Martyn Lloyd-Jones has written that the book of Philippians is like a symphony and in the various movements a common theme recurs again and again, the refrain of joy.
In Philippians 1 Paul wrote about others using his imprisonment to catapult their own careers, but says, “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.”
In chapter two Paul urges us to live with the servant mentality of Christ. He tells us to avoid complaining and arguing and then adds, “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.” He rejoices even in the prospect of death.
In chapter 3 Paul warns the Philippians (and us) about the danger of false teachers. But before he does so he writes, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.” (3:1) It is almost as if Paul is telling us that rejoicing is a safeguard against false teaching.
Now in chapter 4, Paul is wrapping things up with a staccato like list of quick instructions. And, leading the list is this command to “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice.” So this morning we are going to look at this one verse and ask two questions: 1) what does it mean to rejoice? and 2) Why does joy seem so elusive?
What does it Mean to Rejoice?
The first thing this passage teaches us is this: Joy is an obligation. The apostle Paul tells us, “Rejoice in the Lord!” and just in case we didn’t get it the first time, he repeats it. In the Greek the word means to “keep on rejoicing”. He doesn’t tell us that it would be nice if we rejoiced, or that he would suggest that we rejoice, or that we should take a seminar in rejoicing. He says, “just do it!” (to shamelessly steal from a popular commercial). Rejoicing should be the normal course of the Christian life. We should view rejoicing in the same way as we view the instructions to love one another, to tell the truth, to refrain from gossip and to respect life.
Second, we see that joy is a mindset rather than a particular set of circumstances. It would be foolish for Paul to tell the people to have lots of money always, or be healthy always, or to live in the sunshine always. The reason it would be foolish is because these are things that are often out of our control. We can take good care of ourselves and still get a deadly disease. We can pray for good health and still die. We can enjoy the sunshine but cannot control the weather . . . and sometimes we need rain! There are many times we can’t control our income. A plant downsizes, heating bills jump drastically, an unexpected illness drains your reserve. Some things are beyond our control.
But Paul does seem to imply that the attitude of rejoicing is something that we can control. We can choose to live life joyfully! Happiness is tied to circumstances. We are happy when things go well, when we get a promotion, when we hear the applause of the crowd, when we know success. But happiness disappears when life is difficult: when illness strikes, when someone we love dies, when we face an unpleasant task, when we have to confront criticism. We do not enjoy those times. We often will say, “I’m not happy about this”.
Joy is different from happiness. Joy is an attitude. It is an approach to life rather than a reaction to life. It is the grid through which we see everything else. Joy is a way of looking at life that is not affected by circumstances. Paul rejoiced while he was in prison, he rejoiced as he faced possible execution, he rejoiced even as he wrote to the church about the conflict that was taking place in the Philippian church. Joy is independent of our circumstances.
J.I. Packer talks about the idea of joy in the midst of any circumstance and writes these very provocative words,
In Britain and America execution for active Christianity is unlikely to come our way, but it is morally certain that some who read this will be called upon one day to glorify God by dying of cancer. What does that thought do to us? Does it strike a chill into our hearts? Cancer is a beast. But it is clear that Paul could have faced cancer and rejoiced, and if we master the secret of his joy, so may we. [Packer, Hot Tub Religion p. 143]
The third thing we learn is that joy is based in the Lord. When we learn that joy is an obligation and that it is something we should have in spite of our circumstances many people will try to create joy by learning positive thinking techniques; by meditating; and by developing positive self-talk (looking at the positive in every situation). And these techniques are valuable. Paul will tell us in verses 8 and 9 about the importance of thinking well. But joy is not really something that comes from a technique, it comes from a relationship.
Joy comes into our lives because of our relationship with Christ. Joy comes from,
- knowing that you are loved by God
- knowing that you are forgiven not because of your penance but because of His grace
- knowing that no matter what happens, you are going to be alright
- knowing that no matter what the world takes from you, it cannot take that which is most valuable
- knowing that this life is but a training ground for the lift that is to come
Once again Packer writes
Christians are not victims and prisoners of either the past or the present. The powers of forgiveness and new creation are at work in their lives. Before them lies a sure and certain hope of deliverance, transformation, and glory. Joy will some day be theirs in fullest measure, and they should not give way to the black feeling that life will never be better for them than it is now.
Christians have, so to speak, larger souls than other people; for grief and joy, like desolation and hope, or pain and peace, can coexist in their lives in a way that non Christians know nothing about. Grief, desolation, and pain are feelings triggered by present situations, but faith produces joy, hope, and peace at all times. This does not mean that grief, desolation, and pain cease to be felt (that idea would be inhuman); it means that something else is experienced alongside the hurt. It becomes possible for Christians today, like Paul long ago, to be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). People who sorrow should be told that God offers them joy whatever their circumstances; for this assurance is just as true for them as it is for anyone else. [Packer, HOT TUB RELIGION p. 138, 139]
Joy comes from our perspective rather than our performance. Our joy is based in our confidence in God’s love, God’s ability, and God’s wisdom. We rejoice because we belong to Him. This one fact changes the way we view everything else. Joy deepens as we progressively snuggle into the arms of the Father.
There is no box Made by God Nor us But that the sides can be flattened out And the top blown off To make a dance floor On which to celebrate life. Kenneth Caraway (You Gotta Keep Dancin p. 143)
Why is Joy so Elusive?
Having said all these things about joy, we must confront reality. We sing that we have the “joy, joy, joy, joy, down in our heart” but sometimes those are only words. We talk about rejoicing in every circumstance but sometimes joy seems more like an infrequent visitor than a constant companion. We want to rejoice. We envy the attitude of Paul in his circumstances, but for some reason this is not often our experience. We don’t talk about this because to do so would be to admit our deficiency. But our goal is not pretend joy but real joy. So, let me suggest several possible reasons we find joy so difficult.
