Few people pursue joy in the midst of suffering, yet author Ajith Fernando’s new book asserts that Christian leaders and servants who want to know God more deeply must do just that.
In The Call to Joy and Pain: Embracing Suffering in Your Ministry, Fernando, a prolific Christian author, suggests that it is critical to have a “both” “and” mindset:
“I discovered 18 times in the New Testament where, when the (Scriptures) talk about suffering, they also talk about joy,” Fernando said recently from his native Sri Lanka. “These two things come together so that they are almost twins.”
Among the examples he cites in his book is a portion of Paul’s letter from prison to Christians in Colossae:
I am glad when I suffer for you in my body, for I am participating in the sufferings of Christ that continue for His body, the church.” (Colossians 1:24)
“Suffering is there, but joy is also there,” said Fernando, who has served as the national director of Youth for Christ in war-torn Sri Lanka since 1976. He also spends considerable time mentoring and counseling Christian workers.
“God has called us to be agents of healing in a hurting world,” he said. “There is no way we can avoid pain if we are to be God’s ambassadors. It’s a call, because it is through experiencing the depths of pain that we experience the depths of communion with God.”
The journey toward such faith and surrender is life altering, Fernando said.
“Part of my mission is to teach people to concentrate on trusting God so that the joy can come. I have seen so many Christians who are unhappy because of what people have done to them.
“When we don’t have a theology of suffering, we’re not prepared for suffering when it comes,” he said. “Our initial response is a very human response of despair or anger, but after some time, if we don’t have a theology of suffering, we might move away from the call God has given us and become shallow people who are not being used as effectively as we can be used. The theology of suffering gives us a sense that God is going to turn this into something good.”
Fernando shares in The Call to Joy and Pain how, during the height of Sri Lanka’s civil war, he had an opportunity to seek refuge with his wife and two young children in the United States. He could have escaped the horror unfolding in his native land and focused on his passion, writing.
“Transportation had stopped. People were dying all around us. We have a river at the edge of our city and bodies were floating down the river constantly,” Fernando recalled about that period in the late 1980s. “A lot of people were leaving the country because schools had been closed for six or seven months. My wife and I knew without a doubt that God had called us to stay in Sri Lanka.”
Obeying that call didn’t mean Fernando was happy about it. It also didn’t mean his family wouldn’t suffer, he realized.
“The thing that came to me very strongly is that the greatest (wealth) we have as Christians and as a family is joy. My wife and I felt the greatest heritage we could give our children was a happy home,” said Fernando, whose son and daughter are now adults. “Happiness does not depend on what happens around us; it’s something the Lord gives you.”
Throughout the book, Fernando reveals the attitudes and actions he believes Christians must embrace to routinely experience joy despite their circumstances.
- A vital principle is allowing oneself to grieve and talk to God about it.
“We have this sense that we must always put on this show of being happy people,” Fernando said. “But there are times when we just want to cry. Our lament comes out of the question, ‘If God is sovereign, why should we suffer like this?’ As Christians, we should not be ashamed or afraid to cry, because deep down, we know that God is bigger than our pain.”
- Another key is learning to fully believe God.
“When we are hit by things that happen to us that are negative, the thing that is attacked most of all is our trust in God,” Fernando said. “If we can, in our hearts, say that God is good, then we can look at our situations with hope. Until we can, we need to battle for faith. We need to preach to ourselves.”
- Christians also must remain steadfast in their relationships.
“One of the most painful things in life is being committed to people,” he says. “People hurt you because they don’t know how to suffer. Suffering takes away their security. But when people have gone through pain together, they can experience depths of joy together (over the fact) that they stuck it out through all of the hardships.”
Essentially, Fernando said, accepting the call to joy and pain requires Christians to accept God’s unabashed love.
“The joy of the Lord is knowing that God is thrilled with us,” he said. “It delights Him to see us and care for us. Whatever helps us recognize that God loves us, those are things that are going to help us experience joy in the midst of pain.”
Stacy Hawkins Adams is a freelance writer and Christian fiction author. Her third novel, Watercolored Pearls, was recently released.