The BitterSweet Life is a phenomenon that discerning people have been remarking on for centuries. In recent history, it’s been dealt with by the likes of John Piper, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (a first-rate theologian, by the way, presenting “theology” the same way Christ did, through story). However, life’s bittersweetness doesn’t always garner a lot of discussion on the popular level, which is unfortunate, because a “bittersweet” approach helps us discover a coherent worldview and realistic life expectations. And these are both nice assets. But the most prized riches of the bittersweet life are mysterious spiritual tuggings—labeled, often superficially, as joy, longing, hope, love—and in the end, CHRIST himself.
For me, bittersweetness materialized one day as I was trying to get an understanding of how my life could be so screwed up—and still there were these sudden moments of joy, lodged in my soul like glowing splinters. Why did they coexist? The conditions of my life have been somewhat adverse (all lives are this way), but Beauty inexorably asserted itself, even when conditions seemed darkest. Why? In my mind and heart, the reality of bittersweetness began to coalesce. I realized that life is nuanced, and we ignore the nuances at our peril.
The truth about life on earth, most of us would acknowledge, is something like this: the world will never be a utopia, as expressed with considerable pathos by U2’s Bono:
Jesus, in this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on Earth
But neither is life the nihilistic hell or unrelenting Golgotha that some make it out to be. We all catch glimpses of truth and beauty, enough to keep us going. The problem is that whatever we know, in practice we tend to perform a shaky balancing act between two extremes: ecstasy and discouragement—as if life has to be one OR the other.
Increasingly, our cultural expectation is one of dysfunction: Love lets you down, relationships fail, everyone has hidden wounds and addiction is the answer for everything. In a sad parallel, many Christians live out a kind of dogged stoicism, as if sin is a lifelong nemesis they can never escape. I keep stumbling across people—Christian artists (i.e. Pedro the Lion), my own friends, and occasionally myself (gasp)—who seem to have imposed the old Blues impulse onto our faith: Life is dark, the edges jagged. (The church has failed, community is nonexistent, sin always gets the last laugh…) So let’s take a good long look at this mess. (Oh, too long, too long. Quick, drink up!) If life’s as bad as all that, why not go Buddhist and enter some state of comatose detachment?
On the other hand, life is not as blissful as most praise and worship songs would lead us to believe. Dogged positivism can be almost as harmful as dogged stoicism. The casualties of “positive thinking” and the prosperity gospel are still staggering around our churches. What went wrong? Did I not think hard enough? Did I not pray hard enough? Why am I not being blessed? In essence, such naiveté is plain old pagan existentialism on Prozac. (Existence precedes essence; so I am what I do; so if I think positive thoughts, believe God for good stuff, my life will be rosy.) Where exactly in the gospels did Jesus say that his disciples would get the sexiest girls and the sleekest rides? (This is what I was taught by one learned preacher, I kid you not.)
The crux of all this is that life is filled with both joy and pain. Obvious, right? “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” as put by one pioneer of bittersweetness. It’s not either/or. It’s both/and. But the joy and pain come rarely in isolation—they’re intermingled, crushed together, like a seed decaying to grow, like myrrh broken for fragrance, like the cross. And it’s here that we get hung up.
We all have moments where our hearts seem razed to the ground, left a smouldering ruin. And we’re each given moments of beauty and elation, when God's in his heaven, all’s right with the world. Funny thing about being human, we gravitate to these two extremes. What about the other times…the stuff in the middle, the bittersweet times? They get lost in the shuffle, usually lumped in with all the days that were born to be forgotten. But we tend to paint with too broad a brush, and life is neither as dark as we imagine it in our moments of tragedy or as perfect as we conceive it in our moments of ecstasy. Both pain and joy, “good” and “evil,” as Job would say, are from God. But they run together.
One more thing: The great news about this BitterSweet Life perspective is that the “bitter” is temporary, while the “sweet” wins out. The bitter is transient, the sweet, final. As Jesus said,
“I have told you these things so that you’ll have peace. In the world you will have suffering, but I have overcome the world.” - John 16:33.
We don't yet see things clearly. We're squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won't be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We'll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us! – 1 Corinthians 13:12 (The Message)
Welcome to the BitterSweet Life. There’s plenty to explore.