In Philippians 4:4 we read Paul’s famous exhortation, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” There are three things worth considering here. First notice that it is a command. Paul here commands joy. The word for joy, or one of its cognates, is used some sixteen times in the letter to the Philippians. It is a major emphasis of the apostle’s message. Whatever else he wants for their lives, joy is part of it. And here in 4:4 it comes to us in the form of an imperative. That may seem strange to us, since for most of us, joy is something spontaneous and unpredictable. It happens to us, rather than being something we determine to feel. But that is not how Paul thinks of joy. For him rejoicing is a Christian discipline.
The second thing to notice here is the object and source of Christian joy. “Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul says. Paul is calling us to practice the discipline of finding our deepest joy in Christ alone. There are many reasons not to rejoice, many enemies of joy in our cynical world. Paul’s summons to rejoice is a clarion call to believers in Jesus to tend the fires of joy in our hearts with constant vigilance, fanning them into bright flame by the careful and diligent use of the means of grace. If the joy has gone from your Christian life, it will be because Jesus no longer captivates your attention. You no longer find him compelling and delightful. And he may no longer appear to satisfy because you have neglected the means of his appointment for the nurture of your joy: the word, the sacraments, and prayer. Neglect them at your peril.
And then finally, notice that this command is time sensitive. When are we to rejoice? Always! “Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul says. There is never a season or a circumstance when Christian joy is inappropriate. It is a versatile grace. It can co-exist with other affections in the regenerated heart in a way for which the heart of an unbeliever has no real capacity. So, for example, in 1 Peter 1:6, the apostle explains the refining, sanctifying purpose of trials in the lives of Christians. He reminds them of how they rejoice in their salvation: “In this you rejoice though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various kinds of trials.” Note what is happening in their hearts. They rejoice, though they have been grieved. Joy and grief are not mutually exclusive in their hearts. Christians need not choose between joy and other affections. Joy in our hearts is not to be an on-again-off-again reality. We are to rejoice always.
The tides of joy will always ebb and flow when its source is circumstantial and situational. This world’s blessings can and should cause us joy, but like the world, they will inevitably be fleeting. But there is one constant, one north star by which to navigate, immovable and sure. If we tether our joy here, it will not wax and wane. It is the Lord Jesus Christ. In him we are to rejoice. He sits enthroned above the world’s vicissitudes, untouched, the same, yesterday, today and forever. Christian rejoicing is fed by an artesian spring of joy flowing inexhaustibly from Christ to us. And because that is true, because he is constant even if we are not and our circumstances are not then, whatever your trials, we can “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”