here are moments in our journey when we waver between laughter and tears.
For Jesus’ small band of hopeful disciples, this was one of those moments. In a few hours Calvary would impose the most horrible of separations. Anticipating the confusion and fear that would grip His friends, Jesus spoke of triumphant joy rising from the depths of their grief-punctuated disappointment. Though they would remain and endure the conflicts of this sin-filled earth, they would soon rejoice with the risen Christ.
“Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, ‘Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me”? I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy’” (John 16:19-22).
Like those 12 disciples, believers today also wait for the risen Christ. Through birth, baptism, wedding, and funeral we wait for His return. Through triumph and tragedy time keeps marching on.
But do we wait in sorrow or joy?
We are confronted both personally and corporately with the question, and with experiences that show us the alternatives. One such moment remains sharp-edged in my memory and highlights the dilemma that faces Adventist believers waiting the return of Jesus.
On that summer afternoon in July 1990 the cityscape was bright with warm sunshine as I emerged from the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. My heart was filled with celebration, hope, and joy. I had been with God’s people. Not all of them, but with thousands of men, women, and children from around the globe attending a session of our church’s General Conference.
They had stories—stories of victory, stories of lives surrendered to Jesus, of thousands baptized, of communities transformed, and churches built. God was being glorified in a great worldwide evangelistic movement. I cheered; my eyes swelled with tears of joy; my heart overflowed with praise.
The demonstration on the concrete expanse facing me as I emerged from the dome was a distinct and bitter contrast. As a child of the sixties, I have no complaint with public demonstrations. But this one confused me. Banners shouted the conviction of the protesters marching back and forth: “Now is a time for sorrow.” “Weep and lament.” Picket signs bobbed up and down, punctuating their message: “This is a solemn time.” Literature pressed into my hands rebuked me for the joy I felt. “We live in the end. Repent. Weep for your sins,” I was told.
Is this moment—this moment before the end—a time for grief or joy?
I confess that I’m the kind of believer who is deeply troubled by earthly loss and conflict. Is it doubt and is it sinful, this unrest in my soul? Or is it perhaps a more universal expression of human religious experience—sorrow mixed with longing?
Two hundred thousand perish in an earthquake in Haiti. An anonymous child slips into a coma from starvation in Africa. A dear colleague is overcome with cancer. A stray bullet steals the life of a 6-year-old in Philadelphia. Venture capitalists build enormous wealth while turning away the poor who have no health insurance. Policies and lifestyles that disregard the fragility of creation are pursued in the interest of economic growth. Could this be my Father’s world? Grief tempts me. Yet my longing for Jesus becomes more pronounced.
In His parting message of hope to His 12 original followers, Jesus has a word for us: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). One of those disciples would betray Jesus and take his own life. Another would deny Him but be saved by grace. In the days allotted them, the remaining disciples would experience poverty, wealth, persecution, miracles, shipwreck, and stones. Simultaneously they would witness to their faith, experience the power of the Holy Spirit, and discover a deep longing to be with Jesus. They would wait for Jesus until they closed their eyes in death. But they would wait with joy!
We too often assign Jesus’ promised joy to the future, an experience placed on hold until He returns to restore His dominion. We resign ourselves, settle ourselves down to wait with solemn expectancy. But even as Jesus spoke to the twelve of their coming suffering, He encouraged them to live in present joy. Joy was His promise, and not only for the far-distant future. Believers quite naturally ache for the eternal joy of someday being forever with our Lord. Yet Jesus assured those first followers of joy as they came to know and revel in the power of His resurrection. He drew the attention of the twelve to their mission following the resurrection: “Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24). Jesus intended them to experience His joy immediately following the resurrection and during the remaining years of their life of ministry on earth. “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). In Christ, we have the right to joy—right here and right now!
Surrounded by Joy
It is in the very nature of God to graciously offer us joy, and often in unexpected ways. My window into His goodness arrived years ago on a dreary winter afternoon in Berrien Springs, Michigan. As a young pastor-to-be, I had been sitting in seminary classes all day. The history of the sufferings and progress of the church had been unfolding before me. Filled with intriguing and fresh discoveries from the book of Revelation, I slipped home for a few minutes during an afternoon break, eager to share deep and world-changing eschatological truths with my wife, Joni.
