A LIFE OF JOY
Philippians 3:1; 4:4
I was doing some grocery shopping in one of our local grocery stores, and while in the soft drink section, a bottle of soda caught my eye. Actually, it is the name of the soda that caught my eye, for it is a Malaysian brand and I had never seen it before. Have you seen or tried this? It’s called Kickapoo. That’s the most interesting name for a soft drink I have ever heard!
But it gets even better, for under the name Kickapoo in smaller print is the rest of the name. The full name is Kickapoo Joy Juice. And then it says, The Original Kickapoo Joy Juice Recipe. Well how can you not try that!
I mean, who doesn’t want some joy in their life? And here it is, in this very bottle. If you’re feeling down or discouraged, just pour yourself a glass of Kickapoo Joy Juice, and it will pick your spirits right up. For here is joy, right in this bottle.
That got me thinking; if joy can be found in a bottle of soda, I wonder where else one can find joy. Where else to look, but Google! So I went to Google, and typed in the word joy. There were more than 900,000 pages, so I focused my search on books or web sites they listed that promised joy. Here’s is a partial list:
The Joy of Baking (Not to be confused with…)
The Joy of Cooking (If you didn’t get enough joy here, there is…)
The New Joy of Cooking (which leads a more specialized version…)
The Joy of Soup
The Joy of Pi (not the kind you eat but the math symbol. I wish someone would have written that book about 30 years ago because I don’t remember experiencing much joy as I wrestled with that in math class.)
The Joy of Tech
The Joy of Visual Perception
The Joy of Painting
Jumping for Joy, which tells of the joy of jumping rope
The Joy of Hockey
The Joy of Handspinning
The Joy of Pigs
The Joy of Belly Dancing
The Joy of Home Wine Making (related to that…)
The Joy of Sake
The Joy of Socks (I guess so you can have happy feet!)
With all these sources of joy in our contemporary world, and having them so easily accessible, you would think we would be the most joyful people in the history of the world. And yet that hardly seems to be the case. I wonder if that’s because we are missing out on something. Perhaps there is another source of joy, one that is not listed on the Google web site, that is the real source of authentic joy.
As human beings, we long to experience joy, which is why so many products on Google promise us joy. With such a widespread yearning for joy, it might make you think that this desire for joy is wired into us. Actually, it is. We were created to experience joy, but we must seek it in the right place. If we want to find true and lasting joy, instead of going to Google and the web sites and books listed there, we will be much better off if we turn to the pages of Scripture. Let’s begin with a short passage, just one verse, Phil. 4:4. There Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Joy is the dominant theme of the book of Philippians. There are only four chapters in Philippians, yet the words joy or rejoice occur 16 times in this short letter.
When we think of God’s will for our lives, what do we usually focus on? I’m guessing that our thoughts are typically drawn to such things as what career or vocation we should pursue. We would think about the specific gifts and abilities God has given us and how we can best use those in His service. Should we get married, and if so, to whom? Where should we live? We would also consider matters relating to our character and morals, trying to live a holy life. Of course, all of these are aspects of God’s will for our lives.
But here Paul draws our attention to another dimension of God’s will for our lives, one that perhaps we easily overlook. For whatever reason, we often picture God's will for our lives as being only something heavy and burdensome, challenging tasks to do that require great sacrifice, but it is clear from this verse as well as other portions of Scripture that God’s will for our lives includes the element of joy. If in this short letter from the apostle Paul he refers to joy sixteen times, then it is obvious that this is very important and something that God wants to be a part of our lives.
From somewhere it crept into the church that if we take our relationship with God seriously then we must be serious all the time. And not only serious but even somber. Yes, there is a time to be serious, and following Jesus is a serious matter. But as followers of Jesus, joy should characterize our lives all the time. For our text states, “Rejoice in the Lord – when? - always.” Always! Not some of the time. Not only when things are going our way. But always. It sounds simple enough, but in case we didn’t get it, Paul added, “I will say it again: Rejoice!”
