Rejoice with Those Who Rejoice: When “Sensitivity” Robs us of Holy Celebration

Recently a Facebook friend of mine announced her pregnancy online. Like many similar Facebook announcements, this one was accompanied by a picture of teensy baby shoes and a due date, but the thing that stood out was a comment she made after the announcement. She explained that following this announcement, she wouldn’t be posting pictures and pregnancy updates on Facebook out of sensitivity to friends who were struggling with infertility, miscarriage, or who were single but longing for a family.  rejoice

My initial reaction to this was, “That’s incredibly thoughtful.” There are many people for whom social media has become an overwhelming bombardment of people who all seem to have the things they most desperately desire. In particular, I have heard from women struggling to get pregnant or who have experienced miscarriages who find the pain of getting on Facebook and reading other people’s pregnancy announcements and updates unbearable at times.

At first I was touched by this woman’s sensitivity – that even in a moment of great personal joy she would be thinking of others. I thought, “I want to be a woman who loves others like that.” But then I started to wonder – how far do we take this kind of sensitivity? Will the pain of those struggling with infertility go away once that baby is born? Unfortunately, probably not. Will that mean this woman is then obligated not to post pictures of her newborn or of her children as they grow? Is there a point at which well-intentioned sensitivity to others robs us of the experience of holy celebration?

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I’m not criticizing this woman and her decision. In fact, I deeply respect her decision and admire her thoughtfulness. I don’t know her situation – she may have specific friends or family members in mind whom she is loving truly and well through these actions. The only reason I bring up her announcement is because it served as a catalyst for me to think about two different issues. First, what is the balance between celebration and sensitivity? And second, what is the role of social media and other public platforms in our celebrations?

Today I’m going to focus on that first question. I’ll address the second one in my next post.

A few months ago Christianity Today published an article by D.L. Mayfield about whether or not Christians should drink alcohol. Her major argument was that out of solidarity with those who struggle with alcoholism, Christians should abstain. Christians should follow the Apostle Paul’s direction in Romans 14:21 “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” She calls out a trend among young, hipster Christians to use alcohol as a symbol of our liberation from fundamentalist traditions and calls for greater compassion towards those trapped in alcoholism by refusing to celebrate something that holds many in bondage.

Some of her points really resonated with me, but I also felt myself pushing back a little. Not so much with the alcohol issue*, but with the way I’ve seen people adopt this attitude – compassion and sensitivity towards those who struggle with something – as a primary value in their lives. If sensitivity and compassion are our primary values then we have to abstain from celebrating anything that might cause someone else pain or discomfort. This would mean not posting a picture of a great meal because someone might be struggling with their weight (or in solidarity with the many people who don’t have enough food). Or not celebrating a promotion at work because someone might not have a job. Or not posting a picture of your first home because others can’t afford one. Or not celebrating getting your PhD because others failed out of college.

There will always be people struggling. There will always be someone who doesn’t have what you have. There will always be someone who is triggered or tempted by something that is an innocent pleasure for you. If you have a relationship with someone and part of loving them is being sensitive to their vulnerabilities, then by all means, show love and grace by avoiding alcohol or by not emailing them your ultrasound pictures, or not bringing up how well you did on your SATs. We are called to love others more than we love ourselves and this may be part of how we love well. But if your motivation is a general concern that you might maybe offend someone or that someone might be hurt that you are experiencing something great and they aren’t, then I think you are robbing yourself of holy celebration.

It’s true, the Bible says to “Mourn with those who mourn,” but FIRST it says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice.” (Rom. 12:15) I think there is something important about sharing our joy with others – about celebrating God’s goodness in community. I think there is a way for us to rejoice, to celebrate, with both joy and compassion.

I don’t have this figured out, but I think one important part of this is our attitude when we share good news. Are we rejoicing in the unmerited gifts of God, or are we boasting? Do we celebrate with gratitude or do we take for granted blessings that others may not be experiencing? I think it’s much more problematic when we ignore or even complain about the blessings we have than it is when we celebrate the gifts in our lives.

