Prayer #8: Sin, Confession, and the Joy of Forgiveness

How joyful is the one
whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered!
How joyful is a person whom
the Lord does not charge with iniquity
and in whose spirit is no deceit!

When I kept silent, my bones became brittle
from my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was drained[a]
as in the summer’s heat.Selah
Then I acknowledged my sin to you
and did not conceal my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.Selah

Therefore let everyone who is faithful pray to you immediately.[b]
When great floodwaters come,
they will not reach him.
You are my hiding place;
you protect me from trouble.
You surround me with joyful shouts of deliverance.Selah

I will instruct you and show you the way to go;
with my eye on you, I will give counsel.
Do not be like a horse or mule,
without understanding,
that must be controlled with bit and bridle
or else it will not come near you.

Many pains come to the wicked,
but the one who trusts in the Lord
will have faithful love surrounding him.
Be glad in the Lord and rejoice,
you righteous ones;
shout for joy,
all you upright in heart.

Psalm 32:1-11

I want to talk about a kind of prayer that maybe we don’t talk about so much and why it’s important. I want to talk about prayers of confession. And, of course, this means coming to God and confessing our sin to him. Maybe one of the reasons we don’t talk about prayers of confession much is because “sin” is a bad word, sometimes even in church. We don’t think of other people or even ourselves as “sinful.” People are basically good—or at least a lot of people think so.

Another reason is how individualistic we are in our faith. My sin is between me and God. And while that’s true to an extent, it’s also true that our sin affects other people, sometimes in ways we’re not always aware of. Not only that, but there’s also such a thing as corporate sin.

And even for those who are Christians, who have faith in Christ, we still need to experience cleansing and forgiveness. 1 John 1:8 says: If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. So it’s both important to recognize sin for what it is and to know what to do about it. This is where prayers of confession are important.

We’re looking at Psalm 32. Notice in verses 1—2 how the psalmist starts. How joyful is the one whose transgression is forgiven! And he is joyful because he has experienced the forgiveness of God. This psalm, though it is about confession and forgiveness, is deliberately bracketed by expressions of joy and rejoicing. At the end of the psalm in verse 11 it says: Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, you righteous ones; shout for joy, all you upright in heart. In Psalm 51, David’s most famous psalm of confession (about David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah in 2 Samuel 11—12), he prays Restore the joy of your salvation to me. The greatest joy we can know is in knowing and loving and having fellowship with God—and this entire psalm is about having that fellowship renewed.

This is such a powerful and important point. Who among us doesn’t want to experience joy? Haven’t you ever had a person in your life forgive you? Isn’t it such an incredible relief? Doesn’t the relationship feel joyful again? We’re invited to have that with the Creator of the universe!

These days the word “sin” is sort of a bad word, one we’re afraid to use because it sounds judgmental and unloving. We don’t want to believe we’re guilty of anything. We don’t want to believe that we (or anyone) is actually bad—in fact, on the whole most people believe that human beings are basically good and that we’re naturally inclined to do what is right. There’s no sense that we deserve God’s condemnation or judgment. But John 3:19 says: People loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.

In Psalm 32:1—2 there are different words for sin used, in order to highlight different aspects of sin. The first (transgression) highlights rebellion, the second (sin) a deliberate offense, and the third (iniquity) highlights going astray, and the fourth (deceit) highlights falsehood or hypocrisy. We need to have a fuller, deeper understanding of sin that isn’t only about specific wrong acts, but a disposition or posture of our hearts that leads to sinful action or inaction. Sin is living in a way that is contrary to God’s purposes for us and which both harm us and those around us.

In verses 3—4 David paints a vivid picture of what it’s like to live with unconfessed sin. He talks about his bones being brittle, about groaning all day long. Look at this description, one that we can all probably identify with: my strength was drained, as in the summer’s heat. There is a deep sense of guilt and suffering that comes with holding onto sin and holding God at arm’s length—with keeping silent. We might do this out of fear. We might do this out of pride. We do not naturally want to face up to our sin, so either we avoid it or we excuse it or make light of it. But there are consequences when we don’t address the sin in our lives. Notice where he says of God that your hand was heavy upon me. David has experienced conviction but has yet to take the step of confession. More than anything, sin creates an obstacle to fellowship and friendship with God. Unconfessed sin blocks the joy of fellowship with God.

In verse 5 we see the route the psalmist took to experience the joy with which he opened the psalm. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and I did not conceal my iniquity. I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.” And what happens? You forgave the guilt of my sin.

