I’ve not yet met a Christian who didn’t long for joy. The problem with joy, though, is that it is often quite temporal and fleeting. We are creatures of experience, and the joy we feel in gazing upon a sunrise can turn to anger the moment the noisy neighbor starts his mower and wakes up the household. We are creatures of habit, and our joyful and tranquil peace had during those quiet times of daily devotion can turn to annoyances when the phone rings. So, where are we to find true and lasting joy that does not change? When the ferocious storms of life hurl their torrential rains against us, how do we cling to joy?
The Apostle Paul answered this question for the Philippians. Often called the Epistle of Joy, Philippians is surprising when one considers that the Apostle wrote it from within a dank, dark, dirty, dingy prison cell. Yet, the theme of joy runs rampant. Paul knew that for the Christian, there’s a solution. We need not be bogged down by fear, riddled with anxiety, or weighed down by worry. There is, as it were, a better and more God-glorifying way: Joy in Christ alone.
Paul commands the following practices:
To be truly joyful we must rejoice in the Lord continually.
Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
Typically, we expect such statements to be given alongside a dozen qualifications. “Rejoice in the Lord as long as you’re happy.” Or, “Rejoice in the Lord as long as things are going well.” But that isn’t the case at all. This commandment is repeated a second time and there are absolutely no qualifications to go along with it. We are simply to be a joyful people who rejoice in the Lord.
The writers of the Westminster Shorter Catechism understood this when they wrote, right at the starts of the catechism that “Man’s chief end is to glorify and enjoy God forever.” Not only is our glorifying of God inseparably bound and intrinsically linked to our enjoying him, but these two things are to do be done consistently, persistently, and continually by the Christian.
In a very true sense, it is only the Christian who can have this true and lasting joy. Sure, the sinner may experience pleasure, but never true joy. Those pleasures are typically of the sinful variety, and though they may please and satisfy him for a time, they will lead only to destruction. It is only the Christian who has true joy because the Christian alone knows the salvation that comes from Christ alone.
To be truly joyful we must pray with thankfulness continually.
Philippians 4:5–7: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Amazingly, Paul tells us that it is not only reasonable to expect the Christian to be continually joyful, but the profound joy that we have in Christ, which colors all our life, is to be on display for all others to see. Because Christ is at hand, we can rejoice. Because Christ is at hand, we must rejoice. Because Christ is at hand, others must hear the good news of the gospel of salvation from us.
For Paul, the evident return of Jesus to this earth was a cause for joy and rejoicing. It was, and continues to be, a reason for why Christians ought not to fear, or be anxious, but ought to be a people of prayer instead.
Think of it like this: At the cross, Jesus crushed Satan beneath his feet. He bound the devil and began to plunder his domain, rescuing those sinners who had long been held captive to Satan. In the process, Jesus has continually advanced his Kingdom. From Heaven, he sits next to the right hand of the Father, awaiting the whole earth to be made a footstool beneath his feet as his glory spreads north, south, east, and west, just as surely as the waters cover the seas (Hab 2:14). When he finally returns to this earth, he is returning with Sword in Mouth to strike down his enemies; that is to say, he will judge and conquer the nations through his Word, even as he does so now through the power of the Holy Spirit as his Word is proclaimed by his servants.
That’s good news for the saints of God, is it not? Despite the sufferings, persecutions, sicknesses, deaths, troubles, issues, and problems that surround us, when he comes back, he will right every wrong. The wicked will be judged. The saint will be rewarded. Death will be no more; we will reign in life with Christ forever. We are invited to pray to this God now.
E. M. Bounds, who wrote quite a bit on prayer, once wrote:
We find all of God’s saints in straits at different times in some way or another. Their straits are, however, often the heralds of their great triumphs. But for whatever cause their straits come, or of what kind soever, there is no strait of any degree of direness or from any source whatsoever of any nature whatsoever, from which prayer could not extricate them.1E. M. Bounds, Prayer and Praying Men (Woodstock, Ontario: Devoted Publishing, 2016), 7.
Knowing we share in Christ’s victory over these things, we can pray. We need not be anxious, but can lay all fears, concerns, and worries at the feet of Jesus, trusting him to pray on our behalf. We can trust God to answer and meet our needs.
Let us learn to never say, “Well, we’ve done all else. Now all that’s left to do is pray.” Let us instead say, “I’ve done nothing else, so let me now pray!” True joy resides in the heart of the saints who pray the most, whose hearts and minds are guided and guarded by the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.
Now, to become people of constant prayer, it is helpful to remember who we serve.
To be truly joyful we must reflect upon God and His goodness continually.
Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
The Christian who wants joy must think upon good and excellent things. Likely, all of us can attest to the fact that a mind constantly focused on negative things will produce an unsatisfied, anxious, and angry person. The more we focus on the person who wronged us, the person who said something nasty or cruel, the unfair situation, the thing we wanted but couldn’t get, and so on, the less joy we will have. In fact, dwelling on such things produces envying, quarreling, divisions, and all other manner of wickedness amongst Christ’s Body.
To be truly joyful means we must contemplate, dwell on, and think about that which is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy. God gives us many things like this to dwell upon—consider the memories we create with our spouses and children which bring us joy. We must not neglect the small moments in life whereby God shines joy upon us like a beam of sunlight glittering through the canopy of a darkened forest.
Ultimately, God provides us with simple moments like these to remind us of His own greatness and goodness. It is a good thing to enjoy a sunset or sunrise, to admire flowers in a field, or to take delight in the joy of our children. Though we often neglect these things, we must become more like children, in this sense, who find wonder and joy in profoundly simple things. G.K. Chesterton wrote:
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.2G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1909), 108–109.
Yet, all these things are designed to point us back to God for only God himself meets all the criteria of Philippians 4:8 and, dwelling upon him, produces the greatest joy and rejoicing in our hearts. He alone is our eternal treasure and, therefore, our everlasting joy.