The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in May, 2022*
Should Christians expect to be happy?
J.C. Ryle, an Anglican bishop, in 1878 in a sermon simply titled “Happiness” shared the story of an eloquent atheist giving a public lecture on why religion was a sham, why tradition couldn’t be trusted, why there was no heaven, no hell, no resurrection, and how everyone should throw away their Bibles. At one point in the middle of his lecture, a poor, old woman pushed her way through the crowd and till she was face to face with the man and asked him, “Sir, are you happy?” The man, taken aback by such a question, began to explain that his happiness had nothing to do with the matter, but she persisted, “I ask you to answer my question. Are you happy? You want us to throw away our Bibles. You tell us not to believe what preachers say about the gospel. You advise us to think as you do, and be like you. Now before we take your advice—we have a right to know what good we shall get by it. Do your fine new notions give you much comfort? Do you yourself feel to be really happy?” The man couldn’t answer her question. He stammered and struggled for a few moments before eventually leaving the stage.
Now, I wonder if you were cornered by this same old woman how you would answer her: are you happy? If someone were to judge the attractiveness of your faith by your own happiness, would they find your faith appealing? William Tyndale, one of the first men to ever translate the Bible into English defined the gospel as: “Evangelion (which we call the gospel) is a Greek word that signifies good, merry, glad and joyful tidings—tidings that make a man’s heart glad and make him sing, dance, and leap for joy.” Here is how J.C. Ryle concludes his sermon, “I say that there is no happiness among worldly people which can possibly compare with that of the true Christian. All other happiness compared with theirs is moonlight compared with sunshine, brass compared with gold.” That is an audacious claim.
As gospel-people, are we known for our joy? Surprisingly, the Bible not only expects that we are known for joy, but it actually commands joy. Hebrews commands pastors to provide oversight of the congregation “with joy” (Heb 13:17) and 1 Peter similarly tells pastors to do their work “eagerly” (1 Pet 5:2); Paul tells the Corinthians that they should be a “cheerful givers” (2 Cor 9:7) and to make our joy the “joy of others” (2 Cor 2:3); Romans tells us that we are “to do acts of mercy, with cheerfulness” (Rom 12:8); and that brings us to our text today where Paul commands the Philippians and us to:
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice,” (Phil 4:4).
What does it mean to rejoice? It was Spurgeon who noted that the word rejoice is a doubling of joy, “We are to joy, and then we are to re-joy.” So “rejoicing” is when the tankard of joy spills over into expression, overflowing into our life so that we must share it. We rejoice when we find or experience something that is supreme, excellent, lovely, and wonderful and we are overwhelmed with a pang of happiness and delight. C.S. Lewis thought that true joy wasn’t found until we expressed praise of whatever object brought us joy. He was reflecting on the book of psalms and why God commands His people to praise Him. It bothered Lewis because it made God sound like “a vain woman who wants compliments,” but then an idea struck him:
“The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game. … I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” (Reflections on the Psalms, 94-95).
So, when we are commanded to praise God, God is not thinking only of receiving praise Himself, but is actually inviting us to maximize our joy through expressing our joy in our highest object of joy: God, Himself. No one teaches you to praise what you love—you naturally want to share that with others. The psalms instruct us that God should be what we love most, therefore we should praise God most, and in praising Him experience joy most. You and I are fitted, made for God; there is a slot in our heart, a groove that has been worn by the Lord Himself wherein He is made to fit, and we are distracted by a thousand other things and attempt to place them where only God belongs. God, our kind Maker, comes to us and says, No child, you are made for me, worship me. And when we do, there is a wholeness to our being, a wonderful sense of peace and joy. In other words, God’s praise is a means by which you and I experience our greatest joy. So to live life in such a manner that brings God greatest praise and brings me greatest joy are not two alternatives, but one in the same.
