Magazine article The Christian Century

Rejoice Anyway

Magazine article The Christian Century

Rejoice Anyway

Article excerpt

THE BIBLE is full of commands to "Rejoice!," which ought to interest our "Smile, be happy" generation. But unlike contemporary injunctions to look on the bright side, the biblical commands often appear in unexpected places. Paul's letter to the Philippians is an example. Paul does not seem to be in a very good situation. We learn almost accidentally--Paul certainly does not emphasize it--that he is in prison awaiting a trial that could result in his death. He feels isolated from his colleagues and is deeply concerned (this he does emphasize) about the faithful preaching of the gospel during his captivity.

Yet in this little letter the words joy and rojoice appear 14 times, culminating in the summary declaration, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!" These verses bear the marks of Paul's own personal experience with God. Though in a place of distress, he can be calm because the Lord is near. Whatever happens can only result in additional opportunities for him to enjoy (or extend) the reality of Christ's presence. So he can say with perfect honesty that nothing need disturb him; he can be content whether he is well fed or hungry, has plenty or is in need. This is not simply the absence of concern, a kind of Greek apatheia or Eastern release from desire. The impetus to rejoice is a positive reality, which Paul describes as the peace of God which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

As Karl Barth put it, the joy that Paul describes is a defiant "nevertheless," which draws strength from the gospel story and from laying one's deepest concerns before God "with thanksgiving." This joy seems to take root even in darkness. It is encouraged by the spread of the gospel, the growth of a young church, but most of all by the deep joy of God's presence and the hope this gives for whatever the future may hold.

Paul celebrates a joy that is a special characteristic of the biblical story. Throughout the Bible God's people are moved to praise in the darkest moments. The Old Testament prophets often called God's people to rejoice in difficult circumstances. The passage from Zephaniah was probably written just before the reforms of Josiah and during the political uncertainties that resulted from the decline of Assyrian power after 626 B.C.E. The prophecy of Zephaniah is filled with references to syncretism, faithless leaders and a defiled and oppressing city. The prophet even picks up Amos's reference to the "Day of the Lord" and announces that this dark and bitter day is near. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.