By Jamie Sloan
The Bible class teacher came to “rejoice in the Lord always” of Philippians 4:7. He emphasized “Rejoice always. ” As he looked into the sober faces of those who were seriously seeking an understanding of the will of heaven, he began to rebuke them for their failure to “‘rejoice and be happy.” The class seemed bewildered, unconvinced of their sin, but faced with a biblical injunction that somehow must be understood and applied. They felt, with Job, “. . . But your reproof, what doth it reprove?” (Job 6:25)
Then, too there are those Old and New Testament passages that promise “happiness.” “He that giveth heed unto the word shall find good; And whoso trusteth in Jehovah, happy is he” (Prov. 16:20). And, do we not usually give “happy” as a synonym for “blessed” in the beatitudes? Are these passages obligating us to an eternally light-hearted outward demeanor? Does “happy” really mean “happy-go-lucky”? Is a serious and sober facial expression an indictment of one’s trust in the Lord and proof of a failure to count your blessings? These questions illustrate that we need some light shed on this subject – some words need defining and some biblical conclusions need to form our concept of “joy” and “happiness.”
The bulletin of the “Positive Mental Attitude Church of Christ” typically begins in this fashion: “We just want to praise the Lord for the wonderful service we had Sunday at PMA, and for the great joy and love that flooded our assembly, and for the presence of the Holy Spirit that so vibrantly filled our hearts” (ad nauseath). These brethren believe that average is the unpardonable sin and that rebuke is the sin that “it is a shame to even speak of.” Surely to them Jeremiah must have been mentally ill, Amos was an inexcusable radical, and Paul should have never written 1 Corinthians.
I charge that these folks have not discovered the real joy and happiness that is described in the New Testament. It does not mean to be favored by circumstances in this world so that our lives are pleasant and joyous. It does not always manifest itself in outward feelings of joy, pleasure, happiness, etc. It is not the universal emotion required in every situation. Paul says to “rejoice with them that rejoice; weep with them that weep” (Rom. 12:15). Surely no one would accuse the Lord of failing to rejoice and be happy while he is in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross of Calvary. He is not failing to “count his blessings”!
I believe some of us, while we are in our prime of life with perfect health, an abundance of material blessings, and the absence of opposition and persecution, tend to see joy and happiness in too mundane a way. Peter prepares Christians for persecution in 1 Peter 4:12-16. They are not to be surprised by it (v. 12a) and they are to rejoice because of it (v. 13). Does he mean to enjoy the experience, to laugh and shout with great exultation? Hardly. The joy and blessedness here is a mental evaluation and appreciation of the effects brought about by bearing up under the suffering. It is a privilege that comes to us as a result (v. 14); and there is glory for God in the experience (v. 15). Then, at the end when his glory is revealed, “ye may rejoice with exceeding joy” (v. 13b). William Barclay says about “joy”: “. . the characteristic of this word is that it most often describes that joy which has a basis in religion and whose foundation is God. It is not the joy that comes from earthly things or cheap triumphs over someone else in rivalry or competition. It is a joy whose basis is God” (The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, p. 55). “Happy” and “happiness” have likewise been abused. The concept is not one of “feeling of pleasure and contentment because of favorable life circumstances.” When we substitute “happy” for “blessed” in the beatitudes, we may actually be directing attention away from the meaning of the passage. There is a blessing placed on the “poor in spirit” in Matthew 5:3. That blessing is that “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” So, in all of them. Again, Jesus places a blessing upon those who are persecuted (vv. 10-12). He tells them to “rejoice and be exceeding glad” (v. 12). But, again, this does not mean to enjoy the experience. We are not “spiritual masochists.” The suffering Christian is to glory in the greatness of his reward in heaven, and the identity with the great men who have suffered before (v. 12).
I am thankful for the favorable circumstances that have characterized my life to this point. However, I must not conclude that I have the “right to the pursuit of happiness.” I my need the lessons that adversity and pain teach more than I “need a bed of roses.” When I count my blessings, I wonder if such suffering would even be on my list, must less at the top (Acts 5:41).
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 13, p. 404
July 7, 1988