What the Bible Teaches About Sadness and Joy

            Have you heard that ancient Chinese curse which parents would proclaim on only the most disobedient of their children? The parent, looking at their bad kid, would proclaim: “O, may you live in interesting times!” Turn on the news and you may be tempted to think that that curse is our reality - these are interesting times we live in, to say the least.[1]

            And yet there is encouragement knowing that our sovereign God has given us grace and ordinary means of grace to live and participate wisely in such a cursed world. This is the world we live in, a world that is East of Eden. Fallen. And our world sadly groaning as it waits for Christ’s final, all-encompassing redemption.

            But while we wait, we seek wisdom. Wisdom on how to live in these interesting days. God’s word gives us such wisdom, helping God’s children grow in wisdom in order to know how we ought to live in these interesting times. Consider: we live in an age of atomic power, but also under the threat of nuclear proliferation. It is an age of globalized trade but also worldwide terrorism. We enjoy the freedom of instant communication but we’re also extremely individualized, more isolated, more distracted. We live in a time of liberty and free association but crumbling relationships and confused identities. We enjoy countless comforts and leisure, and yet the very fabric of our society seems to be ripping at the center.[2] To borrow a line from Carl Trueman, we live in a world where society is no longer wrestling with the great traditions of the West but are now more engaged with the tweets and rantings of Kanye West.[3] Friends, these are not just interesting times, but sad times as well.

            How then does a Christian live wisely within the sadness that marks our lives East of Eden?   I suggest we start with laughter. Not our own, of course. To face sadness with merely our own laughter would be foolish, mimicking the existential absurdity of a Werner Herzog film.[4]  No, Psalm 2 tells us that God, who sits in the heavens laughs, and if we are to be heavenly minded at all I think we need to start there and only then can we begin to laugh right along with him.[5]  If it’s true that God sits in the heavens and laughs, and I think it is, then we ought to laugh often.

            For the Christian this is a hopeful laughter; a laughter grounded in heavenly joy - it not only prepares our hearts for glory, but it is also the sound wisdom makes in the midst of a fallen world. Consider Solomon’s charge to the youth of his day (usually an overly anxiety-ridden age group) - “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:9). Application? Obey God and rejoice!

            Of course, the very next verse says, you should know that for all these things God will bring you into judgement. In other words, don’t let your joyful laughter turn into hedonistic happiness – there’s a difference and wisdom knows the difference. But the wise will pursue laughter and pursue laughing at the right things. Our laughing should be good and beautiful and true laughter.

            Make time to simply hang out with good friends and tell good stories late into the night and laugh about it. Parents, chase your young kids around the house and tickle them until the laughing hurts. Dad’s, work hard and sharpen your dad jokes; they may not show it, but trust me, your teenagers are laughing on the inside.

            Solomon tells us there is a time to weep and a time to laugh. Which also means it’s not ungodly to make time in the hope that it’ll be filled with laughter; good, godly laughter.

            This is, again, just a small part of what it means to live as wise people in a fallen world. We can laugh because we know how this story ends - in the end God will wipe away every tear. Scripture does not say He will wipe away our laughter. No, we will keep on laughing with the God who created laughter.
            When the Son of God took to himself our human nature and Jesus began his ministry he was known as a Man of Sorrows; Isaiah tells us he was someone deeply acquainted with grief. And yet, he came eating and drinking, he was a friend to tax collectors and sinners and there is, to be sure, no greater incubator for laughter than the very human quality of friendship. Oh, how the Pharisee’s must’ve hated Jesus’ laughing – it was a heavenly sound breaking in and highlighting their own gloomy existence! The Pharisee’s faced a fallen world with only laws and no laughter, only judgment and no joy. Not so our Savior.
            As followers of Christ - as the spiritual descendants of his redemptive work upon the cross – we can walk boldly into these interesting times with a joyful heart, a heart that can still find time to laugh even in the ever-increasing sadness that we call East of Eden. Consider Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who in the face of the greatest darkness the world would ever see - the crucifixion of the Son of God - was able still to endure the cross and despise its shame. Why? Because of the joy that was set before him (Hebrews 12:2).
            In Christ our future is set - there is a glorious inheritance to be enjoyed, unending joy with Christ, laughing as we inevitably will be around the table and feast of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. No matter how dark the world around us gets, no matter how interesting our era becomes, true joy is found in looking to Christ. Therein we can laugh well and laugh often.

            “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24-25).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.

[1] See Leon R. Kass, Leading A Worthy Life: Finding Meaning In Modern Times, (Encounter Books, New York,2017) p. 9.

[2] ibid, p. 9.

[4] See his 1970 comedy-drama, Even Dwarves Started Small

[5] See Peter Kreeft’s commencement speech given at Christendom College, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9NnUboRlLY at the 5:40 mark.


Stephen Unthank