The Danger of Light and Joy
When reading of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, there is one section that catches me almost every time: Gimli’s thoughts on leaving Lothlorian.
Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Glóin!1
Light and joy: the two things we least expect to bring grief. There is a reason that weddings and picnics are associated with the bright sunshiny days while funerals huddle with the overcast and rainy ones. Eeyore doesn’t walk around with a white puffy cloud overhead. It’s a raincloud that follows him around. There’s a reason for these mental (and animated) pictures: they embody what we go through when dealing with these emotions.
This being the case, it’s always a shock when we find that the bright and happy portions of our life come back to hurt us. As I say this, I realize that there are two distinctions we need to make here. First, we should note that we are referring to actually good things, rather than the deception of sin which is pleasurable for a season. Second, there is a sense in which all good things cause pain. As a personal example, my grandmother passed away a good seven years ago. For most of my life, she had lived a short fifteen minutes away, giving her and my grandfather the opportunity to be around for birthday celebrations, family trips, running us to piano lessons, babysitting, and the other things that come up in day-to-day life. So, while everyone has a special place in their heart for their grandmother, my special place was reinforced by a life of living with her. This makes losing her all the more painful.2 At the same time, this was an expected grief. While we thought that we were going to have several more years with her, we all know that death is part of our lives. This being the case, we lay the blame for our loss on the darkness of death rather than the brightness of life. There are other times though, where the loss seems to be more the fault of the brightness itself. Leaving good friends, changing seasons, the end of a good book . . . none of these are, in and of themselves, the result of the evil and malicious forces in the world. They are just natural endings. They still bring loss though. We are left poorer.
One of the questions that naturally follows, asks whether this diminishing is a good or bad thing, and, how should we respond to it? Lewis’ sermon The Weight of Glory provides direction: “The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers.”3 Following Lewis’ lead, we might answer our first question, is the diminishing good or bad, with yes. Notice the thought, “These things . . . are good images . . .”. Conveyed here is the same thought ringing through Hopkins’ “The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .”4. It also runs alongside of the thought from James: “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).5 God is the origin of all good things. Further, in their own ways, all good things reflect God.6
This helps highlight why the natural diminishing of good things in our lives is both good and bad. On the one hand, it underscores that we are losing a tangible good. Conversely, those goods derive their goodness from a higher source. Their loss provides us an impetus to seek for the lasting source of all goodness. Which, as we consider it, is the answer to our second question. We should respond to the loss of temporal goods by seeking out their source. The good things in our lives ultimately follow the path of John: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
You are now forewarned. The good things in life will bring you pain. This pain, though, is a good thing. It’s the sign that you’ve seen a small picture of who God is. Don’t let your heart be captured by the image, though. Push on to the Author of all, whose “beauty is past change.”7
What are some of the signs that a good in your life is starting to become an idol?
What can we do to avoid idolizing the good things in our lives?
2. The use of the present tense is intentional. It’s been about a year or so that I’ve been able to think about my grandmother without a real sense of grief and loss. Even now, though, there are times that I discover a pocket of grief that hadn’t been uncovered and experienced yet. I mention all this only as an encouragement to my readers who are still experiencing grief. It’s real and it takes time to complete the grieving process. Don’t feel guilty because it hasn’t evaporated over the course of a month or two.
3. Lewis, C.S. “The Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 30-31.
4. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “God’s Grandeur” in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 66.
5. Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
6. Or, in Hopkins’ much more beautiful words, “For Christ plays in ten thousand faces . . .” (as found in the twelfth line of his poem beginning “As kingfishers catch fire . . .”).
7. Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “Pied Beauty” in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), 70.
Photo courtesy of Jean-Pierre Brungs