Soldiers go home seeking long and happy lives in peace. In this world, however, there is no such thing for the [Christian].
This is a quote from some of my writing last year. It was a disconcerting statement then, and now once again as it patters across my keyboard. Do Christians have the right to retire? No, I don’t mean from work. I’m talking about retirement from the unhappy Christian distinctive that Paul defines in 2 Timothy 2:3: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Are we allowed reprieve from the skirmishes of severe joys and sorrows that accompany conforming to Christ and adhering to his mission?
Unfortunately, this question had no place in the foundation of my faith. Christianity was preached and displayed only as God’s provision of a long and happy life in peace. How bitter to grow up and find that to be only half true.
I understand the reasoning. Awakening to sin and Savior is worthy of “joy unspeakable and full of glory” (1 Peter 1:8). As a friend once said, salvation suddenly makes the grass greener and the sky bluer. It brings freedom and purpose and hope and rest. It restores to Christ—so, really, it brings everything. The life saved from God’s wrath should indeed be esteemed, while the poor soul still forsaken must surely be pitied. It’s stirringly true.
Yet I find that the Scriptures give space to another complex layer of Christian life. We who remain, despite our eternal armament, stay on to wage war with Satan, sin, and flesh. Though battles are fought for us, and our ultimate victory is sealed, we win some and lose some in the daily human experience. This is not to mention the disciplinary rod of God which lovingly stripes our backs as sons and daughters. As dangerous as it may be to face enemies from without and within, none compare to surrendering ourselves to God. He is the one who spared himself no expense in our salvation. He is the one who spares us no expense in our sanctification.
Meanwhile, those apart from Christ, though flailing and puppeted by Satan, sin, and flesh, do enjoy the freedom of civilian life. Sex and motive and gain and leisure, though not without consequence, are common graces wielded by unbelievers to the maximum of their pleasure. Their anthem is, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). A pitiful song indeed; nevertheless, a song.
Let’s be honest, for Christians there are moments in which we couldn’t drum up a song if a whole damn choir serenaded us. Perhaps that was too honest. Let me turn instead to the Scriptures:
Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all, Psalm 34:19
You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again, Psalm 71:20
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of face the heart is made glad. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth, Ecclesiastes 7:2-4
He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the LORD, Lamentations 3:16-18
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, Matthew 5:4
I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world, John 16:33
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself, 2 Corinthians 1:8
Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you, James 4:8-10
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 1 Peter 1:6-7
There is room in the Scriptures for the often sad and consistently hard realities of the Christian experience. Reflecting on Charles Spurgeon’s debilitating struggles with depression, Zack Eswine says, “In this fallen world sadness is an act of sanity, our tears the testimony of the sane” (30). C.S. Lewis, noting the fine line between joy and sorrow, taught that our most delightful longings “are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited” (31). John Steinbeck, too, acknowledged that “joy and sorrow [are] felted into one fabric”.
Shane and Shane mourn this earthen oxymoron in song:
It haunts me so this gloomy weight
That comes and goes without a trace
A thousand times my flesh embrace
A thousand more but if for grace
That I might see this day, this waging war
Might go away and be no more
That I might see His face and hear Him say,
“Son, welcome home, the war is over”
Sorrow should not and shall not have the final word for the Christian. But it will have a word nonetheless. Why would we act as though all is always well? Though peering through a dim mirror of tears, can’t we take strength in those tears being fed by a common spring of joy and sorrow? How else will we be fully endeared to a suffering Savior? Though “ordinary mourners [may] sip at sorrow’s bowl…[Jesus] drains it dry” (87).