You’ve probably seen the viral videos featuring what is often called the Coffin Dance. A troupe of Ghanaian pallbearers, dressed in elaborate suits and wearing sunglasses, walk down the street, balancing a coffin on their shoulders and performing impressive dance moves to loud, upbeat music. And of course, since the internet is what it is, those videos spawned countless memes and compilation videos featuring the dancing pallbearers from Ghana.
What is it about this custom that caught the world by surprise? Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of death and joy. That’s the reaction I had when I first saw it. Who dances with a coffin on their shoulders? For that matter, dancing of any kind seems out of place at a funeral. Or does it? When I saw those pallbearers boldly celebrating life in the face of death, it felt right. It was honoring, powerful, even victorious.
According to BBC Africa, Benjamin Aidoo, the young man who started this troupe of dancing pallbearers, sees choreography as a way to honor the wishes of families who are paying their respects to a loved one.1 Funerals are an important part of Ghanaian culture, and a funeral dance adds a unique flair to the occasion. One woman who was interviewed said this about the pallbearers: “These people, when they are taking your beloved to their final resting place, they also dance, so I decided to give my mother a dancing trip to her maker.”
- Joy always laughs better, longer, and louder than death.
A “dancing trip to her maker.” What an awesome way to put it! It’s sad, for sure, because mourning a death is not an easy thing to walk through. But her decision to say goodbye to her loved one by organizing a dance party reveals a lot about her inner victory in the face of death.
It’s interesting that the Coffin Dance went viral during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was almost as if we were reminding ourselves (in a weird, dark kind of way) that death doesn’t get the last laugh. Joy does.
Joy Comes in the Morning
Even though pallbearers in our culture are generally more solemn (and less coordinated) than the Coffin Dance guys, I’ve still seen joy at many funerals. Actually at most funerals. Even in pain and sorrow, it is common to hear friends and family express joy. Often, when they get up to speak at the funeral, they laugh-cry-laugh their way through their words. When everyone meets up for the reception after the funeral, there are both tears and laughter as people remember the good times they had with the deceased.
Why is there joy? Because of the life the person led. The people they influenced. The family they raised. The friends they made. The memories they created. The love they shared. The sacrifices they made. The generosity they embodied. The legacy they left behind. The peace they now have in Heaven.
David wrote in Psalm 30:5,
Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.
Paul said something similar, which I referenced in the last chapter:
For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. — 2 Corinthians 4:17
Both David and Paul were able to look past the pain of the moment and see that something better was ahead.
Obviously, joy is not the first emotion you feel when death strikes. In the early aftermath of a loss, the pain is real, the hurt plunges deep, and the sorrow can feel all-consuming. Yes, weeping stays for the night — and often it’s a long, dark night indeed.
All nights come to an end, though. Even the longest, darkest, saddest nights. In due time the sun comes up, the light chases the darkness away, and hope rises again. When you are weeping in the night, it’s important to remember that morning is coming and joy is on its way.
Of course, you can’t force joy to appear any more than you can force the sun to rise. Solomon wrote that there is
a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. — Ecclesiastes 3:4
In other words, timing matters. Seasons come and go. Right now you might be weeping, and that’s okay — but take heart, you won’t weep forever. Today you could be mourning, but you’ll be dancing soon enough. Hopefully with the same level of style as our Ghanaian brothers.
You don’t need to force joy, but you should expect it. And when it comes, welcome it. Rest in it. Heal in it. Find strength in it.
Joy Gets the Last Laugh
Joy has a way of restoring your soul. There’s a story in the Bible about a time of mourning that Israel was experiencing over their failures and sins. Their grief was real and it had its place, but God didn’t want them to stay there forever. Nehemiah, their leader, told them,
Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. — Nehemiah 8:10
He wasn’t shutting down their sorrow in some dismissive, toxic way. Rather, he was telling them that it was time to let their grief turn into joy. They needed to put their past mistakes and losses behind them and turn toward the future God had for them.
I love that phrase, “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Joy has a unique capacity to bring us internal strength. I don’t mean fake, superficial joy but the kind of joy that comes from God. A joy that validates your weaknesses, losses, pain, or sorrow but also looks beyond them and sees the presence and power and peace of God.