I walked into our small apartment to find Joni lying on the bed, blowing bubbles into the air with a child’s plastic bubble maker! What a waste of time, I concluded, on an afternoon that could otherwise have been filled with serious study or industry. She was decorating the room with colorful bubbles of all sizes, waving her arms to make them dance crazily in the air; all the while laughing like a gleeful child. Child’s play, I thought—meaningless child’s play.
Silently, I began to reprove my wife for her immature behavior, for playing like a child as though there were no work to do—as if the work had all been finished. But she rebuked my dignified air of importance by asking me to join her in blowing bubbles. “After all,” she said, “playing is fun.”
Wherever life is safe and free, wherever grace is fully known, play invites us to join in and enjoy it. Birds chorus with abandon; kittens play with spools; puppies pounce upon one another and wrestle—play is everywhere. The world God made was made with joy and play in mind: food tastes good; flowers are beautifully shaped and colored; grass is great for resting on; snow packs nicely; gentle laughter seems our best emotion.
Children and animals play because they like to play, never out of necessity. The act of play, like the joy from which it arises, is free and spontaneous. It temporarily suspends the seriousness of the world, as though one were free from pain and care, as though the world had actually been overcome. It marks the spot where joy happens as a playground having its own boundaries, a place where the world is structured closer to the heart’s longing, free from the limitations imposed by personal history and circumstances.
Regain the Joy
When do we lose this innate understanding of how our lives were meant to be? Researchers tell us that between the ages of 8 and 12 most children experience a decline in play. The world becomes increasingly serious, a parade ground where making a good living and being thought respectable become our major goals. Games, not play, become the order of the day. Competition controlled by discipline, a code of honor, and rules replace childlike play. The opportunities for wonder and joy that play once gave are gone. Winners and losers emerge: competition sets us opposite each other, and collaboration evaporates in clouds of anxiety and guilt. The loser regrets his performance in the game. The winner can afford no creativity in play, no luxury of joy, lest he let his advantage slip. Now we have to win, demand to win, for we have grown deadly serious about what once was all our joy.
It is not only nostalgia for a simpler age and time that makes us wish we could resurrect the freedom and the joy of childhood. It is, in fact, the call of faith that invites us to transcend the apparent pain and complexities of our world, to place our faith in a Power strong enough to one day overcome the brokenness and hurts we live among. It is an act of daring—call it play, if you will—to say that the things of this world are not quite as real, permanent, terrible, important, or logical as they may seem. And it requires that we reenter the trusting frame in which we pictured our lives before we grew so weary, lonely, and overstressed.
Joy cannot be found by working at it; it arrives only and always as a gift. We pray for the gift of reimagining the world as a place worth playing in, a place of safety, a friendly place. It grows from seeing in creation the active presence of the Creator and trusting in His goodness. It blossoms through believing He is alive, and that our sorrow will pass away with the night. We open our hearts to healing joy even as we open them to saving grace. Both are gifts, and both are indispensable for the abundant life that Jesus promised.
I should have joined my wife in blowing bubbles on that long-ago winter afternoon, but my commitment to the adult world made me cautious, held me back. Joni had found a good thing in bubble blowing, but I didn’t yet have the grace to share in it. On the outside, looking in, I glimpsed a world of trust and joy I longed to know. I glimpsed a God who wanted me to know that it was safe to be His child.
Embracing the Challenge
The passing years have not been lived in some place other than in the real world. Like every believer, I’m deeply acquainted with suffering and disappointment, with loss and pain. Many times each week I have to decide whether to gently laugh in faith or cry in frustration and despair. Like the protesters pounding the pavement in Indianapolis, their signs warning of the doom to come, I can grant the lostness of those who do not know the saving joy of Jesus.
But yielding to faith also requires that I allow the seriousness and limitations of life to be transformed by an awareness that God’s grace is complete, for Jesus lives! The world, for all its ugliness and pain, no longer appears a dreary place, but one filled with God’s presence, and in His presence I still find “fullness of joy.” The Creator draws me to Himself, and standing in the safety of His power, joy emerges from its hiding place. I begin to celebrate with laughter.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace,” Jesus said. “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).
In fact, indeed, Jesus has overcome! I long to be with Him, and the suffering and pain I now pass through only accentuates that longing. The longing itself gives joy, and transforms how I see my life in this world. The world assumes a new shape—a shape for joy—and I begin, here and now, to enter into the joy eternal.
Skip Bell is a professor of church ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, and has served the Adventist Church for more than 35 years as a pastor, administrator, and teacher. This article was published March 11, 2010.