When we think of God’s commands, we probably think of the Ten Commandments – keeping God first in our lives, having no idols, observing the Sabbath, honoring our parents, not murdering, committing adultery, stealing lying, or coveting. Well, Phil, 4:4 is another command, for it is telling us what to do. Yet it is likely not what we think of when it comes to God’s commands for our lives. The command is: rejoice in the Lord! So joy is part of God’s will for our lives. This is what God desires for us, that we be filled with joy and that we express this joy with rejoicing.
Isn’t that great news? As followers of Jesus we should be the most joyful people on earth, for this is God’s will for us. And not only is this God’s will for our lives, but He Himself is the source of our joy. We can be joyful because God both wills that for our lives and provides it to us. But we must receive it. We must lay claim to it. Let’s look at this a little more closely.
First of all, what is joy? I think we all know that joy is not the same thing as happiness. The word happiness is the English translation of the Latin word fortuna. Closely related to that is our word fortunate. If someone was in an accident we may say, “he was fortunate he wasn’t hurt.” So happiness has to do with chance. If things work out favorably for us, we are happy. But if they don’t, we are not happy. Thus, happiness to a large degree is determined by our circumstances.
But it’s not that way with joy. Joy is deeper than an emotion determined by circumstances. Sometimes joy takes the form of happiness or is expressed through feelings of happiness, but from a biblical perspective, there is more to joy than that. Joy is marked by a delight in God and a confidence in His goodness and faithfulness. Joy, as Dallas Willard wrote, is “a pervasive and constant sense of wellbeing.” When we are confident in the goodness and faithfulness of God, then even if we are enduring suffering or hardship, we can have this inner joy – not a “jump up and down with excitement” kind of joy, but that pervasive sense of wellbeing, the assurance that God is good, God loves us, and God is always working out His good plans for our lives. We can experience the joy of God’s grace in drawing us to Himself and giving us life even if we are facing suffering and loss.
We can be joyful because God is good and God is faithful. That’s why Paul wrote in this passage, “Rejoice in the Lord.” He didn’t just say to rejoice as if our joy is not rooted in something. No, we are to rejoice in the Lord.
Now, if we are to rejoice in the Lord we must take the time to know and learn who the Lord is and all that He has done for us. Only then will we be able to rejoice in the Lord. Certainly when Paul wrote these words he was thinking of what he wrote two chapters earlier about Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!
If we are to rejoice in the Lord we must think on the depth of God’s love for us. Just think for a moment of how valuable you are to God, of your worth before God. Jesus was willing to leave the splendor and perfection of heaven, become a human being, and a servant at that, and finally die on the cross in your place. He died for your sins! All your sins are forgiven. No more guilt. No more shame. It was dealt with once and for all at the cross.
And not only did Jesus die on the cross but He rose from the grave, defeating the power of death for Himself and for us as well. All this Jesus did because of His love for us. When the fullness of God's sacrificial love for us sinks in, it can't help but lead to joy. To think, God would do that for me! I matter that much to God.
But our joy is rooted not only in what Christ did for us 2,000 years ago but also in what He is doing for us now. Consider the promises He has made to us. No matter what happens we are never alone, for He will never leave us or forsake us. He will give us strength for every situation. Even the most difficult experiences we face He will somehow work for good. And there is nothing that we can do and nothing that can happen to us that can ever separate us from His love. When we truly believe His promises, of course we will be filled with joy.
And we rejoice not only in what Christ has done for us and in what He is now doing for us, but we also rejoice in what He will yet do. One day, Christ will return. One day, evil will be forever banished. One day, Christ will wipe every tear from our eyes and there will no longer be any reason for tears for there will be no more sickness or pain or death. No matter how difficult the circumstances we may be facing in this life, we are assured that one day it will all be different. One day everything will be as it should be as Christ reigns over all and we will be in His presence for eternity.
