In a straightforward list of exhortations for good Christ-following living, the apostle Paul gives this little nugget:
Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. (Romans 12:15)
What could be simpler? Piece of cake, right? Be happy with the happy, sad with the sad.
I think not.
My wife Jill and I are celebrating the birth of our little daughter, Sophia, 6 weeks old as I write this. She makes us laugh and smile all day long (well, maybe not so much at 2 a.m.), and fills our hearts with feelings we can hardly contain or express. I’ve watched the video of her birth by C-section and, in the first seconds, both of us are laughing uncontrollably, with Jill somehow weeping at the same time. All to say—this has been one joyful, heart-full experience. In fact, it is hard to imagine any feeling but pure joy at this amazing event in our lives.
It wasn’t always so. We’ve been married ten years, tried to have a baby for nearly six. During those years (as my grown children were having babies almost annually), every birth announcement was salt in a wound we didn’t even know how we got or how to talk about. Most wounds heal over time; this one seemed to fester and worsen and morph, and torment each of us and, at times, our marriage. A layer of shame made it more difficult to talk about. It felt cruel that anyone could have a baby, let alone that we were somehow called to “rejoice with those who rejoice.”
Not long ago I attended the funeral of a former student, taken from this life far too early by recurring cancer. I’ve remained in occasional contact with his father in the weeks and months that have followed. Early on I asked how I could be of help. He said, “Don’t go away in three months.” I think many of us rise to the occasion to appropriately grieve with the grieving in the midst of their loss. But sustained presence is uncomfortable, frightening, with no clear end in sight, and opens our heart to our own sorrow and grief. It is hard to “weep with those who weep.”
Out of awareness of this, I have been reluctant to post a bunch of baby photos on social media, knowing that those unhealed infertility wounds “out there” will sting anew when our pictures appear on the newsfeed. It is unavoidable.
Envy plays a weird role in all of this. A friend or colleague receives professional recognition you have longed and worked for, and not received—rejoice with those who rejoice? This same friend or colleague experiences a professional setback. Let’s be honest, doesn’t a part of us gain some pleasure, if only momentary, at another’s failure?
I was single for a long time between my divorce and marrying Jill in 2011. There was a little club of single people in my life who more or less commiserated over the shared experience of “I’ll probably never get married.” I broke the unwritten rules of the club by dating and marrying Jill. Some could rejoice with me, some couldn’t.
Please hear me, I am not critical of those who find this little exhortation to share in others’ joys and sorrows to be excruciatingly and unfairly difficult. It is. It requires much of us.
The raw difficulty of this makes it noteworthy when we see it in others. My friend grieving the loss of his son went beyond inviting me into his grief saga (“don’t go away in three months”), and quietly celebrated in my joy of becoming a new Dad. It was a small thing, but I noted when he added his “like” to my post on Facebook. It was an act of uncommon generosity, for a man in grief to rejoice with my rejoicing.
As a musician, I’ve always liked Colossians 3:23, which encourages us to “work at it with all your heart.” Seems practical. Practice my scales with all my heart. Mow my yard with all my heart. Teach my classes with all my heart. Yes, but heart is such a big word in the paradigm of the Old Testament, and the teaching of Jesus. It is much more than just giving 110% to the task at hand. Over and over, we are told to attend to matters of the heart, to live, love, and worship with a whole heart.
Perhaps this is the challenge of rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep. It can’t be done halfheartedly. Those I’m with will see right through it or, if they don’t, I will know that I’m a sham with my laughter or my tears. The problem with whole-heart living is we can’t parcel out the sorrows and the joys, the delights and the horrors. If I weep with my grieving friend I dare not hide my overflowing delight at little Sophia. If I rejoice with my newly promoted friend I dare not hide my sorrows over setbacks and losses along the way of my journey.
Only Jesus—Son of man, Son of God—was able to fully do this. To live with such an overflowing, constantly broken heart, that he could laugh aloud at Zacchaeus up in a tree, and days later weep over the city of Jerusalem.
Like all disciplines, this one is hard—impossible, really, without transformation, without the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ who somehow laughs and weeps, like my dear bride at the birth of a little seven-pound girl.