We Must Keep in Mind the Paradoxes of Christianity
Yes the Christian can have great joy amidst suffering:
The Christian faith is a paradoxical faith. We all know many of these paradoxes: we get new life out of death; we only obtain glory via the cross; we fully become ourselves when we deny ourselves; there is joy in suffering; and so on. The great G. K. Chesterton offered us many of these. Here are a few:
“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.”
“If the great paradox of Christianity means anything it means this- that we must take the crown in our hands, and go hunting in dry places and dark corners of the earth until we find the one man who feels himself unfit to wear it. Carlyle was quite wrong; we have not got to crown the exceptional man who knows he can rule. Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man who knows he can’t.”
“It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom—that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”
Let me look further at the paradox of joy in the midst of suffering that I mentioned above. I recently wrote a piece on the cost of discipleship and how hard the true Christian life can be. Yet I got some critics writing in, saying I was putting people off by this, and just being ‘miserable’ and ‘contradictory’.
As I said in one reply: “It IS difficult to be a true disciple of Christ for the simple reason that we daily must deny self and crucify the flesh. But saying no to self and yes to God has nothing to do with being miserable – unless one prefers living in the flesh. Instead, we rejoice with God that the Spirit is doing a deep work in our lives and making us more Christlike. That is where real joy and deep peace come from.”
And to another critic I listed a number of texts which promise the believer a life of hardship and suffering. And many of these do fully tie in joy with suffering. Indeed, the very first verse I listed was Matthew 5:4: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
As folks should know, one can also translate this to read: “Happy are those who mourn…” Here we have another biblical paradox: happiness and mourning can readily coexist. But my critics just could not seem to grasp all this. So let me look at this famous passage a bit further.
One of the best ways to do so is simply to quote from “The Doctor”: Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Back in 1959 and 1960 the two-volume Studies in the Sermon on the Mount were released. It features his 60 expository sermons on Matthew 5-7. Chapter 5 of the first volume (subsequently released in one-volume editions) looks at this verse. Let me offer some choice quotes from it.
He begins by noting how the believer is so very different from the non-believer in this regard: “The world would, and does, regard a statement like this as utterly ridiculous-Happy are those who mourn! The one thing the world tries to shun is mourning; its whole organization is based on the supposition that that is something to avoid. The philosophy of the world is, Forget your troubles, turn your back upon them, do everything you can not to face them.”
He says we must reject this false idea that
if we as Christians are to attract those who are not Christian we must deliberately affect an appearance of brightness and joviality. Thus many try to assume a kind of joy and happiness which is not something that rises from within, but is something which is put on. Now probably that is the main explanation of the absence of this characteristic of mourning in the life of the Church today. It is this superficiality, this glibness or joviality that is almost unintelligent.
Lloyd-Jones says that having an awareness of our own sinfulness and the sins of the world will also lead to a proper condition of mourning. Not a morose, introspective one, but one that is Spirit-led. And he reminds us of our Lord who is known as a suffering servant, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He says:
A Christian is one who is to be like the Lord Jesus Christ. He is `the firstborn among many brethren’; that is the ultimate standard of what you and I are to be like. Very well; let us look at Him. What do we find? One thing we observe is that we have no record anywhere that He ever laughed. We are told He was angry; we are told that He suffered from hunger and thirst; but there is actually no record of laughter in His life….
Of course the Christian can and does laugh and so on. And Lloyd-Jones speaks against a “false puritanism” in which one is always gloomy and never any fun to be around. But a seriousness is to be pursued, and he also cites some Pauline passages, and then states:
“He says that `the aged men’ are to be `sober, grave, temperate’. Indeed even `the young men’ are to be `sober minded’. There is none of your glib joviality and brightness here. Even young Christians ought not to affect this appearance of such a wonderful joy that they always wear a bright smile on their face in order to show the world how happy they are.”
And he reminds us of the last words of the passage under consideration: “for they shall be comforted.” He then says this: “That is the astounding thing about the Christian life. Your great sorrow leads to joy, and without the sorrow there is no joy.”
His concluding words are worth offering in full:
Let us, then, try to define this man who mourns. What sort of a man is he? He is a sorrowful man, but he is not morose. He is a sorrowful man, but he is not a miserable man. He is a serious man, but he is not a solemn man. He is a sober-minded man, but he is not a sullen man. He is a grave man, but he is never cold or prohibitive. There is with his gravity a warmth and attraction. This man, in other words, is always serious; but he does not have to affect the seriousness. The true Christian is never a man who has to put on an appearance of either sadness or joviality. No, no; he is a man who looks at life seriously; he contemplates it spiritually, and he sees in it sin and its effects. He is a serious, sober-minded man. His outlook is always serious, but because of these views which he has, and his understanding of truth, he also has ‘a joy unspeakable and full of glory’. So he is like the apostle Paul, ‘groaning within himself’, and yet happy because of his experience of Christ and the glory that is to come. The Christian is not superficial in any sense, but is fundamentally serious and fundamentally happy. You see, the joy of the Christian is a holy joy, the happiness of the Christian is a serious happiness. None of that superficial appearance of happiness and joy! No, no; it is a solemn joy, it is a holy joy, it is a serious happiness; so that, though he is grave and sober-minded and serious, he is never cold and prohibitive. Indeed, he is like our Lord Himself, groaning, weeping, and yet, `for the joy that was set before him’ enduring the cross, despising the shame.
That is the man who mourns; that is the Christian. That is the type of Christian seen in the Church in ages past, when the doctrine of sin was preached and emphasized, and men were not merely urged to take a sudden decision. A deep doctrine of sin, a high doctrine of joy, and the two together produce this blessed, happy man who mourns, and who at the same time is comforted. The way to experience that, obviously, is to read the Scriptures, to study and meditate upon them, to pray to God for His Spirit to reveal sin in us to ourselves, and then to reveal to us the Lord Jesus Christ in all His fullness. ‘Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.’
Wise words indeed. So I will continue to ignore the critics (as should you), and continue to run with the whole counsel of God. The believer is called to rejoice, but also to mourn. These things are not contradictory. Paradoxical perhaps, but not opposed to one another.