I’ve been reviewing some of my favorite Biblical sentences—viewing them as measures for myself. The words astound me but my response to them leaves me staggered. At my best, I fulfill half of what they ask.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Words that Jesus utters in his answer to a question about which commandment is the greatest. I consider my neighbors with a Christ-like curiosity. No strangers here, only fascinating creatures. All come bearing worth, and all deserve affection. Mustering up equal love for myself, or treating the man in the mirror with a similar measure of charity, feels nearly impossible.
“Lean not on your own understanding”
I approach Proverbs 3:5 in reverse.I know my limitations too well. The end of my understanding inevitably tumbles down, passing through my fingers like a length of untethered rope. But devote all four chambers of my heart to the Lord? Why, I want to keep a little bit of soul back for myself.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep”
Romans 12:15 leaves me most often exposed. Beautiful and symmetrical—two revolutionary clauses separated and united by a semicolon—the verse wraps its words around life’s necessary tension. And, time after time, I fail to feel my way to or through that blessed balance.
Ask me to sit with black-clad mourners, to weep with those whose knees buckle. I know where to go, how to hold my body, what to say—even better, what not to say. I stay up and keep watch, pouring all the right drinks, cuing up the records that keep them from feeling alone.
But sharing in someone else’s joy proves an overwhelming request, alien even. Sit me down before someone revealing a pregnancy, touting their child’s success, announcing their book deal. Something like bliss circulates through my system for eight or nine seconds. But I never count ten before the feeling curdles. A hint of acid coats my tongue, and I swallow it down. No doubt, the true overflow of my heart.
As I evaluate the words I love, the surge of bitter and sweet passes, and the words of Jesus, Solomon, and Paul rush back in. Whispers fill my ears with questions in name only; they land their boxer’s blows with all the weight of accusation. Am I only halfway holy? Am I half alive? Something must be seriously wrong with a soul that feels more at home in sorrow than shared delight, who loves neighbor but struggles to love self, who questions their understanding but still leaves space for it.
My rusted-out rejoicing casts doubt upon my mourning. Perhaps my ability to empathize, to sense the shudders of another person like some sort of twin language, derives not from Christlikeness but from mere biology and psychology.
The evidence adds up. My spirit bends toward lament; the Enneagram numbers me with the fours. Maybe this is simply my natural state. Maybe the old man inside me still rules, bellying up to the bar, ordering anxiety as a shot, jealousy as its chaser. Some days, my Lord, I cannot tell where your work of creation in me ends and your work of recreation begins.
Slowing my mind, I remember that incremental growth still counts as growth. Closeness to Christ yields something, anything, never nothing. Reaching out to touch the hem of his robe, my fingers brush up against Proverbs 3. If I trust him enough to heal, I trust him enough to hear him out.
Fighting to concentrate, forcing myself to listen, he defines every word in the sentence that is Romans 12:15. The way he pieces all these pieces together knocks down my defenses, built upon what I thought I knew. He bids me come and rip up all the pages I’ve written, to throw out my half-finished sketches of mourning and rejoicing.
Left to myself, I experience sorrow like an ocean. Big enough to share, big enough to drown us all. The water always roars its return, doubling over on itself. Joy seems more like taking a number in a bakery. First-come, first serve. Show up a few minutes late, and you better resign yourself to picking through mealy loaves in the day-old bin. The scarcity scares me, as does the noisy rumbling of my stomach.
But Jesus rejects my notions of supply and demand. Both joy and sorrow are a feast—he swears it’s true, and I start to believe it. Giving thanks for this life, broken as it is, means enough mourning to go around. Gaining eyes to see the gap close between heaven and earth cultivates a taste for joy.
Laying down the place settings, he sweeps my notions off the table. He tells me no in a way that sounds like yes. No more zero-sum games that no one wins. No more assumptions about the way he doles out good gifts. No more apologizing for mourning; no more avoiding the dimensions of joy—long and wide, deep and high as it is.
These worries over half alive and half holy spring from category errors. There is only less and more. To come alive means more mourning and more rejoicing to come, until all bleeds together as praise. Where I live up to half of the Scripture’s language, my need for him only grows. The object of my faith, the subject of every sentence, he works on and in us till we see these words fulfilled.
My ability to know and swim in sorrow will one day give way to a capacity for joy I cannot now imagine. Everything beautiful in this life and the next will fill my heart, and I won’t owe the feeling to my nature or whatever spiritual growth I accrue. Ultimate joy stems from the one who knows my inner monologue, and promises to punctuate those words with himself.