Some of the commands in Scripture sound oppressive sometimes. Take the first and greatest command for instance, “Love the LORD your God with all of your heart, all of your soul, and all of your strength.” Really?! Don’t I get a break? What about when I’m disappointed in life or worn down through constant struggle? Honestly, what kind of person commands others to love him at all much less to love him constantly with every fiber of our being? Doesn’t that seem like a bit much?
The command to love sounds oppressive, but in fact it’s the exact opposite. To love God with our whole being is the only way our souls can find rest. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
Life in Christ is paradoxical. That’s why it requires faith.
A couple of days ago, I was in my study praying. More specifically, I was complaining to God again about all of the ways things haven’t gone the way I’d hoped. Then a thought baffled my venting – “I’m already living the dream because I’m a child of God and coheir with Christ!”
I’m like a lot of people; I tend to think I must achieve to be happy and I must be unhappy to achieve. False. The paradoxical truth is that happiness, or more precisely joy, is the default of every redeemed soul. The presence of joy indicates life and health of the spirit just as a heartbeat does for the body. Paul’s command, “rejoice in the Lord,” was aimed at protecting the Philippians’ spiritual health.¹
You might wonder, “If joy is the default like a heartbeat, why would Paul have to command it?”
Joy might be the default for the believer, but only as she or he believes. Success or even the near proximity to success can lure our hearts away from joy in the Lord. Perhaps our supervisor at work tells us we’re in line for a promotion and we start daydreaming about more engaging tasks, bigger impact, and, of course, more money. Our daydreams then start providing us with a shot of endorphins and we shift the source of our joy from the Lord to the prospect of the new position. Since we still feel good, we don’t even notice we’ve left our first love.
Not until we’ve been passed over or found the luster of the new position has faded, do we realize something’s gone wrong. Sadly, many Christians become so deceived that they fail to recognize the reason for their renewed discontent. They might even come to think that God’s promises failed.
There are only so many new and exciting life changes available for anyone, and eventually everyone lands in a state of perpetual discontent which they must salve, often through destructive means.
For people in ministry, the danger of false joy can be even greater because their tasks appear even more significant. The highs of “success” are higher and the lows of “failure” are lower. This is a big reason so many religious professionals fall to moral failure and the consequent scandal.
Jesus being the good shepherd recognized this danger looming ahead of his disciples and warned them about it:
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. (Luke 10:17-21 NIV)
Here’s the irony of the disciples’ celebration, by rejoicing in the power they had over Satan, they were in danger of becoming just like him. I think this is why Jesus’ first words to them were about Satan’s fall. Christ had already seen someone fall in love with their God-given authority and power. His disciples’ false joy evoked that image afresh in him. His warning to them could not have been more direct or clear, “do not rejoice that the spirits are subject to you.” To apply his warning to our lives, we might hear him say, “Do not rejoice that you’re top in your field” or “Do not rejoice that your selfies get lots of likes” or “Do not rejoice that you’ve led several people to Christ.”
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be happy when good things happen or when we’ve reached a goal, it means that we’ve got to make sure that our joy is never rooted in the results we see.
We’re safe when we rejoice in the Lord. What does that look like? In the Luke passage above, Christ gives us both a command and an example of lasting joy. He says that we’ve been added to the role of the coming kingdom. Then he models joy by rejoicing in the Holy Spirit that God’s will was being done.
As I think about these two bases for joy, it occurs to me that they’re consonant with the first two petitions in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We rejoice in what we most long for and we will receive the same.
- “Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.” (Philippians 3:1 NIV)