Two hands cup a young plant and the dirt it's planted in

Letting Joy Take Root

Rachael NewhamBlog, Church, Depression, Mental Illness, Self Care, Theology

Have you ever wondered why, in the Christian year, the greatest celebrations are preceded by mourning?

Why the darkest hour comes before dawn?

Why lessons about joy are so often learned during the times of our greatest pain?

Why did God make it this way? Why is beauty so often preceded by struggle?

If you’re reading this hoping for an answer, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. 

I don’t know why it is that we seem to need both the darkness and the light, or why things that grow and flower must be rooted in the darkness of the earth. 

What I do know is that in these strange times, I have found great comfort in the fact that God doesn’t require light to work.

These days have been pretty difficult; we are all feeling the weight of suffering caused by coronavirus, the struggle for what is right with the Black Lives Matter movement, and the heavy inevitability that the suffering caused by both will hit the poorest and most vulnerable the hardest. 

Whether the losses you’ve faced in these times have been the headline kind—the bereavements and the sickness—or the everyday losses of freedom, companionship, and normality, there are losses to be grieved, cries to be heard, protests to be made.

We cannot skip the grieving in our hurry to “get over” loss and fast forward to joy. 

Scripture tells us that joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5)—but first we must get through the night. 

All too often the night is a time we fear; it’s when the monsters emerge and shadows play tricks on us. But in reality, the darkness presents us with an opportunity to cultivate joy. 

Joy without roots is ephemeral, more akin to happiness with its reliance on happenstance. Joy with roots in the dark, however, draws us closer to God and closer to hope. 

I can’t say I’m a fan of darkness, but I do know that I’ve learned things in the dark I could not have learned any other way. 

In the all-consuming darkness of suicidal depression, I learned how to lament. I learned to rage against the dying of the light[1], and I found myself echoing the author of Psalm 88 as I asked:

“Can those in the grave declare your unfailing love?

Can they proclaim your faithfulness in the place of destruction?

Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds?”

The answer is yes.

And that is where I began to glimpse joy. My circumstances didn’t change, but I recognized that I was not alone in the pain, that I was joined with Jesus.

It was not a joy that looked particularly like happiness, although it would get there. It was a stubborn joy that joined with the chorus of creation to sing that God is good—even when the world is in pain. 

Joy took root as I started to be honest with God and those around me about what hurt the most. 

Joy grew in the fertile soil of my darkest laments, because I joined with all those who had lamented before me and all those who lament alongside me and found myself no longer alone. 

So perhaps it is not that celebrations are preceded by darkness after all; perhaps it’s that the celebrations and the joy come from the darkness, that our laments in the dark allow us to sing God’s praises in a way we would not otherwise be able to. 

Wherever you are today, I pray that you may begin to put your pain into words, or music, as an offering of praise that invites God into your darkness so that joy may come in the morning. 

[1] Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”

Rachael Newham is the Founder of ThinkTwice, a Christian mental health charity which delivers mental health training and offers a chance to reflect theologically on mental illness. She is also the author of Learning to Breathe, a memoir exploring mental illness and how God can be found even in the darkest night.