It is often thought that the reformed faith, or Calvinism, with its stern view of human sin and its emphasis on the majesty of the Almighty, is calculated to produce dour, humorless Christians, whipped, beaten, and without a spark of real joy in the Lord.
Someone once defined ‘Puritanism’, which is, after all, simply a particular school of Calvinists or reformed Christians, as ‘the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.’
At least that is what the opponents of the reformed faith are inclined to think. And, no doubt, some Calvinists may have given them reason for their opinion.
But, as a matter of simple fact, I only do justice to the great tradition of teaching and living the Christian life to which we belong in this church, when I set beside what we have already discussed: a high view of God, and a deep sense of a believer’s abiding sinfulness, now an emphasis upon the necessity of sustained joy as a mark of any genuine Christian piety or spirituality.
Puritans especially have been branded as a humorless lot, chiefly by those who know nothing about what they taught or how they lived. Nathaniel Ward, the Puritan pastor, purchased a home in Ipswich whose former owner had also been a Christian. Over the mantelpiece of that home, the former owner had had carved the three words which he apparently felt represented the sum of Puritan ethics:
‘sobriety, justice, and piety.’ After moving in, Nathaniel Ward, had a craftsman add a fourth: ‘laughter.’
And what of that immortal scene which John Bunyan sketches for us in his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners? Perhaps you remember. He was not yet a Christian, though he was by this time interested in religion. And one day, his work took him to the town of Bedford. Well, let him tell the story of his encounter with some women from the reformed church in Bedford.
“But upon a day, the good providence of God did cast me to Bedford, to work on my calling; and in one of the streets of that town, I came where there were three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God; and being now willing to hear them discourse, I drew near to hear what they said, for I was now a brisk talker also myself in the matters of religion, but now I may say, I heard, but I understood not; for they were far above, out of my reach; for their talk was about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature; they talked how God had visited their souls with his love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promise they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil. Moreover, they reasoned of the suggestions and temptations of Satan in particular; and told to each other by which they had been afflicted, and how they were borne up under his assaults. They also discoursed of their own wretchedness of heart, of their unbelief; and did contemn, slight, and abhor their own righteousness, as filthy and insufficient to do them any good.
And methought they spake as if joy did make them speak; they spake with such pleasantness of Scripture language, and with such appearance of grace in all they said, that they were to me, as if they had found a new world, as if they were people that dwelt alone, and were not to be reckoned among their neighbours.”
‘And methought they spake as if joy, itself, did make them speak.’
Well, in this, our forebears were only the loyal sons and daughters of Paul and the Holy Scripture. For Paul says that joy is a holy obligation of Christian people, and here in the verses we read he commands us to rejoice always, to live in joy!
Indeed, this is but the climax of many references to joy which he has already made in his letter to the Philippians.
And, in this emphasis upon joy, the Apostle Paul is, of course, not at all unique. As one theologian has remarked: ‘It is astonishing and certainly does not need to be verified by quotations how many references there are in the Old and New Testaments to delight, joy, bliss, exultation, merry-making and rejoicing, and how emphatically these are demanded from the Book of Psalms to the Epistle to the Philippians.’
C.S. Lewis was not overstating the point, he was not being anything else but faithful to Paul and the Scripture when he wrote: ‘It is a Christian duty…for everyone to be as happy as he can.’ Indeed, the opposite point is also made in the Bible, as at Deuteronomy 28:47, where God promises to curse and judge Israel if she does not serve the Lord joyfully and gladly. God actually threatens terrible things if his people will not be happy.
So much is joy to be characteristic of Christian living; and for that reason our forebears spoke so much about and taught so often on the subject of joy and the Christian life as a life of joy.
And surely in our day, this joy ought all the more to distinguish the children of God; for joy, I mean genuine joy, the real thing, seems to be in very short supply in our world these days. The beliefs and the way of life of modern society are not conducive to joy.
- A profound illustration of this is furnished by the fact that the two men perhaps most responsible for the shape of human society today–Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud–both lived joyless lives and died miserable and bitter men.
