Count It All Joy
“Rejoice Always.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) Though this reads as an imperative it must be a suggestion, right? Be joyfully always? Sure, for some this can be a command. It fits with their nature. Those perpetually positive, optimistic, happy people. But for others of us, well, the “always” part is surely just too hard.
I might be the last person who should write about living joyfully. I’m not perpetually bubbly. I struggle with depression and anxiety regularly. I have to fight for joy, intentionally reminding myself of all that I have to rejoice over. It shouldn’t be so hard. I have much to be thankful for. And yet it is.
Surely this must disqualify me from exhorting others to live joyfully. Or maybe it makes me the right person. Because when God’s Word instructs us to live lives of joy, it’s not speaking of bubbly happiness and eternal optimism. Rather, it’s calling us to experience true joy that transcends feelings or circumstances.
Count it All Joy
James wrote to believers in the early church to “count it all joy, my brothers (and sisters), when you meet trials of various kinds.” (James 1:2) Count trials as joy? How? Why? This is certainly not my natural reaction. When I face trials, I’d prefer to complain, lament, check out…pretty much anything but embrace them with a joyful attitude.
James goes on to explain why our response to trials should be joy – “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” We simply aren’t going to live problem-free lives here on earth. We face the brokenness caused by the curse of sin every day. To ignore it and put on a happy face does no good. But to embrace it, depending on our Savior and clinging to the promises of the Father, deepens our faith and love for Jesus. His desire is for us to be unwavering in our faith and love. We gain this kind of steadfastness when we see firsthand that he is faithful and true. When we must surrender to his plans, and trust in his sovereignty and love.
For the early church, these trials and testing of faith were persecution. James was encouraging these believers to be joyful in the face of extreme suffering. They could do this by remembering the goodness of God. They could turn to his promises and the examples of his everlasting faithfulness. And so can we.
A great place to start is turning to Scripture and dwelling on the commands to be joyful.
Nehemiah 8:10 “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” When Israel returned from exile, and once again read the words of the Law, they were grieved by their circumstances and their sin. But instead of lamenting, they were instructed to find joy in the Word of God because it was to be their strength. Even in times of great grief or deep conviction, there is cause for joy. These times draw us closer to the God who upholds us.
And the Psalms are filled with David’s songs of praise in the midst of great fear, danger and opposition. Psalm 118:24 “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Even when David faced hostility, he trusted that the Lord was for him. He would take refuge in God. The Lord was his strength, so David could rejoice - no matter what the day brought his way. God never leaves us or forsakes us. He has ordained each day. And so we can be glad.
Isaiah 49:13 further encourages God’s people to rejoice. “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.” God’s people were afraid that he had forgotten them. But he would never abandon them. Rather, he is a God of comfort and compassion. And this is why they are to rejoice. We don’t rejoice because suffering is wonderful. We rejoice because our God loves us and carries us through it. In times of darkness or depression, it is easy to feel like God has forgotten us. He hasn’t. These are the times that we need to hold fast to him, and allow him to be our joy.
Jesus is Our Example and Hope
Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus endured the cross because of the “joy set before him.” Like him, we can walk through suffering, pain, opposition and disappointment knowing that our perseverance will bring us closer to Christ. If we hold fast to him when it is hard, we become more like him. We fall more deeply in love with him. We find joy that transcends circumstances or feelings.
And we look hopefully and joyfully to the day when “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) What a great source of joy to know that we look forward to an eternal future wholly different from today!
We have reason for real, true joy. No matter what we face. Do I get a pass because depression often comes easier than joy? Definitely not. Christ died for me and shares his inheritance with me. This is where my joy lies. And my circumstances can never change that.
“Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trials, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.” James 1:12