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Sorrowful Yet Always Rejoicing: A Reflection on One Piece’s Ebisu Town

With no end in sight, One Piece continues to attract viewers after 20 seasons and almost 1000 episodes. Those drawn to the world of pirates, fantasy islands, and supernatural powers have not been disappointed. The show’s story has been heartening and exciting, up to and including the current Wano Arc. A recent scene from the show left me pondering a question relevant to me as a Christian: What does it mean to be “sorrowful yet always rejoicing”?

After landing in Wano, our heroes the Straw Hat pirates become separated, and the first mate Zoro meets the strange Yasuie, who invites him to his home town of Ebisu. Later in his journey, Zoro hears that Yasuie has been captured by the evil usurping shogun Kurozumi Orochi and sentenced to execution. Zoro arrives on the scene in time to witness the execution in front of Ebisu town’s people. He expects them to be horrified but ends up horrified himself when the people burst out laughing at Yasuie’s corpse. 

… there is often a pressure, even within Christian circles, to pretend that everything is okay when it is not.

Angry, Zoro demands an explanation. He is informed that the people of Ebisu are under a curse. He learns that “the smiling faces of Ebisu town’s people are merely masks”. The diabolical Orochi gave the people apples laced with chemicals called SMILE fruits that prevent the person who eats them from expressing their sorrow or anger. While the people can still feel every emotion, they can only express laughter. Orochi gave the fruits to Ebisu town, and the people, dying from hunger, ate the fruit, even once they realized what it was. Hiyori tells Zoro that Ebisu is “the tragic town where everyone looks happy, but they cannot even grieve over the death of their parents. That was Shogun Orochi’s heaviest sin; he made people’s lives miserable and even forbade them to grieve. If this is not hell, then what is?”

And Hiyori is right. But let’s back up a minute. It seems obvious that Orochi’s act was evil. But how can we reconcile this with certain commands in the Bible? Paul says in Philippians to rejoice in the Lord always. And in 2 Corinthians 6 he marks Christians as those observed to be “sorrowful yet always rejoicing.” Does this mean Christians, like the people of Ebisu, put on the mask of a smiling face while inside they are nothing but sorrow?

Expressions of grief are found all over the Bible. An entire book of the Bible is called Lamentations. We see grief all over the Psalms (Psalms 22; 69; 102). We see it modeled for us in the life of Jesus, who wept at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35) and at the destruction that was to come to Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44). We also see Paul, the same man who wrote “rejoice in the Lord always”, telling us to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:5). Paul also describes his “unceasing anguish” over the state of his Jewish brothers and sisters (Romans 9:2).

How are we to live this paradox of the Christian life, this description of “sorrowful yet always rejoicing”? It is not by imitating Ebisu. We make ourselves hypocrites if we show up to church on Sunday with our smiling face mask and never open up about the troubles in our lives. However, there is often a pressure, even within Christian circles, to pretend that everything is okay when it is not. I believe I have been guilty of this mistake, and what’s worse, I believe I have helped contribute to it.

Joy and grief are not either-or emotions. They can go hand in hand (Pixar nerds will recall Inside Out). The experience of grief for the Christian is always accompanied by rejoicing. Joy in the hope of the glory of God is present even in the midst of deep sorrow. When we go through trials and suffering, we look to and hope in the wonderful promises of God in the Bible to preserve us. We have the promise that He is with us always (Matthew 28:20). We have the promise that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39). We have hope that one day we will see His glory and be changed into His image (2 Corinthians 3:18). And so many other wonderful promises can give us joy even in the midst of terrible sorrow.

… let us make sure the world sees that we understand its suffering.

So what should we do if we are experiencing grief? Be honest about it. Confide in other people, and like the Psalms model for us, cry out to God to restore the joy of our salvation (Psalm 51). And that cry for joy is a crucial step, the step where we place our hope in God as the one who will see us through our grief. “My comfort in my affliction is this: Your promise preserves my life” (Psalm 119:50).

But one catch: let’s not use the hope we have in Christ as an excuse to ignore the sufferings of the world around us. Sometimes those of us experiencing good times can use the truth of the gospel to cut people off from expressing Godly grief. Let’s not be like Orochi. There is a lot of suffering in the world right now: economic turmoil, millions of COVID19 deaths, and racial violence have given us a lot to grieve over. As the church, we have a wonderful message of hope for a suffering world. But as we minister the gospel to the broken, let us make sure the world sees that we understand its suffering.

I love Jesus, anime, science, and the outdoors. I will say yes to a Bible study, binging Miyazaki movies, reading a book, hiking a mountain, or going to the beach. Originally a New York native, I’m currently a PhD candidate at the University of California, Riverside in the Cell, Molecular, and Developmental Biology Graduate Program.

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