The Joy Beyond the Pain

The following is a post by Pastor Rob Golding of First Artesia Christian Reformed Church. He also writes for the Westminster Theological Seminary Magazine.

In The Edge of Eternity, Randy Alcorn imagines what it will be like to experience true joy in heaven, as compared to the joys we now experience. The man who enters into the golden gates of glory says, “This is joy itself. Every foretaste of joy in the Shadowlands [Earth] was, but the stab, the pang, the inconsolable longing for this place! How could anyone be satisfied with less than this?” (p. 309). The joys of life before heaven will always be marred with grief.

The sweetest tasting fruit always turns putrid. Streaks of gold and glittering shapes of promise light the sky’s morning moments, yet darkness always follows. Love lights the heart like blazing fire, but death comes to snuff out the purest flame with crushing despair. Grief always follows jubilation.

Highs always convert to lows. Tears follow laughs. Achievements fade. Death.

It is a human constant in this fallen world—a law of nature—that happiness is always followed by despair. No joyful moment or experience shields us from the inevitable entropy of our happiness. The joy of a puppy turns to the tears of an old dead dog. The bliss of marriage ends in the gut-wrenching parting of the grave. Promotion always ends in retirement. The joyful union of love is always broken by lashes of life.

Yet most people live for these happy moments. Are they ignorant of their end? Do they not realize that their lust for happiness determines their bitter fate? Why do we instinctively crave wealth like infant hands piercing the womb with clenched fists of desire? We grasp and grope, yet all our hands will lie with palms open in the grave. “The pursuit of happiness” is the American dream. But perhaps it is a nightmare. Certainly, it’s an unwinnable game—toiling day after day under the beating sun to gain people and things that will perish before we do or after. Happiness is not the inevitable result of life; death is. How do we daily—hourly—pursue this happiness when life guarantees it will be ripped from our hands forever?

“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher.

We think that we can accomplish in our little lives something that thousands or millions of years of billions or trillions of humans have been unable to do—be happy. There is no human being in the history of the world who has experienced undying happiness. Yet we are creatures of rather ridiculous hope. The atheists laugh at the hope of religion—the religious laugh at the atheists’ desire to live.

What is the hope of life? For some atheists like William Hamilton, mentor to Richard Dawkins, it is to be buried and eaten by bugs: He said, “Later, in their children, reared with care by horned parents out of fist-sized balls moulded from my flesh, I will escape. No worm for me, or sordid fly: rearranged and multiple, I will at last buzz from the soil like bees out of a nest-indeed, buzz louder than bees, almost like a swarm of motor bikes. I shall be borne, beetle by flying beetle, out into the Brazilian wilderness beneath the stars.” To be eaten by beetles who fly and die to be eaten by other bugs. What a wonderful life!

Vanity of vanities.

We must unstop our ears to the wretched cries of agony spilling into the cacophony of human life—stillbirth, birth defects, broken families, embattled marriages…

When we see the sadness behind every laugh and the death waiting for every birth and look this darkness in the face, we begin to see reality. We must stare into the hollow eye of darkness in order to find true Joy. We must accept that life cannot bring us pure happiness. It is not capable of such a feat. It can eat us and fly away, but it cannot make us happy.

Happiness comes not from denying the pain behind joy but from seeing the joy behind the pain that is behind the joy. In the wake of each marriage is a wake. But in the wake of the wake is light. We focus on the joy of marriage and deny the death that follows. Instead, we should rejoice in the marriage and grieve the death while looking through it to the rising of the sun. Marriage, in itself, is a tortuous story—boy meets girl, girl dies. Marriage, in its proper context, is the beginning of true joy—boy meets girl, girl dies and rises again to be married to the Son. There is always light, darkness, then Light. So many reject the Light for the light and will end up in darkness. Vanity of vanity is life without the Light.

In the words of the great Protestant Reformers: Post tenebras lux—after the darkness, there is light. In other words, we must have darkness if we want the light.

There is not only permission to acknowledge but wisdom in recognizing the futility of this life. This life will steal your joy unless it is rooted in eternity. We grasp and grope for joy like patrons of a brothel, denying that true love waits for us at Home. Joy is not to be found here. We must hope for Home.

If we can do this, the eternal Joy of heaven will pierce our wounded hearts with the light of Christ. Imagine if you were filled with the foretastes of everlasting joy. Imagine if your heart, soul, mind, and strength began to burst with ecstatic excitement as eternal Joy filled your heart with the pulse-pounding expectation of perfect bliss.

Satan wants us to trade that Joy for shadows of the real thing—the Shadowland version. What a tragedy if we do. What glory if we don’t!

“Sickness and sorrow, pain and death
Are felt and feared no more
I’m bound for the promised land
Oh, who will come and go with me?”

-Rob Golding

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