LICIA STOOD LEANING AGAINST THE pillar of the funeral home. She took a drag from a cigarette with one hand, and used her other hand to wrap herself in a half embrace. Her eyes were gazing at something in the far distance. Occasionally she would talk to someone close to her. Then the tears would build up in her eyes, roll down her cheeks, and fall onto the ground. Yet within seconds her tears gave way to deep laughter.
My mother’s sister had died unexpectedly after a hospital procedure. Though my aunt considered herself a Christian, she had no church to call home. I had just entered pastoral ministry. Her family—my family—asked me to perform the funeral. This would be my first.
I had attended many funerals in my lifetime. Yet as I approached the funeral home that day in the role of clergy, my thoughts were of how I could best minister to and comfort the family. As I observed my cousin, Alicia, I was struck by the ease and suddenness in which she could go from tears to laughter. And I wondered, What is it that can take us from tears to laughter and back to tears in the time it takes our car’s speedometer to go from zero to 60? How can two outwardly opposed emotions erupt from a person at the same time? What can this seeming contradiction tell us about how God works in our lives?
Scripture speaks much about sorrow, lament, and mourning. Scripture doesn’t talk much about laughter. A few examples are:
Job’s “friend” Eliphaz tells him that “if he were more godly” he would laugh at destruction (Job 5:22). King David tells us that God laughs at the wicked because He knows how their story is going to end (Ps. 37:13). James tells us to stop laughing and start mourning (James 4:9).
However, it is the wise man, King Solomon, who speaks most eloquently to this topic.
In Ecclesiastes Solomon tells us that there is a rhythm and order to life: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot; a time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to throw away and a time to gather; a time to embrace and a time to withhold an embrace; a time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to throw away; a time to tear and a time to sew; a time to keep silent and a time to speak; a time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.
If you read the rest of chapter 3, I think you will understand that one purpose of Solomon’s listing these life events was because he was a pessimist! He was, in essence, stating his fatalistic belief that since God has ordained everything that happens in life anyway, what good is it to strive for anything more? Eat, drink, and be merry! We’re no different than the animals; we die and return to the dust.
But there’s more to this list. It appears that these seemingly contradictory life events that are coupled together are, in fact, dependent on each other. They are polar opposites used to encompass everything in between. In other words, they represent two sides of the same coin.
For example, dying presupposes that a person has been born. Healing presupposes that someone has been wounded. Building up presupposes that something has been torn down, etc. Thus, if we follow that line of reasoning, then laughter presupposes someone has been weeping, and dancing presupposes that someone has been mourning.
But why are weeping and mourning, and laughter and dancing so intertwined? The wise man also links them together in the book of Proverbs: “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and joy may end in grief” (Prov. 14:13).
Roy and I were driving up to Pennsylvania to spend Christmas with his parents several years ago. My dad had died the year before. As we drove we listened to Christmas carols on the radio. I sat in the passenger’s seat with my legs propped up on the dash, lightheartedly singing along with the radio. In the midst of my laughter, the thought abruptly invaded my mind that my daddy was not going to be with me that Christmas.
Within seconds, I was sobbing.
If laughter and weeping, and dancing and mourning are linked so intimately, does this mean that God allows us to feel joy only after we feel pain? Will laughter always end in grief?
An early twentieth-century author, Kahlil Gibran, gives us a clue to this seeming paradox:
“Your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.”1
Is it possible that those who have had weeping and mourning dig the deepest well in their souls hold within them the greatest capacity to experience laughter and joy?
When I speak of laughter, I’m not describing the superficial form of laughter that many people settle for. That kind of laughter depends on put-downs and other inappropriate content to get a laugh at someone else’s expense. I’m focusing on authentic laughter, the kind that arises from seeing the humor our shared experiences of life offer. Who can help remembering their own childhood, and offer a hearty laugh when their child comes up to them and says, “Daddy, you had a girlfriend? I thought you and Mommy were always married?" Or the college student who says, “Ohhhh, you mean washing black and red clothes with the whites is what made my clothes turn a weird-looking gray?”
Jesus used humor to get across to His audiences points that they otherwise would have been blinded to. Matthew 23:24 gives us an example. Jesus, talking to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, said, “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” In the words of my colleague, Steve Chavez, “That’s certainly an image worthy of the talents of the folks at Pixar. How do you swallow a camel? Feetfirst? Headfirst? Either way it’s going to be quite a (hilarious) sight.”2
Unfortunately, we don’t expect Jesus to have a sense of humor. Thus, we miss those humorous moments.
