“Forgotten Christian Virtues: Rolling in the Ash and Sizing-On the Sackcloth”
“I am trading my sorrows, I am trading my shame
I am laying them down for the joy of the Lord…
I am trading my sickness, I am trading my pain,
I am laying them down for the joy of the Lord!”
“Yes Lord, Yes Lord…”
And “Yes Lord…” ad nauseam.
Most of us are familiar with the relatively popular worship chorus “Trading my Sorrows.” Its more likely to be blasting in the background of your child’s or siblings elementary Sunday School classroom when you come to pick them up after the end of the service than it is likely going to be found in the Order of Worship insert in your Sunday Morning brochure, but this is all relative based upon the congregation you are joining for worship this particular Sunday.
While I believe there is a growing contingent of people who are looking for (either explicitly or implicitly) “meatier” lyrics to adorn their worship in song than many of today’s popular chorus provide, recent reading and pondering has me thinking: is this song very biblical? Certainly, all the promises of God are “Yes” in Christ (2 Cor 1:19), and with less developed attention spans and vocabulary, sure, why not have our children sing “Yes Lord” over and over again. But what kind of picture of the Christian life comes to mind when an adult sings “I’m trading my sorrows… for the joy of the Lord?” Or what about trading in sickness, and pain?
Certainly, as those who live on this side of the Incarnation/Resurrection event, yet before the Second coming, we can expect to see sickness, sorrow, tears, pain, suffering, and death to be replaced with healing, joy, cheer, delight, and life. What blessed promises we have to knowing that when Jesus returns, we will be commanded “Stop Weeping!” (Rev 5:5). And certainly, we are to expect the Lord to be reversing the effects of the fall with the mending and restoring ministry of the Spirit today as we wait for the Kingdom Consummation. And, reading the entire lyrics of “Trading my Sorrows,” its seems clear that the agony being exchanged for joy is the baggage and sorrow resulting from the guilt and condemnation of sin. These are tears that Jesus’ work is to completely wipe away for those who believe in Him. But, in our sound-bite saturated and reader-response reasoning society, is this the theology most believers are thinking, or believing, when they sing chorus such as this?
Today’s rumination lead me to suggesting that a great many believers, whether it’s from these lyrics or other sources, view sorrow and joy antithetically. If Christ has conquered the grave and brought me life over death, should not the life of sanctification be the process of gradually wiping every spec of sorrow and mourning out of my soul to replace it with joy? If I’m promised no morning in eternal life in a resurrection body, shouldn’t progressive spiritual growth today look like each day being filled with more joy, and less mourning and sorrow, than the day before? And in fact, wouldn’t a particularly mournful day be not only unpleasant (and our Lord knows how much we as Westerners value comfort), but feel like a step backwards?
Maybe. Maybe unless… those who know Christ are still supposed to mourn. Perhaps, being filled with the Spirit means that we shed more tears.
Well, who has an answer for this hypothetical? Let’s try John Calvin, who writes “though joy overcomes sorrow, yet it does not put an end to it, because it does not divest us of humanity.” In fact, John Climacus (640 AD) writes that mourning is “the golden spur within the soul.”
Wait, isn’t morning something the New Covenant has done away with? We see prophet’s, Kings, and poor old Joel rolling in ash and sackcloth. Is there New Testament precedent for understanding mourning as a practice of the Christian life.
How about Jesus? Was not he “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief? (Isa 53:3). And what a curious picture we see of Jesus in Luke as he is drawing nearer to Jerusalem, riding on a colt, with crowds singing “Hosanna!” … and what is Jesus response to the scene? “And when He approached, He saw the city and wept over it,” (Luke 19:41) grieved because of the misunderstanding and even hardness of heart and rejection that the people of this city would demonstrate in later raising their fists against God, and the judgment they would receive for it. Jesus even tells his disciples “my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (Matt 26:38). We see clearly from Jesus’ example that sorrow and mourning is the appropriate response to unbelief and to evil. Whether its persecution- or in the historical time of the gospels, the rejection of the Messiah- unbelief (and the ensuing consequences) should motivate the mature heart to mourn. This is an appropriate response.
How about Paul? In writing to the Corinthians, he makes it very clear that he is not at all apologetic for causing them sorrow in addressing matters of wrongdoing among them, because there is a “godly sorrow” that brings about repentance. Indeed, when we think about our own lives, there was likely no true repentance, no grappling with the depths of the consequences of our sin, without morning of some degree. Lastly, Puritan Ralph Venning offers “Oh, that there were more crying persons when there are so many crying sins!”
And don’t the prophets also model for us a mourning and sorrow in response to sin? Ezra responds to Israel’s blatant disobedience after returning from exile by tearing our his hair from his head (Ezra 9:4). Likewise, Jeremiah fasted and mourned for his beloved Jerusalem when he heard from the Lord of the devastating fate the city would received for her rejection of God.
So, what role does mourning play in the Christian life? Mourning is both the appropriate and healthy response to sin and evil. Indeed, how can we not by mourn when we hear reports of our Christian brother or sister who suffer and die at the hands of those who are enemies of the gospel, and persecutors of the people of God? How can we not mourn when a loved one is ill and suffering much pain? Although one who is “in Christ” has joy in their eternal hope, the biblical evidence seems to suggest that we are more than permitted, even prescribed, to join in mourning for them. Again, this virtue is not down-trodden gloom and defeat, nor does it ignore present and eschatological realities. It is a mourning of ministry, both to our own soul, and to others.
And it is such a realization that I wish I had been told earlier in my Christian life. For years, I have felt so self- condemned that I did not feel more joy, because my experience of sorrow in response to evil and sin was still so strong. For years, I feel that in some situations I wished this away for more “joy,” yet what I was really wishing for ( and I believer, really out of misunderstanding instead of narcissism) was for a numbing of my heart to the state of the world, and a Spirit filled response that was transforming and shaping my through this response. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt 5:4).