- Now, of course, I do not mean to suggest that there is no laughter or merriment in our world. Far from it. There is a great deal of light-heartedness and laughter; but this is a very different thing from that wonderful, deep gladness of soul which Paul calls ‘joy.’
(Just think, for a moment, of our comedians–those who love to laugh and to make others laugh with them–)
Freddie Prinz, the young Hispanic comedian, who was such a hit until he committed suicide; or Richard Pryor, the gifted black comic who nearly ended his life in a narcotics related accident; or John Belushi, the funny man who died alone in a motel room in Hollywood, the victim of a drug overdose.
Lots of laughs in our day and age; but not much real joy. As a matter of simple fact, people can be more or less happy in life and know nothing at all of the real joy of which Paul is speaking. Indeed, we might as well admit that very wicked people can live relatively happy lives.
So, you may remember, Hamlet was forced to admit, as he referred to his mother and his uncle whom she had just married, the very uncle who had murdered Hamlet’s father:
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables,–meet it is I set it down,
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I’m sure it may be so in Denmark.
In Denmark and everywhere else.
But it is not merely that wicked people can enjoy happiness of a sort. It must also be said that many professed Christians can be happy and mistake their happiness for the joy of the Lord, which it is not; and many other Christians are not anywhere near enough characterized by this joy, which Paul says is the inheritance of those who belong to Jesus Christ.
Speaking of joy in the Lord, Philip Doddridge, in his immortal book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, wrote:
‘It may justly grieve a man that enters into the
spirit of Christianity, to see how low a life even
the generality of sincere Christians commonly live
in this respect.’ [p 240]
But Paul will have nothing of that!!! He sees too clearly that it is a crime without excuse that those who know the Almighty as their Father, as Abba, and Christ as their Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit as their Advocate, those who have been lifted up to the heavenly places in Christ and given an inheritance with the saints in light, should not eat and drink and work and sleep in the joy of the Lord.
‘I wonder, many times,’ said Samuel Rutherford, that ever a child of God should have a sad heart, considering what his Lord is preparing for him.’ And what of all that our Lord has already given us!
So let us listen carefully to what the Apostle Paul has said to us and commanded us. And take note of the fact that it is a command! We are inclined to think of joy as something one either has or has not, which comes and goes as it pleases and over which we have scant control.
But Paul does not think of joy that way at all. Joylessness is a sin; joy a duty–it is a privilege to be sure, but also a sacred obligation, which Christians are called upon to practice.
It will help us to understand and take to heart Paul’s command, if we see how it is that he can command us to rejoice in the Lord; how true and genuine joy can be not only an experience, but an act of obedience which we perform for and before the Lord.
- In the first place, Paul commands us to be joyful because joy is a necessary ingredient in the sacrifice of our lives to God.
The joy Paul is speaking of is not a Christian luxury; it is not something that the Christian life can do without. It is essential to Christian experience and to Christian obedience and to Christian service. As a result, putting on joy is a necessary aspect of that consecration of our lives that every believer owes to the Lord.
- Think, for example, of the necessity of joy in a believer’s life for the honor which God and Christ will receive from that life. What kind of recommendation is it of the grace and mercy and power of God, if those who are the undeserving objects of that grace and mercy remain joyless, glum and sullen? Lack of joy is only a special form of ingratitude.
Or think of the importance of joy as a support for the believer in times of adversity, as a prop helping his faith to stand when the sharp wind is in its face. Nehemiah says that the ‘joy of the Lord will be our strength’ and many a Christian has found it so. Great joy in the Lord and his love can temper even the most bitter of shocks and sorrows in this life.
And think of joy’s effect on others; as the joy of those poor Bedford women affected John Bunyan.
And, still more, think of the way joy in the Lord serves to deepen and keep lively our motivation to serve the Lord.
Do you remember, in Pilgrim’s Progress, that wonderful conversation between Hopeful and Christian as they sought to keep one another awake as they passed through the Enchanted Ground? They began their conversation by exchanging testimonies, and in Hopeful’s account–which is really John Bunyan’s own testimony, for in some places it is taken virtually word for word from Grace Abounding, he describes his feelings just after he had come to Christ and discovered that his sins were forgiven:
‘And now,’ he said, ‘was my heart full of joy, mine eyes full of tears, and mine affections running over with love to the name, people, and ways of Jesus Christ. It made me…long to do something for the honour and glory of the name of Jesus; yea, I thought that had I now a thousand gallons of blood in my body, I could spill it all for the sake of the Lord Jesus.’