Like dancing with coffins, finding joy in sorrow can seem like an odd juxtaposition. But there is power in that joy. There is freedom and triumph in being able to acknowledge death without being consumed by it.
This joy doesn’t ignore your circumstances, but it does exist beyond them. That means you can be sorrowful and joyful at the same time. You can mourn your loss while still holding on to the peace and joy of the Lord. It’s not one or the other but both at the same time.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying to be joyful because of your pain. That would be weird and masochistic. Rather, I’m saying that even in your pain, God will restore your joy. It might not happen right away and it might not take the form you expected, but I believe you will come to know God’s joy on a deeper, more real level with every loss you experience.
I know I have. I can hardly put it into words, but I know what the comfort of the Lord feels like. I know what the peace of God does for my soul. I’ve gone through times of great loss, but God has always been faithful to give me strength and joy.
That joy doesn’t necessarily feel like happiness or pleasure.
Keep that in mind. You can have this kind of joy but still not feel like telling jokes, hosting a party, or singing in the shower. It feels more like peace than happiness. It’s an inner assurance that things will be okay and you will be okay. That life hasn’t ended, hope isn’t crushed, death didn’t win.
This kind of joy is not something you can force, as mentioned earlier, but that doesn’t mean it’s totally out of your control. Your emotions are a product of your thoughts, and you get to choose what you think about. You can choose to be grateful, to trust, to celebrate. You can choose to look for the glimmers of light even in the dark- ness. After all, there are always reasons to be joyful, starting with the promise that God works all things together for good. You might have to search for a while, but eventually you’ll begin to see the silver lining in the clouds.
- You can’t manufacture emotions, but you can choose to focus on what is good, beautiful, and hopeful. Sooner or later your emotions will catch up to your thoughts.
To be honest, I find that this is a bit of a struggle sometimes. It’s all too easy to let anxieties and losses captivate your focus and fill your mind. At first you don’t notice that you’ve lost your joy (although people around you probably do). Eventually you find your- self weighed down by the cares and concerns of daily life. That’s when you have to consciously remind yourself to choose joy. God’s joy is your portion. His mercies are new every morning. His love is unfailing. Think about who God is, what he’s done for you, and the promises he’s spoken over your future; then take charge of your reaction to pain and loss.
During the challenging transition season my family and I have been navigating lately, there have been a lot of tears, but joy has never been too far away. We’ve found ways to laugh, to be at peace, to enjoy life and one another and the many blessings we’ve been given, even though certain circumstances have been far from ideal. What other option do we have? Living under a mountain of stress or fear doesn’t sound like the abundant life Jesus wants his people to enjoy. So we decided months ago that we would pursue joy, and we reaffirm that choice every day. We aren’t going to wait until every problem is solved, every tear is wiped away, or every fear is conquered. Jesus is here now, and his joy is our strength.
Joy is about taking back control. It’s about autonomy. When you choose joy, you refuse to let your feelings be dictated by forces outside your control. Think about that woman who said, “I decided to give my mother a dancing trip to her maker.” She decided. She chose to incorporate joy into something that must have been emotionally hard for her. And in so doing, she got the last laugh.
Joy doesn’t remove your suffering or restore your loss, of course. On the outside nothing changes. But on the inside everything changes. When your mourning begins to be transformed by the joy of the Lord, strength returns and hope arises. You gain a clearer, more positive perspective of the loss you suffered and the future that awaits.
There is triumph in that, isn’t there? When you are able to find joy on the other side of grief, you are reminding yourself and the world around you that life wins out over death.
You might not be ready to dance with a coffin on your shoulder right now—literally or figuratively. That’s a lot to ask. But sooner or later, the sorrow of death will give way to the joy of life. Weeping might stay for the night, but rejoicing will come in the morning.
- Joy always gets the last laugh.
- “Ghana’s Dancing Pallbearers—BBC Africa,” BBC News Africa, July 27, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EroOICwfD3g.
Excerpted with permission from The Art of Overcoming by Tim Timberlake, copyright Tim Timberlake.
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Can joy be present during grief? What would that look like? What does “the joy of the Lord” mean to you? How does He help you stay joyful when circumstances are less than ideal? ~ Devotionals Daily