When we keep all of this ever before us how can we not be filled with joy? When we remember how Christ died for us to forgive our sins, that He defeated death for us, that He is always with us guiding us toward His good purposes and working all things for good, that He is completely faithful, and that one day He will return to reign forever and we will be in His presence for all eternity, how can we not rejoice?
But we must see that we are not passive in this. God has done, is doing, and will do all these wonderful things for us but He doesn’t simply fill us with joy apart from any action on our part. God doesn’t force joy into our lives. We must consider what God has done for us. We must meditate on all that is ours in Christ. We must choose to focus on those things. It has to become a part of us so that it determines our outlook and attitude throughout all of life. Then we can rejoice in the Lord always as we keep in the forefront of our minds the goodness of God, the depth of His love, and all His promises to us!
In Jn. 15:9-11, Jesus told us something we must do if we are to be filled with joy. He said:
“As the Father has loved Me, so have I loved you. Now remain in My love. If you keep My commands, you will remain in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands, and remain in His love. I have told you this so that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.”
If we are to experience the fullness of joy we must keep Jesus’ commands. That only makes sense, for Jesus is the source of true joy, and how could we experience that joy if we are living in disobedience to Him? But note what is the specific command, the overarching command Jesus gives us in relation to His joy being in us. It’s that we remain in His love. What a wonderful command from Jesus – to remain in His love. Jesus doesn’t want us to ever forget the depth of His love for us.
Jesus goes on to say in this passage, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” That, of course, is what Jesus did for us. Jesus loves us with the greatest love possible, giving us the greatest gift imaginable – the gift of eternal life where we will experience His love forever. As we focus on His amazing love and abide there, we will be filled with deep joy. This is what Jesus wants for us.
Now it’s important to note a couple things that this is not talking about. First of all, this is not talking about working ourselves up into an emotional state of happiness. I have been in worship services in other churches where the worship leader tried to do that. The worship leader functioned more like a cheerleader and tried to pump everyone up, to get everyone excited.
We can try to do the same thing to ourselves. But if we fall for that we are only dealing with what’s on the surface, and joy goes much deeper. It’s not about artificially lifting our spirits to make ourselves feel happy but deepening our roots into the truth of who God is and all He has done for us. In that sense joy is more of a by-product that we experience because of our knowledge of and relationship with God. We experience joy not by seeking after joy but by seeking after God, for again, we rejoice in the Lord.
Nor is this about denying our circumstances. The call to rejoice always does not mean that we must ignore trying or painful events in our lives, pretending that they are not there or that they don’t affect us. Paul, who wrote these words to rejoice always, also wrote in II Cor. 1:8 about some especially difficult and painful suffering he and his companions endured on their travels. At one point, it was so bad that Paul wrote, “we despaired even of life.” It’s clear that Paul was not ignoring his circumstances and the pain they brought. No, he felt that deeply, so much so that he despaired even of life. But, he says, even in the midst of such painful experiences, there is still reason to rejoice and we ought to rejoice.
We don’t rejoice because of such circumstances, but we rejoice in spite of them. For God has not abandoned us. He is still there to give us strength and courage and endurance. God’s love for us has not changed. What He did for us in Christ is still ours and what He will yet do is still assured. During those times, we can know God’s presence and comfort and power in deeper ways than we likely will when things are going smoothly. Such experiences can bring our faith to greater maturity.
Recall that Paul wrote these words while he was a prisoner. For two years he had been chained to a Roman guard. His circumstances were not very pleasant. Yet as he wrote in chapter one, Paul rejoiced because he saw how his circumstances were leading to the spread of the gospel as others were inspired by his example to preach the gospel more boldly. His focus was on Christ – not only on what Christ had done for him but also how Christ was using him in spite of his horrendous circumstances – and so he could rejoice.
