“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” – Philippians 4:4
Are you perplexed by these words from the apostle Paul? “How am I supposed to do that?” you ask. Rejoice in the Lord always? Morning, noon, and night? In good times and bad, happiness and sorrow?
At face value, Paul’s command seems impossible, perhaps even a bit insensitive. After all, how could a person trudging through poverty or suffering in illness or abandoned in relationships possibly be able to experience any amount of happiness, let alone rejoice always?
But Paul wasn’t disconnected from the trials of life, and neither was he writing from some ivory tower. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul testified about joy so powerful that it sustained him through jail (Philippians 1:7, 14), adversaries (1:15-17), suffering (1:29-30), sadness (2:27), anxiety (2:28), poverty (4:12), and troubles (4:14). And elsewhere, Scripture tells us how he experienced physical abuse, like beatings and stoning, as well as illness, and even being shipwrecked. Even so, Paul was joyful, and he invites—better, he commands—us to rejoice with him.
So, how is it that we can rejoice always?
The answer lies in the verse itself. “Rejoice in the Lord,” not the so-called ‘lords’ of this world, but the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ. Our joy must ultimately come from the Lord our Creator rather than creation itself. And our joy must be shaped by the character and actions of the Lord our Savior.
Looking for Joy in Creation, Finding Joy in the Creator
“Don’t you want to be happy?”
It’s a question we’ve all been asked and frequently ask ourselves. And it’s a question we humans have been asking for a long time. “Is not the happy life that which all desire, which indeed no one fails to desire?” asked Augustine some seventeen hundred years ago. The answer is obvious. Of course we do. After all, we were created to enjoy happiness. Doubtlessly, Adam experienced the joy of perfect community with God and his wife in Eden. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22); it’s “the serious business of heaven,” said C. S. Lewis.
Yet, because of our sin, we’ve been thrust beyond the hedges of the garden. Now we live in a world where happiness often alludes us. We were created to find joy in the holy Creator, but we look for it in the fallen creation.
So, the problem isn’t so much a pursuit of happiness per se, because it isn’t wrong to pursue happiness in God. In fact, doing so is a form of worship. As John Piper is fond of reminding us, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” The real problem is idolatry, i.e., casting aside God as our object of worship to rejoice in the creation rather than the Creator. The things that bring most people happiness in the world are merely of the world: relationships, money, experiences, self-realization, sex, entertainment, causes, lifestyles, politics, etc.
We believe the lie that true and lasting joy is hidden behind the next embrace, experience, or employment. If we could only have this or get there or be that or know them, then we would experience true happiness. We look to ourselves, others, and things to bring us joy, but Augustine was right when he wrote: “To rejoice for you, in you, about you: this is itself the happy life, this alone, and no other.”
It’s not as though God is a cosmic killjoy who slaps our hands at the slightest hint of happiness on earth. In fact, those fleeting moments of joy in creation—the godly ones—are reflections of the joy we find in God because they are gifts, and “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17).
Your husband or wife, your children, your best friends—they are all gifts from God. Even you—yes, you—are a gift to others. All these gifts are small glimpses of God, reflections of His goodness. But it’s not the gifts themselves that bring us joy; rather, it is through these gifts that we get a foretaste of Joy Himself. After all, the psalmist says, God is our “greatest joy” (Psalm 43:4).
The joy of your wedding day, the joy of hearing your child laugh for the first time, the joy of wrapping your arms around an old friend. These moments bring us happiness, and rightly so. These happiest of moments on earth are meant to remind us of a greater joy to come.
But if we lose this perspective (or we never gain it), then we demand from our gifts what only the gift-giver can offer. Think about it. What happens when we are unhappy with our gifts? When we fight with our spouses, when our kids disobey, when our best friends become our worst enemies? We are sad in those moments, and rightly so. That sadness reminds us that happiness on earth is fleeting, and it gently reminds our souls that we were meant for eternal joy in the Lord.
One of the many blessings of repentance from idolatry is the return to godly joy, the permission and ability to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4).
Still, a question remains. What is it about joy in the Lord that allows us to rejoice always, in good times and bad? The answer is rich theologically: Joy in the Lord bears all of the hallmarks of the Lord Himself. As Christ is eternal, so is His joy, and as Christ perseveres, so does His joy.
Joy Because of God and in Spite of Our Circumstances
The Christian faith makes an audacious claim: joy and suffering are neighbors. For some, this can come across as naive, as if Christians are ignorant of all the pain and suffering in this world filled with tyranny, oppression, poverty, starvation, abuse, violence, etc. But the Bible makes it clear that joy found in God is powerful and permanent enough to sustain us through even the most trying and sorrowful of circumstances.
Scripture teaches us that the joy which comes from God is two-fold: joy because of God and joy in spite of our circumstances. We can rejoice always because of who God is and what He has done and we can rejoice always in spite of circumstances that bring us grief and sorrow.
As Christians, we have joy because of what God has done through His Son, and we rejoice in spite of our circumstances, whether we are blessed or bereaved, secured or suffering, gladdened or grieved. With Christ, we can smile amid poverty, rejoice in the face of illness, and laugh through tears. Why? Because God is good, faithful, and able to redeem us sinners from this fallen world, and we have confidence that one day death will die and all our tears will be wiped away (Revelation 20:14; 21:4).
So it’s not by accident that the most recognizable symbol of Christianity is a cross, the terribly beautiful icon of God’s love. The shape itself represents the intersection of sorrow and joy in the dying body of the Lord Jesus. It was for the joy laid before Christ that He endured the cross (Hebrews 12:2). In other words, Christ rejoiced because of His central role in glorifying God through our salvation and in spite of His march through the valley of the shadow of death.
Do you struggle to heed Paul’s call to rejoice in the Lord always? Then remember the secret to finding joy in the Lord is always to remember that Joy has found us.
“Restore the joy of your salvation to me,” prayed David (Psalm 51:12). And that should be our prayer, too.