“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (CSB – Read the chapter)
We talked yesterday morning about people reacting to situations in the wrong way – happy when they should be sad, sad when they should be happy, mad when they should be glad, and so on and so forth. Reacting the wrong way is one thing. Have you ever reacted to a situation in the right way, but you didn’t really mean it? We talked some about gift-giving yesterday. I suspect you’ve been through the experience before of opening a gift on your birthday or Christmas and you either already had it or didn’t even remotely want it. But the other person had really put a lot of thought into it and fully expected you to love it. So, you put on a smile you didn’t feel and thanked them heartily for it. They left feeling good about themselves, and you left feeling…a bit dirty because you weren’t really honest with them. Sometimes we have to react to a situation in a way that doesn’t match our feelings because the circumstances we are in demand it, but that’s not ever something we enjoy doing. So then, what are we supposed to do with Paul’s command here to rejoice in the Lord always? Let’s talk about it.
This is a challenging verse. That feels especially true these days. As we look around, it seems like there is more bad news every time we turn it on. A growing number of folks have gotten so disgusted with the state of the news media and the institutions on which they primarily report they have tuned out of the news altogether. While that can create a whole new set of problems of its own (namely, it’s difficult to be a good citizen when you are not an informed one), the impulse is entirely understandable. The world is burning down around us. How are we supposed to be anything other than grieved and filled with anxiety? Our leaders are regularly revealed to be corrupt and dishonest. How are we supposed to avoid the whirlpool of cynicism? Injustice and unrighteousness are flourishing everywhere we look. How can we help but live our lives with an edge of anger everywhere we go? One natural disaster after another – including an ongoing virus pandemic – is wreaking havoc on our world. How can we not be angry with the God who is allowing them all to happen? And Paul tells us we should rejoice in Him always? Really?
A deeper study of the word rejoice here really doesn’t help much either. The operative Greek word Paul used there is chairo (where the “ch” is pronounced like a “k,” and the “ai” is pronounced like you’re saying the long sound of the vowels “i” and “e” one after the next). Chairo can be used as a greeting, but it is more commonly best translated just like you see it translated here: rejoice. Our English word rejoice carries pretty much the same lexical range as its Greek counterpart. It means to show or express great joy or delight. Okay, well, how are we supposed to show or express great joy or delight all the time when things are so bad? Even being picky about the exact words Paul uses doesn’t make things any better. How are we supposed to rejoice in the Lord always when the bad things are happening to us or to someone we love and it doesn’t feel like He’s anywhere around to help?
The answer to all of these questions lies in understanding two things. The first is a lie the world wants us to believe. The second is a foundational Biblical virtue. Let’s start with the lie. One of the biggest lies our culture tells us about God is that He wants us to be happy. Several years ago a team of sociologists led by Dr. Christian Smith from the University of Notre Dame did an extensive study into the religious beliefs and preferences of teenagers in the United States. What they found was rather disturbing for folks who are interested in seeing that group of folks grow in an orthodox and solidly biblical understanding of God and a relationship with Him in Christ. It prompted more than one book length exploration including one by Smith himself called Soul Searching and another by Kendra Creasy Dean called Almost Christian. Both are worth your time to read them if you want to know more about the study.
The short version is that, when it comes to religion, most American teenagers fit into a category Smith called “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” or MTD for short. Confessedly Christian teens were especially likely to fit within the boundaries of this distinction. What this means is they believe religion is most about being good (moralistic), feeling good (therapeutic), and that God is somewhere up there, but isn’t necessarily involved in life from day to day (deism). For our conversation this morning, that middle distinction is of great importance, and it isn’t limited only to teenagers. I would be so bold as to suggest most folks believe religion is something that should make you feel good. In other words, it should make you happy. They believe one of God’s great concerns for people is their happiness.
When you look around the culture, that kind of thinking is all over the place. Consider just how many Disney movies have as their primary moral lesson the goodness of following your heart to happiness. It’s baked into Disney’s anthem, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are, anything your heart desires will come to you.” We are told everywhere we go that we should feel good at all times and if something isn’t making us feel good we should in no ways be expected to continue doing it. Anything which threatens our ability to be happy is an obstacle that must be removed with prejudice. Again and more simply: God wants you to be happy.
The trouble is, that’s just not true. At least, it’s not true in the way we are taught to think about it. Happiness is an emotion. God cares about our emotions. He really does. He has His own emotions. Emotions are natural responses to the circumstances of relational beings. Having emotions is normal. It is healthy…most of the time. The thing about emotions is while they may be an honest reflection of the current state of our heart, they aren’t necessarily an honest reflection of the current state of our circumstances.
Let me explain. Let’s say a colleague wins a big prize at work and everyone in the office is celebrating her accomplishment. The circumstances we are in are happy and joyful. But we really wanted to be the one to win that prize and so we are jealous. In that kind of situation, our emotional state may be anger. There is obviously a disconnect here. It could be that something tragic has happened to someone we don’t like very much. While the circumstances then may be sad and sympathetic, we’re happy to see the downfall of a perceived enemy.
Well, because God cares about our emotions, He wants for them to be properly reflective of the state of our circumstances as His always are. Because happiness is an emotion, there are circumstances when it is the right way to be feeling. There are also circumstances, though, when it is not the right way to be feeling. This is particularly true in situations where we are involved in some kind of sin that feels good in the moment but which will eventually have a collateral impact on the people around us in addition to interrupting our relationship with God. So, while happiness is indeed a good thing to be experiencing, if we’re not careful it can become an idol. And when happiness becomes an idol, it can quickly become a terrible thing. This is what I mean when I say that God doesn’t want you to be happy. He is thrilled for you and I to experience happiness, but never at the expense of righteousness.
This leads us to the second thing we need to understand here. While God may not want us to be happy all the time, what He does want is for us to be joyful. Joyfulness is a deep-seated sense of contentment and wholeness stemming from our confidence that God is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. Joyfulness is not a circumstantial emotion. It is – or at least it can be – a permanent state of mind. It can be seen as the foundation on which other emotions are built. It can also be seen as the lens through which other emotions are filtered. Either way, it provides the controlling narrative for the emotions we experience. We can be happy and joyful just as much as we can be grieved and joyful. We can be angry and joyful. We can be scared and joyful. Joy is the operating system; our emotions are the apps running on it.
Once we understand this, then we can begin to see more clearly what Paul was talking about here. We can experience and express great joy – that is, we can rejoice – at all times and in all circumstances in the Lord if we are convinced He is who He says He is and will do what He says He will do. Whatever situation we might be facing, if we are properly convinced God is still on His throne and is guiding the stream of human history to the end that will bring Him the most glory and His people (which includes us!) the most joy, then we can glide through it contentedly even if it happens to be awful situationally. That is, we can rejoice in the Lord always.
So then, how’s your joy? When was the last time you consciously rejoiced in the Lord? Unlike the pursuit of happiness, you don’t have to fake this one. Even when the tears are streaming down your cheeks, your joy can be great because you know the truth: Christ is risen and life will come to those who are His. Justice will be served and righteousness will eventually win the day. Hope will be realized and faith will become sight. Death and sin are defeated and their sting has been removed. All of creation will be restored. Every tear will be wiped away along with crying, mourning, and pain. Because of that, we can – no, we must – rejoice in the Lord always. The culture may preach happiness, but the truth is so much better. Let’s embrace it together.