For example, I don’t think it’s wrong to rejoice in a pregnancy on Facebook, but it might be wrong to complain about morning sickness or about how huge your stomach is on Facebook when there are many women reading that who would give anything to be feeling those things. Or here’s an example from my own life. Once I was complaining to a single friend that the problem with us waiting to start a family was that there was no guarantee it would be easy when we felt ready and maybe by the time we were stable enough for kids I would be too old, etc. My friend very gently told me, “It really bothers me when you say things like that. I also want a family and worry about waiting too long, but I don’t have a husband like you do. If you are that worried about it, you could start trying at any time. I don’t even know for sure I’ll get the chance.” Ouch.

She was right and I was convicted of my insensitivity and ungratefulness. The problem in both of these examples is insensitivity, but it’s the result of taking for granted the blessings in our lives instead of viewing them as unearned, lavish gifts.

I’m still mulling this one over. How do we celebrate with compassion and love for those who aren’t celebrating? How do we enter into others’ pain and loss without denying ourselves these sacred celebrations? And on the other side of that, how do we rejoice with those who rejoice when we feel like mourning? I would love your thoughts.

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*I have close family members who are alcoholics. I admit that alcohol is a unique struggle in that, unlike greed or gluttony or a shopping addiction, alcohol has a large potential to physically hurt the alcoholic and other innocent people – drunk drivers, domestic abuse, neglect, etc. So while it isn’t “worse” than other sins or harmful behaviors, the consequences can be more serious and far-reaching. Additionally, the verse in Romans is talking about “not causing a brother to stumble”, not “not causing a brother to be uncomfortable or jealous” and I recognize the distinction.

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12 comments

  1. I really like this post, it’s a hot topic and one that a lot of people struggle with. My grandparents, for example, avoid alcohol because someone might see them, and it could ruin their reputation. To that, I’m like … what?? If someone else judges you with their legalistic mindset, it’s their problem. Like the young hipsters you mentioned, I have definitely been part of a crowd that uses alcohol as a liberation symbol. And I like that a lot, because it’s a comfort and reminder to me and my closest friends that we don’t have to live in fear and dread of legalism anymore.

    On the other hand, my husband and I were surprised to learn that our new church uses grape juice for the Lord’s supper, instead of wine, like our little hipster reformed Presbyterian/Lutheran selves are used to. Turns out, one of the elders was an alcoholic. It was the first time I had seen that reason used where was actually needed! It humbled me, and I think the sensitivity there is appropriate.

    I think we all just need to use common sense and compassion in our individual situations. If my closest friend cannot have children, she probably shouldn’t be the first person I call when I want to complain about pregnancy troubles. Posting about it on Facebook, though, which is nothing more (to me) than a bulletin board to save me from forgetting someone on my list of people to call, doesn’t seem inappropriate.

    Here’s another example that I find troubling, maybe you have an opinion it: wedding and baby showers. I had a wonderful wedding shower, and loved every minute of it. After being married and living from paycheck to paycheck as students and immigrants, though, we just don’t have much to give for special occasions right now. If I were invited to a shower, I doubt I could afford anything on the registry list (especially those of my deep south friends who are all daddy’s princess, and registered at Pottery Barn and Anthropologie). It has made me consider not hosting gift-giving showers in the future, because I know how embarrassing it is to not be able to afford a nice gift when you show up at one of these parties. I would hate for one of my friends to be in the position I am in right now, and feel like they need to make a sacrifice, or make up an excuse not to come, all because I am asking them spend money on me. I don’t judge the concept — community pulling together to help out during a life event — what a blessing for those who are struggling to make ends meet! But, yeah. It can turn into a socialite thing, and girls can begin asking for lots of *wants* instead of *needs,* and make it “her special day” to a degree that goes too far.

    Wow, this is a long comment xD

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    1. Hey Anna, thanks for your comment! I really liked what you said about Facebook being more like a bulletin board than a main way of connecting with people. My next post is kind of about that.

