On our Summer Training Project a few summers ago, a distraught young lady came up to me after a rather heavy evangelism talk. “I don’t know how to stop being sad about hell,” she lamented.
As I considered her sentiments, it occurred to me that she carried an unspoken emotional goal: unadulterated rejoicing. While this may sound logical (and indeed it is), it isn’t exactly the call of the believer in this present age. The emotional spectrum of the healthy Christ-follower dips below neutral, and it ought to. And this is not to be simply an occasional venture into the realm of pain.
The apostle Paul makes clear that his emotional state, while chock-full of rejoicing, is also rife with sorrow. He describes the state of the apostles as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” in II Corinthians 6:10, and he even goes a step further in Romans 9:2-3 by calling attention to the “great sorrow and unceasing anguish in [his] heart” over the condemnation of his kinsmen. Unceasing.
Taking this into account, I am painfully aware of two hurtful ways in me:
I am an escapist in an escapist culture. I/we are apt to run from our sorrows and drown them in sports, in Netflix, in absurd comedy, in games on our phones, in answering emails, in the perusing of Facebook statuses, in food, etc. While none of the things I just listed is itself in the category of evil, each one is an available sorrow shield for most of us. God made us to be conformed to the image of his Son, in part by aching deeply, and then to bring those aches to his compassionate embrace. To truncate this process is to miss real life.
I feel sorrow over the wrong things. The sadness God calls us into is not to be universally employed. I am not called to be a wimp or a whiner. The pain that was rightly expressed by Jesus, the apostles, and the early church was not over the challenges of being inconvenienced by their children or not being able to get their sugar fix. It wasn’t being cut off in traffic(foot traffic for them) or missing a workout. It was rarely circumstantial at all. In fact, their general posture over the devastating circumstance of severe persecution was that of joy. In Hebrews 10:34, the people accepted the seizure of their property with joy, knowing that they “had a better possession and an abiding one.”
So why were they sad? I see at least three valid causes:
1. Their own sin.
"As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death." - II Corinthians 7:9-10
Paul is rejoicing over the right kind of grief here, at least as it led to salvation. The church at Corinth was grieved over its collective sin, and it ought to have been. If we live with sin in our hearts that reveals itself in our words and actions, it is right to grieve. It is right to feel temporary guilt or shame about our mistrust of our Father’s loving heart. If we don’t, then the gospel of grace will mean nothing to us. There will be no sense of relief or gratitude.
2. The brokenness of the world.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. - Matthew 9:36
For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. - Romans 8:22
When we hear of an abandoned child, a severe case of dementia, a devastating tsunami, our our parents’ impending divorce, the proper response is not simply to slap a God’s sovereignty Band-Aid on it and step away. There’s another word for that: escape. Or perhaps you call it avoidance. Without groaning about the current state of affairs in the world, we lose our taste for heaven. Without mourning the pains of others, we lose love. And love, it can be argued, is the central reality of the Christian life.
3. The condemnation of the world.
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. - Romans 9:1-3
And so we come full circle. When that young lady bemoaned her sadness over hell, I responded, “Who says you’re supposed to stop being sad about hell?” Paul had unceasing anguish, and he should have. Granted, a constant, full-on cognizance of hell is a burden too great for any to bear, but are we not the only people in the world who are free to face the pain? Are we not safely in the hands of the God of the universe? Nothing can crush us, so we are free to be crushed.
Keep rejoicing at the foundation, where it belongs. Lest you get carried away in a melancholy world, remember, our foundation is “always rejoicing.” Our sadness floats within an endless fountain of joy. Our current(and proper) grief is swallowed up in hope. And there will come a day very soon when our souls, having been painfully stretched into conformity to the full image of Jesus Christ, will enter a realm where sorrow is not fitting. And then the unadulterated rejoicing begins.