The opening lines of the poem “Solitude” are well known:
Laugh, and the world laughs with you;
Weep, and you weep alone.
Though written over one hundred years ago, the sentiment still applies today. People in our culture love to have fun. We love going to parties, games, and shows. The average American spends over $2,500 a year on entertainment—a number which does not include the large amount of free entertainment consumed on a regular basis. We love having a good time and love being around people having a good time.
Is our quest for a good time evil? Not necessarily. After all, “A joyful heart is good medicine.” (Prov 17:22). One of the reasons we pursue pleasure is the value that we receive from it. We can all remember times we’ve been refreshed through an evening filled with friends and laughter.
But I wonder if our culture’s pursuit of fun is actually an obsession for diversion. Do we seek out lightheartedness to hide the heavyheartedness of our world? Are we simply wanting to enjoy life, or are we actually trying to avoid it?
I began pondering this question again a couple of weeks ago while skimming through my Facebook feed. I imagine my feed is not terribly different from others—pictures of children, posts of recipes, updates on personal lives, random thoughts and questions, links to articles or videos, etc. But on this weekend, it was as if two different realities existed on my news feed. I started seeing posts about a church bus taking teens back from camp that crashed in Indianapolis less than a mile from its destination. People were requesting prayer, expressing sorrow, and sharing articles about the crash. As I took in this news, my heart sank. I was grieved for those who experienced the trauma of the accident, those in the other bus who had the horror of witnessing it, and the church family as a whole. I read the reports of this sobering tragedy with tear-blurred vision.
But many of my Facebook friends had no connection or awareness of the story. They were posting their normal posts, which suddenly seemed largely inappropriate in light of the misfortune my mind was still struggling to process. I had to get off Facebook and begin praying.
The next day the same dissonance struck. I continued to have friends posting updates and prayers for those affected by the bus accident in between friends posting the normal updates. However, I also began seeing another string of posts. A young lady who graduated from my high school a few years ahead of me was coming to the end of her battle with cancer—she would go to be with Christ the next morning—and several were sharing their encouragement and prayers with the grieving family. I was reminded of the suffering this family had already endured. Within in the last 12 years, the lady’s mother had died of cancer and her youngest sister was killed in a hiking accident. My heart went out to her father and sister who remained to suffer this sorrow upon sorrow, along with her husband and extended family and friends.
Over the next few days I couldn’t stop thinking about these painful events and feeling that these kinds of things are not supposed to happen. A mother of five is not supposed to die on a trip back from camp with her son. A young youth pastor and his pregnant wife are not supposed to die while serving in the church. A 21 month old boy is not supposed to have both his parents taken from him in an instant. An English teacher at a Christian high school is not supposed to have her life end at the age of 35. A father is not supposed to bury his wife and two of his daughters before he reaches retirement. And when you realize that these things did happen, your heart breaks.
Within a few days, though, my news feed was back to “normal,” and my thoughts largely moved to less tearful realities. After all, who can enjoy life with those heavy thoughts burdening your heart? We’d rather fill our days with swimming babies and dancing puppies than with suffering and tragedy. But I couldn’t shake the dissonance from that weekend.
Eventually I was struck by a more sobering truth—those kinds of events are not isolated. In the United States alone, an average of over 6,700 people die each day, with over 1,500 dying from cancer and over 300 dying from accidents. That doesn’t include those who suffer life-altering injuries and illnesses or those who have to endure various forms of abuse, hunger, heartache, and countless other trials. When you begin to think about all of the evil in the world, you want to find some form of entertainment to numb your senses. If we keep our minds occupied with lighter matters we won’t have the time to contemplate the harsher truths. From time to time we cannot avoid reality—it is thrust into our face through suffering in our own lives or the lives of those we love—but we have become skilled at finding ways to brush it aside or at least to dull the pain. Because when you consider all of the tragedy in the world, your heart is crushed.
Is this how life must be lived? Do we have to revel in frivolity in order to keep ourselves from wallowing in depression? Must we laugh in community to avoid weeping alone?
I don’t think the Bible encourages this sort of fun-filled life. Over and over we are called to a sober life (e.g., Rom 12:3; 1 Thess 5:6, 8; 1 Tim 3:2, 11; 2 Tim 4:5; Tit 2:2). As Christians we are not supposed to hide from the somber realities of life. We are not allowed to ignore the harsh truths of evil. Yet, we are also called to a life of joy (e.g., 2 Cor 13:11; Phil 3:1; 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16). How is it possible to live this sober yet joyful life? How can we find joy while fully acknowledging the tragedy of the world?
One of the keys is biblical hope. When we look at this life only, we have no reason for anything but overwhelming sorrow. But biblical reality extends beyond this world. There is a day coming when all that is wrong will be made right—when justice will finally be done, when there will be no more sorrow or sickness. This fallen world will be redeemed (Rom 8:18-23). We have been assured of this glorious future through the suffering and victory of Jesus Christ (Rom 8:31-39).
As believers, we maintain a sober view of this world, because we can “set [our] hope fully on the grace that will be brought to [us] at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 1:13). We grieve, for this is so much in this world for which we must grieve, but we do “not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). While we weep at the evil in this life, we also consider the time when Jesus will appear and make everything new. In light of that revelation, we “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Pet 1:8).