When life sucks, I have a hard time rejoicing. But God wants believers to rejoice always (Philippians 4:4).
Surely God doesn’t mean always. Because that’s impossible.
How can we be expected to rejoice when we’re stuck in a job we hate? Or when our kids are sick? Or when our marriage is at an all-time low? Or when the doctor tells us we are infertile? Or when we don’t know how we’re going to pay the mortgage this month?
How can a reasonable God require us to rejoice in these kinds of circumstances?
I think the answer is He doesn’t.
He never calls us to rejoice in circumstances at all. He calls us to rejoice in Him, no matter what our circumstances look like.
I think this distinction is huge. It directly affects how we view God.
Philippians 4:4 reads, “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
If we think God wants us to rejoice over the loss of a child or our recent divorce, then we’ll see God as sadistic and unfeeling.
But if we think God wants us to rejoice in Him – His goodness and His unfailing love – while we’re in the circumstances, then we’ll see God as a compassionate Savior and a heroic Redeemer, offering us hope that we don’t otherwise have.
Here’s how that pans out in reality.
You’ve just moved to a new town where you have no friends or family to speak of. You are far from home. You feel isolated and depressed as you grieve the friendships you’ve left. You’re hating life right now, loathing each and every minute. And the Lord says rejoice. If we hear this as “rejoice in your situation”, we’ll say, “There is nothing good about this situation. I am hurting! Even if I try to think positively about all the Lord might have in store for me in my new surroundings, that doesn’t make my present pain any less.” But, if we hear the command to rejoice as “rejoice in the Lord,” we can say, “Lord, I hurt right now. The end of this pain is nowhere in sight. But I know that you love me, and I know you are in control. Thank you for being so trustworthy, especially when life is difficult.”
The difference is, when we are rejoicing in who the Lord is instead of what our circumstances are, we are free to feel our pain. We can be honest about our emotions and don’t have to feel guilty for not feeling joyful toward life.