      As far as your example of baby and wedding showers goes, I definitely get what you’re saying. It’s a tough balance because you want the recipient to be able to blessed in a way that could be really helpful and meaningful for them, but you don’t want guests to feel obligated to give something they aren’t really able to afford or to feel bad about giving what they can afford. In those situations I think a good practical solution is to have everyone contribute cash to a card that is given from everyone. Like, tell everyone to bring in cash whatever they want to contribute and then have an envelope for people to put it in discreetly and give to the bride or new mother after the shower. That way nobody knows who contributed what and the woman can put the money towards what they need most. It’s not as fun as opening gifts, but it does help with that situation. Then if someone can only afford to give $5 they can give $5 and not feel judged. (Not that anyone should judge people for things like that, but that’s another story).

      I also agree that many brides/new mothers, etc could do with some sensitivity when it comes to the things they are asking for or what their expectations are. I feel more strongly about this in the case of brides who have really extravagant expectations for showers and bachelorette parties, etc. I know many women who have been so stressed by being bridesmaids in a wedding where the bride had no regard for what they could afford or what was practical for them. Expensive dress, expensive shoes, hair, make-up nails, a weekend-long bachelorette party where everyone splits the bill for everything evenly, etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately our culture promotes an attitude of entitlement about these things that is just sad. 😦

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  2. Wow! Such a great post and something I struggle with all. the. time. When we were looking for a place to rent back in June, we found out we didn’t get this one place we LOVED at the very moment we were driving to the new condo that our friends just closed on. We were genuinely happy for them, but we cried in the car on the way there. We put on a good face for them and didn’t mention what happened once we got to their new home and just celebrated with them. This was so hard for me, not because I couldn’t be happy for them in my sadness, but because i felt so ridiculous trying to hide my bad news so that it wouldn’t take away from their happy day. I kinda felt fake.

    Ironically, that same couple got married 2 weeks ago on the exact day that my grandpa died. I rejoiced with them, cried the whole ceremony (a mix of happy and sad tears) and felt horrible because I didn’t want to ruin their happy day with my sad news, but I was so raw and his death was so fresh, I felt like it was un-human not to also be sad or to feel free to shed a few tears. And that’s where my battle lies. How do we lead authentic lives, fully feeling both the sorrow and the happiness while being sensitive, yet not diminishing or minimizing our experience?

    These are 2 examples on the other end of the spectrum… being the one who is mourning and not feeling like you can fully mourn or be open and honest because you don’t want to ruin someone else’s happy occasion. I don’t have any answers or tips on how to be more sensitive or compassionate. But I fell like we’ll never escape the fact that when we have joyful news, or an awesome thing happens, there will always, always, always be someone who is mourning the opposite. What does sensitivity look like? I don’t know, but not posting stuff or sharing exciting news doesn’t sound like the full and abundant life that we have in Christ.

    Also, I know that when I’m on the mourning side, I sometimes get mad at my friends when they feel bad and don’t want to tell me their good news and vice versa. I want to have friendships and relationships where we’re open and honest and feel free to share the good and bad while being sensitive of others, but also being free to FULLY feel all the feelings.

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    1. Man, I SO get this. Thinking of it from the other side, it can be SO HARD to rejoice with people when you are heartbroken or disappointed. And I want to be sensitive to other people when I’m sharing good news. But, just like you said, I also feel awful when I find out someone didn’t share their good news with me because they were afraid it would make me jealous or sad or whatever.

      Before we moved to Korea we had been saving for a whole year to go on vacation (as you know, traveling is what I live for) and as it got closer and closer to the summer we kept having to pay to fix our cars and dumb stuff like that and it became clear that we really just didn’t have enough money for vacation. I was devastated. At the time, we were hoping to do Korea, but it wasn’t a sure thing and I felt like I had been working so hard all year with this reward in mind and now it just wasn’t going to work at all.

