My hands were clenched tightly to the pew in front of me. The passage of Scripture for the morning’s chosen theme appeared on the screen, and before the reader had uttered even one syllable, I knew that this service would prove to be more difficult a struggle than a typical Sunday worship service, if that was even possible. Just fight it, Jamie. Fight it! I urged. I coaxed. I demanded. Not to fight the tears; I’d given up on that futile battle weeks before. No, instead I was desperately trying to fight the sobbing, fight the involuntary hiccup-swallow that I had developed when my heart would catch hard–often unexpectedly–in my throat. I knew this passage too well. The words resounded through the auditorium, and their echoes clanged heavily in the black darkness of my mind. Jesus never intended them to be harsh or hurtful, but hearing them spoken aloud crushed my heart.
16 “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” 17 So some of his disciples said to one another, “What is this that he says to us, ‘A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me’; and, ‘because I am going to the Father’?” 18 So they were saying, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.” 19 Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. 21 When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. 22 So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. 23 In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:16-24, ESV)
I was thankful when the reader concluded and the congregation began to sing, although I didn’t join with them. I couldn’t even silently mouth the words in order to present a halfway believable charade because I was still fighting so hard. I knew that if I moved my mouth even a hair’s breadth, I would succumb. One false move, and I would literally be a puddle on the floor, right on the front row for all eyes to see.
The theme of the service? JOY. Only months removed from our Thea’s loss, a service on joy. Joy was the last thing on my mind, on my tongue, or in my heart. The lesson was the second in a sermon series entitled In Step with the Spirit, in which our preacher explored the fruit of the Spirit from a powerfully fresh perspective each week. This lesson on joy, I felt (as I did with all of them in the series), was intended just for me. I just wished that it hadn’t been such a public experience. In solitude, where I could weep if I needed to, would have been preferable.
I had many questions with which to wrestle over the next several days. If a woman’s sorrow and anguish are forgotten, her joy restored, with the arrival of new life, what happens to the woman who labors in sorrow and anguish only to leave the hospital with arms empty, heart shattered? What restores her joy? WHAT?! Could I ever hope to feel joyful again? My only consolation was the truth that these were the words of Jesus Himself. He knew that a woman is plagued with sorrow when her time comes, and He prescribed the cure for that sorrow. Surely He also then understood the dreadful, lingering sorrow when the prescription was withheld. Jesus knew. He understood. Even if no one else on this earth did, HE did. And that was enough. Maybe He didn’t expect me to be joyful in this moment; He understood and accepted my sorrow.
Even a year later, I still struggled with joy. I had found contentment. I had found peace. I had been astounded time and time again by God’s faithfulness to our little family, and my own faith was exploding. But no one that knows me would have described my life as being joyful. Often I found myself trudging through the valley (at least it wasn’t the treacherous canyon that it had been for so long!), but most days I aimlessly walked the endless plains. Occasionally there would be a tiny ripple of a hill to cross my path. I smiled and I laughed, but I never stood atop a majestic mountain, in awe of the splendor before me. Along that journey, those passages that I wrestled with most were sprinkled gently into my life here and there in the desert places–maybe not by coincidence. Sometimes they were sprinkled, and sometimes they were poured, like the passage in John 16.
That same summer, there was a downpour. I was teaching the teen girls at Backwoods Christian Camp. The opportunity to teach those girls–even though it still scares me to death–has been a little hill in my summers for about 16 years now. Imagine my dismay, though, when I looked over the Bible material for the week and saw that it was entitled “Think on These Things” and covered Philippians 4:4-8. Wouldn’t. You. Know. that the lessons I was responsible for teaching were “Rejoice in the Lord Always” and “Do Not Be Anxious for Anything”. (If you know me, you’re giggling with the irony.)
Have you ever taught a Bible class? If you haven’t, I would encourage you to do so. If you have, then you already know that the student that gains the most from the lesson is not the one sitting in front of you but the one presenting the material. I don’t remember much about the actual delivery of those lessons; I’m pretty sure that I recklessly stumbled my way through from beginning to end. I felt a little guilty about that, but I don’t know that they were intended for those girls. I think that instead they might have been intended for me. And the lessons that I gained were immeasurable on my journey toward joy.
