Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Does “always” really mean always? If so, I suspect most of us struggle to obey these words. Our main problem, as I point in this sermon, is that we usually rejoice in our circumstances: “I got the job, therefore I rejoice!” “She said ‘yes,’ therefore I rejoice!” “The tests came back negative, therefore I rejoice!” But notice Paul says to rejoice in the Lord. If we are in the Lord, we always have reasons for joy.
Sermon Text: Philippians 4:4-13
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The family and I went to my in-laws house in Snellville on Thanksgiving. After the meal, I stayed awake watching football as long as I could—without being rude—before creeping back to the spare bedroom and taking a nap. When I woke up, everyone—my entire family and my in-laws—were no longer watching football. They were watching a movie on the Hallmark Channel. Maybe you’ve seen it? It was that one about this man and woman who meet but don’t get along at first. In fact, they don’t even like each other. But over time they start to secretly fall for one another. But they can’t tell each other, because there are all these obstacles that stand in the way of their relationship. And then, at the very end of the movie, all the obstacles are removed. They finally say, “I love you.” They kiss. And it’s clear they’re going to live happily ever after.
Have you seen that one?
Actually, this one was almost exactly like You’ve Got Mail except it was set at Christmastime. At the end of the movie, the woman gets everything she wants, including a big promotion at work, the perfect Christmas gift, and the man of her dreams. So of course she is deeply happy! She has reason to rejoice! If she got passed over for the promotion; if she lost her job; if her Christmas wishes went unfulfilled; if she didn’t end up with Romeo, well… she would be not be rejoicing. And we the viewers would not be rejoicing.
Because our ability to rejoice depends on… how things turn out. We need the “happily ever after,” or something reasonably close to it, in order to experience joy. That’s because we rejoice in our circumstances—when you get the promotion, when you fall in love, when your dreams come true. If the circumstances are bad, not so much.
Yet notice Paul’s words here in verse 4: “Rejoice in the Lord”—when? “Always.” And as if that weren’t clear enough he repeats it: “Again I will say, rejoice.”
Does “always” really means always for Paul? Yes, it does. Now, let’s be careful: Paul isn’t saying, “Rejoice in really bad and evil things that happen to you always.” The bad is really bad. The evil is really evil. These things are never the cause of our joy. The cause of our joy—the reason we can know joy, the reason we can rejoice—is because we are “in the Lord.” And nothing can separate us from the Lord. As Paul writes in Romans 8, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?”—all of which Paul knew firsthand, by the way.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
So it’s not the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, and all these other bad things that we rejoice in. Those are external circumstances, and they can change very quickly. No: we rejoice in the Lord. Which means that so long as we are “in the Lord” we always have reason to rejoice despite the very worst things that can happen to us.
But still… Easier said than done, right? Even those of us who already know Christ likely find it difficult to rejoice in the Lord always. The good news is that in verses 5 through 9 Paul offers us some practical advice about how we can learn to do this.
For example, let’s notice in verse 5 that the first thing we need to do if we’re going to “rejoice in the Lord always” is remember that the “Lord is at hand,” or the Lord is near. This means two things. First, it means that Christ will come again—and his second coming could happen very soon. And when it does, all of the dead in Christ will be resurrected to new life, and everyone alive who is in Christ will receive resurrection bodies. This truth changes our perspective on any short-term suffering that we’re experiencing. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4,
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
In the meantime, since the “Lord is near,” we know that when we die we’ll be immediately transported into Christ’s presence, and that will be really good. That’s why Paul said back in chapter 1 of this letter that dying is “far better” than even life in this world. So what’s the worst thing that can happen to any of us in this world? Many of us would say, “Dying a violent death”—and we know that Paul died a violent death. But even that isn’t so bad anymore. Why? Because it means being in the very presence of Christ—in a way that we can never be on this side of eternity, where we see through a glass darkly. “Then we shall see face to face,” Paul says—face to face with Christ.
As Christians, isn’t this what we want more than anything? So you see that God can transform even the “worst thing that can happen” to us into the greatest thing: which means being with Christ. “To live is Christ and to die is gain.”
So that’s one thing that Paul means by saying, “The Lord is at hand.” But he also means that the Lord is very close to us, and he stands ready to help us no matter what we’re facing. Because of that, we don’t need to be “anxious about anything, but in everything,” Paul says, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Just last week, I read a troubling interview with a Bart Campolo. Some of you may have heard of Tony Campolo, a popular Baptist evangelist and preacher; this is his son. For many years Bart Campolo was, like his father, a preacher and Christian author. But he says he lost his faith. He’s now an atheist. He now works as the “secular humanist chaplain”—that’s apparently a thing—at the University of Southern California. But Campolo says that losing his faith was a process that took many years. But it began, he said, when he was doing ministry among the urban poor in inner cities, and he said that he began to notice that God wasn’t answering his prayers. He said, “It messed with my theology. I had a theology that said God could intervene and do stuff.” But after a period of unanswered prayer, “I had to change my understanding of God. Sovereignty had to get dialed down a bit.” Until finally he began to question every other doctrine of Christianity, until he no longer believed it at all.
Never mind that there are tens of thousands of other dedicated Christians who minister among the urban poor who have had the opposite experience with prayer—and have found that God has been incredibly faithful in answering their prayers. I was also troubled by his words about God’s sovereignty. In other words, “If God is really in control of the universe, then he ought to intervene and do things for me when I pray. And if he doesn’t, well maybe he’s not in control. In fact, maybe he doesn’t exist at all.”
