Does Always Mean Always?
At 5:51am on any given weekday I can be found in a state of groggy denial as my alarm goes off. Though I’ve woken up at this time for years, I still find it very disagreeable. As I try to pull myself together and work up the energy to start my day, being joyful is not at the forefront of my mind. I know Paul instructs believers to rejoice at all times and give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:16, 18), but is that even possible at 5:51am?
Yes! As tough as it is for me to swallow (much less live out), even at 5:51am there is every reason to have a joyful heart. Let me try to convince you…
Paul’s intent wasn’t to make us feel guilty when we’re tired or having a bad day. Rather, he wants to remind us that no matter how bleak the forecast, knowing God personally and accepting the free gift of eternal life on account of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is an eternal and ever-present source of joy. Paul (who knew real joy) is encouraging (i.e. commanding) us to remember that joy and incorporate it into our daily Christian life.
Joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Just as the rest of the fruit (peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) are to be present implicitly or explicitly at all times in a mature Christian, so is joy! Further, since joy is a fruit of the Spirit, we don’t have to conjure it up ourselves. As we remind ourselves of the truths of the gospel, the Spirit will produce this joy in us. We can ask him to do that, even at 5:51am.
To be joyful doesn’t mean to trivialize sorrow and pain. The same Paul who wrote “rejoice always” also wrote “weep with those who weep.” Jesus felt deep agony while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane when he cried out to God the Father (Mark 14:36), yet Hebrews tells us that it was for the joy set before him that Jesus endured the cross (Heb. 12:2). The work of redemption was both incomprehensibly painful for our Lord, and powerfully joyful.
Feeling deep sorrow due to the destruction of sin and death is a proper emotion, and the psalms of lament help teach us how to cope. Take Psalm 13 as an example:
1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God; light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
5 But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
David begins by expressing the deep sorrows in his soul and his dire circumstances. But he goes on to trust in God’s love and ends with joyful worship due to the goodness of God in his life. This pattern is how we rejoice in our sorrows and dire circumstances, too.
What do I have to be thankful for at 5:51 in the morning? I have eternal truths to rejoice in: my name is written in the book of life, the Holy Spirit lives inside of me, God cares for and keeps me. And I have immediate circumstances to rejoice in: I am part of a wonderful church, there is food in my cabinets, my home has water, heat, and electricity.
Every morning at 5:51am, God gives me the opportunity to be joyful, but whether or not I take it depends on the state of my heart. It takes humility to ask the Spirit to produce joy and discipline to pursue joy in the middle of hard and demanding times, like David did. But, God has given me more reasons than I count to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances. And he’s done the same for you!