The French Jesuit priest and philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) said, ‘Joy is not the absence of pain’. Others have made the same observation repeatedly, either quoting de Chardin, or else expressing the same thought from their own perspective. It is a vital aspect of the joy we discover in the Bible and something we very much need to grasp if we are to experience this joy ourselves.
It is hardly surprising that people are shocked by this definition of joy. It jars with the prevailing notion that joy is found only in the good things of life. But, no matter how much we may try to fill our life with good things, we cannot exclude the bad and ultimately we cannot escape the dark shadow of death that casts its pall over life itself.
The Scottish minister, George Matheson, captured the richness of this distinctively biblical understanding of joy in the hymn, ‘O love that wilt not let me go’. At first sight it may seem to focus on the theme of love; but, as the verses unfold, it homes in on the joy bound up with the love of God.
Matheson goes on to speak about a ‘richer, fuller’ life and a ‘flickering torch’ whose ‘borrowed ray’ is ultimately restored. But then comes what is arguably the most arresting verse of the entire hymn:
O joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
and feel the promise is not vain
that morn shall tearless be.
The author gives the context for the hymn in his own words, explaining that it was “written in the Manse of my former parish (Innellan, Argyleshire) one summer evening in 1882. It was composed with extreme rapidity; it seemed to me that its construction occupied only a few minutes, and I felt myself rather in the position of one who was being dictated to than of an original artist I was suffering from extreme mental distress, and the hymn was the fruit of pain.”
As with all good hymns, this one was born, not out of a moment of inspired emotion, but out of rich and deep truths of Scripture. As we have noted in the previous articles on joy, the Bible presents us with a joy that is not found naturally in this world. A joy that is richer and deeper than the superficial alternatives people cling to, only to be left feeling let down and empty.
We find many striking examples of this joy throughout the Bible. In Psalm 31 David cries out to God in the midst of deep distress; but declares, ‘I will be glad and rejoice in your love’. At the end of his prophecy, at a time when Israel was facing major catastrophe, Habakkuk declares, ‘Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour’ (Ha 3.17-18).
The most striking expression of this kind of joy is found in Romans, where Paul shows how the experience of deep joy is bound up with the great truths of the gospel. Having just explained how justification through faith, by grace is the basis of our new standing before God, he says, ‘And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’ (Ro 5.2); but he goes on to say, ‘Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings…’ (5.3). The unusual juxtaposition of these two dimensions of joy actually takes us to the very heart of the joy of our salvation. That is, the joy of being restored to God in Christ. This joy – bound up with the ‘Love that wilt not let me go’ – follows us to the darkest of places in our earthly experience.
The final stanza of Matheson’s hymn enables us to grasp this more fully when it takes us to the darkest place of all: the cross of Christ. With poetic irony, in the midst of the kind of mental torment that caused the hymn writer to look inward and downward, the dark sufferings of Christ lifts his head to look, not merely at the anguish of his Saviour, but to what those sufferings have secured for all who believe: ‘life that shall endless be’.
Christian joy is more than just a perspective on life; it is the experience of that new life which is found only in Christ. The life that flows from being united with him, that is the key to our being reunited with God and knowing that we can never again be separated from him.
So it is not without significance that Teilhard de Chardin’s definition of joy was not just that it is ‘not the absence of pain’; but is also ‘…the presence of God.’
The ‘joy that seeks us through our pain’ is neither faceless, nor heartless; it is the joy of knowing the Saviour God, whom to know is life eternal.
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