Paul says in Philippians 4:4 “Rejoice in the Lord always... I will say it again, rejoice!” I think this is a profoundly challenging statement. Sometimes we try to soften how radical this is by saying, “there’s a difference between being happy and spiritual ‘rejoicing in the Lord.’” Yes I think there is a difference between superficial happiness and deep joy, but the root meaning for the word joy (chara) and its verb form (charaein) actually just means being happy or stirring oneself up to happiness.
Some believers I know are more comfortable with the idea of mourning. They remind me that the Bible says “Jesus wept” but does not ever say “Jesus laughed.” That’s true. And there is plenty to mourn in this world, I will return to that thought in a moment; but Jesus was constantly telling people about his happiness: the happiness of a woman who found her lost coin after searching all night. Jesus shared the happiness of a shepherd who found his lost sheep, and the happiness of a father whose lost son returned home in one piece! Jesus was happy. So the Apostle Paul is telling us that following Jesus in this broken messy heartbreaking world means “rejoicing,” stirring up our broken hearts to happiness even when what we really want to do is cry and yell and throw in the towel.
Following Jesus also means mourning. If you’re not shocked and saddened reading the news today you’re probably not following Jesus very closely. If you don’t feel grief and anger at injustice it’s probably because you are middle class and don’t care about anyone who isn’t. Jesus wept over Lazarus’ death, even though He knew he would see Lazarus alive a few moments later: Jesus empathized with the grief of those who were broken hearted. We need to do that too. That’s part of following Jesus. But I think the point of mourning is not the sadness itself but to have a fuller understanding of what is wrong; to know it not just intellectually, but to feel it in our bones. To understand that there is no easy fix: Laws can’t fix this. Politicians can’t fix this. Money can’t fix this. Technology can’t fix this. All our idols fall short, and only those who mourn (or empathize with those who do) can understand this. Mourning is an emotion that comes out of helplessness, when we realize our hands can’t bring us what we need.
But God can fix this, and He will. We don’t know how, or when, but the fix is already on its way! So Jesus followers mourn, and then stir up their hearts to happiness for the impending arrival of what God will do. Only those who mourn or have lost something can really know what it means to be happy; and only those who regularly experience deep happiness (because they trust God) can have the courage to look straight into the darkness,allow themselves to feel helpless and mourn.
This is part of what it means to follow Jesus today. To mourn yet stir our hearts to happiness. When we’re happy we are reasonable, we’re open to challenges and difficulties. When we’re happy it’s easier to be brave. When we’re happy it’s easier to be loving and kind, to be peacemakers, to give, to sacrifice. When we’re already happy we can actually follow Jesus in serving wherever He leads us because we’re not distracted seeking after happiness. “Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, rejoice!”
So how can we do this? I can show you but I can’t just tell you. Actually, I can’t even show you on my own, I’d need to invite a few of my friends along and we could show you. Even though I know this stuff, I’m usually superficially happy when I’m focusing on my own world, or mourning and depressed when I’m paying attention to the world around me. Whenever I try to do something God wants, I often want to give up. But other people help me to rejoice, and when I’m happy with God I’m ready to try anything. I once heard Pastor Jeff White preach a short sermon on this and point out that the command “rejoice” is plural. It’s you (plural) rejoice. Meaning this is probably something you can’t do on your own. In order to “rejoice always” in all circumstances, in every part of life, even when you are sitting in prison (or house arrest, as Paul was when he wrote this) you will need to find other Jesus followers and mourn and rejoice together.
Pastor Leo Kim is currently pastoring at City Fellowship located in New York City.