Trembling Joy: Emotional Paradox in the Christian Life
For I’ve beheld with trembling joy the sight of Calvary’s Scarlet Rose,
For You have captured me. -Steve and Vikki Cook
We have all heard that the word “blessed” means “happy.” True enough. But the kind of happiness that “blessed” conveys is something that transcends the typical American definitions of happiness. It communicates a satisfaction and contentment that is firmly settled in the soul. It isn’t touched by the trivial. It communicates a sense of joy that more often than not is expressed by tears rather than laughter. It isn’t inspired by jokes.
Oftentimes in Scripture this kind of happiness or blessedness is strangely combined with emotions that we intuitively think are contrary or opposite. For instance, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). Even more striking is, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). Those who feel their own poverty, their own helplessness and moral and spiritual bankruptcy are in a state of happiness. Those who mourn over their sins are in a state of contentment and peace. Strange? Not really. What these paradoxes demonstrate is that there is joy that Christians experience when they embrace reality and truth about God and themselves.
Job experienced something like this. After besmirching God’s character time after time, Job is finally confronted by God in Job 38. God gently rebukes His servant: “Who is this who darkens counsel?” (Once God is done with Job in His two speeches, Job repents 42:2-6). Job, in the words of Francis Anderson, “is at once delighted and ashamed.” Here he is, contrite, humbled and yet he is awestruck with things too wonderful for him to understand (42:3). He loathes himself but is overwhelmed with God (42:5-6). After all his suffering, all his misery, Job is both joyfully in awe and mournfully contrite. This sounds like “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and “Blessed are those who mourn.”
In the final chapter of Isaiah we are told that God looks with favor on those who are humble and contrite in spirit and who tremble at His Word (Isa. 66:2b). The one who knows he has nothing to offer, who sees his own sin and that he really needs help, this is the one God looks on with favor. The next description is he trembles at God’s Word. He who sees the awful majesty of God in the Word and his own sin in light of that majesty, the one who is cut deeply, wounded and humbled under the Word, this is the one to whom God says, “I am pleased with you.”
The Word comes to each of us and there is either pride that sits over the Word with a critical spirit, or there is humility and brokenness that responds with contrition and trembling. The broken, contrite trembler is described by Jesus as poor in spirit and mourning and hungering and thirsting for righteousness. What is his ultimate condition? Blessed! Truly happy.
The one who trembles at the Word joyfully finds refuge in Christ. To be humbled and trembling is incredibly sweet. There should be no place we would rather be than flat on our face before a holy God, trembling at His majestic Word and realizing that in that Word we do hope and in that Word is our salvation and in that Word our righteousness is revealed in Jesus Christ. It is in this “unpleasant” position of trembling that we find the greatest joy.
B.B. Warfield knew of the paradox of joy and misery:
The attitude of the “miserable sinner” is not only not one of despair; it is not even one of depression; and not even one of hesitation or doubt; hope is too weak a word to apply to it.
It is an attitude of exultant joy.
Only this joy has its ground not in ourselves but in our Savior.
We are sinners and we know ourselves to be sinners, lost and helpless in ourselves.
But we are saved sinners; and it is our salvation which gives the tone to our life, a tone of joy which swells in exact proportion to the sense we have of our ill-desert; for it is he to whom much is forgiven who loves much, and who, loving, rejoices much.
(For Warfield's whole article, go here.)