We are not true believers.
In some cases the problem is that a person is not a genuine believer. We must always start here. It is possible that we don’t know the joy of the Lord because we don’t know the Lord! There are many who go to church every Sunday who have a good relationship with a church but not with Christ. They are still trusting their goodness rather than His. They are still trying to earn Heaven instead of confessing their sin and seeking His wonderful mercy.
Joy cannot be produced by human effort. Sure, we can have moments of delight and ecstasy but an abiding joy must come from God’s Spirit within us. We can only know joy when we stop trusting ourselves and start resting in Him.
So, if you find joy illusive start by looking at your heart. Have you come to God and confessed your weakness, your sin and your inability? Have you trusted Christ’s work on your behalf? Are you following Him or are you still hoping He will follow you?
We are confusing joy and happiness
We live in a society that equates joy with pleasant experiences. If you do this your joy will be as fickle as your emotions. Do you really think that Paul enjoyed being in prison? Did it make him happy to have people using his imprisonment to advance their own cause? Was he glad about the conflict in the church at Phillipi. No! Paul was saddened by all these things. I’m sure they led him at times to weep before the Lord. But he still rejoiced.
There will be times when you are discouraged, disappointed, hurt, emotionally exhausted and confused. That is part of being human. You will mourn when people you love die. You will ache when people you care about suffer. These things are a part of life. Joy allows us to put all these things in perspective. In the midst of painful times we still find joy in the Father’s arms.
A good novel is filled with twists and turns. There are times when things seem pretty bleak but we keep reading. In fact, the worse things get the more deeply we enjoy the book. We enjoy it because these dark times make us hunger for the resolution we know will be found at the end of the story. We yearn for the explanation we know will be there. We are eager for the pieces to fit together. And when everything is drawn to a conclusion we smile and say, “that was a good story”.
For the believer, life is like that. The bleak and dreary times increase our hunger to see the Father’s plan. The believer understands that God is writing the story. We do indeed “see through a glass darkly now” but someday . . . someday . . . we will see, we will understand. We know that someday there will be a resolution. Some day the pieces will fit together. Some day we will smile and declare that it was all good. And it is this perspective that gives us that joyful sense of adventure for living. We know the author of life. We know His wisdom. We know His character. And because of this we face life with joy and anticipation.
We try to manufacture joy
We often miss out on joy because we try to create it ourselves. When we try to “produce” joy we are working against joy. You see when we look to our activities and our devices to bring us joy we are NOT looking at the Lord. When we are relying on external things we are distracted from the internal work of God’s Spirit. The harder we work to find joy the further we drift from the Lord and that joy we are looking for.
It’s like a person who is drowning. They need to trust the lifeguard who comes to save them. The more they struggle to “save themselves” the more difficult it is for them to be saved. Or maybe it is like the patient in the hospital. They wake up from surgery and find tubes in them. The more they fight the tubes and pull at them, the longer it will be before they get better. Instinct says to fight, but in this case instinct is wrong.
So it is with joy. Our instinct is to try to DO things to produce joy. We can’t produce joy by our choruses, music, methods, campfires, meditation or anything else. The harder we try to create joy the more elusive it becomes. Joy comes from resting not running. It comes from trusting not working.
Our Perspective is too Limited
The thing that we see in Paul is that he had an eternal perspective on life. He saw the big picture. You and I often focus on the now and don’t see where the now is leading. Here’s some examples,
- we see death as separation rather than reunion and reward
- we see trials as pain rather than as opportunities to trust more fully
- we see closed doors as failure rather than as God’s positive guidance
- we see God’s “no” as the meanness of a cruel parent rather than the wisdom of a loving parent
- we see tragedy as God’s indifference rather than focusing on God’s strength that promises us to get us through these times.
- we see loneliness as abandonment rather than as times given us to deepen our roots in the Lord.
When we have tunnel vision we lose perspective. And when we lose perspective we lose our joy. We must learn to view all of life in light of eternity. These times of pain are but seconds in the light of eternity.
Do you endure the pain of a shot from the Doctor? Of course you do because you know that the shot will help you. Do you endure the horrible drilling of the Dentist? Yes. You don’t enjoy it at the time but you know that the pain of the present is necessary for your comfort in the future. And that is the perspective we need to take on life. The trials and pains are temporary and somehow necessary for the bliss that is to come.
Let me conclude with several practical suggestions. First, if you want to rejoice as the Lord has called us to rejoice, you need to stay close to the source of joy. There is no substitute for time with the Lord. We must focus on His goodness and sufficiency. Read about Him in the Bible. Talk to Him in prayer. Spend time with Him in worship. Serve with Him in your daily walk. Learn about Him from others. The equation is simple: the closer you are to Him, the greater the experience of joy in your living.
Second, make yourself conscious of the requirement to rejoice. Put the word joy on a card and display it somewhere. Get some smiley faces and put them around to remind you to smile on the inside even when it is difficult to smile on the outside. When life begin to press around you, look for the joy. When bad news seems to pursue you, look for the joy.
Finally, spend much time thinking about the gifts of God. Often reflect on His love, His mercy and His grace toward you. Dare to think about where you would be without Him. Spend time trying to imagine the riches of Heaven. Take time to recount the many blessings you have been given.
We all have things we find ourselves fixating on: it may be an upcoming responsibility, or an incredible opportunity, an object we desire, a person we love or an ominous possibility. It is natural to anticipate these things. What I am suggesting is that we learn to anticipate the eternal blessings of grace in the same way. We need to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”. And the more we dwell on these things, the deeper our joy will become.