Shoulders bent, she sat slumped on the couch, drowning in her tears and the turbulent tide of meeting the needs of family, the demands of the job, the unending struggle of going on in the face of chronic pain and staying in a marriage that was more pain than pleasure. And then the chirpingly cheerful voice of the fit, flexible, energetic exercise leader rang out from the television accentuating the rhythm of her movements as she sang out amidst other encouraging things. “Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say rejoice.” Somehow the words then sounded like some shallow slogan, a rah rah cheer or a wishful exhortation to hang in there. Hang in there! Do the best you can!
Is that what this scripture found in Philippians 4:4 amounts to? Is Paul, in these words, beating the bass drum of encouragement, trying to invigorate the energies and boost the spirits of the saints: “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice… .” Was this a kind of sanctified whistling past the graveyard of reality? After all, Paul is increasingly feeble and slow in movement, advanced in years, showing signs of physical weakness, in prison writing during the last years of his life, as he faced impending execution for his stand for Jesus. And yet Paul forcefully exclaims, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.”
Since it is difficult to understand this “rejoice always” in the context of the every day, nitty-gritty struggle to survive the living of life, clearly certain points need to be clarified. One is, rejoice is a variant form of the word “joy”. While joy is the Christian virtue, happiness is the virtue of the world. The difference is, happiness is external, circumstantial depending on the things we have or can acquire, things like money, power, fame, a cosmetic make over. All external and when they go happiness goes. Joy is independent of your environment and will persist through any and all circumstances. As Jeanie Burton quips, “Joy has a much longer shelf life than happiness.” While happiness relates to the physical world, joy relates to both the physical world and the spiritual world.
Another clarification is the joy Paul witnesses to and calls us to is joy because of, “Rejoice in the Lord” The secret to joy is not to look at the circumstances of your own life. Rather, look to Christ and what he has done for you and in you and to you. Our joy, our rejoicing, is to be “in the Lord.” To “rejoice in the Lord” is to rejoice that we are the Lord’s. And “in the Lord” we enjoy: peace with God, help in temptation, the assurance of God’s companionship in time of trial. And we also rejoice in the hope that is ours in Christ Jesus.
Joy because of, “rejoice in the Lord,” but also joy in spite of, “rejoice always.”
The word always is emphatic, an active imperative, which in Greek suggests that the action should be continuous. “Rejoice, and keep on rejoicing,” would be an apt paraphrase. But would it be a sensible one when it seems future hopes and dreams have crashed and burned, when catastrophic illness turns everything upside down?
Perhaps your life is filled with tragedy and hardship—and there is plenty to go around. Heaping supplies for those mourning the loss of loved ones, parents agonizing over wayward children. More than enough for those who have gone or are going through the heartache of divorce. For those families with children disabled with physical, emotional, or mental disorders. For those who find themselves struck with a debilitating illness. It’s tough in such situations to feel any joy. In such circumstances does the Lord really expect us to “rejoice in the Lord?” Yes, because “joy in spite of…” always rests on “joy because of… in the Lord.
Now, make no mistake and let me hasten to add that even Paul did not rejoice in the Lord for all circumstances. Rather, we are to rejoice or give thanks in all circumstances. For instance, we don’t rejoice for death or for pain or for divorce or for cancer. But, by the grace of God, it is given us to rejoice in or during or after these difficult and painful circumstances. This does not mean blindness to or denial of the harsh realities of life rather it does mean one does not let the dark realities of life blind him or her to the radiance of joy to be found in the Lord!
Joy like that of the devoted Christian undergoing chemotherapy who was told by a friend, “Under the circumstances, I don’t see how you can be so cheerful.” The patient responded not in pious bravado but in personal conviction. “I’m not under any circumstances. Because of Jesus, I’m on top of the circumstances!”
Joy because of, joy in spite of.