Sometimes when I read particular scriptures, my eyes roll. I understand it isn’t very pastoral of me. I also understand that it isn’t how I should feel about what I am reading. It is just that some scriptures sound so difficult – so out of reach – so unrealistic that I find my eyes rolling before I even think about it. I can imagine that God isn’t pleased with how I feel as I know my parents weren’t okay when I rolled my eyes around them. I’m pretty sure my parents wanted to knock my eyes out a few times – but I am grateful they didn’t. But, for some reason, I feel that God understands my frustration. I think he gets why this makes me so upset. It is like when someone tells you how perfect they are- you know it isn’t happening and you just want it to be over. The problem is that this scripture is meant for us. It is a possibility. It is a part of being one of God’s children. It actually is part of living for Christ. So, here we go – no eye rolls please.
4:1 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved.
4:2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.
4:3 Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.
4:5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
4:6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
4:7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
4:8 Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
4:9 Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Joy in all circumstances. Really? This is what is asked of us? Does Paul not understand that we are in the midst of a pandemic and how much of a strain it is putting on us? Does he not understand how difficult life is right now? Actually, yes he does. He writes these words from prison. That’s right – he is in prison when he pens the words “rejoice always.” So yes, Paul gets it and still writes it.
What do we do with this? It seems so difficult – so challenging – almost impossible. We are to rejoice always and think on things that are praiseworthy. Our response may be – if only. I would rejoice if I didn’t have so many bills. I would think about things that were praiseworthy if I didn’t have this job or this doctor’s appointment or this situation going on. The problem is that when we live with “if onlys” in our lives, we never achieve anything. We hunker down in a hole of excuses that eventually covers us so we see no way out. “If onlys” are dangerous. They are making things and situations responsible for our joy and our praise. We are giving stuff the responsibility for our thoughts and our actions. Is that really where we want to be? Do we want things and people and situations to control our thoughts and steal our joy?
This scripture brings even more interesting parts we might otherwise miss. Paul is writing about a disagreement among church leaders. That never happens, right? He reminds both of them to have the same mind as Christ – to come together for the glory of God – to focus on what God is calling and instruction – to live like Jesus. And in doing that, in the middle of the disagreement, as he sits in a prison cell – Paul writes – “rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” He reminds them to let their gentleness (or forbearance) be known to everyone. What is forbearance? It is patient self-control – a restraint. It means not self-seeking but a willingness to work with others. It leads to peace, he says.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? But to put into practice is much more challenging, seemingly impossible. Paul must have meant this for someone else. He couldn’t really mean we should do these things, right? Yet, I think we actually make things more challenging than they are. We don’t want to put forth the effort because that would mean we give up our own opinions or ways of doing something. We don’t want to restrain ourselves, it is easier not to. Yet, to work as the people of God in fellowship requires just that. And it isn’t easy – not for a moment. But it also isn’t impossible. If it was impossible, we wouldn’t be given this word as something to do. It isn’t unachievable. It is within our grasp. But it means working together, encouraging one another, and loving even those we may not agree with.
If we monitored our speech and our thoughts by these measures given to us, we might find we are rejoicing more. We might find that even in the middle of a situation, there is so much to be joyful for. We may even find our joy is a part of our everyday lives – despite the harshness of the day. Joy can ignite a fire in us to live as Christ taught us to live. Joy can light up a room when it is otherwise harsh and cold. Joy can change circumstances because it presents a different outlook. There are different possibilities. We are not held to the place where we find ourselves. There is another way. And it begins with joy because it begins with Jesus.
Maybe we begin with reading the scripture differently. Maybe we should read it as something we can do rather than the impossible. Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice – it is more than a great set of words, but is a beautiful command that helps us to focus on the Lord and not on us. We rejoice through thinking about the true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and praiseworthy. Think on these things. Measure our thoughts with these things. Filter our comments through these things. Who knows – we may find peace filling our lives despite our circumstances. We may find we are known for loving others regardless and our selflessness will be shown brightly. We may even bring glory to God. It is certainly worth the effort. And the time to begin is now.