will know what it’s like to walk through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4), and sometimes for extended seasons too. And that is something that applies to everyone across the board.
The Bible has a great deal to say about sorrow and pain, besides the fact that they are inevitable. In what remains of this article, therefore, I’d like to look at some of the things that the Bible teaches about sorrow. I will explore the first three ideas in this article and the last two in my next post. My hope is that whenever you may find yourself walking through the valley of the shadow of death you will be helped by these reminders. So, strap in; we are hitting the ground running.
1. Sorrow is temporary.
The first thing we need to remember is that sorrow is only and wholly temporary. It is never a permanent condition for the Christian. Ever. David points this out explicitly in Psalm 30:5, when he says: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Whatever else David is intending to say here under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit one thing is sure: he is at least telling us that weeping is always temporary for God’s people. It may seem to “tarry” for an extended period of time, but it will always come to an end. Even the seasons of sorrow that are associated with the loss of someone who was particularly close to us will eventually come to an end. Even these kinds of seasons will eventually be replaced by “joy…[in] the morning.” Revelation 21:4 confirms this by letting us know that there will be no sorrow in heaven, no mourning, no pain, and no death. These things will all “have passed away.” They will be no more. Weeping will give way to joy for God’s people if not here and now then in heaven for sure. We have that to look forward to and to rejoice in even when it seems like it’s the end of the world as we know it.
The fact that sorrow will always and only be temporary for Christians ought to be a huge encouragement for us as we are walking through the valley of the shadow of death. We know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, that we will not always be in the valley. To change the metaphor up a little, we know that God is a good gardener. And while He may prune for a season, He will not do so forever. The pruning will eventually stop, because it is not an end in itself but only and always a means to the end of growth in grace or Christlikeness—about which we will speak more in the fourth point.
2. Sorrow is reflective.
The second thing we need to keep in mind is that sorrow is reflective. What I mean by this is that it causes us to reflect and to think upon our situation, our lives, and our priorities. We rarely take stock of our lives when things are going well. We are content with everything as it is. When things are not what we would want, however, we reflect upon our situation with urgency and concentration of will because we don’t like where we are, and we want the circumstances of our lives to change. That is the reason why “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes (see 1:1) can say: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (7:2); and, “Sorrow is better than laughter” (7:3); and, “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (7:4).
Sorrow causes us to take stock of our lives and of our faith in Jesus. It encourages us to reflect upon questions like the following: Am I going to trust the Lord in the valley even when it hurts? Or am I going to trust Him only when the sun is shining and things are going exactly the way I want them to? Do I really believe that Jesus is better than whatever it is I have lost? Can I wholeheartedly acknowledge with David that the “steadfast love” of the Lord really is “better than life” (Ps. 63:3), or with Job that “[t]hough he slay me, I will [still] hope in him” (Job 13:15)?
3. Sorrow is restorative.
The third thing the Bible wants us to remember is that sorrow is restorative. It not only prompts us to meditate on the circumstances of our lives and our faith in Christ, but it is also the means whereby we experience restoration and healing.
That seems to be the point of Ecclesiastes 7:3, which says: “for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.” Sadness, in other words, is the means by which the heart is made glad or, we could put it this way, sadness is unto gladness. Sorrow is never an end in itself for God’s people but always a means to an end. In this case, we need to be reminded that it is a means to the end of restoration and healing.
With that in mind, we need to acknowledge that sorrow doesn’t feel good. It hurts. A lot. The temptation, therefore, for most of us is to stuff the sorrow and the corresponding pain and to cover them over with anger instead. Anger is easy and pain free. It gives us the illusion of being in control rather than simply being passively acted upon by other people or by our circumstances. Anger makes us feel good. It gives us a “rush” not unlike the kind that thrill-seekers receive from their extreme sports or death-defying feats. Whereas sorrow usually makes us feel weak and powerless, anger makes us feel strong and powerful in the moment. But anger is not restorative. It is destructive. It works against healing because it keeps us from thinking about the loss we have experienced and from feeling the pain that must precede all real healing.
If you have ever experienced a wound that subsequently got infected, you will probably understand what I am trying to say here. For healing to properly take place, the infection must first be brought to the surface. As long as the infection stays buried deep inside, healing will be hindered. The same is true in regard to the pain we feel from the losses we experience. The sorrow and pain must be brought to the surface before the loss can ever be dealt with. Stuffing them deep inside and embracing anger in their place will only hinder the healing process. Even though sorrow hurts and, in some cases of profound loss, hurts deeply, it should not be avoided but rather embraced as the only real pathway to restoration and healing.
In my next post, I will share the final two ideas that we see in the Bible’s teaching about sorrow: it is (or should be) sanctifying, and it points us to heaven.