But isn’t it stunning that God has so constituted life to work this way? That we are invited into a life of joy? That God is so concerned with joy that we are commanded to rejoice in Him? God could have made obedience to His Law dull and dreadful, but He doesn’t. Consider what David tells us about God’s Law:
7 The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
God’s Law is the path to joy, to life, to sweetness. When we lean into God’s design, we find refreshment and joy. The classic Reformed catechism, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, famously opens with this question and answer: “What is the chief end of man? That he glorifies God and enjoys Him forever.” What were you made for? Joy.
But what does this joy look like? Consider a couple of verses that show us what it isn’t:
“I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity… And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” – Ecclesiastes 2:1, 10-11
The king here throws himself into every possible source of joy and pleasure that money can buy. Verses 3-9 detail him enjoying everything from the sensual pleasures of drinking parties and sexual indulgence, to the more refined pleasures of art, architecture, and industry. The king gets everything that you or I think would make us happy.
There are two extremes in life: extreme suffering and extreme success. Frequently those who have suffered most realize how transient and fickle this life is, and they realize that they must look beyond this life for their hope and security. Those who achieve phenomenal success, on the other hand, frequently report how empty and hollow it feels. They have all the money, the career success, the beauty, the fame, and yet what they thought would bring them joy turns out to be “vanity and a striving after wind.”
You and I, and most people, however, are caught in between those two extremes. We have not suffered greatly and we have not achieved extreme success, so we are tempted to just think if only I had a little more, then I’d be happy: just another pay raise, just another vacation, just a few pounds to lose, then I’ll be content. Ryle notes, “You might as well try to make an elephant happy by feeding him with a grain of sand a day as try to satisfy that heart of yours with [status], riches, intelligence, idleness or pleasure.” And yet, those are often the broken cisterns we keep coming back to thirsting for joy.
That is worldly joy. Joy that gives you some haha’s and a few moments of raising your heart rate, but then leaves you just as empty as it did before; that distracted you from your pain and problems for a moment–all whip-cream and no cake. Proverbs tells how ineffective this kind of lighthearted joy is: “Even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief,” Prov 14:13. This isn’t the joy that the Lord offers. When God commands us to rejoice He is not commanding us to a fake, superficial happiness while inside we languish. “The most beautiful cut flowers stuck in the ground do not make a garden,” (Ryle). Which makes us wonder, well what is the joy offered by the Lord?
In the Lord
Paul commands us to rejoice in the Lord. Paul uses this phrase nine different times in Philippians alone. It locates the domain in which God’s people are to act, think, and feel rightly. We can hope in the Lord (Phil 2:19), trust in the Lord (Phil 2:24), receive one another in the Lord (Phil 2:29), stand firm in the Lord (Phil 4:1), agree in the Lord (Phil 4:2), and rejoice in the Lord (Phil 3:1; 4:4; 4:10). It is the arena in which we live all of life as those united to Christ. If there is any act, thought, or feeling that we cannot do “in the Lord” then that is what we must avoid.
This tells us that joy comes from the Lord. It is a by-product of seeking the Lord. Which means that true joy, true happiness is found indirectly. This is a very simple, but counter-intuitive point. In the beatitudes when Jesus describes what a “blessed” life looks like you’ll notice that Jesus never says, “Blessed is the one who hungers and thirsts after blessedness.” Rather, Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who hungers and thirsts after righteousness,” (Matt 5:6). Blessedness comes as an indirect by-product of pursuing the life the Lord has called you to. This isn’t because God doesn’t care about our joy, (He obviously does) but because that just isn’t how joy works. Go into a job with the aim this job needs to satisfy me and fulfill all my vocational desires, and you’ll almost immediately find yourself hesitant and unsure about the job. Go on a vacation with the expectation this vacation needs to be perfect and filled with happiness, and find out how quickly you are disappointed. Happiness is a by-product of a life rightly ordered and well-lived. If you are constantly pulling up the flower of joy to check on the roots, the plant will never grow. Joy in the Lord is not found by aiming exclusively at the felt-reality of joy, but found as a consequence of a life that is simply seeking the Lord. “Aim at heaven and you get earth thrown in, aim at earth and you get neither.”