That is how joy animates a life and invigorates the commitments of a Christian.
In all of these ways and others, joy is indispensable to the living of a godly and useful life for Christ’s sake. Hence, Paul is surely right to command us to be a joyful people, and we are surely obliged to practice joy!
- In the second place, Paul commands us to rejoice in the Lord because he understands that this joy is something which ought always to exist in a believer’s life.
He says, indeed, he commands: ‘Rejoice in the Lord, always!’ Now he can make such a demand of us only because he well knows that the joy of which he is speaking is not only possible at certain times or in certain circumstances in a Xian’s life. The joy of which he is speaking does not in any way depend upon our circumstances, whether good or ill.
This is a mistake we often make, wittingly or unwittingly, in thinking about joy and wishing for it. We expect it when things are going well, but do not feel obliged to rejoice, nor think it possible, when things are going heavily. But were that a correct view of joy–it is, after all the world’s view of joy–Paul could not command us to rejoice always!
As a matter of fact, the joy Paul is speaking of is not, cannot be held hostage to our circumstances.
- This is so, first of all, because this joy is an altogether serious thing.
The world’s merriment depends upon her present circumstances, and, what is more, the ability to forget, for the moment, the 1000 and 1 reasons for sorrow and tears. Worldly joy always has the character of irreality, of nervous laughter in the dark. Laugh while death so rapidly approaches? Be glad in the midst of all of my problems? How can I?
But the splendid, beautiful thing about Xian joy is that it is perfectly compatible with realism and with honesty; it can be experienced at the very same time as one faces squarely the true fact about life in this world. The Christian life is serious; the first thing the Bible does is to give a person a serious view of life–but that does not take away a Christian’s joy.
Indeed, Matthew Henry says, ‘True joy is a serious thing; and that joy which will not consist with
seriousness, doth not become a man, much less a Christian.’
A proof of this is that this joy, paradoxically, but wonderfully, can co-exist in the same heart with other emotions which seem to be, at first glance, contradictory to or incompatible with it.
‘Rejoice with trembling’ we are commanded in the Bible. ‘Sorrowful yet always rejoicing’ is Paul’s description of the Christian in 2 Corinthians 6. When Jesus describes the Christian character in the beatitudes at the beginning of his Sermon on the Mount, he begins with ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ and ‘Blessed are they who mourn,’ but finishes with ‘rejoice and be exceedingly glad…’
The same Paul who cried out, on account of his still so great sinfulness: ‘O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death!’ is the same Apostle who tells us to rejoice in the Lord always.
The world cannot understand how true joy can co-exist with the fear of God, with mourning over one’s sins, or with an honest recognition of and sympathy with the misery all around us in the world: but this is precisely Paul’s great point! The joy which Christ gives is so finely suited to true living that it can co-exist with every other right and true conviction and feeling a Christian ought to have and will have.
- In a second way, it is possible for us to rejoice whatever our circumstances, because the joy of which we are speaking is a spiritual joy.
It is a joy, that is, which derives from and is founded upon our knowledge of God and his perfections, upon Christ and what he has done to save us from death and hell, upon the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, upon our confidence in the absolute sovereignty of our God and the unchangeable love for us by which he directs that sovereign rule over all things. It is founded upon our unshakeable hope in the eternal inheritance which awaits us in heaven and the sure promises of God to preserve us in faith and life until the great day of salvation.
These things are true and wonderful, whatever may be the condition of our circumstances at any moment, however difficult they may be, and next to them, our circumstances, however bleak, are not to be compared in importance.
It is because our joy is founded upon such a rock that the Lord Jesus could say to his disciples: [John 16:22]:
‘you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.’ It is for this that Peter spoke of an inexpressible and glorious joy which is indestructible.
It stands as firm as Christ’s righteousness, as the father’s love, and as the Spirit’s power. Therefore, Paul asks nothing impossible of us when he calls upon us to rejoice always.