Having grown up Roman Catholic, I grew up having a built-in opportunity for confession. There was something significant about confessing your sins to someone else, even if we don’t think we have to do so before a pastor or priest. My point is that we’ve almost completely individualized confession. Even in our services, we don’t have corporate prayers of confession and the assurance of forgiveness. It makes me wonder if there’s something we’re missing. How many people come to church on Sunday with feelings of guilt and shame that never get addressed? With sin that’s never properly dealt with?

Confession is not about giving God information he doesn’t already have. It’s about facing up to ourselves, being honest, about seeking restoration in our relationship with God. It’s about recognizing that there are ways of living, of making choices, of relating to people around us that do not honor God and represent his will for us. It’s also about realizing that only in living according to God’s purposes for us can we know true joy, the fullness of joy, because this consists in fellowship with him. And look at the impact—the healing power—of forgiveness: Therefore let everyone who is faithful pray to you immediately. When great floodwaters come, they will not reach him . . . You surround me with joyful shouts of deliverance.

In James 5:16 it says: Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. Now, James is talking not only about physical healing, but spiritual healing. Notice that he tells them to confess their sins to one another. There is a healing power to confessing your sins to another person. It’s important to have someone in your life who you can trust with the real you.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “A man who confesses his sins in the presence of a brother knows that he is no longer alone with himself; he experiences the presence of God in the reality of the other person.” 1 John 1:9 is probably the most well-known verse on this: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. There is no question that the one who sincerely confesses to God, trusting in what Christ has done, will receive forgiveness. We’re called on in Scripture to examine ourselves, to look into our hearts for what might be creating an obstacle between ourselves and God. Make this into a prayer: “Lord, if there is anything in me that displeases you and is keeping me from walking with you faithfully, please give me eyes to see.” While we will never get over our need for confession this side of eternity, what should always be a source of joy is that we have a Savior whose desire and power to forgive can never be exhausted.

Experiencing Joy

Below is a revised version of my sermon from this past Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent.

Years ago a friend of mine—who is typically not the most emotionally expressive—said this: “I party on the inside.”

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us who are Christians party on the inside. That is, we don’t naturally express our emotions. We’re not effusive. If we’re feeling especially joyful, it might not show on the outside.

Once a Presbyterian pastor made sure everyone in church had a helium balloon. Knowing his congregation was not outwardly expressive, he told them to release their balloon during the service at the moment they had a sense of inner-joy. Eventually, people began letting go of their balloons. By the end of the service most of the balloons were on the ceiling.

Are we joyful? If I had handed out helium balloons, would they all be on the ceiling by the end of the service?

I might be wrong, but I sometimes wonder if of all the Advent themes—hope, peace, joy, and love—joy is the most difficult one for us to actually experience.

We look at the world, at the kinds of difficulties we and our loved ones experience, and joy seems impossible. Joy seems unrealistic. Or dishonest. Or even unfair. Who are we to be joyful when there’s much wrong with the world?

Let’s be honest: a lot of the time we tend to focus on negative things than on positive things, on what we can complain about rather than what we can rejoice over. What does it mean, then, to experience joy here and now, in our lives, whatever else is going on?

Last week we talked about how God is a God of peace. We talked about how our God never panics and is never overwhelmed by fear. But did you also know our God is a joyful God?

Listen to these words from Zephaniah 3:17: The Lord your God is among you, a warrior who saves. He will rejoice over you with gladness. He will be quiet in his love. He will delight in you with singing.

So what do we see here? God rejoices over his people with gladness. He delights in his people with singing. God’s love for you leads him to rejoice over you, to take delight in you, and to sing because of you.

And that’s not the only place in Scripture we see this. Consider Jesus’ parable of the lost coin from Luke 15:8—10:

Or what woman who has ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?  When she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, because I have found the silver coin I lost!’ I tell you, in the same way, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.”

Again, do you hear what Jesus is saying here? When God finds and saves a lost sinner, he rejoices. And there is joy and celebration in heaven in the presence of all of the angels.

Maybe think of it this way: God loves to throw a party. God loves to celebrate. And to do so because he redeems and restores, he heals and he saves, he rescues and delivers, and all of this because he loves us.

So: experiencing joy is possible because we have a joyful God.

We don’t worship or serve a God who is sour and dour. We don’t love and follow a morose Savior. We have a God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who is joy. The delight he has known from all eternity within the triune Godhead, he pours out on us. He wants us to experience the very joy that he is.

