A couple weeks ago, Steph and I went to a funeral to support friends of ours. Their dad unexpectedly passed away at a young age and it has been a tragic loss for the family. Lately, I have found myself studying the book of Philippians and one of the major themes in this letter is that of “rejoicing.” Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). This is a much loved verse by Christians the world over, but how do we make sense of this following the death of a loved one? How do we make sense of this for someone suffering from cancer? How do we make sense of this when a friend is working through a divorce? The trials of life are many and often and so is it really possible to rejoice in the Lord….always?
When we look at the context of Philippians, we see that Paul did not enjoy the rosiest of circumstances. Paul wrote this letter while in a Roman jail cell. As you might have guessed, prison in the first century Roman world was not the same as prison today. Plain and simple, it was not a fun place to be. Obviously, Paul was granted certain liberties (like writing letters) but it still was a dreadful place to live. Nonetheless, in spite of his circumstances, Paul maintained a positive attitude.
“Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Philippians 1:18-19). “Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me” (Philippians 2:17-18). Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you” (Philippians 3:1). “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly” (Philippians 4:10).
For Paul, joy is not based on circumstances. Rather, joy comes from the Lord. In the Lord, we find an unchanging source of peace, happiness and contentment. While the circumstances of life are always changing, the Lord God is our Rock and our Fortress. In Him we find an ever-flowing river of joy that remains no matter what comes our way. The circumstances of living in a fallen world often hit us hard, but they can never hit us hard enough to take away our source of joy, the Lord Jesus. Paul explains, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8).
Friend, I don’t know what you are going through right now. Some of you might be cruising along on top of the world and some of you might not be. My advise to you, no matter what your circumstances – praise the Lord, for He is always worthy of our praise. But if you are feeling down and the circumstances of life have not gone your way, then look to Jesus for your joy and comfort. Know that he is working your pain for “good” even in the midst of trials (Romans 8:28). And if you have a friend who is suffering, the best thing you can do (apart from pointing them to Christ) is to simply “be there” for them. The Bible tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). You can’t change their circumstances, but you can weep with them and love them.
James 1:2-4 gives us a concluding word: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when your meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”