Our season of happy hurt and painful joy
Physicians draw on a repertoire of words to assess pain. They ask patients things like, "Is the pain sharp or dull?"
But how about this wording? Have you ever heard a doctor ask, "Have you been experiencing the ache of saudade?"
Saudade is not an everyday word. It’s from Portuguese and tough to translate into English. Saudade expresses the pain of missing someone or something, even while delighting in the memory itself. It expresses being sad and happy, all in one. Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo famously defines saudade as "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy."
I call it happy hurt or painful joy.
I was excited to discover the word. (You can tell how eventful my life is by this confession.) It describes so well that weird sense when we simultaneously feel sadness, even pain, for something we’ve lost, but happiness for having known it in the first place.
Recalling his feelings about a toy garden he had as a child, C. S. Lewis opted for another word, Sehnsucht, to describe "the inconsolable longing in the heart for we know not what." Sehnsucht pinpointed for Lewis a kind of commingling of sadness and joy, a sense of happiness immediately invaded by loss or want.
Neither saudade nor Sehnsucht are explicitly biblical words, but they both describe feelings we can expect as Christians. Living through a pandemic may bring out these feelings, but they’re also a common part of our walk with Jesus – we rejoice to know Him, but we’re sad we’re still away from Him.
Some of us have been trained, badgered even, to speak of Christian faith as those who are "happy all the day," as one famous hymn puts it. If we are feeling pain, well then, we must be lacking in faith or failing to experience the joy Jesus gives.
Others of us have had a kind of worm theology drilled into us that constantly reminds us we are nothing but scoundrels who do not deserve the good graces of God. Worm theologians say if we aren’t constantly experiencing the pain of our sin, we must be deceived about the dark state of our hearts.
Frankly, both stances are impossible to live out and are theologically misguided.
Christians can expect regularly to experience either saudade or sehnsucht. We can expect to feel the pain of a broken world, broken bodies, ruined relationships and devastated dreams. In this ongoing Covid-19 crisis, we are likely feeling brokenness more than ever.
But we should not resist or be ashamed to feel a fleeting sense of joy and happiness, even elation, in the midst of our brokenness and pain.
Imagine the mixed emotions of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus – elated to see Jesus alive again and then saddened when He left so quickly. And remember what James writes at the beginning of his letter. "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance."
If ever we have been asked to persevere here in Canada, it is now. But joy and trial are hard to reconcile in our minds. How can they go together?
Honestly, I don’t know. But according to Scripture they can. And it doesn’t help to deny one for the sake of the other. We don’t have to deny the pain we feel at the loss of a loved one, a spiritual opportunity or a relationship. And we can still catch a joyful glimpse of the face of our Saviour in the midst of it all.
Right now, so much of what we have hoped for is deferred. How many events, weddings, family gatherings, camping trips, camps, ministry opportunities and even funerals have had to be put off or cancelled altogether? In these shadowy times we have plenty of material to help us practise lament. And we should.
Times of lament offer an opportunity to gain emotional, spiritual and intellectual clarity about what it is that truly gives us joy. Guile and pretension are stripped away. We can see more clearly – spiritually and emotionally – like the two on the road to Emmaus.
Now we see only faintly and temporarily. In the midst of pain and sadness, we can joyfully know the one in whom we have believed. We can be confident He is able to guard what we’ve entrusted to Him – our very bodies and souls.
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.