How to be joyful even if life is sad

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Good evening. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, thank you for living Word. If we’re really going to hear it, we need your help. So please teach us and change us by your Spirit. In Jesus name. Amen.

Easter is a joyful occasion. But it’s one thing to celebrate for an hour so, or a day or two, as we did last weekend. It’s quite another to live a joyful life. How can we do that? That’s what I want to talk about this evening: How to be joyful even if life is hard.

We’re beginning a new series on part of chapter 4 of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. And this evening we’re thinking about the verses Philippians 4:4-5. Here they are:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand…

What’s the situation here? Paul is writing to a church that owed its very existence to his ministry. And now Paul is as good as on death row. As one of my heroes, Samuel Johnson, said, the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind wonderfully – and the apostle writes, as the Puritan Richard Baxter was described as speaking, “as a dying man to dying men.” As he says in Philippians 1.13, my imprisonment is for Christ. He doesn't know whether he’ll be released or executed. As for the Philippians, they’re under all kinds of pressure too – from persecution, false teaching and disunity. So Paul is worried. His eyes are wide open to the problems in and beyond the church, actual and potential. And no doubt that’s true for us here as well. The better we know ourselves, and JPC, and the wider church in this land, the more aware we become of actual and potential pressures and problems.

But for all that, this is an overwhelmingly positive letter. It’s full of joy and here in Philippians 4.4 is Paul’s command to rejoice. So how are we, like the Philippians, to be joyful even if life is hard?

1. Obey the command to rejoice always despite your hardships

A Godly Christian life is a joyful life. That is a challenging truth, not least for an Anglican like me. They say the Anglican colour of joy is black. But take a look at Philippians 3.1:

Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

It’s noteworthy that Paul obviously believes in repetition as a teaching tool. And this call to joy is one he repeats and repeats. So Philippians 4.4 again:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.

So rejoicing is a command. A repeated command at that. Joy is not an optional extra in the Christian life, like a sun-roof or a satnav – nice to have if you can afford it, but a bit of a luxury. Joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit and it is repeatedly commanded. Have we settled for a lack of joy in our lives? If we have, then that is not just sad. It’s disobedient.

So joy is not optional. But don’t misunderstand, this kind of joy must not be confused with spontaneous outbursts of blissful emotion. Nothing so occasional and short-lived can be commanded for always. Joy is a deep awareness of where we belong and to whom we belong. Philippians 3.20-21:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

That is the root of joy – an absolute certainty that a glorious future awaits us. Joy is a command.

What is more, rejoicing can be and often is in the context of suffering. Do we use the hardships we face as an excuse to be grumpy and grim? Paul would have none of it. He is facing execution but there is no hint of self-pity in him. In fact he is keen that the Philippians should know that his very imprisonment has become a tremendous evangelistic opportunity. Philippians 1.13:

…it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.

And that’s encouraged everyone else to witness boldly. And it’s not just Paul suffering. As we’ve seen, the Philippians were going through the mill as well. And what does Paul urge them to do? Rejoice. So that’s not cosy advice from one comfortable Christian to another. It’s a hard-edged command from one suffering Christian to a suffering church. So, we are to obey the command to rejoice always, despite our hardships.

2. Know that rejoicing through suffering is rational, however hard life may be, because our crucified saviour is our risen and returning Lord

There’s a snappy heading for you! Let me give you that again. Know that rejoicing through suffering is rational, however hard life may be, because our crucified Saviour is our risen and returning Lord. We have to work at rejoicing. And key to that is being quite clear in our minds where the source of real joy lies. Philippians 4.4 we are to:

Rejoice in the Lord always…

Philippians 4.5:

The Lord is at hand.

We all want joy. If you ask anyone, ‘Do you want a life that’s full of reasons for rejoicing?’ no-one’s going to say, ‘No thanks.’ But joy doesn’t come from all the things that the world tends to value. It comes from knowing Christ. Paul identifies the engine of joy in our lives. And it is knowing Jesus. Here is Paul, in chains, his life at risk, his social standing in ruins, his reputation with his peers and his people wrecked, all the advantages of his education, upbringing and background shattered and lying in pieces – as he sets out in Philippians 3. And yet he is overflowing with joy, and urging joy on these hard-pressed Philippian believers. Why? Because he knows what really matters – or rather, who really matters: Christ Jesus. He knew that in the crucified and risen Christ, who had confronted him that day on the Damascus Road and completely turned his life upside down, he had found eternal riches beyond compare.

