by Jesse Jost
Repeatedly we are commanded to “Rejoice in the Lord ALWAYS.” Christians often treat happiness in two ways: The first is to try to look and be happy regardless of what you are going through or feeling on the inside. This can result in hypocrisy, suppressed emotions, and fake smiles. In reaction, other Christians focus more on being honest and transparent, and when they don’t feel like much is going right in their life, they feel no reason to fake happiness, but they also end up not feeling much happiness.
In the midst of these extremes we have God’s clear command to rejoice in Christ – Always. I don’t think it should take too much convincing that neither artificial smiles nor perpetual “honest” gloom take this command seriously.
What does it mean to “rejoice” in something?
I believe our emotions are an automatic response to the slice of reality that we have in our conscious awareness. Whatever we are focusing on will dictate our emotional response. I’ve let insignificant things make me depressed, like when my team coughs up a three-run lead after an error or blown call. I’m a healthy man, with an attractive wife, smart kids, no debt, cozy house in a free country, and I’m in a funk because an ump called a strike a ball before the three-run homer. I know it’s stupid, but I can’t shake the feeling because I’m obsessed with that tiny, maddening slice of life.
On the other hand, some days it won’t matter to me if the economy is in the toilet, millions are out of work, hothead dictators are warming up their nuclear warheads, and kids are starving, but I’m doing a happy dance because I get chicken scampi for supper!
To rejoice in something is to focus on an aspect of life or a piece of good news in such a way that our emotions are stirred to happiness. It isn’t that we look at our emotions and command them to be happy. Rather we choose to look at something that causes happiness to come automatically.
To rejoice in Christ does not mean that we have to try really hard to choose happiness regardless of what we are feeling, and it does not mean that we have to fake outward joy. To rejoice in Christ means that there are aspects of who He is and what He has done that, if we could truly remember them and believe them, our emotions would automatically be moved toward genuine happiness.
I want to acknowledge up front that our emotional state is tied to physical things, like brain chemistry or gut health. Our ability to feel happiness is greatly affected by aspects of our body. There are times when we won’t feel much happiness regardless of how much we focus on truth because the factors that create the sensation of happiness are malfunctioning due to a host of complex processes. But to the extent that your happiness factory is working, nothing should spark joy like a fresh awareness of who Jesus is and what He has done.
I want to focus on five aspects of Christ that we need to choose to put in our awareness, to remember, and to meditate on in such a way that we find ourselves genuinely rejoicing in Christ.
Imagine that you were kidnapped from your African village and spent your whole life being enslaved to people who treated you like cattle. You didn’t get to decide when you woke up, when you ate, or when you could rest. You worked your body to the point of exhaustion but never saw the fruit of your labor.
One day, you are taken to an auction where a man purchases you. You tremblingly walk over to him, curious as to what kind of man he is, knowing your state of existence will be affected by whether he is kind or cruel. Your fate is in his hands. He looks you in the eye, and hands a paper over to you. He says you are now free. You are stunned, not sure you believe him. Slowly the realization sets in that you are truly free. You stand up straighter and hope begins to infuse your emotions. You could return home to your family. You can start a new life. Freedom! Joy!
We take freedom for granted, but for most of history, mankind has felt the sting of cruel tyranny. Yet the tyranny inflicted by man is nothing to the tyranny and oppression of Satan and his hordes. Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil and set us free from Satan’s lies and emotional abuse. We no longer need to be a slave to fear, lust, or shame. We have been set free. Our captors have been defanged.
Now imagine that you are in a jail cell awaiting execution. This time you are not an innocent person who was kidnapped, but a guilty criminal deserving of death. You murdered, stole, and committed treason. You are overwhelmed with shame thinking of the innocent people you hurt.
The jailer opens the cell and takes you to the gallows. You climb the steps. A hood is placed over your face. You feel the noose around your neck. Your heart races, knowing this is the end. Death is one thing, but you are even more afraid of what you will face after death. Are you headed to the torment of Hell? Just as you begin to hyperventilate, you feel a strong hand on your shoulder. The hood comes off and you see a man holding a piece of paper declaring your total pardon! You have been forgiven! You get a fresh start. Imagine the fresh awareness of colors and smells that you would experience – the sense of euphoria!
We spend much of our life in blissful ignorance of God’s holy justice, and innumerable ways we have committed wilful acts of rebellion and treason against God. Ignorance does not change the fact that justice is coming. Each of us would face the horror of impending execution and eternal banishment, an eternity of misery. But because of Jesus, we have been pardoned. The execution has been stayed and our guilt has been completely wiped away.