Further, as we are told to rejoice in the Lord, we must remember to do anything “in the Lord” means that we do so in the presence of the Lord. Consider a few more verses:
“For you make [the king] most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence,” (Ps 21:6).
“You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore,” (Ps 16:11).
Do you see the connection between joy and the presence of God? Which is rather odd when you think about what the presence of God normally brings to people in the Bible. Normally, when people come into God’s presence in the Bible they are filled with awe, terror, and fear. It is a traumatic encounter for most. The apostle John, who spent three years ministering alongside Jesus during His time on this earth, when He sees the glorified and ascended Christ in the opening pages of Revelation, he falls over like a dead man! Now, why would the psalmist assume God’s presence is the source of joy? It sounds like the opposite of that!
God is our creator, therefore He is immensely more powerful than us.
God is our lawgiver, therefore He is immensely more holy than us.
God is our glory, therefore He is immensely more lovely than us.
Put all of those things together and one can see why we tremble in His presence. But add onto that that we are sinners then that adds an entirely new dimension to the fear of the Lord. God is our creator, but we have worshipped created things instead; God is our lawgiver, but we have broken His laws; God is our glory, but we have exchanged it for cheap imitations. And for this we have now earned for ourselves the righteous wrath of God. Think of Isaiah’s response when he is suddenly found in the presence of God, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5). When the divinity of Christ is first revealed to Peter, what is Peter’s response? “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).
Sinners flee from God’s presence the way you or I would flee from a hungry lion, the way a criminal flees from the police, the way darkness flees from light. And yet, David, a serious sinner himself can say, “It is in the presence of God that all joy is found.” How can that be?
It is because David has discovered that this holy, awesome God is a God who has provided a means of atonement and forgiveness. “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered,” (Ps 32:1). David can find joy in the presence of God because for as awful of a sinner as he is, he knows that God is a more magnificent Savior, and this Savior loves David. And this Savior, Jesus Christ, loves you. And He has decided to manifest all of the power and awe and glory of Himself supremely in His sacrifice of Himself on the cross so that your sins, and my sins, could be forgiven.
“The true Christian can think calmly about the holy God whose eyes see all his or her actions and feel: he is my Father, my reconciled Father in Christ Jesus. I am weak; I am unworthy, but, in Christ, he regards me as his dear child and is well pleased. What a privilege it is to be able to think these things and not be afraid!” (Ryle).
“The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!”…Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven,” (Luke 10:17, 20). I have never (to my knowledge) cast a demon out of someone, but I am guessing that would be a remarkable experience. To see someone set free from the bondage of Satan, to experience that kind of power? That would be tremendous. And yet, Jesus says, Don’t rejoice over something like that—here is what you rejoice in: your name is written in the book of Life. You’re not going to hell, man! And friend, maybe you have never experienced some remarkable display of spiritual power, maybe you feel spiritually weak, but if you are in Christ then that means that your name is written in the book of Life, it means that your sins have been taken away and your guilt atoned for, you have been reconciled to God and shall spend an eternity enjoying Him and His presence—so rejoice!
When are we to rejoice in the Lord? Always. At all times. There is never an inappropriate time to rejoice in the Lord. Paul can describe himself as a man who was, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing,” (2 Cor 6:10), which sort of sounds like a “meat-eating vegetarian” to us. How can one be sorrowful, yet able to rejoice? Consider the closing verses of Habakkuk:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the deer’s;
he makes me tread on my high places.
Habakkuk just ruled out all of the possible avenues of joy that we would normally assume joy would come from. Yet, he rejoices in the Lord; he takes joy in the God of his salvation. Why? Because no amount of suffering, no amount deprivation, no amount of economic calamity or life-altering tragedies can separate him from His God. And this God is the “God of my salvation.” This isn’t an abstraction, this is the God who saved him.
