REJOICE IN THE LORD
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4: 4-7 NRSVCE)
This morning I made a quick scan of the front section of The Boston Globe and New York Times. There’s a topic that gets no press — not this morning, probably not most mornings. That missing topic is “joy.”
A good many of the other “spiritual gifts” get press on a fairly regular basis. Most every day there’s talk about love, peace, patience, discipline or self-control, hope, faith, healing, and reconciliation… but when was the last time you had some conversation or read some newsworthy article about joy?
The theme of joy is something of a rare commodity.
To have joy or – as we would say in slang – to do joy is to rejoice. In the accompanying Scripture passage, St. Paul commends us to “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Just in case you didn’t hear him or didn’t believe him, he repeats himself: “Again I say, rejoice!” There’s something here that’s new and fresh to draw out of the treasury of God’s provision: the gift of joy, to know the capacity to rejoice in life.
REJOICING – A DEEP SENSE OF DELIGHT
To rejoice is to have a deep sense of delight. The Greek word means “for the heart, in its deepest place of passion and feelings, to be well.” That’s what it is to have joy: for the heart to feel very well, to rejoice the heart.
If you agree with me that joy can be something of a rare commodity, an untapped spiritual gift, why might that be? Why is that so about this thing called joy? Why is it so rare? Well, several things have occurred to me.
JOY IS NOT FAST FOOD
First, joy takes time. Joy is not fast food. I would say it comes as a by-product of living a savored life, of having and taking time to “Stop and smell the flowers.” Joy needs time. There is this old monastic insight about living a joy-filled life: take time, take at least some time each day, to do one thing at-a-time.
Yes, take time, take at least some time each day (if you are walking) to just walk. Take time, take at least some time (if you are looking) to just look. If you are listening, just listen. If you are sipping iced tea, watering the plants, or petting the dog, do just that. Do one thing at-a-time, and do that as often as you can.
Take the time to let the fragrances and aromas of life penetrate to the deepest part of your being, where they can be savored. I think we call this “being there.”
I don’t think it has so much to do with the pace of life as much as it does with the intentionality with which we live our life.
It’s to presume that each moment is pregnant with God’s real presence, provision, and promise. Look for it; wait for it; savor it. Don’t just visit life; life needs time to be lived abundantly.
JOY REQUIRES ACCEPTANCE
Secondly, joy requires acceptance. Joy requires our saying “yes” to life, to the life we’ve been given, the hand we’ve been dealt. Probably many of us have awakened one day to discover that the role we’ve been handed in the drama of life is not the part we auditioned to play.
It seems to me that joy requires a deep willingness to accept how little of our life is actually within our control. It’s an acknowledgment and an acceptance that God will be God: that it is God’s world in God’s time, and that we are God’s creatures, that God is at work according to God’s good pleasure. St. Paul writes:
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me,
not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence,
work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;
for it is God who is at work in you,
enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
(Philippians 2:12-13 NRSVCE)
- JOY REQUIRES SAYING YES TO LIFE
Joy requires our saying yes to life – the life we live as individuals, as members of a family, as members of a church, as members of various professional or volunteer circles. Also, joy presumes our living with intentionality to accept the good gifts of life that are there, not to live life in a state of rejection or resentment for what is not there or is no longer there.
Life brings arrivals, changes, and departures. That’s life – the changes and chances of life.
- REJOICE BY SAYING YES TO WHAT IS THERE
To rejoice is to say yes to what is there. I would say that without that quality of acceptance of what is there, those unmet desires of the future will never become present, can never become present. Without that quality of acceptance and thankfulness, those unmet desires will always be elusive.
In God’s good plan, there is a reason why today is not tomorrow. In some deep sense, we need the provisions of today to prepare us to receive the promises of tomorrow. Joy requires a posture of acceptance, of saying “yes” to life: not the life we could have had or feel we should have had, but the life that God has given us, which is the only place where there is life for us.
JOY REQUIRES DESIRE
Thirdly, it seems to me that joy requires desire. I was talking with someone not long ago on this topic of joy. They were saying there was absolutely no joy in their life. I asked them whether they wanted to know joy? Well, they had never thought of it quite that way – about wanting to know joy.
Do you want to be joyful? Joy is a gift, it’s a spiritual gift. Generally speaking, if you want to receive a gift, you don’t keep your hands in your pockets. Joy is a gift from God, and if you want to receive that gift, open your heart and open your hands to receive it. If you want the gift of joy, ask God for the gift. (I think it’s what we might call an “under-utilized petition.”)
JOY REQUIRES ENDURANCE
Lastly, joy requires endurance. Particularly in the New Testament, so much of the writing about joy is in the context of suffering.
