For “Mature” Audiences Only
We live amidst a broken world in broken bodies with broken souls. One need not look past the morning newspaper or an honest look at their own lives to find something in which to despair. Sadly, I know some chronologically “mature” believers who make it their life task to lament this world and its brokenness. They seemingly find no reason whatsoever to rejoice. Sure they know that God is perfectly in control and has only their best interests in mind, but their predominate communiqué tells another story. Paul’s admonishment in Philippians 4:8 apparently does not apply to them as they see only the false, ignoble, wrong, impure, unlovely, et al. Nevertheless, Scripture admonishes every believer to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” (Philippians 4:4). Exactly how do we do that without employing a serious dose of denial?
Throughout his letter to the Philippians, Paul has inserted the theme of joy. He prays with joy (1:4-5), is intent on dying with joy (2:17-18), and lives with joy in the Lord (3:1). Given that biblical joy is an inner conviction that God is in control of all circumstances (as well as evidence of the Spirit’s presence in us; see Galatians 5:22; Romans 14:17), there is never a time when believers should question God’s care for us, theoretically that is. Of course, when we do question the care of God our joy is the first thing to go. To have joy is, therefore, to have faith since joy is an expression of confidence in God’s loving control over everything. The alternative to God’s control over everything is that life is ultimately meaningless, history is going nowhere, and hope is just psychological maneuvering through this broken world! Interestingly, Carson rightly notes the theological short-sightedness of believers when he writes that “In one sense, this injunction [to rejoice always] is so self-evidently right that it is embarrassing that we should have to be reminded of it” (Carson, Basics for Believers, p. 104).
Certainly, the beginning of believers’ joy is knowing sins are forgiven once and for all and that heaven awaits (1 Peter 1:8-9). But, it does not end there. Paul calls on the Philippians (and us) to rejoice now. After all, he did so while under arrest, imprisoned, and possibly facing death! Although our joy should not be derived from our circumstances, there is a sense in which we can and must find joy in our circumstances because “we know that in [not “from”] all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God does not merely step in post hoc and fix our difficulties; he’s present in them to bring about only that which is good in the end. With this mindset how can we not find God’s strength and proclaim with Nehemiah “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (8:10)? Thus, joy for the mature is directly bound to faith in God’s meticulous sovereignty over all things (Matthew 10:29-31).
While we will fall short of rejoicing always when times are tough, we are clearly commanded to do so. How do we obey this command when it’s so very difficult to do so? My only thought is to pray after Augustine’s prayer, “Lord, command what you will, but give what you command.”
When are we to rejoice? “Always!” How long are we to rejoice? “Always!” Here there is no blind optimism, but a deep sense that God is “always” there for us to rejoice in Him, despite our lot in life. In joy the mature come face to face with the blessed future just as did the Lord Jesus Christ “who for the joy set before him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:1)! In joy the mature find healthy and wholesome living. In joy the mature find wellness of soul.
Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heav’nly Friend
Thro’ thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
— Katharina von Schlege, 1752