On Suffering and Joy
[Isa.61:1-2a, 10-11; 1Thess.5:16-24; Jn.1:6-8, 19-28]
Today is Gaudete Sunday, a day for us to rejoice. Why? It’s because Jesus is on his way. But after such a difficult year, some people find it hard to rejoice. After all, where is the joy in suffering?
Let’s first look at joy. What is it? Most people think that joy is happiness, but it’s much deeper than that. Happiness depends on what’s happening around you, but joy is an internal process. It’s inside you.
Henri Nouwen tells us that joy is an attitude that comes from ‘knowing that you’re unconditionally loved and that nothing … can take that love away from you’. [i] It’s understanding that God is always with you, that he’s in control, and that no matter what happens, he has promised you eternal life.
True joy is a gift from God. Indeed, God is the source of all joy (Jn.15:11), and the closer you get to God, the more joy you’re likely to experience.
To understand how joy works, it helps to spell it out: J-O-Y.
‘J’ is for Jesus, because joy begins with Jesus. We must put him first. ‘O’ is for others, because we must put other people second. And ‘Y’ is for you, because you must put yourself last (cf. Mt.22:34-40).
This is the formula for joy: J-O-Y. When you genuinely put Jesus first, others second and yourself last, joy will come to you. This is the way things are meant to be. This is the nature of love, which is the divine foundation of joy.
Now, let’s look at suffering, through the story of The Teacup. Once upon a time, two grandparents visited a little gift shop, looking for a birthday gift for their granddaughter. The grandmother saw a precious teacup, and said, ‘Look at that lovely teacup, Harry. It’s just the thing!’
Granddad picked it up, looked at it and said, ‘You’re right. It’s one of the nicest teacups I’ve ever seen. We must get it.’
The teacup then startled them by speaking. It said: ‘Well, thank you for your compliment, but I wasn’t always so beautiful.’
The surprised grandparents replied, ‘What do you mean, you weren’t always so beautiful?’
‘It’s true,’ said the teacup. ‘Once I was just an ugly, soggy lump of clay. But one day a man with dirty and wet hands threw me onto a wheel and started turning me around and around until I got so dizzy that I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the man with the wet hands said, ‘Not yet.’
‘Then he started to poke me and punch me until I hurt all over. ‘Stop! Stop! I cried, but he said, ‘Not yet.’
‘Later, he did stop, but then he did something worse. He put me in a furnace and I got hotter and hotter until I could stand it no longer and I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the man said, ‘Not yet.’
‘And just when I thought I was going to get burned up, the man took me out of the furnace. Then a lady began to paint me and the fumes were so bad that they made me sick and I cried, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But the lady said, ‘Not yet.’
‘But then she did stop. She gave me back to the man again and he put me back in that awful furnace. I cried out, ‘Stop! Stop!’ But he only said, ‘Not yet.’
‘Finally, he took me out and let me cool. And when I was cool, a very pretty lady put me on a shelf, right next to a mirror. And when I looked into that mirror, I was amazed! I couldn’t believe what I saw. I was no longer ugly, soggy and dirty. I was beautiful and firm and clean. And I cried for joy!’ [ii]
That teacup suffered, but it was only through suffering that it discovered priceless joy.
In his poetic masterpiece, The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran writes:
… Your joy is your sorrow unmasked …
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy … [iii]
Suffering and joy, then, are intimately linked. God is the potter, we are his clay, and God is constantly trying to shape us into the people he wants us to be. Certainly, our sufferings in this life are only temporary, but the promise of joy is eternal if we believe in God.
Right now, though, as we approach the delights of Christmas, the important thing for us to remember is the formula: J-O-Y.
When you always put Jesus first,
others second and yourself last, joy will certainly come to you.
[i] Nouwen, H., Christensen, M.J & Laird, R. ‘The Heart of Henri Nouwen – His Words of Blessing’. Crossroad Publishing, New York, 2003.
[ii] William J Bausch, Touching the Heart. Twenty-Third Publications, New London CT. 2007:113-114.
[iii] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet. Alfred A Knopf, New York. 1997: 29.