"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice" (Philippians 4:4).
What kind of wild man tells a group of people to rejoice at all times? To always, in the Lord, celebrate? The Apostle Paul was that kind of man.
But why did he instruct them this way? Was it because he'd lived the high life? Not at all. He wrote from a prison cell (Philippians 1:7). Was it because his readers were living the high life? Not at all. They were also called to suffer for Christ's sake (Philippians 1:29). Was it because he was creating a new doctrine that God would keep them from any pain? Not at all. He wanted to share in Christ's sufferings and become like Jesus in death (Philippians 3:10-11). Was it because he was out of touch with reality, an effervescent optimist? Not at all. He saw the depravity of humanity more clearly than anyone and knew the wrath of God is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness (Romans 1:18; Romans 1-3; Romans 3:10).
But Paul wanted them to rejoice. Their founder was in prison, but they should rejoice. The mission of Christ is constantly in conflict, but they should rejoice. Life with Christ is one which includes partaking of His cross, but they should rejoice. The world is broken, outside the gospel, and under God's wrath, but they should rejoice.
How is this possible? How can believers, living in a broken and corrupted world, surrounded by heartache and pain, rejoice? How can people Christ calls to a life of mourning (Matthew 5:4) also have joy?
What follows are a few suggestions to help modern believers, amid chaos and agony, to rejoice.
1. Rejoice When You Are Counted Worthy to Suffer Dishonor for the Name
In the early days of the church, when the fires of persecution began to burn, the apostles found themselves rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Christ (Acts 5:40-41). They weren't sadists, and they didn't enjoy the physical pain, but being ridiculed for Christ stirred up a new and fascinating version of joy.
Western believers are living in tumultuous cultures of upheaval. In parts of the world where being a believer used to be tolerated, accepted, and often vogue, it is now considered deplorable. You are considered a hate-filled, fundamentalist bigot. And, to be clear, we shouldn't do or say stupid things to reinforce the idea. We shouldn't be beaten for our faults (1 Peter 2:20). But when we suffer dishonor for our allegiance to Jesus, we have a reason to rejoice.
2. Rejoice When You Feel Alone in the Ministry
Elijah thought he was the only one. He thought he was the singular mouthpiece for God, a solitary man with an unreplicated heart for the Lord. He was wrong, of course, for God told him there were seven thousand who had not bowed to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). And it was in his moment of aloneness that God provided a powerful ministry partner and successor in Elisha.
Still, Elijah felt alone, and there are bound to be seasons in any ministry where the leaders feel isolated. The fatigue they feel, up against the needs of the day, is too much. The demands and desires of people are often at odds with the commands of Christ and His Word. The flesh wages ware against the Spirit. Worldliness creeps into the church, including the heart of the minister. The spirit of the age rages against the unseen kingdom of God. In any Christ-centered work, fatigue and aloneness are bound to come.
But Elijah was not alone, and neither are we. We must rejoice over all who have not bowed their knee to a liberalized theology, who have not succumbed to the pressure to conform to the world's ideologies, and who have stood firm for Christ. There are many across the globe, who have kept their integrity and are serving Jesus with their all. For them, we rejoice.
3. Rejoice in the Work Christ Is Doing Today
In the book of Ezra, the older folks mourned when they saw the foundations of the new temple. They'd been around long enough to remember the glory and beauty of Solomon's temple, and this new work paled in comparison. But the younger Israelites, men and women who'd never seen the old structure, rejoiced at what God was doing at that moment. Their cry of celebration was heard far and wide (Ezra 3:12-13).
In our current age, it is an easy thing to replicate the sorrow of that older generation who'd seen the former glory. Many of us have witnessed strong moves of the Spirit. And if we haven't, we can read of various moments in church history when God worked powerfully in the hearts of millions. If we're not careful, even some of the stories in Acts can discourage us regarding what we are living in today.
But the astute believer can see things God is doing. Through the chaos and upheaval in our world, God is at work. In parts of the world where Christianity is suppressed or illegal, the true gospel is still spreading. Though the Western world is under the spell of truthlessness, attacking the truth with its educational, entertainment, and political systems, young people are still breaking through and partaking of Christ. Look around. Find the praiseworthy reports, young men and women who have turned against the tide of their culture and are following Jesus. They exist. Rejoice.