In response to this, a well-known statement by Jesus is often quoted: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Does this mean that we are to stay in a perpetual state of mourning, sadness, in order to be blessed by God? Theologian William Barclay explains it this way: “The real meaning of the second beatitude is: O the bliss of the man whose heart is broken for the world’s suffering and for his own sin, for out of his sorrow he will find the joy of God!”3 (Emphasis supplied.)
Stories From the Well
What is it that makes one person remain angry and bitter from their pain, and another emerge with laughter and joy?
1. I believe that Matthew 5:4 tells us it is those who are willing to embrace their suffering, and do the hard work of mourning for not only their own suffering and sinfulness, but the suffering and sinfulness of others, will emerge with laughter and joy.
Carol is one of those persons who wakes up laughing. I shared a cabin with her at a women’s retreat, and I told her it should be against the law to be that happy first thing in the morning! But her joy doesn’t end at breakfast. She is singing and smiling all day long.
There was a time, however, when that wasn’t the case. There was a time when she was running through her house with a knife, in a fit of anger and temporary insanity, trying to catch her cheating husband. Life was full of pain and betrayal because the hurt was so deep and painful. She felt herself succumbing to the voice of Satan to kill—“Kill him, and the pain and hurt will be gone.”
“I lay on my bed a few weeks after having to leave my home, and my marriage of 35 years, with hot tears burning my face,” she said. “I fell on my knees moaning to Jesus. ‘I can’t handle this. It is killing me.’ I don’t know how long I was on my knees talking to the Lord. But when I got up, having given it all to Him, I had a smile on my face! And I’ve been smiling ever since.”
2. I believe that those who find meaning/purpose in their suffering emerge with laughter and joy.
Cheri’s laughter was so rich and deep, I think it came from her feet! That’s the only way I can explain it. After I heard her story I understood why.Childhood and adolescence for most people includes birthday parties, school functions, and family get-togethers. But for Cheri, the story was one of abuse, homelessness, and drugs.
“Sitting in a posh restaurant with $86,000 and seven pounds of pure cocaine on the table, Cheri knew she had finally risen above her blighted existence. Finally someone loved her. A ‘shiny man’ who could rescue her from the drug houses, old cars, and X-rated dance clubs she had called home for more than a decade. . . .
“A few hours later her new love was holding a gun to her head, promising to kill her if she didn’t find his missing money. For the thousandth time she learned that love is just a word men use to get what they want from girls like her. It always demands something in return and lasts only as long as the passion of the moment.”4
During a suicide attempt at age 23, God broke through and offered her what she had been looking for her entire life: unconditional love.
Cheri has committed her life to helping young people escape the delusions of Satan and find God’s love in their lives.
3. I believe that those who have a deep confidence in the sovereignty of God emerge with laughter and joy. God is in control. God has the last laugh!
It’s tough enough to believe this when injustices and losses take place in the workplace, school, and home. But when the ultimate loss of losing a loved one in death occurs, the memory grows foggy as to who has the last laugh.
It’s healthy to mourn and grieve for the death of someone we love. The apostle Paul doesn’t tell us to not grieve; he tells us that we are to not grieve “like the rest of men, who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13). But when a family that I know, shortly after the funeral of their loved one, expressed such confidence in God’s sovereignty and so joyfully expressed their hope in seeing him again, it took me by surprise. Their confidence made me realize that when a Christian’s trust in God is deep, it can even seem unusual to other believers.
Jesus is the source of all laughter and joy. We read His story in Isaiah 53: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. . . . Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, . . . he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him. . . . He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; . . . he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, . . . he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa. 53:3-8, excerpts).
Despised, rejected, pierced, crushed, betrayed, tortured, humiliated, shamed, killed. . . . But the story doesn’t end there. “After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied” (Isa. 53:11).
Blessed Are Those . . .
Tears and laughter spring forth from the same well. To draw from the well, we must accept both. They are dependent on each other. Thus, the only way to get past the tears is to continue on the path from weeping to laughter, mourning to dancing—not because God is a stern professor, allowing us to experience joy only after we have experienced pain. But because God is our Savior. He knows that often it is only after we have had a deep hole cut into our souls that we have enough space in our lives for Him to fill.
There will come a time when there will be no more pain, sorrow, and mourning. “For the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:4). His ultimate will for our lives can then be accomplished: the salvation of our souls. But until then . . . we will weep. We will laugh. We will mourn. We will learn new, joyous rhythms. But always with the assurance that we are drawing from a well that will never run dry of God’s presence in our lives.
1Kahlil Gibran, “On Joy and Sorrow,” The Prophet.
2Stephen Chavez, “Jesus Laughed,” Adventist Review, June 8, 2006.
3William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 [revised edition] (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), p. 95.
4Cheri Peters, Miracle From the Streets (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press, 1997).
Bonita Joyner Shields is an assistant editor of the Adventist Review.