      Right at the time we decided no vacation, one of my friends went on this amazing trip to Ireland. She came back and wanted to tell me all about it. And I was terrible about it. I didn’t complain or anything, but I just very obviously wasn’t asking her questions or asking to see her photos or hear her stories. I was kind of just like, “That’s nice,” whenever she mentioned something about it. Just doing a very, very bad job of sharing her joy.

      And she called me out on it too. She pointed out that I have had lots of experiences that she would love to have and that she’d never been anything but happy and interested and that she deserved the same from me. (Man, I’m just telling all of my “How I’m a crap friend” stories lately). And of course, she was right.

      Like you said, it’s hard not to feel fake when you feel one way and have to sort of put that aside in order to be happy for someone else. It goes against my idea of authenticity, which is one of my highest values. But I also think it is something we are called to do. Not be fake, but be able to enter into other people’s joy. And I guess it requires the ability to be ambivalent – to be true to two opposing feelings at the same time. And that’s so hard!

      Knowing how it feels from that end really makes me want to be thoughtful about who I share things with and when and the kind of attitude I have about it. I think sharing these things (good and bad) is important. But not with everyone all the time.

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  3. I think you wrote a very balanced post. We do need to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. I think compassion is a non-negotiable. And selflessness. Where exactly that falls in weeping/rejoicing very much needs to be evaluated from situation to situation.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts! I think HOW we share things and WHO we choose to share them with are important. As you said, we need to evaluate from situation to situation. I guess the key is being mindful of the need to do that and checking ourselves before we blast our news all over a public forum where it might not need to be.

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  4. Such a great post! Something I’ve thought about as well– I love the idea of not robbing ourselves of celebration (not flaunting it, but truly celebrating). In terms of when you don’t feel like celebrating with someone, and that tension between authenticity and trying to rejoice with others, something I learned from my church in college (which was predominantly African-American, I don’t know if their heritage of suffering has something to do with this) but they were just so, so good at both! Every service had lament AND celebration. And they emphasized how the celebration was a choice, and the celebration came after the lament, so it wasn’t fake. The only way I can describe it is by giving an example of the type of prayer they would pray at the start of the service:, “Oh God, we’re tired. Oh God, we’ve fought racism this week. Oh God, we’ve faced bad health, we’ve faced people gossiping, we’ve faced losing our jobs, we’ve faced the death of loved ones. And God we are tired. We are weary. But YOU are never ending. YOU never get tired. YOU are the source of life and joy and hope, and so we come to you God, with our tiredness and our sadness and our frustration and our pain and we declare that YOU are enough, and you turn our mourning into joy! So thank you for getting us out of bed this morning! Thank you for being a God who is enough! Thank you for being the God who provides! Thank you for being the God who is a shelter in trouble. And today we chose to praise. We chose to give our all in worship to you , because you are worthy!” (enter awesome music and Jesus party). So yeah– just kind of having both together– which is hard and I haven’t seen it done well (either on a personal level or corporate worship level) very often.

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    1. I love those prayers from your church! They remind me so much of some of the Psalms where David is sharing a heartfelt lament and is really distraught, but then he finishes by affirming the goodness and faithfulness of God I think the Psalms are some of the best examples of what it looks like to mourn and rejoice genuinely in the same circumstances. Thanks for reading!

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  5. Lily, thanks for your words here! It is such a tough balance between truly sharing good news and celebrating vs. flaunting or coming off as insensitive.

    While curbing our joy can be good (especially when there are those close to us who are struggling with that issue), it can also be somewhat inauthentic.

    Thanks for addressing this topic — it’s give me a lot to think about!

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Amber. I agree that it can feel inauthentic sometimes to curb our joy (or our sorrow for that matter). One of the things I value most in myself and other people is authenticity – almost to a fault. But I do still think you can be authentic without being insensitive or “letting it all hang out.” As someone who has just a tiny sliver of a public voice, I have to admit that I can find that balance really difficult.

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