Imagine that you are trapped in a Cold-War-era Russian orphanage. You barely get enough food to survive. You are hungry all the time. Your life is filled with boredom and despair. You know that when you get old enough you will just be sent to a Siberian mine. You have no options and no hope.
One day you discover a powerful state official has come by. He discovered that because of your lineage you are the rightful heir of a huge fortune. You are taken to a mansion and adopted by a kind and wealthy couple. Everything changes. Your needs for food and education are taken care of. You get to travel. You have options to pursue whatever career you decide. You no longer fear the future because you have wealthy and powerful benefactors who are behind you and empowering you to succeed.
We were spiritual orphans with no hope, but we have been named children of God Almighty. We are in line for an inheritance beyond compare. We have a God who is for us, who cares deeply about our every need. We have a Saviour who intercedes daily for us, rooting for us to prosper in ways that truly matter. We have no need to fear the condemnation of others or their disparaging remarks. We have God himself there for us, preparing the future for our good.
Imagine you live under a ruthless dictatorship. Surveillance is everywhere. You trust no one. Every night you sit in darkness and terror knowing that at any minute men could come pounding down your door and arrest you and either shoot you on the spot, or send you to an Arctic gulag. You have no hope for enterprise or social advancement. You live a sparse, pitiful existence full of despair.
Then one day you hear stirrings that an army is coming. You follow the news as one by one the dictators are captured, the corrupt officials and lawmen are replaced by men of integrity. Gradually you begin to realize that the world outside your door is now a place of hope and opportunity because good men are in power and freedom is upheld.
Now while earthly governments will always let us down because they are tainted by corruption, we know the buzz of hope and happiness we feel when the party we voted for wins the election. But that is nothing compared to the hope and happiness we should feel when we remember that Jesus is now ruling as the King of kings and that ultimately every ruler we fear down here will have to bend the knee to His ultimate sovereign reign.
His Final Victory
Our seven-year-old son has had Type 1 diabetes for over two years. He has had over three thousand insulin injections, many of them hitting nerves that cause him to scream in pain while the needle has to sit there for ten seconds to ensure it releases all of the life-giving dose of insulin. We have to check Elijah multiple times every night, because fatal night-time lows are the greatest danger facing T1D kids. I can’t tell you the joy we would feel if we were told a full cure would be available in two years. Every time we anticipated that future healing, we would be filled with joy.
Imagine a time when there will be a cure for every chronic pain and ailment that has wracked your body. Every debt and burden will be taken away. Every painful separation and painful goodbye will be replaced by joyful reunion.
We have not only been rescued, pardoned, and adopted, but we also have our wise and powerful King working on a complete and total restoration plan where the wrongs are righted, our diseases healed, alienated people reconciled. All that was evil and painful will be undone for those who are in Christ Jesus.
To the degree that we believe this in any given moment, this will be the extent of our rejoicing in Christ. This should change everything. We still will grieve and feel sorrow and pain, but there should be unshakeable hope and joy underneath.
To use another insignificant baseball example: I remember when I was 11 and the Blue Jays were playing the Phillies in the World Series. The Jays were up 3 games to 2 and were winning 5-1. Then baseball tragedy struck. The Phillies rallied for 5 runs to take a 6-5 lead. Skydome was shocked. But in the bottom of the ninth, a couple runners made it on base, and after swinging at a terrible pitch in the dirt, Joe Carter launched a walk-off, World-Series-winning, three-run home run. It was first time I ever cried tears of joy.
Years later I watched that game on tape. During that painful Phillies rally, there was no despair, because I knew the knockout punch was coming. The victory was assured. We should feel the same way about our life down here. The resurrection of Jesus on the third day is the proof that the final victory is coming.
These imaginary scenarios I painted above would all spark overwhelming joy if they were experienced in real life. But as believers, the reality we get to live in is greater than any of them! If we fought to keep these truths in our conscious awareness, if we chose to remember these things are true, then rejoicing in Christ would not be a struggle.
We are freed slaves, pardoned criminals, adopted orphans, liberated citizens of an omnipotent King who has assured our final victory and restoration. If anything can make you happy, these things should.
Your Saviour and King purchased these realities at an unfathomable cost. We should not daily review these truths merely to get an emotional boost. We should choose to remember and celebrate every one of these things because He deserves to have us remember them. They should stir our hearts to ceaseless gratitude, overflowing love, and undying devotion.