If we’re being honest, in times of trial, to “rejoice always” as we are commanded seems utterly ridiculous.
Certainly the Lord does not mean we should pretend to be joyful when we are really not. Does he? It doesn’t seem authentic to even seek happiness when trials, temptations, and tragedies are present, let alone to actually be happy in times like these.
So what does Philippians 4:4-7 mean when we are told to “Rejoice in the Lord always”?
We Are Not Called to Rejoice in Our Circumstances Always
When you know you are failing to be a good husband or wife, the inner pull is to give up, to embrace the failure and live in a depressed, lonely state by yourself.
When you feel your spouse is failing you, the desire to be right quickly fades and a desire to simply have a right relationship with your spouse again grows painfully inside your heart with every increased degree of dysfunction that is produced over the years.
When you thought you finally found the perfect career and suddenly you realize you hate it more than your last choice, it seems there is no other option but to give up hope and join the masses of passionless, joyless, soulless slaves stuck in rush-hour traffic to and from their prisons called “work.”
When we look at all the outer problems surrounding our lives, we can’t help but think there is zero possibility for joy. We feel guilty for not having this joy because we know a good Christian should not feel this way. Rejoice always? Really, God?
And with all these problems swirling around us, to our amazement, sometimes, despite all our pleas regarding the difficulties in our lives, God seems to be silent. Why? What does “rejoice in the Lord always” even mean anyways?
Perhaps, if we are truly listening, listening not for what we want to hear but for what God is trying to teach us through his silence on our prayers regarding all our problems, perhaps we will see he his silent because we are praying about the wrong things entirely. Are circumstances, though they seem desperate, are not the most important variable in the equation of joy.
If we always focus on the outer world, we will often miss God’s leading. He may be leading you to pray about an external change, but he is always leading you to pray about your relationship and joy in him.
We Are Called to “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” Which Means Joy Is Always Available in God
C.S. Lewis states, “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself are the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”
To “rejoice always” in the midst of being drowned in poor financial choices, to put a smile on when your marriage is a mess and all you want to do is run to your sinful comforts, or to try and find happiness even though it seems like your parenting skills are ruining your children is not what God commands. To understand what “rejoice always” means, this phrase must be placed in its full biblical context or it will be an impossible, cruel command. God did not just say to rejoice always. He said, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
That is a very different command.
Suddenly the demand of God for us to be joyful Christians is no longer dependent upon what is happening in our crazy lives but upon Christ. It still means God requires us to rejoice always, even when your marriage is falling apart, your kids despise you, your boss wants to fire you, and you have some part to play in deserving these feelings from others. But God requires us to “rejoice always” even when life stinks because “in the Lord” we still have life. He didn’t tell us to rejoice in our circumstances always but to rejoice in the Lord always.
A great wave of relief will break upon the shores of your soul when you suddenly realize you can be happy even if life on this planet is not providing that happiness. There’s still hope even when the life you’ve built for yourself is offering no hope. Philippians 4:4 means that the joy the Lord is offering is totally separate and non-contingent upon what is happening in your life. Your days on earth will be unstable, but Jesus Christ who reigns in heaven is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8), and therefore to “rejoice in the Lord” is a command that can always be accomplished because God will never let you down and never let you go unlike everything else in life.
Your marriage may really be in trouble, your workplace may really be worse than most, and your sinful wanderings may truly be depressing. But there comes a time in life when we either let all of that go and stop demanding these things to make us happy, or we keep hoping they will and we forever remain unfulfilled.
The simple truth is this: Life, at many times, is really going to suck. The sooner we come to grips with the reality that we really do live in a broken, dysfunctional universe that will constantly not live up to our expectations, the sooner we can mature and find the real solution to our joylessness. Despite the shocking realization that the life you hoped for as a kid is never going to be found as an adult, God remains faithful, and in the silence to our prayers for relief to our outer problems, God is seeking to teach us a greater lesson. In the midst of all that is happening, he is trying to show us that he alone is the answer.
We Can Rejoice in the Lord Always Because God Always Changes Our Hearts, Not Our Circumstances
When answering the question, “What does it mean to rejoice in the Lord always?”, it’s worth noting that when God tells us to pray about everything in Philippians 4:4-7, he doesn’t promise that he is going to solve everything we are praying about.
What he does promise is that “the peace of God, which surpasses understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” When we pray about our problems, the relief is not going to come because God solved our outer problems, though he may do that many times. The relief is going to come, and the justification to “rejoice always” will arise, when we come into the presence of God in Christ Jesus. For true joy is not the absence of troubles but being in the presence of the Lord.
So what does it mean to rejoice in the Lord always as Philippians 4:4 commands? It means joy is always available in God. The answer to our joy will not be found anywhere else in life; for God himself is the answer, he alone is the Life.