The Bible speaks frequently of joy and rejoicing, and I am frequently asked to speak about it. More recently, however, the assumption seems to be it is not an appropriate topic right now. My answer is, it’s never more appropriate than in a time of suffering.
The Bible is never less than realistic about the world we live in. Our problem is the opposite; we tend to create fantasies about our place in the world. We, especially in the prosperous West, delude ourselves into believing that we are in control of our world and that human progress can and will solve all our problems. Lately, it has come as a great shock to our community to realise that this is far from true. Our technology, our abilities, our wealth have not made us immune to this pandemic – indeed, in many ways they have made it worse, given the possibilities of widespread global travel we now have.
We also like to ignore the fact that this is a world of illness and death. With professionals to take care of this, most of us can successfully ignore this reality most of the time – we can’t now (although even with the death toll rising, crowds of Britons this weekend obviously continued to ignore it).
There’s another reality that is now rudely facing us – that suffering is intensely uneven. For some, work-at-home might be the dream job, a lovely comfortable break from commuting. For others, it is sudden unemployment and no income and no security; pension funds suddenly losing value. Many face great loss and insecurity, and the government cannot guarantee our comfort.
This has always been true; there has always been reason for fear in this world. Yet the Bible tells us constantly not to be afraid, not to worry; instead, to rejoice. How? How can we rejoice, now?
Just as the reality of suffering has always been there, so have the reasons for rejoicing; and they are still with us just as much now. We rejoice because the world is still full of blessings. We can rejoice that God’s image is still evident in the people who are helping others – that’s God’s grace. We can rejoice because God does not leave us in ignorance of himself; this outbreak itself is his warning not to continue living in a fantasy. We rejoice because suffering does gives us perseverance, which is part of becoming a mature and wise human being, as James tells us (1:4). We rejoice because we can look past the current suffering to a world where there will be no more illness or death. We rejoice, finally, because God saves, and that is always the best reason to rejoice. And by ‘rejoice’ I mean not just lip-service or intellectual assent; we have true reasons here to feel joyful.
In practice, how? Two pieces of advice: we must make sure now more than ever that we have time daily in Scripture, to remind and convince ourselves of these truths; and to be thankful for the good we have. We must not let the uncertainty and the fear be foremost in our minds. There is a greater reality still.