The depths of joy and suffering

John 10:10 ‘I came that they may have life and have it abundantly’

Living life to its fullest sounds great. Amazing in fact. I imagine it to be full of travel, excitement, spontaneity and laughter. But when you have chronic pain, or any chronic condition I suspect, it feels like a full life has a secret requirement of a clean bill of health. Pain by its very nature is expansionist, slowly taking over, and making your experience of life smaller. It zaps your energy. Any activity needs to be carefully planned, its physical cost weighed against your other responsibilities that week.

Perhaps though the problem here is my expectation of a full life. Other translations say ‘abundantly’. Lots of, totality, broadness. Not a life of excess, but an excess of life. Perhaps it isn’t about accumulating ever more impressive and elaborate experiences, but experiencing an abundance of emotions and things that move me. And a ‘full’ life should surely mean one that is full of all of life’s colours – not just a life of joy and excitement, but one of suffering too. Where we feel the full extents of emotion and experience.

I believe that that kind of fullness is something that is not only possible with chronic pain, but perhaps a given. Yes, I experience the pain of life’s experience, but do you know what? I experience the joy of it too.

Having your emotions shift with every situation is exhausting. Lurching wildly from delight to despair. The people I admire the most have a stability of emotion. Sure, they experience the surface stuff too, but there is a deeper emotion, one of the soul that seems to root them and guide their emotion. Just look at Paul – he was sat alone in a dank and dark prison, and yet was able to write so eloquently of the joy and hope of knowing Christ. He joy and hope ran deep – deeper than the surface emotions that must have been generated by his situation.

Yes, I experience physical pain, which is tough, but to be honest, I wish that was the extent of it. The pain that I feel more acutely is the one that has percolated into my heart over the decade this has been going on. It is the deep sense of suffering. The frustration and hurt of not being healed. The sense of injustice and self pity that rear their ugly heads when I lack the energy to rationalise them away. The isolation that it brings. These hurt me far more than the muscle spasms. It is this suffering and spiritual pain that are deeper experiences. They sit deep in my soul, and rest there. I think we all experience that to some degree. There is a joy too that is deeper than the superficial stuff, but is a little harder to articulate. It is more subtle than the joy of a great day, but somehow more real too. Instead it is something that warms you up from the inside. It is a feeling of the soul – a deep sense of being known, being loved, of having hope. It is deep and persevering. It is the feeling of being loved by an eternal, powerful and personal creator. A God that has provided a hope and completion that is greater than our day to day turmoil. This is the joy that Paul wrote from. These deeper emotions are like the deep ocean currents that continue whether the surface is choppy or still.

These kinds of joy and suffering appear repeatedly in the Bible, and the passages where they appear (from the mournful Psalms to the hope of Paul’s letters) are some of the most powerful literature ever written. As well as both being present, they also seem to be intrinsically linked. In the Bible we repeatedly see that times of intense suffering are all too often accompanied or followed by period of deep joy and hope. The security of the Promised Land came after the suffering of slavery and the transience of 40 years in the wilderness. Job was somehow able to withstand his suffering because despite his deep questions and hurt, he still held onto his faith in a greater hope. The hope of resurrection came after the confusion and hurt of the crucifixion of Jesus. And the joy of heaven only became accessible to us after the sacrifice and suffering of our Lord.

And that is true too of our own experience. While the ups and downs of life impact us all, there are some people that seem to be rooted in something bigger. I’ve met people who live in absolute poverty and experience hardship daily that is difficult to comprehend, and yet despite logic almost, they have a joy that seems to ooze from their very being. They’re not happy with their circumstances, by no means, but they have a deeply rooted joy that comes with knowing hope and love even in their situational darkness.

When life is peachy, the surface joy is enough. You can bounce along merrily on the smooth waters. But when life suddenly becomes incredibly tough, we quickly become aware of the deeper currents. It is when our experiences of pain and suffering are trying to dominate that the deeper current of joy becomes more apparent.

I hold on deeply to the deep joy that I have, and I’ve made it my mission to nurture it and become more aware of it. Focusing on the joy, and embedding myself in it takes work. I need to feed my faith, take the time to experience God’d presence and love. I want it to be that joy that holds me, guides me and anchors me. Because I know that I can then stop myself from being consumed. It gives me the courage to hold my head above the water. Even if just barely. Because I live for more. My hope in Christ is greater than my situation. And I know that through Christ I have a hope in the eternal.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a consistently cheerful person. I do dip into despair, and there are still times that I feel utterly overwhelmed. When the easiest thing to do is lose grip on that joy. But I know it does me no good in the long term. In these times I choose to profess out loud that “my hope is in Christ”. Even If I don’t always believe it in that moment, simply pronouncing what I know to be truth buoys me up. It gives the suffering context, and forces some light in.

I think my pain and suffering has, despite logic, given me this life in abundance that I craved. Yes, I experience the darkness, and the tough things that I would really rather have not gone/ be going through. But because of that, I have become more aware of the deep joy that I have too. A deeper, greater, and more powerful joy than I can explain. Like the light of a candle, it doesn’t make that much difference in a room already bathed in daylight, but in darkness, it brings a far starker contrast and suddenly holds incredible power.

Isabelle is 31 and lives in Sheffield with her husband Joel and little daughter Eliza. She has been living with chronic back pain for over 10 years.  

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