Sorrow is underrated in our culture. We don’t like to be sorrowful and try to avoid it like the plague. When sorrow hits us and we truly feel regret for something we did, or we are grieving because of something that happened to us, our goal is to get past it and move forward as soon as possible. Nobody likes to live with sorrow. We would much rather have joy in our lives.
I've been doing some study in the book of James, and I ran across this startling verse: "Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom" (James 4:9). Talk about a buzzkill. What are we supposed to do with that. Our natural response is probably to ask “Why?”
Why would anybody want to deliberately stop laughing and start mourning? Isn’t laughter the best medicine and the perfect way to deal with our present troubles? Didn’t James himself say in the opening to his letter that we are to “count it all joy” when we encounter trials? Yes he did, but apparently James believes the path to that joy comes not through laughter, but through sorrow. It's taken me a while for this to sink in, but I think I know what he means.
Sorrow is not to be taken lightly and it should not be ignored. Sometimes you can’t control when your sorrow comes. You may be grieving right now because of a loss of some kind. Don’t discount the feelings you are experiencing. Rather than resenting your current emotional state, embrace it. Instead of doing your best to move on, appreciate where you are and become aware of the benefits of sorrow and suffering.
Perhaps the greatest upside to sorrow and suffering is that they help us identify with Jesus Christ, who experienced both in great measure (1 Peter 4:13). If we have any aspirations to be like Jesus—and that should be our constant goal—we must realize that suffering is essential to our spiritual lives. Even Jesus benefited from His suffering. The Bible says Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9).
The truth is that God used suffering in the life of His Son, and He uses suffering in the lives of His children. And for those of us who are aren’t willing to follow Him fully, God often uses suffering to get our attention. C.S. Lewis famously writes,
If you are suffering, whether from a physical difficulty, a financial crisis or relational loss, let your sorrow lead you to hope, knowing that God is using it for your good (Romans 8:28). When you have the hope in your trials that God is using your sorrow for your own good and to make you more like Jesus, you are on the path to joy. This isn’t some kind of temporary happiness. It’s not even the kind of joy that makes you laugh. It’s a feeling of gratitude that comes from a deep part of your soul, knowing that God cares for you greatly and has never for a moment let you out of His love and care.
Now, there’s still this matter of turning our laughter into mourning. Is James saying we need to be sorrowful even when we don’t feel like it? In a manner of speaking, yes. The first century Christians James was writing to were in a situation similar to ours. They had followed false paths to what they thought would lead them to happiness. They were convinced material things would cause them to laugh. They thought they could experience joy without helping those who were on the margins of society. What they didn’t realize is that their pursuit of happiness along these false pathways not only grieved God, but also put their own community at risk. So James is telling them to become aware of their sin, realize their guilt and take responsibility to change. It’s hardly a time to laugh. Just the opposite, it’s a time to weep.
In these changing and serious times, there are many who are suffering, but there also many who need to turn their laughter into mourning. There needs to be a godly sorrow that leads to repentance and regret for those things that grieve the heart of God (2 Corinthians 7:10). We need to stop relying on the wisdom of this world and humble ourselves before God. Only then will God restore our joy.