When Joy Feels Far Away
Article by Scott Hubbard, Editor, desiringGod.org
What do you do when you have tried everything, but joy still feels far away?
You have read your Bible — silently and aloud, five verses at a time, even whole books at a time. You have pasted promises on note cards, and whiteboards, and on the back of your hand. You have gathered with God’s people, unburdened yourself to friends, searched for unrepentant sin. You have prayed — oh, have you prayed — by yourself and with others, in your room and on long walks. Perhaps, in desperation, you have gone on spiritual retreats, fasted for extended periods, heeded impressions you thought might be from God.
But still, darkness. Silence. Doubt.
Does he hear me? Does he know me? Is he there? Am I his?
Sometimes, when joy feels far away, we need to hear some simple reminders.
By simple reminders, I do not mean simplistic solutions. You may have heard your fair share of those by now — counsel from people who, though well-intentioned, assume the problem is not that bad, the solution not that difficult. “Just do x,” they say. If they only knew.
“Seasons of darkness are normal for God’s people.”
The Bible never hands us such simplistic solutions. It does, however, remind us again and again of simple truths we are prone to forget. Such truths may not lift the darkness. But they may shine out to us like stars between the clouds, reminding us there is a world of light we cannot see, strengthening us to keep walking till dawn.
In Psalm 40, King David gives four simple reminders for those whose joy feels far away: Darkness is normal. God is near. Joy is coming. Hope in him.
Darkness Is Normal
David reminds us, first, that seasons of darkness are normal for God’s people. And seasons is the right word there. Psalm 40 does not describe an afternoon’s sadness, but rather a long and stubborn darkness.
Notice, for example, the length of David’s darkness. “I waited patiently for the Lord,” he begins (Psalm 40:1). We never learn how long David sat in the shadows. We know only that, for a time, he cried to the Lord and received in return that miserable word: wait.
Mark also the persistence of David’s darkness. At the midpoint of the psalm, David seems to have escaped “the pit of destruction” and “the miry bog” (Psalm 40:2). But then, unexpectedly, he falls back in (Psalm 40:11–13). His return to the pit almost undoes him: “My heart fails me” (Psalm 40:12).
Finally, observe the ongoing presence of David’s darkness. By the psalm’s end, David still finds himself engulfed in shadows. Instead of rejoicing, he laments: “I am poor and needy.” And instead of praising, he pleads: “Do not delay, O my God!” (Psalm 40:17).
David’s song of happiness lost, found, and lost again chastens our expectations for joy in this age. His experience, alongside that of so many others, reminds us that we must not grasp for heaven too soon. All things are not yet made new; all emotions are not yet whole; all joy is not yet ours. As long as we walk in a frail body, and carry within us a mortal enemy, our joy, though real, will be mixed with darkness.
The darkness, agonizing as it can feel, is a shared darkness. Shared with psalmists, prophets, and apostles. Shared with saints before us and beside us. And shared, of course, with our Savior. “We are not on an untrodden path,” C.S. Lewis reminds us. “Rather, on the main-road” (Letters to Malcolm, 44).
God Is Near
Black is not the only color on David’s paintbrush, however. This psalm, so full of melancholy, is nevertheless more than balanced by hope. Darkness is normal, yes. But God is near.
Even when David’s prayers seemed to sail unheard into the sky, they were in fact caught by the God who never left his side (Psalm 40:1). Even when David found himself in the pit again, God drew near to him with steadfast love and faithfulness (Psalm 40:11). Even when David felt poor and needy, his heart nearly failing him (Psalm 40:12), he could nevertheless say, “The Lord takes thought for me” (Psalm 40:17).
“All things are not yet made new; all emotions are not yet whole; all joy is not yet ours.”
“But if God is so near,” we might ask, “why is darkness normal?” Sometimes, of course, the darkness is our own fault, as David’s was, at least in part (Psalm 40:12). God has always been near, but we have walked into the pit ourselves. Often, however, God’s people sit in darkness through no fault of their own. And in those moments, we remember that the Lord who loves us — indeed, who has loved us unto death — has some purposes that can be fashioned only at midnight.
We need look no further than David’s greater Son, whose footsteps echo through this psalm (Psalm 40:6–8; Hebrews 10:5–7). Compared to the darkness Jesus endured, David’s was just a passing shadow. No one was nearer to God than his own Son. Yet no one’s path was darker.
Resist judging God’s nearness to you by the brightness of your sky. If you belong to Jesus, you are not forsaken or forgotten; your Lord, infinite as he is, takes thought for you (Psalm 40:17).
Joy Is Coming
God’s nearness, then, does not mean we will never walk in darkness. It does mean, however, that darkness is never an end, but only ever a means: the tracks, not the station; the pathway home, not the fireside. In the darkness, God tunes the strings of our souls, readying them for the coming praise.
In God’s time, the joy that seemed so far away from David returned: “He drew me up . . . and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Psalm 40:2–3). The memory of joy lost and restored then emboldens him to pray at the end of the psalm, when joy has once again fled from him, “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’” (Psalm 40:16).
David’s confidence in the coming joy does not mean his darkness was not so deep after all; it means that joy, for those in Christ, is always deeper and surer than the darkness — everlastingly deeper, infinitely surer. You may not feel the truth of it right now. But can you, in hope against hope, imagine yourself singing again, laughing again, telling everyone who will listen, “Great is the Lord!”?
Lost joy need not stay lost. For those in Christ, it will not. Though your joy in Christ seems barely to flicker right now, it will one day burst back into full flame. Even if darkness lingers in great measure for the rest of your earthly pilgrimage, you will one day stand firmly on the rock, your feet no longer slipping; you will one day sing a new song, your mouth no longer sighing. However much darkness you face in this battle for joy in God, it is, as Samuel Rutherford puts it, “not worthy to be compared with our first night’s welcome home in heaven” (The Loveliness of Christ, 21). Fullness of joy is coming, Christian. Exceeding joy, everlasting joy, world without end.
Hope in Him
The promise of coming joy does not belong to all who walk in darkness, however. It belongs to those who, even in their darkness, never stop seeking God. Notice the qualifying phrase in David’s prayer: “May all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you” (Psalm 40:16). David’s last reminder, then, comes to us as an exhortation: hope in God.
“Wait, cling, pray, seek, and trust that your God will come.”
Keep waiting for your God, even when he tarries long. Keep clinging to his promises, even when it feels like he’s abandoned them. Keep crying out to him, even when you’re unsure he hears. Keep seeking his face, even when you want to least. Refuse the temptation, when you find yourself tired of waiting, to “go astray after a lie” (Psalm 40:4) — some refuge other than God that promises immediate relief. Wait, cling, pray, seek, and trust that your God will come.
Soon, darkness will not be normal, but nonexistent. God will not be merely near, but visible. Joy will not only be real, but full, and forever. As Thomas Kelly writes in “Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him,”
Then we shall be where we would be,
Then we shall be what we should be,
Things that are not now, nor could be,
Soon shall be our own.