A few years ago, I experienced the deepest loss of my life: I thought I was going to marry a man, and then we broke up.
Of course, the story is a lot longer than that, and a year ago, I could not have summed it up in those fourteen words. I would have been compelled to talk about the whole, five-year-long journey from the start of the relationship to the end of it. I would have needed to share all of the details about how sure I was that he was “the one,” and how devastated I was when it ended.
But today, I can’t remember any of the pain. I remember that season as I would remember a movie I saw a while ago; I can picture scenes from it, but I can’t feel it anymore. My pain, which lasted a solid two years after the relationship ended and affected nearly every aspect of my life in some way, has been completely driven out and replaced by a greater joy.
Three years after the end of that relationship, I met someone. And my past pain makes my present joy all the sweeter.
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Of course, the story is a lot longer than that, and even today, I cannot sum it up in just three words. So here is the better version: Last May, I was in Seattle on a business trip. There were several artists I wanted to visit with, so we all had dinner together on a Monday night. But there was an author I wanted to see who could not come to dinner, so we agreed to meet for coffee the morning I was flying back to New York. He told me to meet him at the Top Pot Donuts in Queen Anne (a neighborhood of Seattle). But I got mixed up and went to the Top Pot downtown on Fifth Avenue. By the time I realized my mistake, I was nearly thirty minutes late arriving at the Queen Anne location.
Meanwhile, the author and another friend I had invited to join us were at the Queen Anne Top Pot, and as they waited for me, they ran into an old friend from college. The three guys sat down together at one table to chat and catch up on old times, so when I finally arrived, I sat with them and met this old college buddy.
And five weeks from tomorrow, the college buddy and I are getting married.
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Of course, there is more to the story than that. But the point is, back in 2006, when I was reeling from the devastation of that horrible break up, no one could have convinced me that I would ever fully recover. I was completely flattened by it. I felt like a fish that had been gutted. I remember telling someone that if cutting off my arm would remove the pain I was in, I would have cut off my arm. Was I being unnecessarily dramatic? Perhaps. But before you judge me, please don’t forget that people commit suicide over the pain of a broken heart. Those who feel deeply, as I do, feel deeply. We feel joy, pain, elation, despair, pleasure, frustration, love, sorrow, etc., deeply.
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This morning, I woke up with the sun on my face, shining through the skylights in my new bedroom in Seattle. I am propped up in my new king-sized bed, with my cat and dog sound asleep beside me. I am drinking coffee that I just made in a new French press – a wedding gift. Every evening around 6:00, after a full day of work, I being to watch the door, waiting for the white and green pick up truck to pull up in front of my house. My fiancé comes here after work for dinner, and when he pulls up in front of the house, I let Jonah, the dog, out. He runs to the gate of the red picket fence that surrounds the house, wagging his tail like crazy. Jonah adores my fiancé, and I understand how he feels. If I had a tail, I’d be wagging it too when that truck pulls up. Seeing him is the best part of my day.
We take turns cooking – aloo gobi, eggplant Parmigiano, fresh bread, pasta, roast chicken. We take walks in the new neighborhood, we watch movies (this week, The Passion of the Christ), and then we talk about them. We eat ice cream – chocolate chip cookie dough, one container, two spoons. We pray. We go on dates, we support one another’s vocations, and we visit churches each Sunday, looking for our new faith community in West Seattle to call “home.” My days are so full of joy right now, I can’t even remotely feel the pain I felt back then.
But it never fully escapes me that the very fact of that pain makes this joy all the sweeter.
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On Palm Sunday, we attended Grace Church here in West Seattle, where the pastor preached about the cost of following Christ. Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we watched The Passion of the Christ, and then last night, my fiancé and I participated in the Holy Thursday service at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Today is Good Friday, and I have decided to spend the morning reading from the Gospels and praying. I have asked God to awaken my heart to his death and resurrection in a new, Holy Spirit-inspired way. And I have been trying to put myself in the world of the disciples, the men and women who were closest to Jesus on that unimaginable day two thousand years ago. I have tried to imagine, in the way a Method actor might, what it was like to be them, at that time. I have tried to imagine Jesus’ pain – of course, this is impossible – but I have tried. And this phrase keeps coming to mind:
“For the joy that was set before him.”
