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Godly Joy and Godly Sorrow

Category Articles
Date December 30, 2003

Who, when given a choice between experiencing joy or sorrow, would choose sorrow? It is natural and completely understandable that we should prefer pleasure to pain. The benefits of delight are numerous. Those who are cheerful usually enjoy more sound physical and emotional health than do those bearing the burden of affliction. The joyful ones also tend to draw more friends, who would rather bathe in the sunshine of happiness than to be cast down into a gloomy depression. In fact, Scripture tells us that the joy of the Lord is our strength (Neh. 8:10). Therefore, it is natural that we should prefer joy over sorrow. But is it spiritual that we should do so?

The joy of the Lord is not the same thing as unqualified joy. There is, in fact, a world of difference between mere happiness and holy delight. It is with joy as it is with all other facets of the Christian life, namely, that it has a proper place within the spectrum of godly attitudes and emotions. Despite the desires and demanding of many in our hedonistic age that joy should be ranked supremely over all other Christian experience, joy is nearer the tail than the head of the experience of all believers.

It is true that Scripture declares the joy of the Lord to be our strength. However, Jesus also declares that those who mourn are blessed with divine comfort (Mt. 5:4). The Apostle Paul writes about the considerable benefits of godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:11), while the writer of Hebrews teaches us not to despise the discipline of the Lord that makes us sorrowful for a season, but afterward yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb. 12:11). Whereas godly joy may be our strength, godly sorrow serves for our sanctification. This places those sorrowing over their sins, mourning over the carnal glibness of the worldling, and grieving over the dishonor evil men seek to heap upon the Lord and His people, in a better spiritual condition than those who seek only to rejoice.

We find this priority set out in Psalms 14 and 53-two almost identical psalms. They begin with verses of powerful conviction, that when rightly read, should work deep conviction in any soul. It is only after such godly sorrow has been aroused, that conviction gives way to the Lord’s people thinking and living as more than conquerors. The same priority is found in Jesus calling His disciples to bear the cross here and now, while trustingly awaiting God’s conferring upon them the crown of glory in due course.

Our Westminster Confession of Faith makes clear to us that joy comes as the end of man’s being perfected by the gracious, redeeming, and sanctifying work of God. It is man’s chief end that he should enjoy God forever. Here in our earthly pilgrimage, godly sorrow is a much more constant companion and sure guide for the believer. Far from our seeking at all times to make ourselves happy, we are called to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand, knowing that He will exalt us at the proper time (1 Pet. 5:6). Therefore, we must place special emphasis – in Paul’s directive that we rejoice in the Lord always (Phil. 4:4) upon our holy Lord, whose prayers and providence for us nurture our sanctification, even at the expense of our happiness in the short run (Jn. 17:15-17; 1 Thess. 4:3).

There are good and necessary reasons why godly sorrow now takes priority over godly joy. One reason is that for as long as we live in a cursed world, amongst fallen men, with devils tempting and afflicting the saints of God, we can never experience the perfect joy we shall experience for eternity in glory. The shadow of sin clouds all of our experience in this life, and thus our joys will always be alloyed with sorrow. Sinners and Satan intend such sorrowing experiences for evil, but our God uses them for our good.

Some may ask how we can be strong in the Lord without joy? The answer is that there is not a disconnect between godly joy and godly sorrow, but rather a priority, or chain of causation. Joy may strengthen us, but we, being the mixed, impure, although redeemed, souls that we are now, cannot experience too much joy without our becoming intoxicated, proud, and spiritually complacent. Recall Paul’s thorn in the flesh, given to him by God that the apostle might not exalt himself (2 Cor. 12:7).

We do not need strength per se, so much as we need to be sanctified. Strength without sanctification makes monsters of men. When we rightly reflect upon the glorious potencies that will be ours in heaven, we should readily understand that if we were there without being perfected in godliness, we would abuse the awesome powers that will then be ours, and become worse than devils.

Even though we are regenerated by the Holy Spirit of God, redeemed by the atoning work of Christ, and adopted as children of our heavenly Father, we still, so long as we draw breath in this world, have the residue of sin within us. Our sin is, as Paul represents it, like a dead body we drag around with us. But it is still sufficient to make us cry in anguish: Wretched man that I am! (Rom. 7:24).

Let us not dread or deny the blessed necessity of our mourning over our remaining sins and over the effects of sin in our world. Such godly sorrow works for our sanctification, and it is that sanctification wherein we are increasingly conformed to the holy character of Christ that gives us cause and capacity for truly, deeply, and lastingly glorifying our God and enjoying Him forever. The joys we have now are but imperfect pledges of that perfect and lasting joy to come, when all sorrows will have passed away (Rev. 21:4), having performed their sanctifying service under the superintendence of our holy God.

William Harrell williamharrell@cox.net

Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia

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