Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.
(Philippians 4:4 ESV)
Always rejoice? Always? How is it possible to rejoice even in the most difficult of times? For the believer in Christ, I want to argue that this is essential. And I want to show that what makes it possible is the phrase “in the Lord.” What makes it possible for the believer to have joy, even in trying circumstances, is our position in Christ. Because our identity is in Him, we can see our circumstances from His perspective. And because all of our circumstances are orchestrated by Him for His glory and our good, we can have joy regardless of and in the midst of our circumstances.
Joy does not mean “happiness.” Happiness is fleeting, but joy is abiding. Joy is not a fake, painted-on smile when no one expects you to be smiling. Joy can only really happen when we are “in the Lord.” I believe this statement has at least two implications. True joy, as I am defining it biblically, can only be experienced by those who are “in the Lord” (i.e. believers). Unbelievers can experience happiness, euphoria, excitement, bliss, gratification, and several other feelings that we commonly see as synonymous with joy. But a deep, abiding joy even in the midst of hard circumstances can only be experienced by believers. When Jesus was teaching His disciples for the last time this side of the cross, He said,
So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.
(John 16:22 ESV)
The sorrow of His disciples was real as they considered that Jesus was going to be leaving them. But in this passage (called The Upper Room Discourse, John 14-17), Jesus is teaching His followers that He is going to remain present with them (and us) in the form of the Holy Spirit. And, with the Holy Spirit present in them, a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in their lives will be joy (Galatians 5:22). When the Holy Spirit comes upon them at Pentecost (Acts 2), and when it comes upon all other believers at conversion, a joy is given that cannot be taken away.
But, even though it cannot be taken away, it is possible for the believer to not be experiencing true joy. True, biblical joy can only be experienced, even by believers, when we are abiding in the Lord – when our focus is on Him, and not on ourselves or our situation. In other words, it is possible to be saved and not be experiencing true joy, and I think this is the condition many believers find themselves in when things aren’t going well. We take our eyes off of Christ, keep reminding ourselves of how much our life situation sucks, and pretty soon we have lost our joy in the Lord. It hasn’t been taken from us. We simply forgot that we had it. We misplaced it. And the way to find it is to return our focus to the Lord by running to Him.
You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
(Psalm 16:11 ESV)
“Fullness of joy” is found in the Lord’s presence. In order to experience it, we must be “in Him” (you must be a recipient of His grace, adopted into His family by faith in Him), and then we must be living life “in His presence.” Joy does not have to be something that is lost for the believer who is going through hard or difficult times. On the contrary, according to Scripture, “the joy of the Lord” is our strength (Nehemiah 8:10) when we are afflicted (1 Thess. 1:6).