Through Christ he had been put right with God, his sins had been forgiven, all his debts to God had been written off, past, present and future. And Jesus had given him through his Spirit the ability to live a holy life in the service of God’s kingdom, of a kind he’d never dreamed of before.

Oswald Sanders was for many years the Director of OMF (the Overseas Missionary Fellowship). He tells of a missionary who was greatly discouraged. He knew that his work was not progressing as it should. One day he was visiting another missionary and he saw a card on the wall with a simple motto on it. It said ‘Try Thanksgiving!’ Those two words went like an arrow into his soul. He realised that gratitude was missing from his heart. There had been plenty of asking God for things he desired and needed – desperately at times. But he had been failing to see what God had already done. It was a turning point. He began to pour out his heart in thanksgiving. And what is more he found there was a new effectiveness in his ministry. Philippians 1.21:

For to me live is Christ, and to die is gain…

says Paul. He had the wonderful prospect of getting to know Jesus better and better. His ambition was, Philippians 3.10:

…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection…

He had experienced tremendous spiritual power at work in and through him. He recognised it as the same power of God, stronger even than death itself, that had raised Jesus bodily from the tomb to the throne of heaven. And he wanted more and more of that resurrection power in his life.

…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…

Perhaps most remarkably of all, he was ready to suffer and even lay down his life in the service of Christ, because he knew that would enable him to draw closer to Christ, and to understand him, even to the point, as he daringly puts it, of in some very small way sharing in his sufferings. (Philippians 4.11):

that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Paul was ready to abandon everything else, even his very life, for Christ, because he knew that the struggles of this life would not be the end. He knew that beyond this life he would himself be raised from the dead on the Day of Resurrection. He knew that he would know Jesus face-to-face and for ever, in the new heaven and the new earth. No wonder he was rejoicing despite his chains. No wonder he wanted the Philippians to share his joy – and us too.

A Godly Christian life is not a dry, cold, cheerless, calculated life. It is a life that throbs with the heartbeat of joy that Christ transplants into us. So, know that joy is rational, however hard life may be, because our crucified Saviour is our risen and returning Lord. Then finally, and:

3. Rejoice that our joy in suffering points a hurting world to the risen Jesus

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand

Our whole culture nowadays, it seems to me, is infected by what someone has called ‘a persistent burden of insecurity and anxiety’. That's an infection that has reached deep into the church as well. And maybe at the root of it is a loss of real confidence in the reality of the resurrection. Easter has reminded us of how the mood of the disciples changed. They start off startled, frightened, troubled and doubting. They move to a mixture of disbelief, joy and amazement. And by the end they're worshipping, rejoicing and praising, and their lives will never, ever be the same again. And their certainty about the solid, physical, bodily reality of the resurrection, and all that followed from it, was so powerful that they turned the world upside down. 2000 years later we're still feeling the impact, so strongly that our lives, too are being turned upside down.

So we can let go of that persistent burden of insecurity and anxiety. And we can take hold of our risen Lord, and be filled with permanent, deep-down joy. And we can hold out to our hurting world the hope that can only be found in our crucified, risen and returning Lord. So let’s trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and look forward to That Day when he will return and our joy will be complete. Think deliberately about that time – especially in the midst of trials and sorrows now. Let’s engage in the discipline of rejoicing. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. The more we rejoice in the Lord, often in defiance of our feelings, the more our joy will deepen. Let’s fix our eyes on Jesus. The more we look away from ourselves and our trials and sorrows and look at Jesus – who he is, and what he has done and is doing and will do – the more our joy will deepen, and the more powerful will be our witness to a confused, lost world.

Joni Eareckson Tada was in her late teens when, in 1967, she had a diving accident. She was permanently paralysed from the shoulders down. She was also a Christian from childhood. Decades later she wrote:

Accepting my wheelchair didn’t happen in one afternoon. There was a long series of many days when the Holy Spirit covered my pain and hurt with his gentle grace…Christ has come for our redemption, and we have every reason to break forth with the resounding words [of the carol], ‘Rejoice…rejoice’. Long ago and far away in an old stone Methodist church, I was captivated by that haunting melody...even though I was a child I rejoiced to that chorus of His coming. Thank the Lord, I’m still rejoicing to this day.

Life that’s a struggle, and a joyful life, go hand in hand. Like Joni, let’s learn to rejoice, regardless of what’s going on in our lives, by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus. Even if life is hard, that’s how to be joyful. Let’s pray, and let’s make our own the prayer of the prophet Habbakuk:

Heavenly Father,
though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet we will rejoice in you our Lord;
We will take joy in the God of our salvation.
In Jesus name. Amen.

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