Can Grief and Joy Coexist?

There is a phrase in Mandarin Chinese, bei xi jiao ji (悲喜交集), meaning “mixed feelings of grief and joy.” Grief and joy aren’t commonly thought of as partners, but when faced with loss, cross-cultural workers need to understand that one doesn’t necessarily cancel the other one out.

Expressing Grief

Dr. Steve Sweatman, president and CEO of Mission Training International (MTI), says that the call to take the gospel of Christ to another culture “inevitably is a call to sacrifice, to losses, to things that you will have to leave behind or give up.” This sacrifice takes many forms, and MTI has identified five categories of loss experienced by Christian cross-cultural workers. They are

  • a stable home
  • identity
  • competence
  • support systems
  • a sense of safety

In an audio presentation at Member Care Radio (entitled “Good Grief“), Sweatman also discusses the differences between concrete and abstract losses felt by cross-cultural workers, with the latter being such things as the loss of dreams or hopes. He tells the story of a Christian worker named John who came to him for counseling. While serving in central Asia, John had experienced both concrete and abstract losses. He had lost his status and effectiveness as a youth pastor in the US. His wife had had two miscarriages. And he and the rest of his team had been forced to evacuate their host country with little hope of returning.

With painful honesty, John revealed:

I know that all things work together for the good. I know that the joy of the Lord should be my strength, but it’s not. I know that I’m going to see my unborn children in heaven. I don’t want to commit suicide, but I . . . um . . . wish that I wasn’t alive.

Sweatman went on to talk with John about the way his family had taught him to deal with grief as he grew up, and then helped him learn how to grieve in a healthier way. Healthy sadness, says Dr. Sweatman, is the “antidote to depression.” It includes two important steps: acknowledging our losses to God and expressing grief publicly to allow others to “be the arms of God.”

“How we handle loss,” says Sweatman, “determines a number of things. It determines the longevity of you in cross-cultural work, the depth of joy you will experience in your life, the wisdom that you will gain, and especially your closeness to God and your need for him.”

If this summary strikes a chord with you, please listen to Dr. Sweatman’s talk in its entirety. That way you’ll get to hear all that he has to say on this topic, and you’ll get to hear his heart as well as his words.

Redefining Joy

When John said, “I know that the joy of the Lord should be my strength . . .” he’s referring to a verse from Nehemiah 8. But we’re most familiar with the phrase “The joy of the Lord is my strength [clap, clap, clap]” from the peppy song of the same name. What happens when we don’t feel the Lord’s joy? James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Can we be sad or afraid or confused, and still have joy?

There’s another song about joy that is familiar to those who’ve grown up in the church. It repeats over and over the line “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” But what does that joy look like in the face of loss? Is it always a smile? What does that joy sound like in the midst of trials? It is always an upbeat song?

I’m so glad to have come across The Autumn Film’s rendition of “I’ve Got the Joy”/”Down in My Heart.” Tifah Phillips, the group’s vocalist writes on her blog how she wrote “Joy.” It happened the night of her father’s death, as she sat at the piano, “the only place that felt safe that night to me”:

I remembered my eyes were blurred with tears and I literally began to play the now familiar progression of Joy.  I kept cycling through the progression and then, as if it had already been written, I began to sing a different melody to a song I sang in VBS as a child, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. . . .” The truth is that I was terribly and profoundly sad.  The reality of grief had not even entirely hit me yet.  But at the same moment I had a deep sense of peace.  He was no longer in pain.  He was no longer sick.  He was free from all his ailments and restored. Although I still miss him, I know that God has weaved redemption through death into my father’s story.  That brings me great joy.  It was not until grief became a part of my story that I realized that joy is not simply an expression, but an attitude and acknowledgment of the deep peace of knowing a Savior.

Often when I’m grieving, my joy doesn’t show on the surface, even though I wish it did. But just because it’s not visible, doesn’t mean that I don’t have joy “down in my heart.” “Joy is not simply an expression, but an attitude and acknowledgment of the deep peace of knowing a Savior.” I like that. And I like the lines from the song that say,

I can’t understand
And I can’t pretend
That this will be all right in the end.
So I’ll try my best
And lift up my chest
To sing about this joy.

This really is a beautiful and meaningful song to me, heartbreaking and heartmending. I hope it speaks to you, too.

[photo by Blake Photoforia, used under a Creative Commons license]