What does true joy look like in the midst of suffering? Let me tell you that true joy isn’t always laughing, smiling, or in a good mood. True joy doesn’t mean you won’t hurt or cry. On the contrary, true joy cries and hurts and asks, “Why me?” Joy and suffering aren’t mutually exclusive. You can have one AND the other.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2013, I’d been in a relationship with Christ since 1989 and had been serving Him in the ministry for at least 16 years. This isn’t the story of how my cancer diagnosis led me to Christ. It’s the story of the joy I found in the midst of my cancer journey. I discovered that while my relationship with Christ doesn’t necessarily prevent suffering, my relationship with Him gives joy in the midst of suffering. Before my cancer diagnosis, the idea I could have joy while dealing with a terrifying illness was unfathomable. Nonetheless, cancer taught me that not only is it possible to have joy in the midst of suffering, but joy is also necessary to help Christians endure suffering.
Here are 7 things I learned about joy during a season of suffering.
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Joy is from the Lord.
I had my first chemotherapy appointment, two days before Thanksgiving. I sat there during my infusion appointment taking smiling selfies and sending them to the group of women who encouraged me, prayed for me, and loved me through the treatments. I continued to work as well. I facilitated and participated in conference calls and completed various work-related tasks on my laptop during the treatments. I sang with my church’s worship team, preached the occasional Sundays, prayed with people who came to the altar, and laughed and joked with my family and friends. People couldn’t believe I had cancer or was going through chemo treatments. Although I was afraid and cried nearly every day, I had a joy that was inexplicable. From where did that joy originate? From the Lord!
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Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Joy is a fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22). Joy is defined in that verse as “cheerfulness; calm delight; gladness.” Since joy is the result (or fruit) of God’s Spirit abiding in us, we have access to joy all the time and can have cheerfulness, calm delight, or gladness regardless of what’s going on in our lives. Does that mean we’re walking around all the time with silly grins on our faces, not acknowledging the suffering we’re experiencing? Does that mean we’re always laughing while enduring affliction? No! However, Joy isn’t contingent upon how we feel or what we’re going through. Indeed, true joy embraces all the different emotions we experience but doesn’t allow those emotions to rule us.
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Joy can accompany other feelings.
I experienced sadness, fear, and joy simultaneously while going through 16 chemo treatments, a lumpectomy, and 33 rounds of radiation therapy (along with the associating burns). I was sad and afraid, often crying myself to sleep only to awaken a short while later from a disturbing dream that I was dying. I wondered if I’d see my daughter graduate high school or my granddaughter’s first day of kindergarten. Without God’s joy, I would have fallen into a pit of depression and despair. And although I questioned God and wondered why me, I had a joy that demanded expression. And I believe all Christians have constant access to that type of joy. If you have a relationship with Christ and are filled with His Spirit, then you have joy, regardless of whether you feel you do or not.
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Joy is based on God’s attributes, not my feelings.
Yes, you have joy despite how you feel. Unfortunately, some people allow their feelings and emotions to dictate their joy. I’d much rather let my joy be predicated upon God’s attributes, His faithfulness, protection, and love for me than upon how I feel at any moment. Our feelings change with the wind. We’re happy one moment and sad the next. We’re happy a pair of shoes are on sale but then sad because the store doesn’t have our size in stock. My joy wasn’t contingent upon whether I had hair (thank God because I lost it all to chemotherapy). My joy wasn’t contingent upon whether I felt God’s presence (because I felt alone quite often). My joy rested solely on who God is and His promises toward me.
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Joy looks beyond the painful moment to a hopeful future.
Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God, (Hebrews 12:2).
If we want to know what real joy looks like in the midst of suffering, Hebrews 12:2 enlightens us. Jesus endured the suffering and shame that came with the cross for “...the joy that was set before Him.” He is our example. True joy empowers us to endure suffering, so we can embrace the joy that is set before us. Put more simply, true joy looks to the future with hope, assurance, and expectation just as Christ did when He went to the cross. Christ looked beyond the misery and suffering of the cross to the salvation which would come for you, me, and everyone else who calls on His name.
And we have to look beyond the pain and suffering we’re facing as well. We have to trust the Lord with our futures and believe there are a plan and purpose for the suffering we’re currently enduring. Joy doesn’t demand an explanation for the suffering. Joy trusts God through the suffering.
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Joy comes from trusting God’s promises.
One of the most important promises to which I held during my cancer journey was Romans 8:28:
"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."
Although I didn’t understand why God allowed me to develop breast cancer, I knew God would use the cancer diagnosis and its subsequent treatments for good. I knew somehow, someway, my cancer diagnosis could be used to glorify the Lord and bless His people. Knowing those things helped me endure nausea, blackened fingernails, hair loss, dry mouth, shortness of breath, doubt, and fear. God helped me look forward to a future in which I’d see my daughter and granddaughter grow up.
"God doesn’t waste anything we experience."
God doesn’t waste anything we experience. Indeed, He uses all our experiences for our good. I had joy because I knew something beautiful was being worked together on my behalf. And I was right. My faith is stronger, I’m bolder and much more confident, and closer to the Lord now than before my cancer journey. My marriage is stronger than it was before as well. I’m a different woman today than I was before my cancer diagnosis. And you’ll reach the other side of your suffering with a stronger faith as well.
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Joy presses on.
"For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us," (Romans 8:18).
I want to encourage you to stay strong in the midst of your suffering. Know that suffering doesn’t last always, and present suffering cannot compare to the glory that’ll be revealed in us one day. I know you’re hurting and confused. I know you’re trying to figure out how God can possibly use the heartache and pain you’re currently facing. Things aren’t easy right now. I get it, I really do. Although the oncologist has declared me cancer-free, the threat of cancer recurrence is real. If I let that threat rule me, I will cease to live the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10. So I look forward to my future with great expectation, pressing through difficult times with joy.
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“The joy you need is available.”
Who couldn’t use a little more joy right now? You’re suffering won’t last always, but your joy can. Hold on, Dear Reader. Trust your suffering to the Lord. You do not have to face your anguish alone. The Lord is with you, holding your hand, and at times, carrying you through the pain you’re facing. The joy you need is available. Turn on its faucet and let it pour over you. Accept it, embrace it, drink from the fountain which never runs dry.
Aretha Grant serves her local church as a bible teacher and elder. She loves writing and is the author of Overcomer: 25 Keys to Walking Victoriously. Aretha resides in Hagerstown, MD with her husband and two youngest children. You can read Aretha’s blog at www.arethagrant.com.
Design Credit: Rachel Dawson
Originally published Thursday, 19 July 2018.