“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” As soon as we think about for more than a moment, we quickly realize that this is an impossible task. Part of the time, sure. Much of the time, maybe. But always?
It seems we are confronted with two choices: either we don’t take seriously the normal notion of rejoicing, or we don’t take seriously the pain of this life. We anesthisize ourselves from this world.
I have heard it explained just that way. All of the time, rain or shine, in sickness and health and when your grandmother—or your child—dies, you are to rejoice. It seems you have to redefine rejoicing as something completely other than what we normally consider it to be in order to adopt this view. Or, we simply say this is poetry, or hyperbole or some kind of double talking gibberish, but it is not to be taken on a literal level.
Some opt for a new definition of rejoicing. [Read very slowly:] “Not anything like. . . happiness,” they say, “not remotely related to happiness. . . Something far. . . deeper. Something very, [pause] very [pause; take a deep breath] deep.” So deep, it seems that it never touches reality. It never makes you smile.
Neither of these options seem really satisfactory to me. It seems we need an understanding of rejoicing that keeps us firmly planted in the real world, and at the same time, means something that is real and visible. Deep, to be sure, but not buried under 100 mattresses so it is never felt.
What did Paul mean when he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always?” Does he mean that as our circumstances go up and down our emotions are a constant straight line? Did he mean that we are to be emotionally unresponsive to those around us? Are we not to weep with those who weep ( Romans 12:15)? Is it really realistic to expect that we would be so emotionally detached from our own circumstances that physical pain and vocational rejection and marital conflict and unexpected taxes do not touch us emotionally at all? Is that what it means to live above our circumstances, not under them? Is that what it means to rejoice in the Lord always?
To answer this, we only have to understand the answer to another question: is it possible to experience two very different emotions at the same time? Is it possible to simultaneously experience joy and sadness? Or is this double talk? I say it is not. It is possible to experience several diverse and intense emotions. Our emotions seem to come multi-track, like a stereo recording, each distinct yet part of the whole. Moving to a new city and the death of a loved one after a prolonged and painful illness are two examples of times we experience more than one emotion at the same time. We are happy about the new opportunity; we are sad about leaving old friends. We are sad to loose our loved one; we are happy they are out of their pain. One emotion does not make illegitimate the presence of an opposite emotion. It really is possible to be deeply happy and deeply sad at the same time.
Paul knew of this. We assume from his writing to rejoice in the Lord always that this was the way he lived. We assume that He was a joyful person who often smiled. We assume he was shooting straight when he said he had learned to be content no matter what. ( Philippians 4:11) Yet, he was a man who knew what it was to cry:
I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. (Romans 9:2)
For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you. (2 Corinthians 2:4)
Jesus surely enjoyed his relationship with the Father. Surely he was obedient to the command to rejoice in the Lord always. But we must never forget that he was, “despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering.” (Isaiah 53:3 )
We see from both the examples of Jesus and Paul, as well as our own experience, that it is possible to experience more than one emotion at once. Paul was simultaneously experiencing joy in God and grief for the churches. Both emotions were real and felt.
This gives us some idea of what the goal of enjoying God is. It is not to be bubbly all the time, or even to experience joy on every level all the time. But, there is always an undercurrent, a foundation of joy running through the believer’s life. This joy is rooted in hope, as Paul said in Romans 12:12 “Be joyful in hope.” No matter what happens we have a joy rooted in the hope that awaits us.
This word hope is a very strong one, very different from the way we use the term when we say, “I hope to see you Sunday” to someone we know is not interested in God or church. It is the positive, confident assurance that God is on the throne and he will settle all accounts in the end and we will spend eternity with Him in heaven.
This undercurrent keeps grief from turning into despair. In another place, Paul says, (1 Thessalonians 4:13 ) “We do not want you to. . . grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” Notice he does not say that he does not want them to grieve at all on the occasion of the death of a brother, only that he does not want them to grieve in the same way that those without hope grieve. This hope lays the foundation of joy. In another place Paul spoke of the benefit of godly sorrow and contrasted it with worldly sorrow: “Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death.” (2 Corinthians 7:10) It must be possible to have this godly sorrow and at the same time rejoice. The joy is a foundational emotion that is experience simultaneously with sorrow.
But, a foundation always begs for a building. A foundation is never content to be left alone. Those who rejoice in the Lord always are not content with this foundational, “deep,” experience of joy based on hope alone. They do not want to stop there. When the storms of life strip away the super-structure, they will be content with the foundation, but they will quickly start building again.
People who enjoy God desire a joy that is felt in a day to day, moment by moment way.
They desire, and believe God desires, a joy that is upper story, as well as foundational. Of course it is foundational. It must be that or it is nothing. But people who enjoy God desire a joy that is felt in a day to day, moment by moment way. They desire a joy in God that is felt, that makes them smile and sing and dance. And most of the time, under normal circumstances, that is just the way they live.
This distinction marks a essential characteristic of people who take seriously the command to rejoice in God. People who do not enjoy God can easily hide their need for repentance by saying their joy is deep so it cannot be seen. How true the Scriptures are when they speak of our blindness. ( 2 Corinthians 4:4) I do not believe God is fooled. For people who truly enjoy God, you know it. Everyone they know knows it. They laugh. They smile. They are visible happy most of the time. I am very suspicious of people who say they rejoice in God but hardly ever seem to be happy. I think they are in denial and need to repent.
Not so people who really enjoy God. They seek to organize their life to maximize joy in God. They try to have circumstances that are harmonious with enjoying God. But they let God be God. And when the storms of life come their way, they choose to believe that the God they enjoy can and will make all things work together for good.