We’ve been studying Philippians at our girls’ bible study for the last month (and reading it together one to one for the whole term). At bible study, rather than doing the traditional section-by-section study, we decided to do a manuscript discovery style to understand the whole letter as one, and focus on a different theme in the letter each week.
Last week was joy.
On the face of it, the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’ do pop up a few times, but when you highlight them, there aren’t that many. How can a book that seems so much to be about joy not have very many references?
I was stumped for a while. Then I realised, it’s less about talking about joy, and more about talking about the things that we find joy in. Or rather, that Paul (the letter-writer) finds joy in. For Paul, there are many things to rejoice in. But not the things we would expect (or that we classically rejoice about, like weddings, ticking off to do lists, winning grand finals, etc).
There are two categories of things Paul rejoices in – things in the here and now, and things in the future.
He rejoices over the Philippians’ partnership in the gospel, their care for him expressed in generosity in giving and gifts; that Christ is preached and that other Christians have been emboldened to preach Christ more courageously in the face of severe opposition; rejoices in knowing Christ (“the surpassing worth of knowing Christ” 3:9); and he encourages them to rejoice in the Lord, and that this would be displayed in their gentleness to each other and expressed through thankful prayer.
In regards to the future, he rejoices in and looks forward to God carrying his work in the Philippians to completion (1:6); that they would be holy and blameless on the day of Christ, to the glory and praise of God (1:10,11); that Christ would be exalted in his body in life and death, and that he will be with Christ (1:19-23); that every knee would bow and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord (2:10,11); that through the fruit the Philippians are bearing, he knows his labour has not been in vain (2:16); that our citizenship is in heaven and Christ is calling us there, while he “presses on” to the goal, where God will make our bodies like his glorious body (3:20); and that their names are in the book of life (4:3).
Meanwhile, Paul is writing this letter from prison. And yet he rejoices.
What is joy anyway?
I don’t think it’s as simple as ‘happiness’. I think you can be in the midst of depression or great suffering, and yet still find joy (only by the strength of God) but not necessarily be happy. Is it about comfort? Hope? Peace? Paul does tell them to rejoice, pray with thanksgiving, and the “peace of God” and the “God of peace” will be with them.
I’m not someone who rejoices often. My emotions tend to range from mid-range normal to sadness and despair. Not that rejoicing has to be about emotion, but I think in the experiential sense, you feel something when you rejoice. For me, when I am low, what often comforts me is that my name is in the book of life and Christ does reign. I hold on to those truths like a lifeline. I still feel like the things going on around me are causing me to drown, but I find comfort in the truth that God will not let me sink.
I set myself a little activity, to write a list of things to rejoice in in my experience that fit the priorities of Paul’s joy. I was surprised that my list was actually quite long. I prayed and gave thanks to God for them. And I decided that I would find one thing to rejoice in each day and give thanks for it – I haven’t done so well at that. But that’s okay, it’s about progress in the faith.
Do you have an example of Paul-esque joy to share from your own life?
Picture: Joy may not be about having a party and being excited and happy. Maybe it can just be one thing that lifts you out of the dark that you can be thankful to God for.