There is much in this world to drag us down. Wars and rumours of war are nothing new, but having reports and images thrust daily into our consciousness is a modern phenomenon. Crime, societal unrest, fractured families, cost of living pressures, moral depravity, and spiritual decline are the threads which weave together the fabric of western society. So often it can feel like we pass from one challenge to another. Information overload is relentless and tiring, it makes life seem trivial and empty. I am reading a book at the moment in which the author talks about the escalation of people committed to the ‘mad house’ in the 19th century. One of the main factors suggested is that many struggled to cope with a world which was undergoing rapid and constant change. If that is true, there can be little wonder we are living in the midst of a mental health crisis today. People simply cannot keep up with the changes and demands which endlessly confront them.
Do these factors make Paul’s imperative seem unrealistic – Phil 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, rejoice!” Rejoicing sometimes – fair enough, but always! A few points to be mindful of.
Rejoicing and happiness are not the same thing. Without doubt, joy and happiness often overlap, but they are not synonymous. Happiness is circumstantial – we are happy when the day goes well, when we receive compliments, when a problem is solved or avoided. Happiness is to be expected for these reasons and it is a desirable state to be in. Happiness is also fleeting – when the day goes pear shaped, when we are unfairly treated, when we get sick, when relationships sour, happiness gives way to frustration, anger and hurt. Joy on the other hand is not circumstantial, it is an inward disposition. It is the result of conscious decisions we make. For this reason, Paul can instruct us to rejoice in all situations, good and bad. Learning to rejoice brings happiness, but it is not dependent upon it.
Rejoicing does not spell the end of trouble. If rejoicing was only possible in the absence of trouble, Paul’s instruction would be farcical. At the time of writing, he was under arrest and facing a possible death sentence. The reality is that life is never entirely free of challenges even when things are generally going well. It must also be said that rejoicing does not somehow make trouble disappear. Rejoicing is not a kind of magic wand by which problems are subdued, pain loses its edge, and discouragement dissipates. Paul is talking about rejoicing in the midst of life’s difficulties. Once again, this is possible because rejoicing is not the same as being happy.
Rejoicing is possible because God is good. To rejoice is to make a conscious decision to look to God and the salvation we have in Christ. Paul says, “rejoice in the Lord.” Joy is to be found through Christ no matter what is going on in our lives and around us. Salvation brings into view God’s character toward us – His love, grace, faithfulness, mercy, power, justice – and in these characteristics we find hope, peace, contentment, and stability. In other words, they enable us to rejoice. “Set your mind on things above” said Paul (Col 3:1-3) – look to those spiritual and eternal realities which are yours in Christ. Prov 18:10, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; The righteous run to it and are safe.” The name of the Lord represents His character – a place of safety when life would so easily overwhelm. The ability or inability to rejoice is determined by where our mind is.
We don’t know what 2024 has in store – no doubt a mixture of pleasure and pain like every other year. But this we know – God loves us and will keep us and soon we will be with Him. And in these truths we can rejoice always.