How do we respond to that? First, when we pray, our overriding concern is that God’s will be done, and not our own. If something other than our prayer request comes to pass, we can trust that God allowed or enabled it for good reasons—and that the ultimate outcome of not getting what we pray for will be better for us, for our neighbor, for the world, or for God’s kingdom than if God had given us what we prayed for. Whether we can grasp even one of possibly millions of reasons that God didn’t grant our petition is beside the point.
And why should you know what those reasons are? Who do we—finite, sinful people—think we are? To put it mildly, what do we know that God doesn’t?
After all, from God’s vantage point, which transcends time, only he foreknows the myriad and potentially eternal consequences of giving us what we pray for.
In his wonderful book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Tim Keller discusses chaos theory and the famous “butterfly effect”: that a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific. Yet no one would be able to calculate and predict the actual effects of the butterfly’s flight.” No one except God, that is. Keller writes,
Now, if even the effects of a butterfly’s flight or the roll of a ball down a hill are too complex to calculate, how much less could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly “senseless” death of a young person and have any idea of what the effects in history will be? If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about. The history-butterfly effect means that “only an omniscient mind could grasp the complexities of directing a world of free creatures toward… [good] goals… Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us—but we are simply not in a position to judge.”
Keller goes on to say this: When it comes to our prayer requests, “God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.” God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows.
Isn’t that awesome?
Last week, I talked about the importance of falling in love with Jesus again. We simply can’t do that unless we learn to trust him again! Trust that he knows what he’s doing in our lives. So when it comes to prayer—and those experiences in which God doesn’t give us what we pray for—we need to say, “I don’t know what’s best, God, but I believe that you do! I wish I weren’t experiencing this particular difficult thing, but at the same time I also recognize that I don’t know how to run the universe better than you, Lord. So I’m going to trust you.”
Another practical thing that we can do to “rejoice in the Lord always” is what Paul describes in 8 and 9. He says that we’re supposed to “think about… things” that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable and the things that the Philippians “have learned and received and heard and seen in [Paul].” Paul isn’t with us the way he had been with the Philippians, but we have something better than that: We have his letters, and other apostles’ letters. We have the four gospels—in fact we have this entire Word of God available to all of us. Needless to say, I hope, we can put into practice what Paul says in verses 8 and 9 by reading, studying, and meditating on God’s holy Word.
If we do so, Paul says, the “God of peace will be with [us]” and the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
When Paul says that God’s peace “surpasses all understanding,” he means that we may look at our circumstances and not see good reasons to feel peaceful; we may not think that we have good reasons to “rejoice in the Lord.” But this is where God’s Word comes in. Because it’s filled with true stories about God’s people who also didn’t have good reasons to feel peaceful and to rejoice. But, because they trusted in the Lord, they saw how he operated on them and their circumstances in order to accomplish good things.
After all, as we look toward Christmas, think of Mary, after the angel Gabriel came to her and announced that she was pregnant, even though she was still a virgin. Those were some difficult circumstances! She must have thought, “Who will believe me that I was visited by this angel who told me this was God’s plan for me? How will Joseph believe me when I tell him I’m pregnant—and he’s not the father? And who am I to give birth to and raise God’s only begotten Son? What an awesome responsibility. I’m only 13! How can I do this? How can I be up for it?”
Have any of us faced circumstances as difficult as that? Yet look what God did in those circumstances! Don’t tell me God can’t transform our circumstances! Don’t tell me God can’t work miracles though our circumstances! Don’t tell me that losing our job, or losing our health, or losing a fortune, or losing our loved ones, or losing the love of our life, or losing the big game—Tech fans, Alabama fans—or any other bad thing that happens to us… don’t tell me this is the end of the world! Because who do we think God is? Who do we think is in control here?
Needless to say, none of us will receive this encouragement from God’s Word if our Bibles remain on the shelf throughout the week!
So if we want to experience the peace of God and we want to be able to rejoice, Paul says that we have to use our minds! We have to think it through. Our problem is that we tend to let our emotions control us.
In Psalm 42, the psalmist is going through an incredibly difficult time. He says his tears have been his food. His enemies are mocking him because—by all outward appearances—his God is nowhere to be found. He has all these reasons to be depressed. But instead of just feeling depressed, he says to himself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” See, he’s talking to himself—he’s not just listening to himself and his emotions. He says, “My soul is cast down within me.” In other words, “I’m depressed!” But then he says, “I remember you”—by which he means he remembers all the good reasons he has to hope in God, to trust in God. And what does he find? He finds, like Paul, reasons for joy. Reasons for thanksgiving. Reasons to have peace.
Paul makes clear in today’s scripture that peace and joy come to us as gifts from God; but they don’t happen automatically. They happen as we learn to turn to him in prayer and turn to him in his Word. We can’t throw up our hands and say, “God seems so far away!” when we’re not making the effort to know God through prayer and Bible study.
There’s a quote that’s often attributed to John Wesley—I’ve also seen it attributed to Martin Luther. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who said it, because it’s a great saying: “I pray for one hour every morning, except for when I’m really busy… Then I pray for two.”
You see the point? We simply can’t know the surpassing peace and joy that Paul describes without putting in the effort!
[Talk about tonight’s service. Thanksgiving.]
1. 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 ESV
2. Philippians 1:23
3. Sam Hailes, “Bart Campolo says progressive Christians turn into atheists. Maybe he’s right,” premierchristianity.com, 25 September 2017. Accessed 25 November 2017.
4. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.
5. Ibid., 101.
6. Psalm 42:5, 11 ESV