“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
When I stumbled across this section in Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I stopped reading, looked out the window, and said, “That’s ridiculous.” My intention was not to offend St. Paul, but rather, I was struck with the incredibly high degree of difficulty this passage proclaims. Rejoice always? In the eyes of the world and often in my own life, I find this to be an unattainable reality. Paul, however, believed it so completely that he felt compelled to repeat himself: Rejoice! I immediately look at my life and the state of our country and world and think of all the reasons not to have joy. Abortion, crime, pornography, natural disasters, family illness, and many other things all represent reasons we can justify living without joy. It would be easy to question whether Paul was living in the same world as us. This would be a reasonable concern until you read his second letter to the Corinthians. In chapter 11:23-28, Paul lists his difficulties and sufferings while being a disciple of Christ. It’s impressive, in a terrifying sort of way. Here are some highlights:eight separate beating sessions, three shipwrecks, in danger everywhere he went, imprisonments, and the constant pressure of feeling spiritually responsible for all of the new churches. Arguably the greatest evangelist suffered an incredible amount and yet he teaches us to always rejoice, which makes him either a hypocrite or truly the saint that he is.
The rest of the passage deals with Paul’s reasoning for always being able to rejoice. He teaches that we must have forbearance or in a modern way, we must persevere. Being an expert at pushing through pain and suffering, Paul says that it is possible to overcome these obstacles because, quite simply, “the Lord is at hand.” Paul was acutely aware of Christ’s presence with him and the power of the Holy Spirit operating in his life. As a result of this reality, Paul’s external circumstances could never affect the internal joy he experienced by living each day with the Lord. Paul gives us another clue to rejecting the temptation to worry or despair when he tells us “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” It seems relatively obvious that we should pray and supplicate to the Lord. What is more striking is Paul’s encouragement to pray with thanksgiving. I think there’s a saying that goes: “a thankful heart is a joyful heart”, or at least my mom used to say that to me. It’s actually true; when we pray with gratitude, we are able to see the tremendous gifts in our lives and focus on the ways that God has blessed us.
While He already knows the desires of our hearts, God wants us to tell him what we need and want. He wants us to approach Him with humility and gratitude. When we recognize and embrace God’s constant presence in our life and choose to focus on His providence, our inner joy can not be robbed by the circumstances of the world. I realize that it is a lofty goal to always rejoice, and it will be a lifetime of praying and perseverance. Paul never gave up and he remains a witness to what a joyful life in Christ can accomplish. This section from Philippians leaves us with an equally ridiculous promise and yet one that we all want to attain, “and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”