Last Monday morning thousands of people living in Freetown, Sierra Leone left their homes for work and various other life-tasks. They began their day under the impression that they’d be able to return to their homes and families. But for nearly 500 people, that wasn’t the case.
Shortly after sunrise, a red sheet of mountainside encrusted with the homes, cars, trees, and residents of Freetown careened down the slope of Mount Sugar Loaf. It was a mudslide spawned by various short-term and long-term factors: recent weeks of heavy rain and flooding and years of deforestation by local farmers and miners.
It’s bewildering to think that one country could endure civil war for two decades and a catastrophic Ebola outbreak in 2014 only to wind up suffering a devastating mudslide this year in their capital city. The people of Sierra Leone didn’t ask for this. Why must one country suffer so much?
A couple of years ago, in the “My Answer” column of the Chicago Tribune, Mrs. L.D. wrote to evangelical minister Billy Graham about a Christian neighbor who — despite her devotion to her church — “…always looked on the gloomy side.” Mrs. L.D. asked, “Did Jesus come to make people miserable?”
Who can blame Mrs. L.D. for her inquiry?
Her neighbor isn’t the only Christian who struggles to visibly count it all joy and make a joyful noise as the literal and figurative mudslides of our age wreak havoc upon the world. I too tend to become fixated upon the gloomy side.
Like a one-story, LED casino billboard gleaming against the midnight sky, the gloomy side protrudes out of the ordinary, commanding my attention, daily demanding I risk my stasis for the thrill of emotional intensity — to loathe the gloomy side, to be inflamed by it, depressed by it.
But Minister Graham’s response to Mrs. L.D. has caused within me a snapback so drastic that I’ve had to schedule some intentional time for naval-gazing. What does my entrapment by the gloomy side say about me? What does it say about Jesus Christ?
“No, Jesus didn’t come to make people miserable! A sad, gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms, because Jesus came to give us hope and joy and new life. ”
A contradiction in terms? I was tempted to become defensive.
Shouldn’t I have compassion and “feel with” the people who suffer in Sierra Leone? Wasn’t it compassion that moved Jesus to feed the 5,000? Shouldn’t I heed the words of the prophet Amos? Shouldn’t I hate evil and work to maintain justice? Isn’t the work of the gloomy side just the work of a Christian who pursues the righteousness and love of God?
But once I coupled my naval-gazing with some theme-based Bible study, I noticed that Billy Graham hasn’t taken any liberties with his response to Mrs. L.D.. A sad, gloomy Christian is indeed a contradiction in terms because Christians have been called to hold the suffering of this world in tension with the joy of relationship with Jesus.
Here’s how Peter called the ancient churches in Asia Minor to the tension of joy:
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith — of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire — may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.”
There is incredible grief to be suffered by those who have survived the Sierra Leone mudslide. And for those of us who mourn with them, the gloomy side may have become an alluring place to settle.
There is freedom, however, in the tension of joy. Joy is not a haphazard emotion with varying objects that conjure its intensity at whim. While we can be happy, sad, or frustrated about an infinite number of things, Joy’s object is always external to the immediate experience. Christians rejoice in and because of something other than the situation at hand even while responding emotionally to the said situation.
Miroslav Volf, Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, puts it best:
“Of course, we don’t rejoice because of suffering, either of our own suffering or somebody else’s; such joy would be either masochistic or mean. When we rejoice while suffering, it is because of some good that is ours despite the suffering (for instance, God’s character, deeds and the promise of redemption) or because of a good the suffering will produce (for instance, a child for a mother in childbirth). Put more abstractly, ‘joy despite’ is possible on account of ‘joy because.’”
Christians can sit on the gloomy side with those who are suffering in Sierra Leone while rejoicing in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ achieved on the Cross. We can experience joy because we are confident that Jesus died not only to reconcile souls to God but to also redeem creation — including every deforested coastline in the world. Despite the reality of real and palpable suffering, there is the most beautiful ending to which we look forward: a time when all of Creation finally bows to recognize the life-giving sovereignty of God.
Still, there is Joy to be found in something more than Creation’s future redemption. Christians take Joy because we, like the 72 sent out for ministry in the book of Luke, can participate now in Creation’s redemption from its enemies.
“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. Go! I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.’”
“The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.
“He replied, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.’”
We all — regardless of faith background — have great influence on the people and physical resources around us. For those of us who identify as followers of Jesus, that influence is amplified by the same Spirit that appointed Jesus Christ for His Good work here on earth. And for those who do not identify as Christ’s followers, the dominion God gave you over Creation in the Garden of Eden has not been lost. You too are empowered to do Good.
As we watch places like Sierra Leone recover from one devastation after another, we must decide much more than whether to feel joy or gloom.
We must decide whether to respond.
Whether you decide to help the people of Sierra Leone through intercessory prayer, donation, or participation in on-site, volunteer-based relief, I urge you to resist the paralysis of gloom and the freeze-frame satisfaction that often comes with counterfeit Joy.
There is power in Joy’s tension — where the reality of suffering and the truths about God and your influence collide.