I have to confess that I have an aversion to what might be called “in your face” optimism. I don’t like it when preachers (like me) tell us at a funeral for our beloved that we shouldn’t be sad. I’m sorry, but, “YES, WE SHOULD!” I hate the line that I’ve heard too often that goes something like this…“Are you happy in the Lord? Well, why don’t you notify your face?!” I’d like to notify that person’s face in another way. Or someone comes up to you and asks, “Why so glum?” And as you begin to explain, they reply, “Oops! Sorry, gotta run!” And I hated the class I once was forced to take where we were supposed to exuberantly shout at the very beginning of each class, “BOY, DO I FEEL GREAT?!” And, of course, it didn’t matter if you had a headache or were facing some real problems in your life at the time. These are good cheer hawkers. It’s shallow, glib stuff that doesn’t give us much, if any, help in the face of real life.
Was this the kind of thing that the Apostle Paul was referring to in Philippians 4:4? Not at all! He was writing about something real…something based on a lot more than feelings. When Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord.” He wasn’t requiring us to smile in spite of our feelings or hardships. He wasn’t urging us to go whistling in the dark until it all “got better.” It wasn’t about pretending…or faking it until we make it. (Such advice galls me still.) Paul was offering God’s people the right perspective on life. The Christian has two sets of realities…what we can see with our eyes and what we can know by faith. Paul was urging his precious brethren to take life on by faith. Paul knew suffering up close and personal. His life in Jesus Christ was certainly not that of a “pet.” As Paul was about to begin his Christian walk, the Lord told Ananias (who was sent to baptize Paul) that He was going to show Paul how many things he would suffer (willingly) for the sake of His Name (Acts 9:16). At the very time that Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” he was imprisoned in Rome for his faith. When Paul and Silas spent time in the Philippian jail years earlier, they were very uncomfortable to say the least. They had been publicly shamed, severely flogged, cast into prison and had their feet fastened in stocks. They were in pain in a filthy dungeon. Their circumstances precluded sunny optimism and silly smiles. HOWEVER, their circumstances did not preclude faith! And even though they were not able to physically smile or feel comfortable, they could and did sing praises to their Lord Christ Who had also suffered for them. This is not mind over matter…this is FAITH over physical circumstances. No matter our condition (though this can be horrendous), no matter the losses we have sustained (though these can be shattering), we can still rejoice in our Lord Who is keeping what we have committed to Him until we are with Him and Who in the meantime will never leave us or forsake us.
My life has been blessed by suffering saints I have had the privilege to know. I see their faces even yet, though they have already made their escape to Jesus. I remember their smiles…not easy smiles, mind you…but smiles nonetheless that registered on their faces and in my heart. They were smiling…as if they knew a secret that made them winners in spite of all their suffering. I’m thinking now…they did know a secret. And they have been proven right now. And I hope I can imitate their faith and be able to rejoice in my Lord, as they did, even through hardships and tears.