I thoroughly enjoyed watching the 2006 film In Pursuit of Happyness based on the true story of how Chris Gardner (played by Will Smith) endured being homeless for nearly a year while pursuing his dream and caring for his
toddler son Christopher (played by eight-year-old Jaden Smith). In the film Chris is a struggling salesman who invested all his life savings in new portable bone-density scanners. His wife leaves him due to mounting financial pressures and he is left alone to care for their five-year old son Christopher. His life reaches an all-time low when Chris loses his last bone-scanner, gets arrested for unpaid parking tickets, his bank account gets garnished by the revenue services for unpaid income tax and he gets evicted from his apartment. Homeless and penniless Chris manages to land an unpaid internship at a brokerage firm, competing against 19 others to win the only paid position at the end of six months. In the post-script we read how Chris continued to eventually own his multi-million-dollar brokerage.
This emotion-laden real-life drama each of us can identify with because it speaks about the sacrifices needed to realize one’s dreams, and the tremendous joy that comes from the fulfillment of the dream. We were created to pursue the things that give us joy, and therefore joy is indeed one of man’s chief motivators especially in enduring difficult times.
An ancient Hebrew song dating around 400 BC has this same theme.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the South!
5 Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
6 He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
This psalm was sung against the dark backdrop of Jews who returned from exile, being oppressed and enslaved for seventy years first by the Babylonians and thereafter the Persians. They were slaves who had no value or dignity, no sense of identity or value, with no rights or power to steer their own destinies. They felt flawed, forgotten, worthless, powerless, and essentially hopeless. Then suddenly Cyrus had an urge to send them back to rebuild their temple and their city, and these slaves were set free – a day of great rejoicing!
The first half of this psalm sings this prayer of gratitude, looking back at how God had graced these exiles to come home and rebuild the temple and its walls, and the people “were glad”. The second half is a prayer for restoration of the nation that had been scattered and their land that had laid desolate for 70 years. Now that Zion (verse 1, pointing to the temple and its worship) had been restored, the psalmist prays the nation and its land be revitalized like the annual winter rains transform the arid dessert in the South of Judah (Hebrew “Negev” in verse 4) into a flowery garden bustling with life.
“Sowing in tears”
Sowing is not a particularly sad or even hard job. Why then would the psalmist write of “weeping” and sowing “precious seeds”? The context of the Psalm is of Jews returning to a dilapidated Jerusalem and barren land, to a city and land that have been unoccupied and uncultivated for 70 years. They brought food with them what they were able to carry, but that would not last long. So they would soon need to live off the land – they needed to sow. And when you sow the food you want to eat, when you sow the seeds your children hunger for, your sowing is accompanied by tears of anguish. These are costly seeds that mere money can’t buy – these are “precious seeds” that get its first watering by the tears of the sower.
How to reap joy
This ancient song teaches us how to cultivate a life of joy amidst suffering – a valuable lesson for each of us.
Firstly, a life of gratitude makes for a glad heart even amidst hardships, as the psalmist teaches: “3 The Lord has done great things for us [and] we are glad.” In looking back, remembering the good things the Lord has done for you, the hard times in which God has preserved you and later from which he has delivered you, the anguished heart is refreshed with joy, hope and faith. When you relive joyful times your heart relives the past joy and your faith is stirred by hope as you remember how God has delivered you from similar hardships in the past – he will do the same again. Indeed, gratitude makes you cheerful, and “the cheerful of heart has a continual feast” which no fire can quench (Proverbs 15:15).
Secondly the psalmist says that sowing needs to be “continuously”, not impulsively or sporadically. You keep on sowing until you reap a harvest. Considering the context then the psalmist probably had in mind how his people had been restored to joy from a life of slavery and exile through “sowing in tears” like recorded in the prayers of Daniel (Daniel 9), Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1), Jeremiah (Lamentations 1-4) and some of the Psalms (eg Psalm 137). These prayers give us a view into the anguish of the exiled Jews, and how they lamented bitterly and continuously petitioned God for return and restoration – a true sowing in tears that resulted in the joy expressed in half of this psalm.
