Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. (Phil 3:1)
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Phil. 4:4)
Rejoicing in the Lord is a safeguard, Paul says, and one important enough to bear repeating.
Why is rejoicing so critical to our well-being?
Psychologists and “how to fix yourself” writers alike agree that our thoughts have a dramatic influence on our health – emotional, mental and physical. If we picture our minds as a defined space, we can see the problem when dark thoughts crowd out what light we have. Coping with stress from negative events and circumstances is made much harder when they consume most of our thinking. If we picture our minds as a defined space, we can see the problem when dark thoughts crowd out what light we have. We only have room for so many conscious thoughts in the run of a day; a preponderance of negative ones leave us in a very dark place. The “power of positive thinking” has been extolled as a remedy, to be applied in various ways according to its proponents. Struggling people are urged to follow formulas or establish recommended thought patterns to heal themselves.
The death of a loved one, watching our children make dangerous choices, the fear of job loss, a shattering diagnosis – being overwhelmed with dark thoughts is easily traceable to the cause in these struggles. But sometimes we are weighed down with ongoing negative thoughts we don’t even recognize. Old disappointments have made us cynical; former wrongs have left us bitter; past rejections have made us chronically insecure. For some, the inability to accept God’s forgiveness for their confessed sins keeps them wallowing in guilt and a sense of worthlessness.
In Phil 3:13-16, I think Paul is saying, “Don’t be constantly looking over your shoulder, remembering your past sins, wrongs done to you, rejections from people. Keep focused on the ultimate goal: eternal life with Christ. That will help put your other thoughts in the right perspective. Ask God to show you the path, where you need to mature under His guidance, how to pick yourself up when you stumble – and how to learn from the experience.”
That’s all well and good, but how can we possibly rejoice when terrible things happen?
The key here is the cause of our rejoicing. We are to rejoice in God, and not in our circumstances. Circumstances are constantly changing; God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. He is the one constant in life, the one source of stability. When we look at God, we can rejoice that He loves us so much He gave up His only Son for us. We can rejoice that He has the ultimate power in the universe He created, and that nothing and no one can destroy His ultimate purposes for good. We can rejoice that He has promised never to leave or forsake those who belong to Him. We can rejoice that, after this brief and often troubled earthly existence has ended for us, we will spend eternity with Him, where there is no more death, no more pain, no more crying.
What does this kind of rejoicing do for us? If we look at Phil. 4, Paul expands on his theme of essentially deciding to revel in God.
Rejoicing, says Paul, begets gentleness – in our thoughts, actions and responses. Because God is with us, we don’t have to lash out; we leave Him in control. We don’t have to be consumed with worry; we put our energies into prayer, taking everything to Him and leaving it there (definitely the hardest part). The peace that results when we really take hold of this is beyond human understanding. It guards our hearts and minds – our emotions and our thoughts – because it fills us and leaves minimum room for Satan’s incursions.
Paul’s list of positives in Phil 4: 8 each describes an attribute of God and His creation. When we focus on these, we focus on God. The more we fill our minds with Godly thoughts, the more those attributes will be put into practise in our lives. That is surely a cause for rejoicing!
This practice of rejoicing in God has brought about three things that Paul highlights in his own life.
First, he can rejoice because he has learned to be content whatever the circumstances (4:11). This is not a natural human response, but a learned one. It’s the fruit of knowing God and putting our unwavering trust in Him.
Second, he rejoices because “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” (4:13) Paul has learned where the source of his strength is, and it’s not in himself. Oh, how often we strive to fix, overcome, resolve, or patch up circumstances in our own strength. It’s a hard lesson to learn for most of us, it seems, but what a huge relief once we really grasp it.
Finally, Paul has learned that “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Jesus Christ.(4:19) Paul knows God because he belongs to God – he pointedly calls him “my” God. He knows God’s love for all of His children, and he has absolute confidence in Him. He knows that Jesus is the source of all true riches and has an endless supply to meet every need.
Does rejoicing mean happy feelings? It can, but rejoicing in God often means choosing to focus on God’s positives despite how you feel, not because of it. The more black the circumstance, the more vital the choice to look beyond the situation and to the Savior. I find it helpful to remember that Jesus’ death on the cross looked like the worst possible outcome to those who loved Him. It was only afterward they came to understand it was the door to the best possible outcome for them, and all who would come after them in faith.
It’s impossible to rejoice in God without praising Him. I don’t believe that God wants our praise for His sake, but for ours. God knows that we will praise what we worship. If we worship money, we’ll praise what generates wealth. If our god is health or physical attractiveness, we’ll praise what improves our bodies. If our god is power, we’ll laud what takes us up the leadership ladder.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with money, health and taking on responsibility, but making these the things that drive us is. God will provide what we truly need (sometimes a hard pill to swallow when it’s a tough lesson), and He’ll do it at the right time if we trust in Him. Rejoicing in God results in praising God and being led by God’s guidance – all safeguards essential to each of us.
So whether our circumstances are good, bad or indifferent, let’s learn to rejoice in God, to revel in His goodness and love, and praise Him for His mercy and guidance. Think of it as a revelation to revel in our relationship with the author and perfecter of our faith. I use this reminder (taken from 1 Chron 29:10-13; Psalm 73: 23-26) every morning to help frame my thoughts:
I praise you, Lord, who are God from the beginning to the end.
Yours, Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the majesty, the splendor.
Everything in heaven and earth is Yours.
Yours is the kingdom; You are exalted as head over everything.
Everything I treasure and honor comes from You; earth has nothing I desire besides You.
You are the ruler of all things.
Your hands hold the strength and power to lift me up and give me strength.
You are always with me; You hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will take me into glory.
My flesh and my heart may fail, but You are the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Thank You, Lord. I praise Your glorious Name.