Finding Joy Amid the Thorns: Embracing Celebration in Tough Times

As the holiday season approaches, we’re often wrapped in the warm embrace of joy, gratitude, and the spirit of giving. Yet, for many, this time also brings a stark reminder of personal trials and the world’s suffering, casting a shadow on the festivities. Recently, I faced a similar dichotomy, a blend of anticipation for the future and the sting of current realities, teaching me an invaluable lesson about the nature of joy and the power of celebration, even when it’s hard.

My journey to understanding began with a personal story. I was at work when a call from my fiancé, Billy, turned our world upside down. His voice, a quiet murmur over the phone, conveyed the news: his parents were denied visas to attend our wedding. Despite our best efforts, despite doing everything “the right way,” the joyous occasion would miss crucial guests. The news was a blow, not because of the legalities but because of the emotional void it created. Billy’s mother, who had welcomed me so warmly into her home in Guatemala, couldn’t be part of our happiness in my homeland.

This incident forced me to ponder a profound concept, especially as the holiday season looms: the essence of celebration amidst sorrow. Celebration, as noted by John Ortberg in his insightful book, “The Life You’ve Always Wanted,” isn’t just about throwing parties; it’s a spiritual discipline, an exercise in recognizing God’s simplest gifts and finding joy in them, even when our hearts are heavy.

The beauty of celebration, especially in Christian life, isn’t that it negates or ignores pain, but that it coexists with it, standing as a testament to resilience and God’s enduring faithfulness. Our wedding was a microcosm of this truth. We felt the absence of Billy’s parents, yet their blessings over a phone call became a part of our celebration, a small yet significant triumph of joy over disappointment.

But how does one practice this joy, especially when confronted with the overwhelming injustices of the world? When faced with the harsh realities of racism, poverty, and global suffering, it’s easy to feel suffocated. Yet, it’s crucial to remember that this suffering is not new, and there are countless before us who have navigated these treacherous waters with grace, faith, and an unyielding spirit of celebration.

Often, we think of those living through severe trials as lessons in contentment, reminding ourselves to be grateful because others “have it worse.” But this view limits the profound wisdom they offer. These individuals teach us not just contentment, but hope, dignity, resilience, and the ability to celebrate life even in the darkest times. They show us the face of God’s faithfulness even when circumstances could easily have hardened their hearts.

Our communities and churches, often divided by invisible yet consequential barriers of race, culture, and socioeconomic differences, miss the profound lessons of shared experiences. The body of Christ is not complete if we continue in isolation. Those who’ve faced the deepest suffering often hold the key to the most profound joy, showing us how to truly celebrate and worship, not despite their circumstances, but because of the strength and hope these circumstances have birthed.

Indeed, there is a time for mourning, for standing against injustice, and for fighting the good fight of faith. But these seasons of hardship should not and cannot steal our capacity for joy. In our own wedding, the ache of absence coexisted with the beauty of celebration. It’s a lesson for all of us, especially as we enter a season known for its joyous spirit.

The lesson here is not to avoid or downplay suffering but to learn from it, to let it enrich our understanding of joy, and to allow it to deepen our celebrations. Those who’ve walked the toughest roads often understand best what it means to be truly blessed and can teach us all how to hope, how to fight, and most importantly, how to wholeheartedly celebrate every victory, big or small.