Facing the Challenges to Joy
Joy is “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” It’s the emotion we feel when life is good — when the sun is shining, when our team is winning, when we are healthy, happy, and heartened. Most people do not typically speak of the happiness of heartbreak, the pleasure of migraines, or the bliss of losing.
Philippians is the most joyful book in the Bible — the apostle Paul uses the Greek words for joy and rejoicing sixteen times in only 104 verses. And yet he writes from a dingy Roman prison, a place we would typically associate with misery and trial, which most people assume are the opposites of joy. He’s surrounded by every conceivable obstacle to joy, so why does he seem so happy?
Consider the objects of real joy, the reasons for joy, and the challenges to joy — joy in . . . joy because . . . and joy even though.
Joy in Jesus
In Philippians 3:1 and 4:4, Paul commands us to rejoice in the Lord. What does this familiar command mean? For the apostle, “the Lord” regularly means the Lord Jesus Christ (see Philippians 1:2; 3:20; 4:23).
Jesus humbled himself even unto death on a cross, the Father highly exalted him, and all will one day pay homage to his universal reign (Philippians 2:6–11). Rejoicing in the Lord means that these truths about Jesus — who he is, what he has done, and what he will do — personally and profoundly affect us.
Rejoicing in the Lord means knowing Jesus Christ as our Lord, Savior, and Treasure. It means he gives us deeper, purer, sweeter, more lasting pleasure and gladness than anything this world has to offer. As Paul says inPhilippians 3:8, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Rejoicing in the Lord means that there is a new song in our hearts — the song of the redeemed — that the din and distresses of life cannot drown out. He is the chief object of our joy.
Joy in One Another
Paul rejoices in the Lord and he rejoices in his people. He thanks God and prays with joy because of their gospel partnership, and he urges them to complete his joy (Philippians 1:3–5; 2:2). In Philippians 4:1, Paul calls these believers “my joy and crown . . . whom I love and long for.”
Rejoicing in other people may seem like a shift from God-centered joy to idolatrous human-centered joy, but it’s not. We rejoice in God’s people for Christ’s sake, celebrating the work that he has done, is doing, and will bring to completion in and through them at the day of Christ (Philippians 1:6).
We rejoice when we see God open people’s eyes to behold the supreme beauty of Jesus when the gospel is preached. We rejoice when we see God answer our prayers for victory over sin, help in trials, and healing from sickness. We rejoice when we see people maturing in their love, holiness, and knowledge of God.
Do you rejoice in God’s people? Are you on the lookout for answers to prayer and evidences of God’s grace in those around you? Do you long for your fellow Christians’ holiness, progress, and joy in the faith more than you crave their approval and applause? We are tempted to compare and compete, and it’s easy to become proud of our accomplishments and relative success. We need humility to look to the interests of others and seek their spiritual maturity and fullness of joy in Christ (Philippians 2:3).
We rejoice because Jesus has decisively delivered us from sin’s penalty and one day will completely deliver us from its reality.
We rejoice because of the good news of what Christ has done already for us. But Philippians stresses the future, not-yet reality of salvation on the day of Christ (Philippians 1:10, 19). We take heart that God will one day vanquish all opponents of the gospel and save his people (Philippians 1:28). We eagerly await a Savior who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body (Philippians 3:20).
Joy and salvation come together in Philippians 1:18–19: “I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance.” Why? “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). Here Paul draws upon the language of Job 13:15–16: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him. . . . This will by my salvation.”
Paul rejoices amid uncertain, unsavory circumstances because his Redeemer lives and he belongs to the risen Christ. Therefore, he cannot be put to shame on the last day. The apostle’s unshakeable confidence in his future salvation completely reframes his perspective on his present struggles and produces deep, abiding joy.
Joy Even Though
Paul calls us to rejoice in the Lord always, which includes painful trials. The New Testament teaches that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him and that believers’ weeping will one day turn into joy (Hebrews 12:2;John 16:20). Jesus’s pattern of suffering-then-glory is in some sense the script for our lives as well.
For Christians, our Savior already died and rose again victorious, but we havenot yet experienced the fullness of our resurrection hope. We are new creations in Christ, but we live in a world still marred by sin, groaning for full redemption (2 Corinthians 5:17; Romans 8:20, 23).
Philippians draws attention to various challenges to joy, such as prison (Philippians 1:13), opponents (Philippians 1:17; 3:2, 18–19), grumbling (Philippians 2:14), and disunity (Philippians 4:2). Paul rejoices in the Lordalways, even though he sits in prison, maligned by his enemies, hearing reports of sin and strife among his friends. His joy is not anchored in circumstances but in his Savior, who will never disappoint him and who will surely deliver him.
Therefore, Christian joy is the great pleasure and happiness that we feel — whether or not the sun is shining, whether or not our team is winning, whether or not we are healthy or hurting — because our redeemer lives, because we belong to him, and because he is making all things new.
When we encounter “even though” challenges, we tend to complain and lose sight of our all-sufficient Savior. We respond like the Israelites who grumbled about food only days after their exodus from Egypt (Exodus 16:1–3). Philippians calls us to rejoice in the Lord always by reframing our present challenges in light of the awesome day of Christ, and to rejoice in God’s people — to take our eyes off of ourselves and pray for and pursue other people’s spiritual maturity and fullness of joy in Christ.