Why is it that we hear so much about “the joy of the cross of Christ?” Why is it that with the annunciation to Mary and to Elizabeth, they first know fear and then they know joy? It’s the same with Joseph: first fear, then joy. It’s the same with the shepherds: first fear, then joy. Much later, it’s the same with the women at the tomb. Joy comes out of fear, of all things?!
Why is it that Jesus says you are set up to be blessed when “people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and defame you on Jesus’ account? Rejoice in that day,” he says, “and leap for joy?”
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude you, revile you,
and defame you on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy,
for surely your reward is great in heaven;
for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
(Luke 6:22-23 NRSVCE)
How curious. Why is it that Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Very truly I tell you… you will have pain… but your pain will turn into joy”? (John 16:20-22.) How is it that St. Paul could write to the Philippians from prison (as he was about to be executed) commending us to “rejoice always?” (Philippians 4:4-9)
A PARADOX ABOUT JOY
That’s because there is a paradox in joy. (Our English word “paradox” comes from the Greek, paradoxa: para = other; doxa = glory, “other glory”, i.e., God’s glory being manifest in a way other than we would have imagined.)
It seems that there is some direct relationship between the depth of suffering and the height of joy. To the extent to which we have known suffering, so we can know joy. It doesn’t mean that we should go looking for suffering; there’s surely enough of it to go around without looking for it. Suffering has a way of finding us (I think that has something to do with the cross of Christ.). Nor does it mean to deny suffering. It’s not a de jure principle: first, you get suffering and then you get joy (like first you eat your vegetables and then you get dessert). No, it’s not a de jure principle. Rather I sense it’s simply de facto: it’s simply the way it is.
SUFFERING OPENS THE DOOR FOR TRANSFORMATION
Yes, there is something about our suffering in life – what we would not have chosen but cannot avoid. There is something about our suffering when we say “yes” to God, when we show ourselves ready to bear our suffering before God, that opens the door for transformation, for consecration. The Psalmist writes:
For his anger is but for a moment;
his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
(Psalm 30:5 NRSVCE)
There is something about facing the dark night that allows us to see the dawning of joy.
Back in my high school years, I set off to be a competitive swimmer. Several weeks into my first season I was a broken man. I think every muscle in my body hurt. My neck and shoulders hurt. My arms hurt. My thighs and calves hurt. Even my back hurt. I was at my absolute end, so sure that I would fail and never make the team. In my youthful desolation, I remember pouring out my heart to one of the wise old men on the swim team (I think he was 18 years old.), telling him of the absolute despair of my heart and the pain of my body.
I remember that he listened patiently, then asked, “Do your feet hurt.” “What!?” I asked. He said again, “Do your feet hurt?” “Well,” I said, “No, at least my feet don’t hurt.” He said, “They will! You’re getting in shape! This is what it takes.”
EVERYTHING HURT, BUT I FOUND JOY
Well, I was in ecstasy. Everything still hurt in my body, but my heart soared to the heavens. I was right where I belonged. My suffering was not for naught – this slight, momentary affliction was preparing me for something more and something wonderful. I made the team! I was suddenly full of ecstatic joy!
So we do not lose heart.
Even though our outer nature is wasting away,
our inner nature is being renewed day by day.
For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us
for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,
because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen;
for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
(2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NRSVCE)
JOY IS A MYSTERY
Joy is a mystery. It’s as mysterious and as boundless as our suffering. Somehow, in God’s economy, the one creates the space for the other. Do you recall Jesus’ parting prayer for us (for you!) in John’s Gospel? “Holy Father, protect them by the name You gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” … “Now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy completed in them.” (See John 17)
Go ahead: “Do joy.” (Try it, you’ll like it!) If you can’t do it, ask God for it (It’s a gift God’s Spirit is waiting to give out.). If you still cannot rejoice, if you can’t reach to receive the joy that is there waiting for you, ask for some help. Joy will not spare you from suffering (just as Jesus wasn’t spared). We are not spared the cross; we share the cross – and also the joy that follows.
Joy will give you a place in your heart to be well, to be passionately alive, even amidst the changes, chances, and sufferings of your life.
If you already know something about suffering (I would imagine that all of you, in your life and ministry, are very acquainted with suffering.), then you are at least halfway there. You’re “set up” to unwrap the gift of joy. May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace….
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,
so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
(Romans 15:13 NRSVCE)
Br. Curtis Almquist
Br. Curtis Almquist has been a monk with the Society of Saint John the Evangelist for more than 30 years, living and praying at the monastery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He connects with a wide spectrum of people, helping them listen and respond to God’s amazing gift of life.