The Only Joy We Never Lose
WHY HAPPINESS IS NOT OPTIONAL
Article by Marshall Segal, Staff Writer, desiringGod.org
If you only experience joy on your best days, you have not yet tasted the best joy. We tend to think of joy as a light and fleeting feeling that comes and goes as life allows. But the best joy is strong enough for the realities of life — all of life.
We also tend to think of joy as optional, as icing on the cake of following Christ. Some Christians get to be happy, we think, wishing we were one of the handful who do. Yet the apostle Paul says, plainly and unapologetically,
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)
Oh, that always — all at once so awe-inspiring, and so haunting. Awe-inspiring because that means always must be possible. What news! In Christ, we never have to be without genuine happiness. And yet also so haunting because of how often we lose our sense of joy — the joy that God, throughout the Scriptures, commands of his people.
Why would Paul repeat himself? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” He knew how hard such always-joy would often be. He wrote these words, as he often did, from prison (Philippians 1:13). Yet even in the loneliness and uncertainty of captivity, he had found real felicity. He could say always because he had suffered so much, and rejoiced even in those dark, lonely, and painful places.
Never settle for a god who cannot satisfy you in a prison cell.
If you only enjoy God when life seems good, follow Paul’s joy with me through Philippians to something more precious than gold, even much fine gold, something sweeter than honey — and anything else you might enjoy in this life.
Better Even Than Life
If our joy is rooted in how well life seems to be going, our joy will falter and fade when trials come. More often than we want to admit, our joy is rooted in our feeling secure, comfortable, successful, liked — and so real joy, the always-joy Paul writes about, can feel foreign and distant.
“If you only experience joy on your best days, you have not yet tasted the best joy.”
When his enemies preached Christ out of envy and rivalry, wanting to wound Paul and undermine his ministry (Philippians 1:15–17), he welled up not with anger, bitterness, or resentment, but with joy. “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18). It takes more than human courage to rejoice when you’re mistreated, especially when you’re in prison where you can’t defend yourself.
Where was this courageous joy anchored? He writes in the next verses,
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. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20–21)
He could have joy in life or death because he lived and died for Christ — and nothing and no one could take Christ from him. Because his faith, hope, and joy were firmly rooted in the honor and glory of Christ, the worst things that might happen to him could only ultimately serve him (Romans 8:37). Knowing Christ had made a friend even out of death.
Prisons may have kept him from speaking to crowds, but they only amplified the joy that he preached. Adversaries could make his circumstances miserable, but his gladness in God engulfed any short-lived misery. Satan threw everything imaginable at him — beaten with rods, stoned almost to death, shipwrecked and stranded, attacked by robbers, left without food and shelter, suffering danger from every direction (2 Corinthians 11:25–27) — and yet he rejoiced. Few have suffered like this man, and few have suffered with more joy.
Better Than Any Other Joy
To have more joy in suffering than in peace and comfort, we have to want Jesus more than anything else, including peace and comfort.
Paul didn’t choose joy in Christ because he couldn’t find joy anywhere else. He had tasted and enjoyed the glory of success and popularity — the Hebrew of Hebrews, the Pharisee of Pharisees, the most zealous, the most blameless, the most recognized (Philippians 3:5–6). When he chose to follow Jesus, he surrendered the kind of life others would die for — and he surrendered that life for more happiness, not less.
After listing all that he had earned and accomplished, he says,
Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7–8)
When Paul found the treasure hidden in the fields of Scripture, his pearl of great price, all the other pearls had suddenly faded in color. He quickly sold them all to have just one. His love for worldly success and attention withered and fell away to make way for a new, more vibrant love. He wrote, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).
In the end, we do not forfeit happiness to have Christ. Whatever we trade away (and we do trade away real joys to follow Christ), we receive back a hundredfold now, “and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). Joy in Christ is far better than any other pleasure, achievement, or prize. We are fools to ever prefer what we enjoyed before him.
How to Guard Your Joy
How do we guard the joy we’ve found in God? We can’t, and won’t, on our own. Two verses after saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice,” Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything,” — anything that might hinder or compromise your joy in the Lord — “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7).
We preserve the joy we have in God by asking God to guard it. We pray. Any joy we have in Christ will be perpetually under assault — by Satan, by sin and temptation, by suffering, by life in a world still enslaved to corruption (Romans 8:21). We need someone stronger than all those forces combined to guard what we have found in God. We need God himself to guard our happiness in God.
“We never forfeit happiness to have Christ. Whatever we trade away, we receive back a hundredfold.”
We pray, but not just any prayer. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” The kind of prayer that thwarts anxiety and strengthens joy presses on in gratitude. Paul brings these three — joy, thanksgiving, and prayer — together again in another letter: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). A sure way to combat the enemies of our joy is to relentlessly give thanks to God for all the graces, large and small, in our lives.
When the devil conspires to spoil your joy — and he will in more ways than you can predict or imagine — remember this: “The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:5). He is near to those who rejoice in him, supplying indescribable peace to us in the midst of whatever trials we face. His return is also at hand, when he will deliver all his children from every form of pain and suffering, and when he will punish everyone who rejected his Son and afflicted his followers. On that day, everything and everyone who made Christians miserable will come to an awful end.
So, take heart, wait yet a little longer, give thanks for the good you can see now, and pray for God to keep you until joy finally comes in full (Psalm 16:11).
For the Christian, joy in God is not optional. It’s not icing for some to savor. It is central, and essential. We cannot glorify God as we ought unless our souls are satisfied in him. But we all have to learn the secret to always-joy. None of us is born, or even reborn, with this wisdom.
The apostle himself says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). Joy in God is not simply a switch that’s flipped the moment we first trust in Jesus; joy in God is a lifelong pursuit and discipline. We learn, over months and years and decades, how to rejoice in the Lord. The flower sprouts when we are saved, but it matures, grows, and blossoms over time, while its roots grow deeper, wider, and stronger.
“Do not believe the lie that joy will only come when the clouds in your life finally clear.”
“I know how to be brought low,” Paul continues, “and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12–13). The secret to his contentment was his relentless always-joy in Christ (Philippians 3:8; 4:4, 10). And it wasn’t only his secret to contentment in hunger and need, but also in plenty and abundance.
John Piper says about these verses:
When we have little and have lost much, Christ comes and reveals himself as more valuable than what we have lost. And when we have much and are overflowing in abundance, Christ comes and he shows that he is far superior to everything we have.
So, rejoice always in the Lord. Again, I say rejoice. Do not believe the lie that joy will only come when the clouds in your life finally clear, and the sun shines through. Don’t settle for a religion or god that cannot promise joy even in the darkest, most difficult days. If you rejoice in the Lord, you never have to be without real happiness again.
Marshall Segal (@marshallsegal) is a writer and managing editor at desiringGod.org. He’s the author of Not Yet Married: The Pursuit of Joy in Singleness & Dating. He graduated from Bethlehem College & Seminary. He and his wife, Faye, have a son and live in Minneapolis.