Christian Hedonists embrace necessary sorrow for the glory of God. On the one hand, we are utterly committed to pursuing joy in God at all times. But on the other hand, we know there is more to the emotional life of godly people than joy. Joy is not the only good emotion. But without delight in God, no emotion would be good. Either as component or the concomitant of all godly emotions, it is joy in God that makes them good.
Consider sorrow. Neither Jesus nor the Holy Spirit has ever sinned. But both have grieved. Both have been sorrowful. Therefore, godly sorrow is possible. Not only that, godly sorrow is possible also for sinners. It is possible precisely because of our sin. One form of sorrow is sorrow for doing something wrong. So Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it. . . . I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:8-10)
At least two things govern what makes sorrow good. One is the cause, the other is the outcome. The cause of godly sorrow for our own sin is the spiritual perception of its moral ugliness, not just its negative consequences. We see it as morally repugnant. This repugnance is owing to our spiritual preference for the taste of the truth and beauty of God. Therefore our sorrow for sin is rooted in our savoring of God. Sin is a revolting flavor in the feast of godwardness. Therefore, sorrow over this is a signal that we delight in God. That is what makes the sorrow good.
The outcome of good sorrow for sin is repentance and holiness. In fact, repentance includes sorrow for sin and extends it to a more durable experience of holy living. This holy living is the outward form of delighting in God above all sin. Therefore delight in God is what makes the sorrow and repentance good.
But what about sorrow that is not for our own sin, but for the way we are sinned against or the way we are hurt by calamity and loss? Jesus sorrowed like this. For example, when he saw the Pharisees murmuring about his healing on the Sabbath, “He looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5). And in the garden of Gethsemane, he said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch” (Mark 14:34).
Jesus’ sorrow was not owing to his own sin, but to the sins of others. This is the way it is with the Holy Spirit as well. Paul calls us to put sin out of our lives so that we do not grieve the Spirit: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Eph 4:29-30).
In the same way believers embrace godly grief not only for our own sins but for the sins of others and for the pain that loss brings us. For example, Peter speaks of our grieving over trials: “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, as was necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Pet 1:6). Paul speaks of our grieving over lost loved ones: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:13). And Paul refers to his own grief over the lostness of his kinsmen: “My conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart (Rom 9:1).
Nevertheless Paul makes the astonishing statement in 2 Cor 6:10 that what marks his life and should mark ours is “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” This is what makes our sorrow godly. I do not claim that this experience is simple or that we can even put it into adequate words—what it means to be joyful in sorrow. Heaving sobs at the loss of a loved one does not look like joy. Indeed is not joy in its fullness, as we will know it when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
Rather the joy that endures through sorrow is the foretaste of that future joy in God which we hope for in the future. When Jesus was “very sorrowful, even to death” in Gethsemane he was sustained by “the joy that was set before him” (Heb 12:2). This does not mean that he felt in the garden or on the cross all that he would feel in the resurrection. But it does mean that he hoped in it and that this hope was an experienced foretaste of that joy.
Therefore, we groan here, waiting for the redemption of our bodies and for the removal of all our sins (Rom 8:23). This groaning and grieving is godly if it is molded by our delight in hope of glory (Rom 5:2-3). The delight is muffled by the pain, but it is there in seed form. It will one day grow into a great vine that yields wine of undiluted delight. So let us embrace whatever sorrow God appoints for us. Let us not be ashamed of tears. Let the promise that joy comes with the morning (Psa 30:5) sustain and shape our grief with the power and goodness of God.