“Always rejoice in the Lord; I will say it again–Rejoice!”
We are often told as Christians that we are supposed to have joy. But what does that mean? How can we be joyful when there is so much suffering in the world (to say nothing of the pain in our own hearts)? It is something that I have struggled with for most of my adult life. I am kind of a serious person by nature, and being a member of Generation X means that I don’t take kindly to manufactured optimism.
Still, I have become convinced that I need to be more intentional about joy, that my natural melancholia is not necessarily a virtue for one who claims to be under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. As I reflected upon my need to cultivate joy, God pointed me to Philippians 4:4 as a resource for understanding the life to which He calls us.
Prepositions—Pesky Yet Profound
The first bolt of insight had to do with the little word we translate “in”. Normally, we use “in” as a marker of physical location, but that way of understanding the preposition wouldn’t work here. There are almost no actions that we can perform inside of another human being (unless one happens to be a surgeon by trade). So what is Paul trying to say?
One way that we could understand “in” is as an indicator of the means by which the action of the verb is accomplished or as the agent that makes the action of the verb possible. If we understand “in” this way, then Paul is saying that we should rejoice “with the help of” Christ. It is certainly possible that this is what Paul meant to convey, but I think that there is a better option. I think that “in” here represents the object towards which the action of the verb is directed or even the reason for which the action of the verb is undertaken. Thus, “because of” or “about” might be the best translation of the underlying Greek word (but see below).
Intentional Action, not a State of Being
The second insight comes from the verb that expresses Paul’s command (“rejoice”). According to the standard lexicon used by most New Testament scholars, this word means “to be in a state of happiness and well-being”. This definition is helpful because it closely connects the action of the verb with our emotions (happiness) while at the same time broadening our thinking about what counts for rejoicing (well-being). Unfortunately, it could also lead us astray. We need to remember that this is a verb. It is an action that we are to take, not a virtue that we are to cultivate (contrast with “joy” in Galatians 5:22).
Perhaps it would be best to render this verb “celebrate” rather than “rejoice” (which would mean that we could drop the proposition altogether). Paul’s point would be that we have something to celebrate–something that makes us happy and that gives us a genuine sense of well-being. We ought to communicate that happiness and well-being to God, to one another, and to everyone around us.
The Reason We Celebrate
People usually have a reason when they party–even if that reason isn’t much more than an excuse. For Paul, the reason for our celebration is no mere excuse. It is of immeasurable importance, for it has to do with the eternal welfare of the universe and the eternal redemption of God’s people.
It is particularly significant that Paul chooses to identify the reason we rejoice by using the title “Lord.” The Philippians knew hardship, and so did Paul. But they could rejoice because Jesus, not Caesar or any other earthly authority, is really in charge. We may not always see his power at work, and the Enemy is surely scheming to thwart his plans at every turn. Nevertheless, we can be confident that Christ is the supreme authority in the universe, and his authority will be expressed–to the glory of God and for the benefit of His children.
When We Celebrate
Perhaps the most difficult part of Paul’s command is his instruction about when we are to celebrate. For Paul, “always” is the operative word. It is an all-inclusive word; there are no excuses permitted for not rejoicing. Only Paul could offer such a word with any credibility. After all, he had been through a lot. He understood how hard it is to celebrate when you are lonely, tired, hungry, and in pain.
There are, however, a couple of things about Paul’s command that will help us put it into practice. First, we can “rejoice always” because of what–or, more properly, who–we are rejoicing. Paul does not call us to celebrate the evil that dominates our world. Paul does not call us to celebrate the grief that so often darkens our hearts. He calls us to celebrate Jesus, the one who sacrificed so much to redeem us from the hurts and griefs that are the inevitable result of our enslavement to sin. More to the point, Jesus has redeemed us from sin itself. In so doing, he transferred us to a new realm of existence under his own benevolent authority.
Second, celebrating Jesus does not preclude us from expressing other, less positive, emotions. We do this at funerals all the time; we celebrate the life of a loved one while also grieving their loss. We can do it in other areas of our lives, too. Sobriety demonstrates that we know the gravity of humanity’s situation; joy demonstrates that we grasp the significance of what Christ has accomplished.
I don’t like fakers, and I refuse to be one. But I cannot escape Paul’s call to rejoice. Because of Christ, we have much to celebrate. We aren’t betraying ourselves and the hurt we feel by doing so. We are becoming who Christ wants us to be and putting ourselves in a position to be used by him to minister to those around us. We can be honest about our disappointments and our frustrations; that only makes our rejoicing more meaningful. But we must not forget to rejoice.