Back in those days when Mason was a baby and he cried. And cried. And cried. And he didn’t sleep. And I was on the verge of losing my last ounce of sanity, I remember lamenting my woes to my dear friend who just so happened to be parenting one-year-old sextuplets at the time.

(Yes, 6 one-year-olds. Not only was she in the trenches with SIX toddlers, she actually cared and listened to all my dramatic complaints about ONE. Saint!)

I have never forgotten what she said to me, with deep love and sincerity. “Stephanie, I’m just going to pray that you experience the presence of the Lord. When you are sleep deprived and Mason won’t stop crying, just pray and invite God into those fussy and overwhelming moments. Because Psalm 16 tells us that where the presence of the Lord is, there is joy. So in the midst of all that is hard, pray for God’s presence. And with it comes his joy.”

Right. That sounds beautiful.

But. Can he just sleep? Can he just quit the incessant screaming? Can we just stop all of this that is so irritating?

I mean, isn’t the presence of the Lord so much more enjoyable with a good night of sleep? Or when circumstances are more peaceful?

It has taken years for the truth of what she said and the power of that verse to seep into my heart and begin to direct my focus. When trials come and life is hard, I just want to pray the difficult away. Because isn’t it easier to “feel” joy when everything is good? When everyone is healthy and happy and life is safe and predictable?

Somehow, it feels like some simple equation for joy. Pray away the uncomfortable and then enjoy the presence of God. He answers prayer, right? And don’t his answers bring us joy? Because obviously my peace will come in the absence of trial, not in the midst of it. So if I keep praying and experience God’s answers, then I will be joyful.

But then suddenly, I found myself plunged into a pit I cannot pray my way out of. The thing about devastating loss is that there is no solution to the pain. Nothing can fully release the heavy weight pushing on a grieving mother’s heart or erase images seared into her very soul.

Every day of my life, I see my son on that hospital bed all over again, watching an army of people fighting for him. I replay my last conversation with him, remember what it felt like to hold him. I hear his voice. And his laugh. And see that spunky little gleam in his eye.

I cannot just “pray away” the loss of a child.┬áThere is no prayer ladder to climb out of the pain of grief, where Mason is waiting at the top and everything is totally fine again. Nothing this side of eternity is ever going to fix that. And while touches of healing come in waves, I will never completely heal from the sudden death of my 6-year-old son until I am face to face with my Savior. There are some wounds that just run too deep, some circumstances that are unchangeable, and some pain that will never go away.

It is in these depths where joy takes on a whole new meaning. It is here, in the dark and lonely pit of grief where the clarity of true joy can be refined and clarified and truly experienced.

Throughout my life, I have prayed with many for all kinds of trials. Broken marriages. Cancer diagnosis. Uncertain futures. And I will continue to pray for healing. And provision. And restored marriages. And clarity for decisions. And protection. And I will pray for things that don’t necessarily matter for eternity. Such as my 5-year-old scoring that soccer goal that matters to him. Or that we can find that missing library book that is racking up the late fines. Or fun blessings from the Lord on a beach day just so that my kids can see that God delights in them. Because he does. He answers prayer. He gives good gifts. And he brings healing. And restores relationships. And lightens the burden of trials.

Our circumstances can bring us a significant amount of happiness. Words cannot express the euphoria I experience when my babies begin sleeping through the night. Or when a long-awaited answer to prayer is realized.

But his answers to prayer are not what bring joy. He is what brings joy. So even if he says no to what we so desperately want. Even when he does not heal, even when he does not make my son’s heart beat again… He still brings joy.

Joy doesn’t come from the answers, but from the One who answers.

“In your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Psalm 16:11

In your presence there is fullness of joy. Not in ideal circumstances. Not free from suffering or pain or trial. Only in your presence.

While God tells us in his word to bring our requests to the Lord, and while we should continue to pray against the barrage of ailments this temporal earth hits us with, my joy does not come as a result of the conclusion of them. Grief has taught me that even in circumstances that can change and trials that do end, I do not have to wait for those answers to experience joy.

Joy comes in the waiting. In the surrender. In the perspective. In spite of the emotions. It can even coexist with sadness and deep, debilitating pain.

Joy, like peace, is supernatural. Not something this world offers and not something that makes any sense to my human mind. It comes simply and beautifully from a sovereign God in the midst of my submission and trust in him.

This means keeping my eyes not on my circumstances but on the one who surrounds me with his presence. Not on my emotions, but on God’s word. Surrounding myself with truth and constantly turning everything to prayer.

“This is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life.” Psalm 119:50

While we may face trials that plague us every moment of our earthly existence, there is hope. And while God does not tell us, “When you walk through fire I’ll extinguish it, or when the waters are raging and the flood is rising I’ll pull you out,” he promises us something even better.

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you:
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.” Isaiah 43:2,3

He will be with me. And in that presence, no matter the circumstance, there is joy.

While there is no way out of the painful pit of grief, there is a God who will never leave me there alone. He sustains. He gives peace. He redeems. He is in control.

And in all of that, He is the fullness of joy.