Maybe you are a person who struggles profoundly to rejoice. Maybe you have experienced an extended “dark night of the soul.” How do I rejoice when I feel nothing but darkness? Consider: If God has commanded us to rejoice, then that means that we can rejoice. God does not command what we cannot do. So if we are commanded to rejoice, that means He will provide everything we need to rejoice, always, at all times. But I don’t feel it! Learn spiritual judo. Use the weight of your sin, weakness, or Satan’s condemnation drive you to happy assurance that Christ has paid for all your sin and forgiven you. Your sins are many, but His mercy is more, so the more your sins are exposed the more reasons you have to breathe a sigh of relief—Jesus paid for this. Feel a spiritual hollowness? Feel a total desolation of joy? Confess that itself to the Lord, confess your spiritual coolness, confess your apathy, confess your joylessness. And with your confession, boldly plead the blood of Christ as sufficient to cover your sins totally. Lay hold of God like Jacob did and refuse to let go.
“God does not bless us begrudgingly. There is a kind of eagerness about the beneficence of God. His anger must be released by a stiff safety lock, but his mercy has a hair trigger,” (John Piper).
There may be many reasons that we are not experiencing joy in the Lord. We may be neglecting the ordinary means of grace God has offered us: Bible reading, prayer, confession, community, corporate worship, etc. We may be harboring sin and refusing to repent and feel like David in psalm 32 where he described himself feeling as if his bones were rotting away. But let me conclude with some less obvious applications to help us rejoice in the Lord:
Practical application for rejoicing in the Lord always:
1. Avoid too much leisure. Inactivity and laziness breeds depression. Go outside, work, volunteer, exercise regularly. The poet and hymn writer William Cowper suffered from a terrible depression all his life and attempted suicide on a number of occasions, but one thing that contributed to his depression was the fact that he inherited a massive amount of money, so he never had to work, and so spent copious amounts of time by himself, doing nothing. He was always psychologically at his healthiest when he was composing hymns with his friend John Newton. God made us to work, to create, to cultivate.
2. Avoid consuming any kind of media that deadens your mind and heart to God. Read, listen, and watch things that fill your heart and mind with wonder, that expose the ugliness of sin, that make you long for heaven.
3. Ask God regularly to help you experience the Holy Spirit’s comforting presence, to taste and see that the Lord is good.
4. Spend time with other people who remind you that we are sojourners and strangers in this world, who smell like heaven, who will point you towards the bright beauty of godliness.
5. Talk about yourself less—the world is filled with fascinating people. Your own stuffy thoughts are already familiar to you. Make a spiritual discipline of telling other people what you appreciate about them.
6. Practice “omnivorous attentiveness.” Open your eyes to the wonder of the created world around you, the bountiful gifts God has bestowed upon you. Stare at the fruit on your counter, the tree in your yard, the sweep of clouds across the sky and think: God could have made a world without those, but He didn’t. We are princes living in palaces of a million treasures, taking nearly all of them for granted.
Perhaps one of my favorite examples of what a life brimming over with joy in the Lord looks like comes from the life of Charles Spurgeon:
“Rev. Theodore L. Cuyler, the celebrated Brooklyn divine, was visiting the famous London preacher, Rev. Charles H. Spurgeon. After a hard day of work and serious discussion, these two mighty men of God went out into the country together for a holiday. They roamed the fields in high spirits like boys let loose from school, chatting and laughing and free from care. Dr. Cuyler had just told a story at which Mr. Spurgeon laughed uproariously. Then suddenly he turned to Dr. Cuyler and exclaimed, ‘Theodore, let’s kneel down and thank God for laughter!’ And there, on the green carpet of grass, under the trees, two of the world’s greatest men knelt and thanked the dear Lord for the bright and joyous gift of laughter.” (The Sabbath Recorder, 4 January 1915, p. 157)