Have you ever heard the news about something good happening to a friend of yours– an engagement, a new job or promotion, an exciting vacation, a pregnancy–and rather than being excited and celebrating with her, you found yourself comparing successes, counting personal victories, saddened that you weren’t in the same position, or generally wanting what she has? It seems pretty common, and unfortunately, it was my mindset this week. It is an ugly place to be. Comparison, competition, envy, self-condemnation. Not much love for a sister. Not much willingness to be for her. Not much thinking about anyone but myself.
Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Ironically, this has been a verse that I have championed throughout my time in ministry and in my friendships. I love this verse because it captures the nature of true Christian community. Christian friendships should be marked by the fullness of life– climbing into the pit of despair with one another and delighting together when there is good news. These relationships are for-each-other relationships. When my sister hurts, I hurt. When she rejoices, my heart is gladdened. Christian friendships bear the beauty mark of other-centeredness, and this other-centeredness is always the result of finding an identity that is not in what you have or accomplish or do.
The context of this command to weep and rejoice together in Romans 12 is worship, and Paul is arguing that worship is always a communal act. The place you present your body as a sacrifice is in relationships with real people in everyday life, this is the rational response to the gospel. Paul exhorts believers to celebrate their different giftings (12:3-8), to love one another genuinely and full with affection (12:9-10), to outdo one another in showing honor (12:10), to care for the needy, to show hospitality (12:13), and to live in harmony (12:16). Paul is nailing down that Christian worship happens in community, not just in personal time with God. So when you find yourself in my situation of not wanting to love your sister or brother genuinely and with affection (12:9-10) and celebrate their God-given gifts (12:4), you, and I, first and foremost have a worship problem.
Rejoicing with those who rejoice, worshipping the Lord together
When a good friend of mine got engaged, I was ecstatic. It was such an exciting time. But I remember after eating dinner together, talking through all the details of how he proposed and dreaming about a wedding, she turned to me and said, “Thank you for being excited with me.”
Rejoicing is an act of worship. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4). True rejoicing is always about God because every good and perfect thing comes from him (James 1:17). Rejoicing is worship because even when it’s about an engagement, we can praise God that he brought the couple together, we can praise him for his gift of marriage, we can praise him for the joy that he is giving. When my friend got engaged I didn’t pat her on the back and tell her good job for her accomplishment. No, we celebrated what God had done and was doing.
But imagine my friend hadn’t told me about her engagement (which would be weird). She would actually be preventing her friend from worshipping with her. She would be withholding the joy that God has given her and withholding an opportunity for her friend to see what God was doing. Sometimes we withhold because we think that another person won’t be able to see beyond themselves and rejoice on behalf of what God is doing. Sometimes we withhold because we feel like it is selfish to ask people to celebrate with us. But perhaps what is selfish is thinking that our successes are our own, and forgetting that God wants to bring himself glory through the good things he gives us. In gospel communities, we are able to rejoice with one another because our accomplishments, our good news, our victories are never really about us. They are always about what God is doing.
Suffering with those who suffer, being Christ to them
Just like rejoicing bears witness to what God is doing, sharing our suffering and weeping together is also a critical element of community and worship. My default for difficult things is to not talk about them. I would much rather walk around smiling like everything is fine than share about my pains and struggles. Fortunately, my husband is the exact opposite, and he is slowly breaking me of my bad habit. When something hard happens he reaches out to family, friends, and co-workers asking for prayer, asking for meals, asking for people to be in this with us. He understands gospel community better than I do.
Several years ago I suffered an ectopic pregnancy. My husband at the time was leading a mission trip in Ethiopia, so I found out the news alone with no way to contact him and it forced me to depend on my community. A friend drove me to the ER, sat with me while I decided on emergency surgery, or another method of terminating my non-viable pregnancy, stayed up all night while I got injections. Another drove me to follow-up appointments, another brought me food, another sat with me while I was sick in the aftermath of medications, another checked in every single day. I was weeping and my community showed up to weep with me.
When we don’t share our hardships we prevent the body from serving us, from being able to be Christ to us, and from being able to worship by cooking meals and being present. Furthermore, not letting community into the deep furrows of sorrow and despair prevents them from ever rejoicing with you when the Lord uses your pain in ways only he can. It refuses the chance for others to see how God has provided for you, grown you, healed you, and even blessed you. God wants all his work and his glory to be on full display. Eugene Peterson says that all prayers end in praise. All prayers, all weeping, all sorrow, will one day be turned into praise. So when we don’t let other people join us in our sorrow, we will keep them from ever praising God for the work he has chosen to do through it.
Those months of recovery after my ectopic were painful and dark, but they were the months I have felt the most loved and cared for by my church community. And more than that, they taught me how to suffer with others. I know most of us fear that we will burden people with our problems or pain. The reality is, we are also called to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). It is part of our practical worship of God. Jesus bore our burdens for us, and bearing others burdens is one way we grow in imitating Him. The beautiful thing is that when we love someone in their pain and suffering, they get a taste of gospel community and will want to extend it to others. When we weep with those who weep, we participate in the work of Christ, our suffering King who wept with his friends.
Hebrews 12:2 says that it was for the joy set before him that Christ endured the suffering of the cross. It was the joy of knowing that his people would be freed to love others more deeply than themselves that led Jesus to suffer. It was the joy of knowing that his Spirit would empower his people to worship him rightly that led Jesus to the cross. And it was the joy of knowing that one day He would wipe every tear and rejoice with his people in perfect worship at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev. 21:4). But until then, it is for the joy set before us, that we might be conformed into his image, that we might weep with those who weep, and rejoice with those who rejoice for the glory and worship of our good king.