My Joy Rose as Sorrows Fell
REJOICING ALL THE MORE IN SUFFERING
Article by Vaneetha Rendall Risner
I used to have a great life. I went on exciting vacations, cooked gourmet meals for my family, and painted everything from dishes to canvas. Sure, I had limitations from my childhood polio, but I was able to do whatever I wanted. Slowly, however, all that changed. Today I use a wheelchair to go where I once walked. I admire art I once created. I need assistance when I once only offered it. My world has grown smaller.
Decades ago, the words from 2 Corinthians 6:10, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” seemed admirable in theory but impossible in practice. I couldn’t imagine joy and sorrow even coexisting; by definition, having one meant the absence of the other. The only way I could have imagined rejoicing when I was sorrowful was if my temporary sorrow were to be displaced by swift, miraculous deliverance. Then I could rejoice, while everyone marveled at my faith and God’s goodness.
My Unexpected Sorrows
So, when I was unexpectedly diagnosed with post-polio syndrome sixteen years ago, I couldn’t see how I could find joy apart from healing. The doctors said there was no cure for my condition, and I would live with continual loss. To slow down the progression, they advised me to reduce life to a bare minimum and stop overusing my arms. As a wife and mother of young children, I was forced to make difficult choices daily, and new losses cropped up every month. It felt relentless. Honestly, it still does.
Today I can’t even make my own coffee, much less carry it to the table. I deal with ongoing pain that will only intensify. While this may sound depressing, it has surprisingly made me more joyful. I’ve learned to stop fixating on my circumstances and start rejoicing in the God who has drawn closer to me through them.
How I Still Rejoice
As my body weakens, God has become more real and present than ever. I can echo the words of Psalm 46:1, that God is my “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In all my trials, the Lord has never failed me, never left my side, never let me go.
“As my body weakens, God has become more real and present than ever.”
The Bible has become more precious to me because God’s assurances of comfort, strength, and deliverance are no longer simply words I’ve memorized; now they are promises that sustain me. Because I have to depend on God for even the smallest tasks, I must constantly look to him. It is a conscious decision to stop focusing on what’s around me and start focusing on God. It’s a choice I must make all day, every day.
As I have walked with God through the valley of the shadow of death, I have learned three great lessons for being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
Before I can rejoice, I need to lament. This step is critical because it is only through acknowledging and grieving my pain that I’ve experienced God’s presence and comfort. Without this step, my words may sound spiritual and even eloquent, but they are disconnected from my life — I’m left feeling empty and alone.
I used to think it was wrong to lament. I would pretend my pain didn’t bother me, silently pulling away from God while outwardly praising him. I didn’t know how else to handle being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” Since then, I’ve learned that God understands our lament. The Bible has given me words to use — God, in his kindness, shows us how to be real with him.
In the Bible, David (Psalm 69:1–3), the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 12:7–9), and even Jesus himself (Mark 14:36) all asked God to take away their suffering, so I boldly ask God for deliverance as well. God doesn’t expect me to stoically approach pain, pretending it doesn’t hurt, but rather invites me to cry out to him and tell him what I long for. It is in this authentic, intimate conversation with God that he changes me. I tell him when I feel abandoned. I ask him for renewed strength. I beg for a reprieve from pain.
David begins Psalm 13 by saying, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1), and yet he ends a few verses later by saying, “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation” (Psalm 13:5). What caused his new outlook? How could he go from questioning God one moment to rejoicing the next? For me, just as for David, this shift happens when I talk directly to God, expecting him to answer.
“In suffering, I often see God most clearly, perhaps because I am more desperate to find him.”
When I follow David’s example, my perspective changes as David’s did. My circumstances may be unchanged, but what’s happening around me is no longer my focus. Something inside me shifts as I read God’s words and pour out my unedited thoughts to him. God himself meets me, comforting and reviving me. One moment I am overwhelmed by the pain in my life, and the next moment I have renewed hope and perspective. Countless times, I have prayed Psalm 119:25, “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” And God has done just that.
2. Look for Him
In sorrow I have learned the joy of God’s presence. God is always with us and there is nowhere we can flee from him, but there are times I am more aware of him. In suffering, I often see God most clearly, perhaps because I am more desperate to find him. As Hosea 6:3 says, “Let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”
God comes to us as we look for him. I can echo David’s proclamations in the Psalms — I have found fullness of joy in God’s presence, and I’ve tasted and seen God’s goodness firsthand. This kind of joy is in God alone who comforts me, strengthens me, and assures me that he will never leave me.
3. Trust His Design
I have joy knowing there is a purpose to my suffering. My suffering was designed by God for my good — not to punish me but to bless me. Though I may not readily see or understand what God is doing, I know God is transforming me through my trials. My suffering has produced a resilient joy — one that leads to endurance, character, and hope (Romans 5:3–5). The things of this world are less appealing, and the things of God are far more precious.
After living through my worst nightmares, I have less fear of the future and more joy in the present. I am confident that God will be with me, even through the valley of the shadow of death, and I know he is working all things for my good. Being “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” doesn’t mean we need to rejoice about our suffering, but that we can rejoice even in the midst of our suffering.
Yes, I used to have a great life, but now my life is even better. My sorrow has produced an overflowing joy that can never be taken away.
Vaneetha Rendall Risner is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Desiring God, who blogs at danceintherain.com. She is married to Joel and has two daughters, Katie and Kristi. She and Joel live in Raleigh, North Carolina. Vaneetha is the author of the book The Scars That Have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering.