Those who know me worst know I struggle for, with and in joy. Yes, I’ve read Desiring God. Yes, I’ve read When I Don’t Desire God. And if Piper ever writes When I Don’t Desire to Desire God then I’ll read it, too. My problem, however, is not ignorance that needs educating. It’s sin that needs killing.
We recently finished a study through Philippians at our church. As you know, joy is an important (but not the only) theme in Paul’s letter to this small church. It is deeply connected to another important theme: thinking or considering (the phroneo word group and its synonyms are used as much as the chairo word group). Therefore, Christian joy derives from considering or contemplating objective truth; namely, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Think deeply on the gospel and joy will not be far behind. Neglect doing so and despair sets in.
Consider Paul’s instruction in Phil 4.7: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. I humbly offer three observations. You’ll need to remind me of these tomorrow, by the way.
Joy is a command to be obeyed. Paul does not offer a helpful suggestion to a bi-polar or depressed client. He’s not telling us to “keep our chin up.” He’s issuing a command (note the present-imperative chairete) to every believer in Christ to rejoice in Christ (cf. 1 Thess 5.16-18). R. Kent Hughes comments, “Joy is not a luxury–it’s a necessity!”
We may not often discern all of God’s will in a certain situation. But we can be assured that part of his will in every situation is that we rejoice in Christ. We’re not to find a silver lining in every cloud, but the gospel lining. Joylessness, therefore, is a sin from which we must repent (not a condition for which we need a prescription).
Joy is not circumstantial. Where does Paul expect us to find this joy? It must be easy for him to say considering he didn’t have three kids, a dead-end job, a mortgage and rising gas prices. You’re right. He didn’t have those things; he was much worse off. Remember, he wrote this letter from prison, which was his home away from home (cf. 2 Cor 11.23-29). Ask him today what God’s will is and he’ll say, “Rejoice in the Lord!” What if tomorrow things go from bad to worse? “I will say (future tense), ‘Rejoice!'”
Paul loved the phrase “in the Lord” in this letter (1.14; 2.19, 24, 29; 3.1; 4.1, 2, 10). By using it here (and 3.1) Paul placed our joy squarely in the truth and promises of Jesus Christ. We don’t rejoice because of what our circumstances do to us temporally, but because of what Jesus did for us eternally. Paul could not envision a circumstance that could eclipse the joy of the gospel.
Many of us ride a spiritual roller coaster. This week we feel close to God because some good things have happened. Next week we’re distant from God because some bad things happen. If things are good, we love/boast in God. When things go bad, we wonder why God hates us so much. Joy is circumstantial. It’s earth-centered. It’s an outside-in approach.
God intends to free us from this cycle. He frees us not by always giving us favorable circumstances, but by bringing us over and over again to what he’s done for us in Christ (see Jas 1.2-4; 1 Pt 1.6-9). God works joy in us from the inside-out.
No matter how bad the circumstances are, they are not remotely as bad as the eternal situation from which God has saved us. No matter how good the circumstances are, they are not nearly as good as the eternal situation for which God has saved us!
D.A. Carson comments: “If we fail to respond with joy and gratitude when we are reminded of these things, it is either because we have not properly grasped the depth of the abyss of our own sinful natures and of the curse from which have been freed by Jesus or because we have not adequately surveyed the splendor of the heights to which we have been raised.”
Imagine the most painful situation you could ever experience (the rape and murder of your wife and children, for example). Rejoice that if you are in Christ, then that’s the closest to hell you’ll ever get.
Now, imagine the most euphoric situation you could ever experience. Rejoice that this is but a small taste of the heaven Christ has bought for you.
Joy is not a feeling. Joy is part of the Spirit’s fruit: the working of Christ’s character in us (Gal 5.22). Jesus promised it to us (Jn 15.11) and prayed it for us (Jn 17.13). So unless Jesus is a liar or prayed wrongly then his joy is ours for the taking. What is his joy exactly? It’s the eternal bliss of perfecting a people by faith through his death (Heb 12.1-3).
We simply cannot make ourselves feel better. We assume so when we counsel “Cheer up, it’ll all work out” or “It could be worse” or “Stop feeling that way.” If it were as simple as making ourselves feel better, don’t you think we would? The fact is joy is the fruit of Christ’s promise and prayer, given freely by the Holy Spirit whom he sent to us. Meditate on what he’s done for you and despair will make way for joy.
My joy is not a determination of my will. I can’t simply determine to feel better tomorrow. I can resolve to sow seeds of the gospel today that will bear fruit of joy tomorrow. So pass me a rake, preach the gospel to me, and fertilize the seeds with your prayer.