Have you ever thought of God as joyful? And that God rejoices over you, celebrates and takes great joy in how you trust him and love him and seek to live for him? What do you think about this? And doesn’t it bring you even a little bit of joy?

Maybe we still think: “I don’t feel joyful. There’s too much to be upset or worried or sad about.”

After the people of Israel had returned from exile—a devastating time of darkness and despair—and had begun to put things back together again, Ezra the priest read the Law of Moses to the people. In Nehemiah 8:9—10 we read this:

Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all of them, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go and eat what is rich, drink what is sweet, and send portions to those who have nothing prepared, since today is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Upon hearing the Law, the wept. They took the Law of the Lord seriously. However, Ezra and Nehemiah and the other leaders told the people not to mourn or weep. William MacDonald describes the scene this way:

“The people’s tears showed that the message was taken seriously (v. 9). They were right in taking the Word of God seriously, but they did not need to be overwhelmed by grief. The feast was not for weeping but for rejoicing. Only one occasion for mourning and fasting was found among Israel’s feasts, and that was the Day of Atonement. The rest of the feasts were to be kept with joy and celebration. The fruit of the Spirit was to be visible: love, in sharing with the less fortunate; joy, in eating and drinking before the Lord; peace, in calming their fears and putting their hearts at rest. Their sadness was turned to joy, and the joy of the LORD was their strength.”

Experiencing joy is possible when we celebrate God’s work in our lives.

And maybe that’s a good word to think about when we’re thinking about what it means to experience joy: celebrate.

To celebrate means to do something special or enjoyable for an important event, occasion, or holiday; to praise someone or something; to say that someone or something is great or important; and to perform a religious ceremony.

We see some of this in our passage from Nehemiah. We also see this in the parable of the lost coin. Celebration! Maybe we need more of that!

Here’s the thing: if we want to experience joy, we have to practice joy. It’s not always about waiting to experience joy. Sometimes it’s about cultivating joy. About doing things that remind us why we should be joyful.

Think of the word rejoice. When I hear that word I think of a few things. I think of thanksgiving. I think of blessing. I think of celebration. And, of course, joy. To rejoice is to rehearse our reasons for joy. It’s to practice being joyful. And we do this to train our hearts and minds to be more consistently aware of why we can be joyful.

Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen once said: “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.”

That’s why the people of Israel had regular feasts and celebrations. They had scheduled times for rejoicing! They needed reminding and so do we.

Think of the words from Nehemiah. The joy of the Lord is your strength. The joy that is at the heart of our God can also be ours. Who God is and what God does is our greatest source of joy.

And having God as our source of joy means we can experience joy even when circumstances aren’t what we want them to be. Taking joy in who God is and what he does gives us strength—strength to keep trusting, strength to face difficult situations, strength to keep praying, to keep serving Jesus, to keep going day by day. 

What are some simple and small ways you can celebrate who God is and what God does? How can you remind yourself that our God is a God of joy and that he our greatest source of joy?

In Philippians 4:4 Paul says these seemingly impossible words: Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

This is not a suggestion. It’s an exhortation, a command. And remember that when the Lord tells us to do something, he does so for our well-being, so we can grow in our faith, draw nearer to him, and be more and more transformed into people whose attitudes and actions are not altogether determined by our circumstances.

I think we have an obligation—a holy responsibility, actually—to be people of joy, to live like people who worship a joyful God.

I think our world needs people like us whose joy, happiness, contentment, and peace is not determined by what’s going on all around us, by the bad news we hear or the trials and troubles we face. 

I think we need to be people of joy because so many people are discouraged, tired, fearful, and worried.

I think we need to be people of joy because we need to take our eyes off of what’re struggling with, what we can’t control, and put our eyes on Jesus, our Lord, our Savior, God with us.

Put simply: experiencing joy is how we share the joy of the Lord.

Where do you and those you love need to know the joy of the Lord? How might you bring some of that joy into the situation? How can you help others experience the joy of the Lord?

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” Here is one of the verses:

O come, Thou Dayspring, from on high, And cheer us by Thy drawing nigh; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.

I think we need to pay attention to these words. These words are a prayer, are they not? And listen to that refrain: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel.

Theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said: “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Advent is a season of hopefully waiting, of entering more deeply into God’s peace, of reflecting on the meaning of Jesus as God with us; and of joy. Joy that God has come to us in Christ. Joy that he seeks us out to forgive, to heal, and to rescue us. Joy that we are more than our circumstances. Joy that is at the very heart of God himself.

“Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”

Written in 1744 by Charles Wesley, “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” is easily one of my favourite Christmas hymns. In fact, it’s been the first hymn in the order of worship for the first Sunday of Advent pretty much every year I’ve been a pastor.

The best Christmas hymns are a combination of hope and longing, and include joy and a hint of melancholy. It’s that desire for God to act, to intervene in the mess of the world, knowing it only ever happens partially on this side of Christ’s Second Advent. But there’s also this joy and celebration that not only is there hope but that we can—here and now—experience something of God’s saving grace and the peace we long to know. Hope sustains us in difficulties and gives us a joy that our circumstances can’t explain, a settled-ness of heart that our ultimate comfort comes not from the things of this world.

Come, thou long expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free
From our fears and sins release us
Let us find our rest in thee
Israel’s strength and consolation
Hope of all the earth thou art
Dear desire of every nation
Joy of every longing heart

The Search for Joy

Below is a reflection from Rev. Gerald E. Murray on the Advent theme of joy. It’s from a longer article from First Things you can find here.

“The search for joy in life is a frustrating experience for those who do not seek that joy in the Lord. Entertainment is a commonly sought substitute for joy. Certainly there is a place for entertainment in our lives. But fleeting diversions and delights are, in the end, merely faint hints or foretastes of the otherworldly happiness found only in that other, invisible world we yearn for, whether we realize it or not. Everyone seeks happiness, yet true happiness is elusive. It requires faith to understand that everything here on earth is provisional and, in greater or smaller measure, unfulfilling, yet indicative of the joys that await us in paradise.

Our secular Christmas season is in full swing, even if it has been renamed “the holiday season.” Incessant television ads exhorting viewers to “buy yourself” this or that expensive item during the “holiday sale of a lifetime” because “you deserve it” confirm the narcissistic stupor of our age. A self-consumed materialistic focus in the weeks leading up to Christmas is the world’s poor substitute for the chaste, restrained joy of waiting for the Lord’s coming in a penitential Advent spirit. He is the giver of the true gift that will bring us unsurpassed joy—the gift of himself.”

Mother’s Day

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also praises her:
“Many women have done noble deeds,
but you surpass them all!”

Proverbs 31:28-29

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

And for many Mother’s Day gives rise to a mix of emotions. One emotion is sadness. Because some of us mourn the loss of our mothers. My Mom passed away of cancer in June 2011–nearly ten years ago. I miss her. There are so many things I wish I could talk to her about or ask her. So many questions. And my kids–especially my sons–never really had the opportunity to know her.

And my Mother-in-Law passed away in December of 2014 of cancer. She was amazing, and she and my wife were best friends. She was also extremely close to our daughter. Our sons still miss her very much too. She was also a confidante of mine.

Losses still near enough to have a very real affect on us in the present. No doubt many of you feel the same way.

At the same time, Mother’s Day is also about joy. I am married to a wonderful woman, who is also a wonderful mother to our three children. So we get to celebrate her. Our kids make homemade Mother’s Day cards. We make a special meal. Give her a few gifts. We do our best to make sure she knows she’s loved and appreciated. Without a doubt, she deserves more than we can say or do.

For my wife, being a mother has had its share of challenges. During the second trimester of her pregnancy for our daughter, she experienced a very serious depression. With our twin sons, she had to have a caesarian section two months before their due date because she had developed hellps syndrome. After the delivery, she was in ICU for a few days. Her condition was quite serious for a time. Not to mention that our sons were in the NICU for 7 weeks and that there were some moments of touch and go with them too.

Now our daughter is 16 and our sons are 12. Those years hold a lot of memories, history, and emotions. As a mother, my wife isn’t perfect. But she needn’t be. No one is. And yet I still think she is the strongest, smartest, most committed mother I know. No one has cried harder or laughed louder because of her kids. In my eyes, she is a hero. I am in absolute awe about how our lives have been knitted together into the crazy, never-dull family that we are. And she is at the center of it all.

Reflecting on Mother’s Day is very much to reflect on life, our lives, and to experience both joy and sorrow, gratitude and loss. Mother’s Day is a reminder that each of us has (or have had) important people in our lives who are (or have been) there for us, who shape (or have shaped) us, hold (or who have held) us, and who cry (or who have cried) with us and for us.