This is a great lesson to never give in to hardship, and never give up because of disappointments. We continue to sow in tears because of the expected joy in the harvest. In fact, the great anguish is the great motivator to continue sowing in tears as we long for the great joy. So do “not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.” (Galatians 6:9).
Thirdly, the sowing of “precious seed” (KJV) especially results in “shouts of joy”. And this is the main teaching in this psalm: sowing seeds which makes you weep will ensure a harvest accompanied by shouts of joy. In other words, a life of selfless sacrifice results in joy. The giving up of what you deem precious so that there is enough for others to share will result in joy. This first generation of returned exiles made the big sacrifice to re-cultivate the farmlands from their own meagre food-packs to ensure that there is enough food for other returning exiles and their coming generations. Their sacrifice resulted in joy for all. The joy is multiplied when the precious seeds you sow results in bundles of sheaves – enough for everyone.
When the sacrifice is rewarded with breakthrough and the effort was worthwhile – then there is great joy. But without sacrifice – without the sowing of precious seed – there will be no reaping worthy of great joy. Playing it safe does not result in great joy. Only sowing in tears results in a harvest of joy.
Lastly, although accompanied by anguish, the sowing is very hopeful. The farmer knows that for every single seed he sows he is sure to reap thirty, sixty or even a hundred-fold (Matthew 13:8). His tearful sowing can be done confidently and hopeful, because “he shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” And our confidence in sowing is not misplaced! God himself oversees the principle and process of sowing and reaping: “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.” (Galatians 6:8). Sowing in tears is never in vain.
The psalmist teaches that persistent, sacrificial and hopeful sowing will result that results in a joyful harvest.
Bringing home the joy
Each of us are in pursuit of happiness. We are all driven by a longing for joy: we run away from things that might cause us harm (fear) and we run towards the things that we belief will bring us pleasure (joy). But many times we exert effort on what does not produce true delight or lasting joy (Isaiah 55:2).
The wisdom of this world says self-serving efforts (or selfishness) produces joy: “SPEND EFFORT FOR MORE COMFORT AND CARNAL PLEASURES TO INCREASES YOUR JOY.” Self-serving pleasure is the chief motivator behind most of the marketing campaigns that dominate the media: “Buying [this] – it will give you joy.” “Living [here] will give you joy.” “More of [this] will increase your joy.” “Doing [this] will give you joy.” This philosophy is the heart behind every temptation that lures us into sin, yet it still leaves us unsatisfied and without lasting joy.
But over against this the psalmist says “Those who sow in tears you will reap with shouts of joy.” In other words, selflessness produces real joy: “THE GREATEST JOY IS FOUND IN THE GIVING OF YOURSELF FOR THE BENEFIT OF OTHERS.” Just as the endurance athlete gets joy from completing the race, so the self-emptying mother of a disabled child reaps love and joy from any response the child may give. The couple who walked through their dark valley together reaps tremendous joy in their relationship at the end. But for the one who quits or gives up or gets distracted during hardships, there is no reaping of joy. If you wish to reap in joy, you need to sow the precious seed in tears.
The context of “sowing in tears” in this psalm as sketched above is to “restore [Judah]” (verses 4-6) – not only for yourself only. “Shouts of joy” comes when your anguished efforts for another results in an end of their suffering, their hardship. Ironically your joy overflows when you give of your precious time, share of your precious belongings, and give of your very life for the betterment of another. It is truly “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35; see also Hebrews 12:3).
So consider your life, your pursuit, your prayers.
- Can you recall what you have sacrificed a great deal to achieve or complete, and when it was fulfilled you were joyful, satisfied, ecstatic, and fulfilled?
- Where are you currently “sowing in tears” – i.e. where are you sacrificing your own comfort for the benefit of another, so that joy may come?
- Can you remember why? What do you hope to achieve with this “sowing in tears”?
And as you go out again tomorrow, pouring out of what is precious to you, let this verse encourage you as it did the Jews who first sang when they rebuilt Jerusalem and their nation (400 BC):
“6 He who continuously goes out weeping,
bearing the precious seed for sowing,
shall doubtless come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”