Excerpted from ‘The Gravity of Joy’ (Eerdmans)
The Gravity of Joy
By Angela Williams Gorrell
There will be a day in each of our lives when the question “How does pain fit into a good life?” is especially urgent. There will be a moment when the world will seemingly stop. It will feel as if your heart has broken, and you will need a vision of a life worth living that can endure suffering.
Maybe that day has come or passed and you sit there reading, feeling the urgency of this question.
It’s important that we consider how pain relates to the circumstances, actions, and emotions in our vision of a meaningful life. In light of suffering, what should we hope for? Given that pain is a part of the reality of being human, how do we pursue wholeness? If I feel anxious, depressed, ashamed, fearful, or angry, is it possible for life to still be good?
At some point we all have to wrestle with suffering and discern its place in the life worth living. We have to make some sort of sense of how pain relates to the larger story being told, and we have to discern where God is in the midst of suffering—lest we be consumed by it. No vision of the true life is sustainable if it does not account for pain. By grappling with suffering we actually come to a clearer understanding of joy. While we may be able to articulate and live toward a vision that can endure our moments of pain, in my own experience it is possible only when we make friends with mystery.
The Bible is not a Google map to the good life. As I came to accept after losing three family members in four weeks—my cousin to suicide, my father to opioid addiction, and my nephew to sudden cardiac arrest—the Bible is more like instructions for filing your taxes. You know it’s saying something important (and it feels like it’s talking about benefits and deductions), but it’s unclear, frustrating, and it takes longer than you want it to.
Rather than being some sort of checklist for becoming a holy person, the Bible is a bunch of stories about people who endured messy existences. The more I read the Bible, the more I notice how often its stories end with questions rather than answers. Many stories have little or no resolution. You turn the page excited to find out what happened only to realize that Jesus has moved on to a different town.
Sometimes really beautiful things happen in the Bible. People who want to be healed are healed. And they literally jump for joy. But the Bible is basically chock-full of people struggling to make it one more day, to do hard things, and to hear from God. People found themselves in massive storms, lions’ dens, and brothels. They suffered infertility, moved from place to place unsure where they would find their next meal, slept with other people’s spouses, stole from their siblings, betrayed their closest friends, and gave away their baby boys so that they would not be murdered.
More often than not, the Bible tells the stories of people who, despite being led right to the edge of the promised land, never got to see it. They lost everything, from homes to temples to the meaning of life—and they wept, stridently. I have continued to read the Bible (including its points of confusion and frustration) because I find it reassuring that there are other people who have lived who don’t have everything figured out and who fail.
Ultimately, the Bible reminds me that there is a larger story being told. The voice of God speaks to me through its pages. As I read it and look for this overarching narrative, I realize my story, my family’s story, is part of an all-embracing story about how, somehow, God’s unconditional love encompasses the world, things are being made new, dead things come back to life again, and life is worth living.
The Bible invites us to be discerning people—not just about the stories in its pages, but as we read, about the stories we live and encounter. When we read Bible stories, it is important to be able to imagine being on the side of suffering and liberation, pain and healing, despair and joy. As we reflect on Noah’s ark, we must imagine both the joy of making it on the boat and the despair of being left off. As we see the walls of Jericho fall in our mind’s eye, we should consider Joshua’s team and those human beings buried under the rubble. As we imagine and study the woman at the well, we must also identify with her. We need to be able to see our potential to be the Good Samaritan, the person who walked by, the person lying in the ditch, and one of the robbers who put the person in the ditch.
As we engage in this kind of imaginative discernment as individuals and in community, biblical stories create a dialogue between the lives of the people we are reading about and our own lives. We read the text and it reads us. And it is here in the midst of faithfulness to this dialogue—genuinely open, carefully listening, steadfastly struggling with questions, trying this way and that way—that the Spirit of God quietly reveals this is how you love; what wholeness is; the shape of forgiveness; what it looks like to find meaning in the mess, to rejoice and resist despair, to embrace sorrow, to recognize the good, to stand in awe of beauty, to share in joy.
Along the way, the Spirit shapes and empowers us to become more human, more alive, more attuned to the something more. Yes, the Bible is full of muddled, difficult stories throughout its various genres—poetry, wisdom, prophecy, narratives, letters—but through imaginative discernment I have also come to believe there are a few things in it that we can hold on to as we struggle to make sense of pain.
One thing is that God keeps showing up.
I never understood or paid much attention to Holy Saturday before the tragedies in my family happened. Now I think I know a bit more about what it means. Holy Saturday is the day between Jesus’ death on Friday and his resurrection on Sunday morning.
It is the time in-between. It is the time spent somewhere between death on Friday and resurrection on Sunday, reconciling life’s tremendous losses and unspeakable joys. The majority of the time in our lives is spent living on Saturday, in the space between death on Friday and the indescribable joy of Sunday morning.
At multiple points during our lives, we find ourselves mourning death, carrying with us lament for places, ideas, relationships, experiences that are no more and for people who have died. After loss, we find ourselves desperate to make meaning of suffering, longing for resurrection, reunion, restoration.
Saturday is quiet. We no longer hear the actual weeping of Friday evening, the shouts of rage, or the desperation of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But death’s sting is still palpable. Since it is Saturday, others may not know that we have just attended a funeral or that our hearts are pounding with grief. Our tears are not flowing, so they do not see that we are suffering—that we have embraced goodbye, not yet, no, no more, the end.
Saturday is liminal space. We know that we cannot possibly feel this way forever. We anticipate that we will see beauty, feel love, know hope, and find meaning again. This is because we have known Sunday’s goodness before, moments when our hearts pound instead with great joy, when unexpected and spontaneous connection, opportunity, renewal, and healing come.
Saturday is when we remember, we pray, we anticipate, we keep our hearts open. On Saturday, we have not forgotten the horror of Friday but we also believe (Lord, help my unbelief) the sun will rise again.
Saturday is. Many of us must be here. We stretch out our arms, one toward Friday and one toward Sunday. And when we do, perhaps, we will find one another’s fingertips and maybe even discover Saturday is revealing something to us, perhaps even comforting us. Maybe, possibly, Saturday will help us to see differently–though still through a mirror dimly.
Of course, there will continue to be Friday evenings when we are in the thick of lament.
But there are surely more Sunday mornings to come when we will stumble onto the joy we long for and will be restored by it.
Excerpted from The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found by Angela Williams Gorrell ©2021 (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) Reprinted by permission of the publisher; all rights reserved.