Article by Mark Ballenger, Masters in Pastoral Counseling, Writer/Author
Philippians 4:4 changed my life: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Through those five words, God has shown me that my internal joy cannot be tied to my external circumstances. When I was unemployed, when I experienced family tragedies, when flaws in me were exposed, and when my most meaningful relationships were broken or dysfunctional, God reminded me that joy in the Lord was still possible.
God does not cruelly tell us to put a smile on our face no matter the pain in our hearts. Rather, Philippians 4:4 reminds us that no matter what is happening around us, we can still have immense joy because God, not our circumstances, is the source of all joy.
“Rejoice no matter what” and “Rejoice in the Lord always” are two very different imperatives. God never tells us simply to rejoice no matter what. He tells us to rejoice in him no matter what.
As I’ve matured with this verse over the years, it’s caused me to look deeper into its practical implications. If my life is hard, is it okay to be sad? If a dream of mine is not coming true, is it sin to be discontent? Does “rejoice in the Lord always” mean I must be happy no matter what?
What Do We Not Mean?
“Does ‘rejoice in the Lord always’ mean I must be happy no matter what?”
Sometimes to really understand what is being said in the Bible, it helps to define what is not being said. While God wants us to be content in every situation, this does not mean we must become blind to real pain in the world and in our own lives.
To seek inner tranquility by avoiding our actual life circumstances is closer to Buddhism than Christianity. In Buddhism the goal is to reach nirvana, which is a state of being that blocks out and ignores the world as you “clear your mind” and focus on nothing, trying to “become one with the universe.” This is not Christianity.
For example, Philippians is a book written by Paul, and it is all about finding joy in Christ despite the external struggles the world throws at us. Throughout the book, you will find verses like these:
“The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:17–18)
“Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27)
“Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” (Philippians 2:14)
“Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.” (Philippians 2:17)
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, 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 4:11–13)
While Paul sought to look through his pain to see the pleasures of Christ on the other side, there was also genuine recognition of his present earthly difficulties. Paul worried for the well-being of his coworker who became ill (Philippians 2:25–30). His contentment didn’t stop him from asking that provisions be made for him by the Philippians (Philippians 4:16–18).
‘In’ Not ‘With’
God really cares about the details of our human lives (1 Peter 5:7), so to reflect him as image-bearers, we must care about the details, too. Jesus, the most fully human person ever to live, cried bitterly in response to the pain of his friends, even while knowing better than any of them the miracle that was about to take place (John 11:35). To be human is to care deeply about things on earth.
Like Jesus, and like Paul, we care about the pain, trials, and hardships of life now, even though we are confident of the joy that will come later. God is sovereign, “declaring the end from the beginning” (Isaiah 46:10), but he still cares about everything that happens in between. As his followers, so should we.
The command to rejoice always is not a command to be a coldhearted robot that pretends pain isn’t real. You are not called to be content “with” failing health, your low paying job, your rebellious children, or your divided country. To claim contentment “with” a sinful, unjust, and broken world is not holiness, and it’s certainly not what God commands.
Paul said, “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). He never said he was happy “with” these circumstances. Nowhere in the Bible are we told we must enjoy unwanted circumstances. We are told, rather, to enjoy Christ even in unwanted circumstances.
A Mark of Maturity
One day, perfect circumstances and perfect contentment in Christ will collide (Revelation 21:1–5). Should we work to fix this broken planet now? Absolutely. But we must also come to grips with the fact that until Jesus comes and makes all things new, at best we will often be sorrowful because of the pain on this planet, while also always rejoicing because of the perfections of our Savior (2 Corinthians 6:10). To be able to grieve deeply and rejoice relentlessly at the same time is a mark of Christian maturity.
So, to “rejoice in the Lord always,” you don’t need to feel guilty for wanting certain parts of your life to change and get better. It is only an issue when your desires for better circumstances are crowding out your desire for the Lord.
God wants to walk with you through the pain, trials, and unwanted circumstances. He never asks us to deny the issues in the world or in our own hearts. Rather, he calls us to always drink deeply of the joy found in him alone no matter what.
Mark Ballenger (@Apply_GodsWord) earned a master’s degree in pastoral counseling from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and writes at Apply God’s Word. He is also the author of the new book Intertwined: Our Happiness Is Tied to God’s Glory. He and his wife have two children and live in Cleveland.