Some passages of Scripture are convicting. Some bring comfort. Still others are apparently doing their best to confuse and confound. And yet there are also verses that lift the spirit and cause one to celebrate with great, great joy. Philippians 4:4-7 is one such passage.
“Rejoice in the Lord always!” verse 4 says. Or as the Common English Bible translates it, “Be glad!” Such an attitude can feel rather Pollyanna-ish to many. “Rejoice in all things? Be glad always? Have you seen the world?” But notice how Saint Paul continues in verses 5, 6, and 7.
“Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people.” Notice that he says “all people”, not just the people who make us comfortable or happy. And then he continues with what may be the key to the entire section: “The Lord is near.”
Much of Christian teaching and preaching in our consumeristic culture focuses on how we can better love God. How can we be more faithful? How can we be more kind? But the Church Historic has consistently demonstrated the overwhelming experience of how God loves us. God is the initiator. God is the doer. We simply love back, because God loved us first (1 John 4:19). A healthy way to think about this is to realize that we don’t have to prove our love for God by doing things. We just return the love that has already, fully and freely, been given to us.
Such an awareness can cause us to live a certain way. It can certainly cause us to love a certain way, not seeing life as ever about earning love or getting God’s gracious attention. It’s always about returning love, for God is always near, and that difference in perspective is hugely important. That awareness, we might also say, makes all the difference in whether or not we are able to live with joy. It certainly makes the difference as to whether or not we can follow the Apostle’s ongoing counsel.
“Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.”
This of course does not mean that everything will always be easy. Our Lord was Himself a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering and acquainted with grief. But joy, as I understand it, is less about emotion and more about faith. It’s trusting and believing and claiming that in the end God wins. It’s a certainty that allows me to be anxious for nothing, to have the peace of God keeping my heart and mind safe, to believe, as Julian of Norwich famously said, that “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
I can’t help but smile when seeing such promise! I can’t help but laugh at the holy hilarity of it all! “That God would love a sinner such as I!” We shake our heads in wonder and sing such things from time to time, don’t we? “Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?” It makes total sense that we would praise our Lord, “gladly for aye we adore Him!” It’s cause for rejoicing to know that God adores us, too!
I was recently asked what I thought we should do to draw more people into our churches, more people into relationship with Christ. As I’ve prayed and reflected upon Philippians 4:4-7, I think the answer is fairly simple. We all must be doing what we can to attract persons by our joy, so that we can introduce persons to the source of our joy, Jesus Christ. For if the joy of the Lord is our strength, and I don’t think Nehemiah 8:10 was wrong in saying that it is, then we should all work out of that strength and be known for the joy we have.
Rejoice! God is near. And God does in fact love us. May this give us peace. May it change the way we live, becoming gentle persons and non-anxious presences. And may others come to know we are Christians by our love and even, dare I say, by our joy. May they even be drawn closer to Christ because of it.