Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. (John 16:20)
In John 16, Jesus has His disciples in the upper room, preparing them for His crucifixion. He tells the disciples that very soon, they will be in mourning. Pointing to this, Jesus makes a staggering promise: “your sorrow shall be turned into joy.”
How can sorrow be turned into joy? The two seem perfectly contradictory, like a square circle or frozen fire. Yet, Jesus made the promise: “your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” Turn a toad into a prince, or a statue into a man, but how can sorrow be turned into joy? The simple answer is, only by the power of God.
Somehow, God’s recipe for joy includes sorrow. I can’t say that I completely understand that. In my mind, joy consists of the absence of sorrow. Yet, God calls for our sorrows, tucks them into the cake batter, throws the mix into the oven, and brings forth a masterpiece of a cake. There must be sorrow, or He could not turn it into joy.
In context, Jesus prepared His disciples for the world’s response to His crucifixion. Indeed, when Jesus was crucified, the disciples faced their darkest hour. The world’s response to their pain and sorrow would be like twisting the knife that stabbed in the back. “The world shall rejoice.” And they sure enough did. They laughed, they mocked, they despised, they scorned. And they still do.
If the believer’s sorrow is turned into joy, we can say as well that the unbeliever’s “joy” will be turned into sorrow. Unbelievers enjoy ridiculing the Christian faith, finding fault with God, and despising the good while embracing the evil. God has prepared them a turnabout, a day when He will right wrongs and punish sins. The unbeliever’s celebration will be a temporary thing at best; afterward, God will turn it into eternal anguish. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But Jesus promises His disciples that “your sorrow shall be turned into joy.” Jesus did not promise to replace our sorrows with joy. Notice that. We might settle for “replaced.” We might like our sorrows to be removed and joy to fill their place. But that isn’t good enough for God. He promises to transform our sorrows, not to replace them.
He did not say we would have joy in the face of our sorrows, as if joy would face down the sorrow and overcome it. Joy has the power to do that, and we can expect that our joy will “outweigh” our sorrow (as we said in an earlier post). But Jesus promises more than that. He promises to transform our sorrows.
He doesn’t promise us joy in spite of our sorrows, as if we will be surprised to find joy in times of sorrow, like finding ice cubes in a fiery furnace. Certainly, in times of deep sorrow and pain, we will be surprised to discover that joy doesn’t flee away or abandon us altogether. And in those times, we might be tempted to see it as joy despite sorrow. But the promise goes beyond that. Jesus makes a staggering promise: He will turn our sorrows into joy.
Nor did Jesus promise that we would have joy in our sorrows, as if we would rejoice in the sorrow itself. Legend tells us that St. Francis of Assisi when encountering a leper, embraced the man and kissed him on the mouth. It makes for a great story, anyway. But I don’t see Jesus kissing lepers on the mouth. Nor does His promise require us to treat our sorrows as if they are our best friends. Think of it this way: if sorrow is your best friend, why would you need to have it turned into joy? God never requires us to delight in pain. We are required to “count it all joy” when we fall into divers temptations, “knowing this, that the trial of our faith worketh patience.” And we can “count it all joy” because Jesus has promised to transform our sorrows so thoroughly that they will become the opposite of what they are – sorrow turned into joy.
In this life, we will have troubles. Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward. In this life, our problems disrupt our joy, so that no matter how happy the moment, we know that it is just a moment. Then, our sorrows will overtake us again. We cannot in this life enjoy happiness without some mingling of sorrow. “Even in laughter, the heart is sorrowful.” But Jesus made a vital promise in this verse: our sorrows will be turned into joy. What a shocking alteration!
What Jesus says in John 16:20 applies more broadly to the Christian life in general. God purposely causes us to pass through many dangers, toils, and snares. The world laughs at us. And in this life, they have it relatively easy. Like the rich man, they in their lifetime have their good things, while Lazarus has his evil things. They are not troubled as other men are in this life.
For I was envious at the foolish, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no bands in their death: but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men; neither are they plagued like other men. (Psalm 73:3-5)
In comparison, we are vexed in every way.
We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)
Verily I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocency. For all the day long have I been plagued, and chastened every morning. (Psalm 73:13-14)
Jesus points us past our present circumstances to the end of the matter. We would all love to have uninterrupted and uninhibited joy. But God has reserved the fullest experience of joy for the life to come. Since joy is how we triumph over Satan, we should not be surprised that Satan fights so fiercely to disrupt our joy. We can be thankful for the book of Job for this reason. Job offers a firsthand account of Satan’s hatred for us, of the ways he attacks our joy, believing that if he can replace our joy with sorrow, we will curse God and die.
The disruptions Satan threw at Job give us a template for the hindrances to joy he throws at us. In the life and trials of Job, we see three specific ways Satan attacks our joy. First, Satan attacked Job’s joy with tragedy – his wealth was stolen, and his children died under tragic circumstances. So, Satan attacks our joy with emotional pain and sorrow. Second, Satan attacked Job with pain – his health was ruined, and he could not find relief. So, Satan attacks our joy with physical pain and suffering. Third, Satan attacked Job with doubt, confusion, false perceptions of God and His providential goodness, and with friends who had a right understanding of God but a wrong application of Him. Even so, Satan attacks our joy with spiritual pain caused by sin.
If God permits, in the days ahead, we will explore each of these attacks on our joy to see the practical ways God turns our sorrows into joy. May He ever do so for His people!