So I am grateful for my Mom, for my late Mom-in-Law, and now, and most of all, for my wife. While many women have done amazing, wonderful things, for me she surpasses them all. Could I ever think otherwise?

Happy Mother’s Day, Alisha.

Joy and Thanksgiving

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever.

1 Chronicles 16:34

Give thanks in everything; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

Let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices and announce his works with shouts of joy.

Psalm 107:22

I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.

Philippians 1:3-5

Joy and gratitude are cousins.

That is, whenever I feel joy because of my blessings, I find myself feeling grateful to God. Thank you, Lord!

When we find ourselves experiencing joy, we should take a quick moment to pause and offer thanksgiving to God for what gives us joy. Because, as James 1:17 puts it, Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. 

Not only that, but when I intentionally stop to thank God for the many blessings in my life, joy often wells up in my heart. If I want to experience more joy, then I ought to take time, as the hymn says, to “count my blessings.”

After I spent time praying this morning, it’s this joy-thanksgiving connection that came to my mind. One leads to the other; they are two sides of the same coin.

For me, as for many of you, my biggest joy in this life is my family. When I stop and give thanks to God for my wife, two sons, and daughter, I experience joy. Or whenever I find myself feeling joyful because of my family, I should stop and give thanks to God.

Because truthfully my family is a gift. They are signposts of God’s love and grace in my life. I have no idea what my life would be like without them. I don’t even want to think about that.

Instead, I receive what God has given with joy. I give thanks to him for he is good.

Like I said, joy and thanksgiving are cousins.

What gives you joy? What are you thankful for? Take time out to reflect on these things. Allow the blessings of your life to direct your heart to the one who poured them out on you.

My Story Part 17: Fatherhood

Sometimes even if I can’t recall all the details of a dream, I can remember the way the dream made me feel. And years ago I had a dream in which I had a little boy, a son–I was a father! I don’t remember much else, whether in the dream I was also married or even whether I had adopted him or was his biological dad. But I woke up that day with a deep sense of joy and longing. Like I had experienced something wonderful but that was now slipping away.

When I had that dream, I was single. I could only imagine experiencing fatherhood. It felt a world away. But it was only a few years later when I was standing in a delivery room as my wife was giving birth to our firstborn, our daughter. That moment is etched in my memory. It was October 7, 2004, 11:42pm. Our little girl emerged into the world eyes wide open, curious and beautiful, changing our lives forever.

That was more than 16 years ago now. Less than 5 years after her arrival, our twin sons came along; and ever since our family life has been filled with ups, downs, unexpected twists and turns, tears and laughter.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

What’s truly amazing is how different our kids are from one another. Each has their own beautiful uniqueness that has stamped itself on our hearts. Watching them grow, learn, deal with life, and learning as parents how to navigate it with them, is indeed the highest calling I have ever had. Not that I always do this well or am a fount of wisdom in every moment. Even they have seen me make mistakes. But what a joy and privilege it continues to be to have these young souls in my life.

Yet, even though I am their father, their Dad, Papa, Daddy, I can’t control them or determine how their lives will go in the years ahead. Not that I want to do this. But don’t all parents want to help their kids avoid pitfalls and struggles, to ensure their greatest possible happiness in this life? Yet, they will have to make choices, sometimes hard ones. Our kids will make poor choices. And we will have to watch. They will have to take what we’ve been able to give them as parents and figure out how to navigate the waters they find themselves sailing.

No wonder parenting is a bittersweet joy, one tinged with sadness and unfulfilled longing. Because even now I can look back and wish some things had been different for them. I wish my daughter never had to deal with mental health issues. I wish all of them still had both of their grandmothers around. I wish that one of our sons and our daughter didn’t have some of the difficulties they do in getting along more consistently. I wish they didn’t have to experience disappointment, rejection, fear, and pain.

Of course, now is the time when I ponder the parallels between me being a Dad and what it must be like for our heavenly Father. He sees our individual uniqueness and beauty. He sees our failings and brokenness. Seeing all of this, his love for us exceeds every conceivable boundary. And he longs for us to know this love, to rest in this love, to find in his love peace, solace, comfort, and joy. When we fall short, he remains there. His love for us is undeterred by our straying hearts and lives. He waits to embrace us once again. We are always welcome home.

I want to be this kind of father for my children.