For, though the fig tree does not bud, and there are no grapes on the vine, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.’
So, in these two ways, joy is something which ought always to exist in a believer’s life.
- Now, Paul can command us to rejoice for a second reason, and that is because joy is a grace, a virtue, a fruit of the Spirit, which may be cultivated and increased and more and more brought to expression.
Some people, it is true, are by nature and personality more cheerful than others, more inclined to brightness and jollity than others. But spiritual joy is not a function of personality–or of what Dr. Packer calls, ‘bone structure.’ Spiritual joy is a function of obedience to God and of the cultivation of the soul, and no joy reached in any other way, is the true and genuine article.
So when Paul commands us to ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ he is telling us what we must strive to do and more and more seek to do daily.
Joy, like peace, love, patience and so on; is a grace of Christian living and the Bible is full of instruction in how to cultivate these graces and increase them and their exercise in our lives. We should pray for them, and we should practice them.
Now, with regard to joy in particular, several important steps should be taken to cultivate and increase it.
- First, we must redouble our efforts in the warfare we wage against our own sin.
Sin is an impediment to joy; and the practice of sin is what chiefly clouds our joy. David, after his sin with Bathsheba, cried out to God: ‘Restore unto me, the joy of my salvation.’ With his sin he had lost his joy.
Thomas Brooks puts it in this quaint Puritan way:
‘Divine joy ebbs and flows as holiness ebbs and flows…indeed happiness, like Rachel…is so fair and so beautiful a thing, that everyone is apt to fall in love with it, and earnestly to desire it, yea, many there be that would serve twice seven years to enjoy it. But by the standing law of that heavenly country above, the younger sister must never be bestowed before the elder, you can never enjoy fair Rachel–…happiness—except first you are married to tender-eyed Leah–real holiness.’
- Second, we must all make a point of thinking much more than we now do about those things which are the source and the fountain of true joy.
It never ceases to amaze me how little I can think about what one would think actually impossible to drive out of our minds: our narrow escape from hell; the love of God for us; heaven to come; Christ on the cross; the resurrection, and so on. These are the realities which feed joy and if joy is to grow, it must have this nourishment above all. This is meditation and it is a very important part of the Christian life…though one might not think so seeing how widely it is neglected by believers today.
Do you remember Mr. Ready-to-Halt in the second part of Pilgrim’s Progress? He was there when Great Heart and the others despoiled Doubting Castle and killed Giant Despair. Mr. Ready to Halt had a tough pilgrimage; it was heavier going for him than for many others and he had to make the trip with crutches. But after the great victory he danced right there in the road with Miss Much Afraid. ‘True,’ says Bunyan, ‘he could not dance without one crutch in his hand, but I promise you, he footed it well.’
Even if you are a Mr. Ready to Halt, the great realities of our salvation can set even your heart singing for joy and your feet tapping for joy.
A bleeding Savior, seen by faith,
A sense of pardoning love,
A hope that triumphs over death,
Give joys like those above.
To take a glimpse within the veil,
To know that God is mine,
Are springs of joy that never fail,
Think on such things, do more peering behind the veil and straining to see Christ on his cross and then coming in triumph out of the tomb and then ascending to the right hand and then coming again. Think, ponder, reflect; and joy in the Lord will be your portion more and more.
- And then, finally, work hard to get nearer to Christ himself. Pray for him and for the Holy Spirit. Look for him in your reading of the Bible, seek his face in your daily activity. To be near him is joy itself and heaven will be perfect joy for no other reason than this: that we shall see him face to face.
C.S. Lewis put it this way in Mere Christianity:
“There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made. Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection. If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire; if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy…you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has it. It is not a sort of prize which God could if he chose, just hand out to anyone. [It is] a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry.”
Beloved in Christ, listen with your whole heart to Paul and the Holy Spirit: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice.’
It is most necessary for your Christian life, it is always possible; and it is a straightforward matter of doing what we ought to do to cultivate this wonderful grace in our souls. Pursue joy and give yourselves to it.
Oh for more soaking wet Christians in this bone dry world of ours.
Remember: it is a Christian duty for everyone to be as happy as he can!