Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7
As we have given thanks to God today, I want to talk for just a few moments with you from this passage about thanksgiving’s twin sister: “joy”. (They usually go together in the Bible—joy and thanksgiving).
And so before we leave this year’s study of the book of Philippians totally behind, I want to squeeze one last drop of teaching about joy from it.
Over and over throughout the letter, Paul writes to this church and tells them to “rejoice!”.
His parting salvo on this is Philippians 4:4—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say: rejoice!”
Even he’s already encouraged them to rejoice multiple times in the letter already, Paul’s like: “Ok, one last time, let me just underscore, highlight, circle, bold, italicize and capitalize this: RE-JOICE! Seriously, though, re-joice!!”
Paul is apparently very concerned that these Christians (and by extension we Christians) be a happy lot.
Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Christians claim to serve a God “in whose presence there is fullness of joy”. (Psalm 16)
Jesus Christ endured the cross because He was motivated by joy, and He prayed that His followers would be filled with His joy. (Hebrews 12, John 17)
Joy is said to be a fruit, or a direct result of your life being filled with God’s Holy Spirit. (Gal 5)
The Bible teaches that the whole story of the world began in joy, and will culminate in joy when God returns to set everything right. (Ps 96, Rev 21)
Did you know that Christianity is meant to be a glad faith, and its people a glad people? .
Isn’t this why so many of us became Christians in the first place? Because you were on a quest for joy? (Which we are all on, I think—whether you’re listening today as a Christian or not)… We all long for an ever-elusive sense of deep joy.
In his recounting his own journey to faith, C.S. Lewis described joy as an inconsolable longing—deeper than mere pleasure or happiness, and having as much overlap with grief as anything else.(1) (For of course joy and grief, fully expressed, both shed tears.)
And these stabs or pangs of joy, have led some of us to the only thing that could soothe our soul’s ache for joy — God Himself.
My point is just this: joy makes total sense for a Christian, and the quest for joy is how so many of us became Christians in the first place!
And yet how many of us struggle to maintain a sense of joy and gratitude in our day to day? Probably most of us. There’s a reason Paul repeats this command OVER and OVER again throughout the letter.
Even for mature, wonderful Christians like those in Philippi (which was like Paul’s favorite church!) they needed direct, explicit reminders to REJOICE and BE THANKFUL!
But is this directive really all that helpful? “Hey—be happy!”
On the surface, this sounds a lot like Bobby McFerrin’s advice: (popularized of course by the iconic Big Mouth Billy Bass) Don’t Worry, Be Happy.
But the song, Don’t Worry, Be Happy, if you listen to the verses, depicts serious problems like homelessness, poverty, and isolation— and surmises that: “well, worrying just makes things worse, so, you know… DON’T WORRY. BE HAPPY.”
And I can’t decide, after watching the music video if Bobby McFerrin is actually being serious or sarcastic. Because in the music video you watch the actors (one of whom is Robin Williams) plaster obviously fake, forced smiles on their faces as they ridiculously dance their way through life’s problems.
Elizabeth Bernstein, in a WSJ article, called this approach “Toxic Positivity”, where just telling someone to “cheer up, try to look on the bright side, have a winning attitude” usually makes things worse (and is super annoying to boot).(2)
Stifling or ignoring the sadness or grief or anger we feel in times of difficulty, she says, is bound to backfire.
So, is Paul using “toxic positivity” on us here? I don’t think so.
In her article, Elizabeth Bernstein goes on to quote Dr. David Kessler who says the difference between toxic positivity and real hope is that hope must be rooted in reality, in how things really are.
Hope, or joy can be rightly taken in all circumstances if there is a real basis for it. So what is Paul saying? Look carefully. He doesn’t just say “Rejoice—always!”
“Rejoice in the Lord, always.” (Phil 4:4)
He doesn’t say “rejoice in your circumstances”, “rejoice in your bank accounts”, or even “rejoice because you’re a Christian and you should be happy!”, but rather — rejoice in the Lord.
What does that mean?
Well, for starters it means that your joy, your happiness is always “in” something.
Joy is never a standalone thing—it’s parasitic—it’s attached to what you most care about. Joy is always “in” or attached to something.
I super enjoyed watching the Atlanta Braves win the world series this year—I remember watching them win as a kid in 1995, and this year brought back all kinds of nostalgia from my 90’s days. But this year, I held my breath the whole time! Because as a 90’s Braves fan, I know what it is to be let down! After 1995, the Braves would go on to win all kinds of division titles but then lose in the playoffs every year. And every year as a kid, I would get so excited when the playoffs came around. I mean, I knew every player, their batting averages, the pitcher’s ERA’s and all that stuff. But inevitably I would go to bed one night near the end of the season totally bummed out … and stay that way for a couple of days—why? Because I loved the Braves! My joy was hitched to their wagon. My joy was attached to them!
So when Paul says “Rejoice in the Lord”, he is saying you’ve got to attach your joy to something durable. Something that can actually give you a good reason to rejoice in all of life’s seasons. And what is that?
Paul says we are to “rejoice in the Lord”. And when he says that he’s not just talking about God “generically”. When Paul talks about “The Lord”, He is talking about the Lord Jesus Christ.
He is saying that you can and should rejoice in all you have in Jesus Christ, in what He’s done for you, in how He has loved you and given Himself for you.
There’s an African-American gospel song that has about a dozen words in the whole song, and it goes like this: “I get joy when I think about what He’s done for me.”
Where do you “get your joy”? What is it attached to? If you will fasten it to the Lord Jesus and what He’s done for you, you will always have a reason to rejoice and to give thanks.
So maybe you’re here today and your life is pretty good—you have a lot of things you’re excited about… and that’s wonderful. But don’t attach your deepest joy to them, because they can only give you so much — they are fragile. So Paul would say to you: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again,”…I say to all of you who are just loving life right now—give thanks and rejoice in Christ!”
Or maybe you are here and you don’t feel as if you have very much to rejoice in and you’re not feeling particularly thankful at all. Perhaps this is due to poor health, broken relationships, or your own struggles or failures, and you just don’t have any joy. And let me say again, as we’ve already seen in Philippians, even mature, wonderful Christians apparently do struggle with joy. And to be clear: there are lots of good reasons in this broken, cursed world to grieve, to hurt, and to feel deep sorrow.
But in just a moment, if you are a follower of Christ, you can come to this table, and you can take this bread and this cup, and in this tangible reminder of what God has done for you—His body broken, His blood poured out for you, you can take this one thing and give thanks.
Paul would say to you: “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say” to you who are broken and weary—rejoice in Christ.”
You have still have reason to be thankful and to rejoice, reason that is rooted in the deepest reality there is—the love of Jesus Christ displayed in His body and blood, broken for you.
1) C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life