Rejoicing always seems like a naïve fantasy when we are bombarded by a seemingly endless stream of bad news and confronted daily by suffering.
Cynicism and apathy seem like more realistic, even noble, options as we peer out into the insurmountable and terrifying chaos of the world around us. Another war, another dictator, another crisis. Unending poverty and unchanging darkness all seem to confirm the cynic’s view of the world. To rejoice in the midst of all this can seem foolish and even fraudulent.
How are we to sing a song of joy when all cause for joy seems drowned out in this cacophony of heartache and hurt? How can this joy be authentic when a quick glance at the world seems to confirm that God is absent and unhearing? Why should we rejoice when our friends, family and loved ones suffer?
And yet, the Bible calls us to tune our hearts to an anthem of hope, to beat to a rhythm of ceaseless rejoicing, to constantly “sing a new song.”
Paul, who penned this difficult commandment to “rejoice in the Lord always,” was not switched off to suffering, nor was he lost in a deluded fantasy detached from the world. He was a man acquainted with sorrows and suffering, constantly at the butt end of attacker’s blows and violent persecution. Elsewhere, he documents his troubles: shipwrecked, beaten, falsely accused, imprisoned, tortured, pursued, and abandoned (2 Corinthians 11:24-29).
And yet, even as he faced such persecution and the prospect of death, he was still able to write these words:
Paul, like us, was exposed to much suffering. His world was not unlike ours: a world familiar with war, poverty, disease and death. A world fatigued by uncertainty and fear as empires clashed. And yet, his eyes were not fixed on those things. For when our eyes are set on our circumstances, we can only but despair.
So, what was Paul’s secret?
His feet were fixed on the Rock of Ages who cannot be shaken, his eyes were lifted to the Saviour who is victorious, and his mind feasted on the unchanging, unending goodness of the gospel even as his body wasted away.
Our capacity to hope and rejoice hinges on what we believe about God.
If we believe our God is the uncaring, unmoved deist’s God who is absent from our suffering and indifferent to our world, we can only but despair with the cynic. But, if we believe our God is the compassionate Father whose nature is love, whose compassion and grace are revealed in the wounds and scars of Jesus Christ, we have much reason to rejoice. To rejoice always.
Against the backdrop of this world’s darkness, the gospel - the good news of Jesus - breaks in brilliantly, unexpectedly, shattering hopelessness and confronting apathy.
We, like Paul, are empowered to rejoice without ceasing, because through death our Saviour God has overcome Death forever. Through our darkest night, the Light enters in, and the darkness cannot overcome it (John 1:5). In our deepest hurt, we have a fully-God yet fully-human High Priest who kneels before the throne of God, desperately interceding in love on our behalf, able to sympathise with us in the pits of our despair (Hebrews 4:15).
Rejoicing, then, is not about turning off to this world’s brokenness and suffering, but confronting it head on and still boldly declaring, “My God has overcome.” To rejoice is to speak against the lie of the enemy when he whispers, “Your God is not here. Your God doesn’t care. Your God is dead.” To rejoice is to believe truth even when it is hard, even when we are feeling weak and lost and alone.
Because, in the position of our desperate weakness, Jesus speaks these words to us:
So, we recognise suffering, and we rejoice. There is no place for cynicism or apathy in a mind set on the goodness, truth and beauty of the gospel. In this darkness, the light shines all the brighter.