Not having had a father growing up, not having known father love during my most formative years, I repeatedly, frequently, insistently, and annoyingly tell each of my kids I love them. All. The. Time. I want my love for them to be bedrock in a world where there’s so little upon which they can rely. And I want, more than anything, for my love to point them, to open their hearts and lives up, to the love of their heavenly Father. Where I fail them, he will not. When I cannot protect them, he can be their refuge and strength. And when I am no longer a part of their lives because I have gone on to my eternal rest, he will still be with them. There’s nothing I want more for them than to know this love, to receive it, and to live and die being held by it.

Much like in that dream years ago, being a father brings me great joy. There are moments when I almost can’t believe how blessed I am. I look at my kids and I feel wonder. Indeed, what strange, wondrous creatures they are! Surely, this is an imperfect joy, one which includes its measure of sadness and longing, but for all that fills me with a gladness I thought I would never know.

Except perhaps in a dream.

A Journey’s End

I’ve now finished reading The Lord of the Rings. As I completed part 3, The Return of the King, a passage from the last chapter, the very end where Frodo leaves Middle-Earth, there is this wonderful description of what Frodo sees as he sails across the sea to the West:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

As it happens, these words are also used in the film adaptation. There they appear on the lips of Gandalf and are said to Pippin in the moments before they meet potential doom in Minas Tirith. It’s one of my favourite moments in the film. The conversation goes like this:

Pippin: “I didn’t think it would end this way.”

Gandalf: “End? No, the journey doesn’t end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it.”

Pippin: “What? Gandalf? See what?”

Gandalf: “White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

Pippin: “Well, that isn’t so bad.”

Gandalf: “No. No, it isn’t.”

The Return of the King (2003)

Here Gandalf describes what would be the Middle-Earth version of heaven, or so it seems.

Finishing the book trilogy is bittersweet. You really do feel like you have been on a journey with these characters with whom you have come to identify and to love and admire. Beyond that, it’s bittersweet because it’s not a fake, Disney-like, happily-ever-after ending. While couched in the narrative of fantasy, of an imaginative world of Tolkien’s making, there is an honesty and hope about the human condition. There is the acknowledgement of sorrow and death and how the truest and fullest joy is all the greater for them.

I’m sorry that the journey is over, but I am very glad to have taken it.

“Pain and delight flow together”

I’m closing in on the end of The Return of the King, and I have really enjoyed reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy again. When I last spent some time reading it, something in the text stood out. In the aftermath of the victory over Sauron and the forces of Mordor, there is a scene where a minstrel breaks out in song. Here is the description of the effect his singing had.

In the midst of the their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

After I read this, I read it again, so beautifully did Tolkien capture our experience that “pain and delight flow together.” In a very real sense, our moments of joy are all the more joyful because of the pain we’ve known. So closely connected are experiences of delight and suffering that we can scarcely understand or experience one without having experienced the other.

Putting it the other way round, C.S. Lewis speaks of the relationship between joy and suffering in this way:

The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before. That’s the deal.

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

In this instance, he’s speaking of dealing with the loss of his wife Joy to cancer. Grief is often the result of joy and love we’ve known.

This is why Tolkien says that “tears are the very wine of blessedness.” In The Return of the King, evil has been defeated, but there have been deep and painful losses along the way. Even those who have survived the War of the Ring have been profoundly marked by their experience of it. Theirs is a joy tinged with sadness.

It goes without saying that this is true of us with our own experiences of grief and loss.

Of course, the end of The Lord of the Rings is not the end of the story of Middle-Earth. More grievous ills may well plague those who remain. I can’t say, because this is all the Tolkien I’ve read, save The Hobbit. But for us, the story does have an end. The book of Revelation describes a key part of it this way:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away.

Revelation 21:4

According to Scripture, therefore, a time is coming when God’s kingdom will arrive in its fullness, when the pain and loss we know in this life will indeed be overcome. Whether our experience of the new heaven and new earth will lack all remembrance of our earthly sorrows, I can’t say. But it seems altogether certain that even if we do have some such remembrances, the joy of being in the presence of God eternally will be so overwhelmingly profound and full that they will no longer be dampened by our tears.

Again, at the end of The Return of the King, Samwise meets Gandalf for the first time since the beloved wizard (seemingly) fell to his death in Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring. Upon seeing him, Sam bursts out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” This is the promise–the sure hope–to which we are invited to cling, a hope made possible by the resurrection of the King, the Lord Jesus, and his eventual coming again. Echoing Samwise the hobbit, author Tim Keller once summarized all this wonderfully, when he said, “Everything sad is going to come untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost.”