During a Sabbath School discussion yesterday, we discussed the text found in Philippians 4:4: Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.
Towards the end of our discussion, the question was asked: How can we tell someone to rejoice when they are going through a hopeless situation — divorce, rape, abuse, etc.?
In our study circle, no one mentioned personally experiencing any of those tragedies so it seemed a fair question: is it reasonable for me to share this text with someone going through a seemingly hopeless challenge?
1. Look Who’s Talking?
The question is often asked, “How can YOU tell people to always rejoice in Christ even when they are going through such horrid circumstances?”
Actually, the call to always rejoice doesn’t come from me. Or from you. It comes from the Apostle Paul. From a human perspective, is he qualified to make this statement?
Notice what he says: “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” (Philippians 4:12)
“Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.
Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck,
a night and a day I have been in the deep;
In journeys often, in perils of water, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine
own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the
wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren;
In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in
fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
Besides those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the
care of all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-28).
Paul’s experience qualifies him to make such a statement. If there is anyone who has reason to complain to God about the difficulty of his life, it would be Paul. For the sake of Christ, he lost a high-paying job and prestigious position. To add to his loss, he eventually suffered a martyrs death for the cause of Christ. But this was not before he was robbed, beaten, hungry, thirsty, naked, and cold. What is worse than suffering because of God when you’re working for Him? What challenges faith more than entrusting yourself into the hands of someone who doesn’t prevent suffering from causing you pain and difficulty?
In a prison cell, after a life full of suffering and pain, Paul says this to the Philippian Church: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Most can only imagine what kind of life of struggle and hardship would be necessary to consider death to be a gain over life. For Paul, it was reality. So, to everyone who experiences a reality that is so painful so as to prefer death over life, Paul says: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
2. A Means, Not Just An End
It is important to note that Paul is speaking from a position of experience. He is emphasizing that rejoicing is the best means of dealing with suffering. We rejoice not for God’s sake or the sake of others; we rejoice because it ultimately helps the sufferer more than it helps anyone else. It seems as though Paul anticipates the reluctance, either due to his own past experience or because he understands our human nature so well. Thus, he says: I have learned to be content in whatever state I am. (Philippians 4:11). It is not natural for us to be content in calamity or to rejoice in suffering. Yet it is an expression of faith in God to believe that this present suffering no matter how challenging it is, in the light of eternity has a different perspective. It is an expression of faith to conclude as Paul did, that: “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory.” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Whereas happiness is needed to rejoice in happy moments, fundamentally, faith is necessary to rejoice always. To rejoice in affliction is to trust ourselves in the hands of God — to trust that He loves us and that He knows what is best for our good. However, sometimes, guilt prevents us from rejoicing in faith. Sometimes we feel as though our affliction is a result of our unfaithfulness to God in that particular situation. Here is where we misunderstand who God is. God never treats us the way we deserve. God’s acts are a result of who He is, not in response to who we are. Although we are sometimes called to reap the full consequences of what we sow, even then it is for our eternal good — whether or not it is presently obvious.
It is always important to remember that the faith that produces rejoicing is a gift that God sends to help us press on, and not the arbitrary requirement of an absentee landlord.
3. How Do We Rejoice In Affliction?
Sometimes we are under the impression that to rejoice always means to say: “Yippie, I want to praise You, Holy Father, for the fact that I just lost my job and have no money! I was struggling to know how to handle my finances, but now — thank you Jesus! — I don’t have that problem anymore!”
Rejoicing is not praising God that you failed an exam and this is a great — yet difficult — lesson in humility and trust in God.
It is important to note that Paul says to rejoice in the Lord. In other words, God is the essential factor.
Notice Paul’s words in the book of Hebrews: “For consider him that endured such contradiction of sinners against himself, lest ye be wearied and faint in your minds.” (Hebrews 12:3).
Many times we are under the impression that challenges and difficulties are what rob us of our joy. But this is not the case. We lose our joy when we’ve somehow lost sight of the sufferings of Christ for us. Part of rejoicing always — even in affliction — is considering Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul’s suggestion is that consideration of Jesus is the answer to weariness in the Christian experience.
Notice something very important about God:
“Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” (Isaiah 53:10)
When the Father allowed the crucifixion of the Son, the Bible says that “it pleased the Lord.” This does not mean that God was excited to see His own Son suffer pain. Faith that the future of that sacrifice would produce a prospering seed — the salvation of mankind — gave God strength to endure the most challenging of circumstances. Rejoicing in affliction is only possible by keeping the eternal end in mind. Or, in the words of Paul:
“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8)
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