The past few months of my life have been less than stellar. A hard-hitting cocktail of family troubles, physical pain, and church hurt took its emotional toll, and my thoughts started to spiral, fast-tracking me to discouragement and feelings of defeat.
I know that I am not alone in this feeling, especially right now, as a worldwide pandemic strips us of everything familiar, leaving some of us grieving, ill, and jobless. We have lost a certain innocence; a new understanding of our collective fragility will change us in ways we haven’t yet discovered.
Our pain forces us to make a decision: will we rejoice in the Lord, even here? As for me, I want to answer yes, but a wounded spirit often struggles to muster anything that feels remotely like joy. At the same time, I wanted a path forward, and so I started looking into what the Bible says about joy. These verses gave me a path forward:
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Romans 12:12 ESV
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.
Philippians 4:4 ESV
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV
In these examples, the words rejoice and joy have the same original Greek root, which is χάρ-, meaning grace (Strong’s Greek). Because of this, the English word rejoice literally means “to be in grace.” If we combine this with the Biblical context, Christian rejoicing is intentionally living in the grace of God.
But how are we supposed to do that in the midst of sorrow, pain, and everything else? It begins with knowing the many reasons we have to rejoice.
Reasons for Joy
If we are going to rejoice, we need to be specific and understand why we are rejoicing. Where does joy come from in the first place? In Romans, we read that the Lord fills us up with joy:
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.
Romans 15:13 ESV
At the same time, joy is our responsibility. We have to make up our minds to embrace the joy that the Lord offers to fill us with day by day. In his Bible Commentary, Matthew Henry emphasizes that we have a role to play in our rejoicing:
All our joy must terminate in God; and our thoughts of God must be delightful thoughts. It is our duty and privilege to rejoice in God, and to rejoice in him always; at all times, in all conditions. There is enough in God to furnish us with matter of joy in the worst circumstance on earth. Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice. If good men have not a continual feast, it is their own fault.
Matthew Henry, Bible Commentary
The Lord offers us a “continual feast” of joy, and, regardless of our circumstances, we are without excuse if we are joyless. God himself is the root of our joy. The Scottish pastor Robert Murray M’Cheyne touches on this in his letters, writing:
The truest, purest joy flows from a discovery of Jesus Christ. He is the hidden treasure that gives such joy to the finder.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, Letters
God himself is the source of our greatest joy. Even though the Lord cannot be fully known (Job 11:7-8; 1 Corinthians 2:10-11), we know enough about his character to have everlasting cause to rejoice in him. These are some truths about God that we know from the Bible:
- He has saved us (Acts 15:11; Romans 3:22-24; Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 2:11).
- He is loving (Psalm 86:15, 136:1; John 3:16; 1 John 3:1, 4:19).
- He is faithful (Psalm 119:90; 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Timothy 2:13; Hebrews 10:23).
- He is with us (Psalm 46:1; Isaiah 41:10; Matthew 28:20; Hebrews 13:5).
- He is our father (John 1:12; 2 Corinthians 6:18; Galatians 3:26, 4:7).
- He is just (Job 12:22; Psalm 37; Luke 18:7-8; Romans 12:19).
- He cares about our suffering (Isaiah 53:4; 2 Corinthians 1:3-5; Philippians 3:10).
These are good truths! We could not ask for a better God, and we could not ask for a gift costlier than our salvation. Because of this, we can walk in joy at all times – even these times.
We see this perennial joy in Paul, whose gratitude and pleasure in the grace of God is as fresh when he writes Philippians under house arrest in Rome as it was twenty years prior in the early days of his conversion. He says,
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
Philippians 3:8-9 ESV
Paul wants more than anything else to gain Christ and be found in him – Jesus is of surpassing worth to him, more important than life itself. This shows us that he never forgets that his salvation was a gift from God. By consciously living in the wake of grace, Paul has claimed his seat at Matthew Henry’s “continual feast!”
