During my first decade of following Christ, various church women approached me from time to time to commend me, “You have the spiritual gift of joy!”
They thanked me, “Your joy is just so contagious!”
They envied me, “I wish I had your joy!”
It was my warm, throaty laugh, room shaking and head-turning, they said, that caught their notice. They loved my quick wit and ability to transform even the mundane into a joke. They were struck by the pure abandon I evinced during worship, hands upraised, face radiant.
The gift of joy.
What could I do but smile and say thanks?
Should I have confessed that I cannot recall a time when sorrow didn’t underpin my joy, ebbing and flowing like an underground river, bubbling up in wells of tears at the most inconvenient times? Maybe I should have corrected these well meaning sisters? I laugh as a dam against torrential sorrow. I keep people belly-laughing because I have yet to find an audience to sit through a display of sorrow. The enthusiastic worship you note is the sweet relief of finding respite in the eye of an emotional storm.
For ten years, years brimming with laughter and humor and worship, the ever present despair deepened and widened, rising and churning, pressing ever harder against my defenses. Finally, the dam broke. In 2010, my depression overwhelmed me and all I had left was tears. I cried each time I entered church; I broke down in front of an audience; I wept through each worship set, gasping for breath. Women no longer approached me. No one congratulated me for my grief. No one envied the gift of sorrow.
For almost five years, I seemingly lost my joy. Rather than navigating a constantly shifting tide of sadness, I was drowning. I fought to tread water and be joyful with every trick in a Jesus-loving girl’s book. I attended church faithfully, despite the fact that the simple act of entering a place of worship started a fresh wave of tears. I read my bible every morning, for longer and longer stretches of time. One bible reading plan, then another, then a devotional, then another. I got to the point where I was devouring scripture 2 ½ hours each morning. I prayed. I prayed harder than I ever had before. I filled my prayer journal with pleas. I cried out to God desperately, begging for an end to my sorrow, begging for a solution. I called on every scriptural promise I knew to give me hope… “He who has started a work in me will be faithful to complete it”… “Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes in the morning”… “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. I raised my hands in worship when I had nothing left to give, gasping to mouth the words through my sobs, desperate to believe the lyrics, “Though darkness fills the night. It cannot hide the light. Whom shall I fear?” I reached out and made connections with other Christian women in a way I never had before, attending bible study, praying fervently for a Christian woman to be my friend. I finally got so desperate, I did what, for me, what was once unthinkable, and tried to get counseling. The pastor at my church who handled such matters shooed me away with a list of references, “You really need to see a professional.” As I called one disconnected number after the other from the decade old referral list, I lost hope of finding wise Christian counsel.
None of my efforts worked. Not in the way I thought they should work anyway. Not by my standards. I wasn’t cured of my depression. My pain was not removed. I didn’t trade my sorrow for a river of overflowing, abundant joy. Instead, all the striving and chasing left me empty and frustrated. Aching bones weary. Soul spent.
And the worst thing, it left me guilty. What kind of a Christian can’t find her all in all in Christ?
I was supposed to have the joy, joy, joy down in my heart to stay, right? If I was really following Christ, He’d instantly transform all this grief into joy, right? The heavens should open up and light pour down, chasing away all this darkness.
Instead, not quite five years in, I began to notice thin rays of light gradually piercing my personal night. Slowly and miraculously, but steadily, joy blossomed and spread. That joy did not cure me of my depression, but it did shine brilliant and ferocious through the darkness. And I began to see that, yes, I did still have the gift of joy. But that wasn’t my only gift, oh no! My lavish and generous Father, giver of good gifts, loved me too much to let one single hurt, one single tear, go to waste and so he gave me another gift.
He gave me the gift of sorrow.
Sorrow that makes me empathetic to the broken and the hurting.
Sorrow that teaches me to mourn with the mourners and weep with the weeping.
Sorrow that backlights my moments of joy the way stars shine brightest in the darkest night.
Sorrow that keeps me headed back, day after day, to the throne of the joymaker for a fresh supply.
Sorrow that reigns me mercifully back in each time I wander too far from my gracious Father.
Sorrow so overwhelming and all encompassing that I am finally beginning to understand the depths of God’s grace. His grace is so wide and so long and so deep that even when I am so broken that I can do nothing to please God- not worship, or pray, or connect, nothing but cry and plead- that even then I am enough.
Enough to love. Enough to rescue. Enough to die on a cross in order to save. Enough for Him.
And that is, indeed, my greatest gift