Focus is the key to being able to rejoice always. Unfortunately, we can easily put our focus on the wrong things. We may focus on our career and hope to gain a sense of joy from that. We may focus on acquiring wealth and possessions and think that if we acquire enough we will experience joy. We can focus on relationships with the belief that there we will find joy. It’s not that those things are wrong. In fact, they can be good. We may even find a sense of enjoyment in them, but they are not the source of true and lasting joy.
So if we focus on them, thinking that in them we will find true and lasting joy, we will be disappointed. Our career may turn out not to be very satisfying, and even if it is, at some point it will end. Striving for material wealth, even if we attain it, only leaves us desiring more. Besides, that can’t satisfy our soul. Even the best of relationships at some time end in one way or another. Despite what was promised on that Google web site, not even cooking or painting, hockey or belly dancing, pigs or socks can bring us true and lasting joy! Nor can Kickapoo Joy Juice!
Only God will never fail us. Everything that is of this world is only temporary. But His love for us never ceases, His mercies never come to an end. And when that is where our focus is, we can rejoice always.
But, some might ask, is such a life really possible? Can one really rejoice always – even if they’re rejoicing is in the Lord? We may be tempted to say, “Yeah, that’s easy for some to say, but they don’t know what I’m going through. They haven’t had to face what I’m dealing with.” And it is true that sometimes it may be harder to rejoice than others.
But we must remember that these words come from a man who was a prisoner at the time, and that not for the first time. These words come from a man who had three times been shipwrecked, he had been whipped with 39 lashes on five occasions, beaten, nearly stoned to death, opposed by some leaders in the church, endured hunger and thirst, and at that very moment was facing possible execution. Yet he was able to rejoice in the Lord, and so encouraged us to do the same.
How was he able to do that? It comes back to focus. Whether we have an attitude of rejoicing or not depends on what we are focusing on. Maybe a simple illustration will show this clearly.
I remember reading about a football game. This was American football. It took place in October, 1982. The University of Wisconsin was hosting Michigan State in a football game, which in the US is a significant game. More than 60,000 fans packed the stadium, most of course rooting for the home team Wisconsin. But that year Michigan State had a better team and as the game progressed it became more and more lopsided in favor of Michigan State. Now this particular football game is not so significant, certainly not for us today.
But what was interesting was this. Even as Michigan State racked up the score the Wisconsin fans from time to time would erupt with bursts applause and cheering. Why were they celebrating when their team was getting demolished?
Well, it turns out that the baseball World Series was taking place at the very same time. And just seventy miles away another team from Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Brewers, was beating the St. Louis Cardinals. Now this was before the time of smart phones and there was no internet to connect to. But many of the fans at the football game had portable radios and were listening to the baseball game. And as they were cheering and applauding they were responding to something other than their immediate circumstances. They were sitting in a football stadium, but their focus was on what was happening in a baseball stadium, 70 miles away. That’s why they cheered.
In II Cor. 4:18 Paul encourages us to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” When we fix our eyes, when we direct our focus not to what is seen but to what is unseen, not on our present circumstances, the disappointments in this life, or dreams that never came true, and instead focus on God and His never-failing love for us, the grace and mercy He has shown us in Jesus Christ, His constant presence and enduring faithfulness, and the purpose He can accomplish through whatever trying situation we may be facing, then we can rejoice in the Lord. We can experience a sense of joy in the Lord always. Again, this doesn’t mean we live in denial of our circumstances, but by the grace of God we can see beyond our circumstances so that in spite and even in the midst of them we can rejoice in God and His goodness to us.
Do you want to experience deep and lasting joy? Would you like to be able to rejoice at all times? Of course. We all would. And we all can, for God’s will is that we be joyful. In that sense, not to be joyful is a denial of our faith. But we don’t need to deny our faith. Nor do we need to wait until circumstances work out more to our liking.
We simply must fix on our eyes on God, on His love and grace and goodness and faithfulness – all of which are directed toward us - and there we will find joy, that pervasive sense of wellbeing. Human joy arises out of the realization of God’s steadfast love for us. And since His steadfast love never ceases, we can rejoice always.