In preparation for the first lesson, I read Philippians 4:4 over and over and over again. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” I asked myself a million times, “How can you, of all people, teach anyone to rejoice, much less to rejoice always and in all things?” I prayed. I cried. I studied. I stared at that word rejoice. I have always loved words. I am a Word Nerd. I love the images that sounds and syllables conjure in a mind; I love the ability to communicate through a spoken word; and I love the study of its history through etymology. Eli and I had been studying Latin stems in his language arts program. Although often described as a “dead language”, Latin lives and thrives in the many languages that it influenced, English being one of them.
As I looked long at that word “rejoice”, for the first time I began to see in it one of the Latin stems that Eli learned early in the year, the stem re-. It permeates our language–repeat, redo, rewrite…restore, redeem. We use it so often that we all understand what it means, often without even thinking of its meaning: again, anew, once more. The other building block in the word “rejoice” is joir, from Old French, meaning “experience joy”. If I took the two building blocks re- and joir and joined them together, my new word would literally mean to experience joy…again, to experience joy…anew, to experience joy…once more. Suddenly Philippians 4:4 adopted a brand new meaning.
What if…Paul’s instructions don’t imply that we should always be joyful in every moment and every situation because we are in the Lord? (Have you ever gotten that impression? That even in the midst of utter grief and devastation, we should still be able to dig deep and rejoice (i.e., be joyful) because of Christ? And when you’re digging and you just can’t seem to dig deep enough, you feel guilty and wonder what’s wrong with my faith?) What if…the word “rejoice”–to experience joy again–instead acknowledges that there will be times in our lives in which we don’t experience joy, and that’s OK? In order for a person to be glad again, it is implied that there is a period in which he or she is not glad. What if…the message is not that we are to be always joyful, but that there will be periods in our lives when we are thirsty and water is scarce; when we are wandering lost and in darkness, and we can’t seem to find even a glimmer of light; when joy is the last thing on our minds, on our tongues, or in our hearts…but during those times we can maintain hope that God is faithful, and we will, at some point, rejoice? We will experience joy once more.
However, this is only part of the equation. Rejoice, YES! Cling to the hope that one day, somehow, you will experience joy again But Paul’s admonition is to rejoice (be glad again)…in the Lord. What if…his point isn’t that we should always be glad in some form or fashion because we are in Christ, but instead that we will experience joy again when we allow HIM to restore it in us? Oh, how often have I tried to infuse joy into my own life, by my own hand?! Weary of the desert, the wandering, the darkness, I have reached in vain toward things that I thought might restore my joy. It was only when I relinquished them all into God’s hands and asked Him to write our story that He took the pen and began a story that I could never even begin to imagine. What if…in our wilderness of wandering, when we are parched and lonely, we ask Him to restore? We cling in faith to hope, and we wait. The waiting is admittedly one of the hardest parts. We are impatient; the journey is exhausting; the thirst is excruciating; the darkness is terrifying. We want to be anywhere but in that wilderness. But what if His best work is done in that wilderness of wandering and waiting? What if He’s asking us to stay just a little longer until all things are ready? What if He’s working all along to mold us into this new creation whose joy can be FULL in Him? What if we still our busy hands and let Him do His work? What would our joy–His joy–look like in our lives?
Admittedly, I am no theologian. I am a student of English, not Greek. A Bible scholar, or a devoted student of Greek. might rip this concept apart, theologically speaking, in a matter of seconds. It might be the farthest thing from Paul’s intended message in Philippians 4. That’s why I included so many “what if”s. 🙂 However, I don’t think that anyone would argue against David’s anguish in Psalm 13 when he cries out to God, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” I don’t imagine his heart was joy-filled as he penned these words. But only 3 short verses later, he says, “But [I wonder if this is one of those hard “nevertheless”’s] I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.” Notice that David doesn’t say that his heart rejoices, but that it shall rejoice, in the future tense. Doesn’t it just make sense that he’s saying, “I’m not joyful in this moment, but I know that my heart will experience joy again?” I’m hurting, and I feel forgotten and alone. But deep down, I know that You are faithful and loving, and I’m clinging to that. I know that you will lead me to green pastures; You will allow me to experience joy anew along this path that You have planned for my feet. Give me patience in the waiting and the wandering, and help me to remember that there is purpose. If you are questioning with David, “How long, O LORD?” let me encourage you to cling to hope, trust His time and His plan, and