Joy. Pure, unfiltered, haphazard, reckless, unashamed. This sort of halcyon emotion is tough to come by. I admit I’m guilty of incredulity when it comes to seeing the look of joy spread across someone’s face. I feel both wonder at this basic human emotion, but I also feel flummoxed by it: why don’t I feel such joy more often?
For me, joy is perplexing. I can be steeped in irony, and yet want my emotions to be pure. I can laugh at the world, and yet want to bask unabashedly in its grandeur. I can sneer disdainfully, and yet want to smile joyfully. The fact is, joy scares me. If I surrender to its call, I’m afraid I’ll be duped by whatever grants me that joy for the moment. And I suspect I’m not alone. We’re a mixed-up lot, “crooked timber” as the inscrutable Kant once said.
Not only are we internally conflicted when it comes to joy, but joy itself is rife with apparent contradictions. Check out the Book of James in the Bible. James might be most known for this little gem: Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.
At the Clinic, we deal with the legal complexities of suffering in many of its guises. Poverty. Abuse. Betrayal. Relational baggage. Debt. Mental anguish. Homelessness. Death. It’s all there: suffering persistently parading its wares in open mockery of the goodness of God’s creation.
And yet, for James, suffering gets turned on its head. Indeed, for the beleaguered, for victims of injustice who cling to vibrant faith in a God who suffered deeply and traumatically, suffering gets transmuted into something beautiful. Suffering becomes redemptive. Death leads to resurrection.
But isn’t that wishful thinking? For James, no. For Jesus, absolutely no. For Christians, positively no. For our clients who run to the suffering and dying and rising Christ for comfort, thankfully, no.
It’s not foolish to think of the ends for which things happen—that’s basking in reality. Further, it’s not foolish to rely on our loving God to do ultimate justice when things come to a close—that’s basking in eternity. In 1947, African-American scholar Howard Thurman delivered a lecture at Harvard University on the other-worldly nature of Negro Spiritual songs. Didn’t those songs perpetuate an earthly injustice and passivity in the face of human horror? For Thurman, no. He responded that these songs, “taught a people how to ride high in life, to look squarely in the face those facts that argue most dramatically against all hope and to use those facts as raw material out of which they fashioned a hope that the environment could not crush.”
A hope that the environment could not crush. Yes, suffering is not often explained. And yes, not all suffering seems to mature us. Some of this is left to mystery. And yes, joy can be fleeting and used as a smokescreen.
But the promise of the resurrection is that suffering does not have the final say in reality—not in this world or in the next. Consider it all joy, my brothers…
Until justice and peace embrace,
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