4. Rejoice When Someone’s Life Is Touched by Christ
When even one life is saved, there is joy in heaven (Luke 15:7, 10). Should it not be the same on earth? In the early days of the church, when the disabled man was healed at the gate to the temple, he stood, walked, leaped, and praised God. Should we not do the same when God rescues someone from the error of their ways?
Remember, the book of Acts details the massive movements of God's Spirit but also tells the story of individuals. The beggar at the temple, the selection of Stephen and Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch -- all of them had a story to tell. Saul's conversion, Cornelius' vision, Timothy's commitment to Paul's missionary work – all of it was worthy of mention by Dr. Luke.
One of the quickest remedies to ministry depression is to focus on individuals who comprise the whole rather than on just the whole, which is comprised of individuals.
Sometimes the cure for ministry depression is found by quickly scanning our minds for the stories of God's grace we've been fortunate enough to witness. By thinking of real names and events, we can avoid the vague nebulousness of so much ministry frustration. The Good Shepherd rejoices over one found sheep, and so will we if we choose to fixate on them.
5. Rejoice When You Are Transformed to Become More Like Christ
Paul said we become more like the One we worship. "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit" (2 Corinthians 3:18). But our sanctification feels so slow. Sins beset us, usually the same old ones which have plagued us forever, and when they reappear in our lives, it can be overwhelmingly discouraging.
But there are times of victory. You, if you've walked with Christ and submitted to Him, aren't who you once were. Transformation has occurred. And when moments of victory peek out, it is good to celebrate them.
I recall an email an associate pastor of mine sent to me. He has watched me in operation in hundreds of situations. One day, he witnessed someone come at me in a particularly hostile way. Rather than become agitated, I remained calm, clearly articulating myself and clarifying what we would (and wouldn't) do. The email my fellow pastor sent me was about that confrontation. He applauded me, for he'd seen the growth. I would not have previously responded with such aplomb, but, at least that day, Christ-likeness prevailed. As I read his note, I rejoiced at the degree of Jesus-likeness the Spirit had wrought in my heart.
6. Rejoice When a Ministry Endeavor Is Completed
Remember when Nehemiah oversaw the completion of the wall in Jerusalem? The actual process of building took a little over 50 days. The planning and prayer took longer, but it was still a quick process. And when the wall was finished, there was still a ton of work left. But when they completed the wall, Nehemiah led a celebration. "I brought the leaders of Judah up onto the wall and appointed two great choirs that gave thanks" (Nehemiah 12:31).
You see, in ministry and life, there is always more to accomplish, always more work to do. For this reason, I rarely stop and celebrate the completion of anything. Perhaps you can relate. But it is good to stop and rejoice when something we set out to do, especially for Christ, is accomplished. For me, when I complete the exposition of a Bible book, write a book, or complete another year of ministry at our church, I must stop and rejoice. These are little victories in the big picture of God's kingdom, but if I don't celebrate them, then fatigue and bitterness are bound to win the day.
7. Rejoice When the Spirit Sends You on a New Ministry Adventure
It is exciting to be in the ministry. Paul, a man who was beaten, robbed and imprisoned often for his ministry work, thanked God for calling him into it: "I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service" (1Timothy 1:12, ESV). Though painful in many ways, the joy of serving Christ far outweighs the hardship. They are momentary light afflictions in light of the eternal weight of glory (2 Corinthians 4:17).
And, often, as we serve Christ, He comes knocking, leading us into a new season of work in His name. It might be a new mission field He calls us into, one where we must pack up and move, but it could also be as simple as a new ministry in your local setting. It is exciting to head out into new ventures with the Lord, and we should rejoice at the calling He's put on our lives.
8. Rejoice in the Cross of Christ
Paul said, "I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes" (Romans 1:16). And if all other sources of joy dry up, the cross of Christ is a raging river of joy. In any and every circumstance, we can celebrate what Jesus has done for us. It is a deep well with eternal implications, and we must rejoice over it for the duration of our lives.
Our "rejoicing" list could be infinite in length, but the above are a few of the items on my list, which have helped me in ministry over the years. If you struggle to have a celebratory heart before God, consider some of them, or make your own list, but take some time each day to say them to God. As you thank Him, rejoicing over His grace toward you, I think you'll find your burden lighten a little. And, like Paul in the Philippian dungeon, you'll find yourself singing of God and His grace.