Romans 12:15 tells us to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep.” Obeying this command is listed as a mark of true faith, one that demonstrates care for Christian brothers and sisters. Indeed, the ability to empathize in each other’s joys and sorrows is key to health and longevity in any friendship. And nothing tanks a friendship faster than the absence of that ability.
What happens, though, when a friend’s joy is your sorrow? When the very thing that makes their heart burst is making yours break? How do you keep the rejoicing end of Romans 12:15 with sincerity?
I’ve entered into a season when my dearest friendships are full of these opposing concurrences. And I’m aware of the tension between desiring not to dampen their joy while also not wanting to trivialize my own grief or behave in a disingenuous way. In an effort to relieve that tension in a way that honors both the Lord and the friendship, these are the steps I’ve found to be both necessary and affirming.
1. Rule out jealousy.
When faced with sorrow at a friend’s joy, first identify whether what you feel is truly sorrow or jealousy. Jealousy is sinful, and Scripture is clear about its destructive effects. Envy drove Rachel to loan out her marriage bed (Genesis 30). Proverbs ranks jealousy worse than wrath and warns that it will rot us from the inside out (Proverbs 27:4; 14:30). James cautions that where envy leads, only disorder and evil follow (James 3:16).
A good way to discern whether what you feel is jealousy or sorrow is to look at the feelings that arise in you. When you think about your friend and this joy they’re experiencing, what do you feel toward them? Is it anger? Do you feel you deserve this joy more than they do? Do you wish you had this joy instead of them? Do you resent them for having it?
If these are true for you, you are giving in to the deceit of jealousy. Confess your jealousy to the Lord, and pray for his help to overcome it. If instead what you feel is happiness and gratitude on behalf of your friend, but it stirs up sadness, grief, or longing in you, you are simply feeling the throb of sorrow.
2. Pray for their joy.
This might seem obvious, but intercede on behalf of your friends for their joy. Ask the Lord to grant their desires out of his goodness. Then when his answer is yes, you will share in the rejoicing because you shared in the praying. Genuine prayer leads to genuine praise…even when the Lord’s answer is yes to a friend, but no to you.
I recently experienced this when my friend shared the news of her pregnancy. I was thrilled for her. And while I felt this surge of gladness for my friend, a wave of sorrow swept over me, as I was reminded that I am without marriage and children. But the sorrow did not negate the joy I felt for her. I had been praying for a baby for my friend for some time. So when she told me she was pregnant, my gratitude to the Lord for his goodness to her let me rejoice with her.
Prior prayer enabled me to sincerely rejoice with my friend in the moment, and continued prayer will keep me rejoicing with her in the months and years to come. Romans 12:12 lays this out. Being constant in prayer is what enables us to rejoice in hope while being patient in tribulation (and sorrow).
3. Pour yourself into their joy.
When a friend’s joy stirs sorrow, the flesh will tempt us to draw away and turn inward. But Galatians 5:13 warns us against giving opportunity to the flesh, and instead calls us to serve one another through love.
A friend finds their dream home, and you’ve just lost yours. Help with the move. Pray for the home to be used for God’s glory as you pack boxes. When a friend announces the arrival of another child as you enter into another year of infertility, bring a meal and offer to babysit. Ask the Lord for opportunities to use your strengths and abilities to serve your friend in their joy.
When we serve, sowing care and joy into the life of a friend, we reap the same. This guards against jealousy, strengthens the friendship, and helps us see the Lord’s good purposes in times of sorrow.
4. Be glad and sad.
John Piper so aptly says, “Joy and sorrow in the Christian life are not sequential, but simultaneous. We are called to rejoice always, and yet sorrow breaks like waves over our lives.” We see this in God’s Word.
In Philippians 3:1, Paul commands God’s people to rejoice and then, just a few verses later, speaks of how he has suffered the “loss of all things.” He put out the call to rejoice in the midst of his sorrow. In 1 Peter 3:6, Peter says we can rejoice in our salvation even though we are grieved by various trials. And in Hebrews 12:2, we are told to look to Jesus who endured the cross for the joy set before him. Jesus experienced immeasurable joy in knowing his death would provide the ultimate joy of salvation for us. But in his death, he experienced immeasurable sorrow as he took on the sin of the world.
So we can be both glad and sad. We can rejoice with a friend while sorrow weighs on our hearts. We do this, fixing our joy in Christ with the promise he leaves in John 16:22: “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”