When we are struggling to have joy, the first thing to do is check our theology – what we believe about God – against these truths. Nothing is worse than feeling like God is indifferent to our pain or fails to follow through on his promises; when that happens, we can be honest with him about how we feel and ask him to help us believe. He will help us turn our hearts and minds to truths about himself that inevitably produce joy in the Christian’s heart – and this can happen in any circumstance, even in the midst of suffering.
Having Joy Through Pain
Biblical truth does not immunize us to hurt or pain. It is possible for joy to co-exist with excruciating sorrow, and experiencing discouragement is not always an indication of weak theology. Paul was sorrowful. Jesus wept when Lazarus died. I am not happy that the past few months of my life have hurt. However, even in the midst of pain (physical and emotional), we can rejoice in the Lord. Paul demonstrates this for us in 2 Corinthians:
…We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.
2 Corinthians 6:8-10 ESV (second half of verse 8)
Paul is sorrowful but rejoicing. Truths anchor his joy, but his circumstances make him sorrowful. We this again in his letter to the Philippians. He writes,
Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
Philippians 1:18-21 ESV (second half of v. 18 only)
He will rejoice regardless of what happens to him. In the next chapter, he affirms his conviction:
Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise, you also should be glad and rejoice with me.
Philippians 2:17-18 ESV
When he faces suffering, Paul focuses on the fact that God’s purposes would be accomplished. He makes the decision to anchor himself in truth instead of his circumstances. When we, like Paul, have properly prioritized truth above feelings, we will be able to discover that Biblical truth is an eternal wellspring of joy. In his book Spiritual Depression, Martyn Lloyd-Jones puts it likes this:
Feelings are never meant to take the first place, they are never meant to be central. If you put them there you are of necessity doomed to be unhappy, because you are not following the order that God himself has ordained….[The Bible] is primarily Truth, and Truth is addressed to the mind, God’s supreme gift to man; and it is as we apprehend and submit ourselves to the truth that the feelings follow.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression
This is the path that the Lord has for us – his primary concern is not that his followers will be happy, but instead grounded in truth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and pastor who spent the last years of his life imprisoned in a concentration camp in Berlin, aptly sums it up in his book A Life Together:
[God] does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Life Together, translated by John W. Doberstein
God wants more than for us to feel like he is God, or feel like he is good. Instead, he wants us to believe these truths. If we focus on our feelings, we limit ourselves to our own willpower and enslave our theology to our circumstances. When we start with truths about God, prioritizing them above our feelings, we build a foundation that allows us to rejoice even in the midst of suffering.
The Greatest Joy
When we begin to seek something greater than happiness, we will realize that knowing Jesus is better than any of the emotional highs our world offers.
Each time that we search for joy anywhere else, especially in our feelings, we will come up empty. As C. S. Lewis writes,
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses
Life is not meant to be lived from feeling to feeling, compliment to compliment, or relationship to relationship, or promotion to promotion. We’re meant for something more real and more wonderful than any emotional pleasure our human biology affords. Resting in truths about Jesus is exactly what will satisfy us.
When I look at my life, I can see thousands of times where I’ve forfeited joy because I thought that something else would satisfy me. I scrounged around in my emotional basement and thought that maybe if I got these problems in my life solved, I’d finally have a fighting chance at being happy. If I got a degree, had a steady career, got married, or crossed one more thing off my to-do list, I’d finally have the joy of the Lord.
All I had to do was come before Jesus, empty-handed, discouraged, a mess, balancing a hard-hitting cocktail of family troubles, physical pain, and church hurt before an almighty God. And that’s all that we have to do. In this unprecedented, pandemic-ridden world, joy is possible.
Jesus makes it possible. It is impossible to look at the cross, that great intersection of justice and grace, without rejoicing. Indeed, the best thing that will ever happen to us occurred 2,000 years ago on Calvary. We will never have a greater cause for rejoicing than our salvation.
Each day of our lives, the Lord invites us to live in the eternal wake of grace. This is the continual feast to which we are all welcomed. It begins by making the decision to look upward, far beyond our sorrows, to Jesus.
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© Olivia Davis 2020, all rights reserved