Of course, this phrase comes from Hebrews. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
What, exactly, was the joy that was set before him? Was it that his suffering would mean the salvation of countless millions of souls? Was it that his resurrection would be the final blow to death, and the means by which God would reconcile all things to himself? Jesus knew the full implications of his death and resurrection, and it was, if I am reading this right, that knowledge that made it possible for him to endure the excruciating hours of torture, shame, and crucifixion at the hands of the Roman soldiers, operating at the behest of the religious leaders who represented Jesus’ own heritage.
And I am convinced that when he did rise from the dead after three days in the grave, the joy of that resurrection was made all the sweeter by the pain of Calvary.
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There are some people who are really hurting this weekend. I know one of them, because she sent me an email a few days ago. Her fiancé delayed the wedding plans a few months back, and this week, he broke up with her via a Facebook message. She is devastated. The years she has spent in a relationship with him, the hours she has spent praying for the relationship, the ways she has sensed God’s assurance that he would eventually come around and their marriage would take place and they would live as husband and wife, have been destroyed. She is confused. Her faith in prayer is damaged. Her confidence in her own ability to “hear from God” is undermined. She knows God is real and good and loving, but she doesn’t even know how to pray now.
I know her story. It is so painfully similar to mine, and I remember it well.
But there is great joy set before her. It is the same joy that was set before me. And I am not referring to another man, or the hope that “God has someone better in mind.”
The joy that is set before us is Jesus.
Jesus is the joy.
I know it sounds simple, perhaps even trite. But it is so true. Jesus is the joy set before us. That is the joy that the writer of Hebrews tells us to look to, in order to finish strong in spite of every tragic set-back.
When I received the blow of an unexpected break up, I looked to Jesus, who is the author and finisher of my faith. I trusted him finish my faith to the end, even as I confessed, through frequent tears, that I did not have a clue what that would look like.
When I did not know how to pray, I looked to Jesus, whose words filled my mouth, “My father in heaven, hallowed be your name…” Sometimes, that was all I could pray. Or, in another man’s words, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away, and blessed be the name of the Lord.” Blessed be your name, oh Lord. Blessed be your name.
When confusion over how this could have happened threatened to claim my sanity (“Was I imagining this relationship all along?!”), I looked to Jesus: “You keep (her) in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because (she) trusts you.”
When questions of, “What now?” arose, since I had spent five years planning my future around that relationship and was suddenly standing in my own personal Ground Zero, I looked to Jesus. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Christians don’t have mantras, but if we did, this might have been mine during that season. I don’t know how, but I know he will. I don’t know how, but I know he will. I don’t know how, but I know…
At no point in time was I ever encouraged to stand firm in my faith by the hope of another, better man. That hope is sinking sand. When the psalmist wrote, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desire of your heart,” he was not talking about a husband. When you delight yourself in the Lord, the Lord is the desire of your heart! The joy that was set before me was never based in the belief that God would eventually bring someone else, someone better, along. Quite the opposite, in fact. When I met my fiancé, I had come to a wonderful place of joy in Jesus that was unaffected by my circumstances. In fact, two days before we met, I said to a cousin, who asked me about my dating life, “I don’t even want to meet someone now. I am enjoying my life, my vocation, my community, my relationship with God, so much. My cup overflows. I don’t know how I would even make room for a man in my life!”
I really meant that.
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The pain of Calvary made the joy of the Resurrection even sweeter. And no matter what “Calvary” we are called to endure in this life, no matter what cross of suffering and shame we are given to bear, our joy is set before us. And whether we are gushing blood from a recent wound or barely able to detect the scars, Jesus is our joy – joy that is greater than our deepest pain, and The Joy from which all other joys are mere echoes. The joy I have in my fiancé is merely an echo of my joy in Christ.
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Jesus spent his final hours before his crucifixion with those who were closest to him, and his words to them were all about love and joy.
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Today, no matter what season of the soul you are in, may Christ’s joy be in you, and may your joy be full.
May Christ himself be our full joy.