REJOICE IN THE LORD.
FOUNDATION TEXT:-- "Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord." -- Phil. 3:1 (first clause).
THE consummation of all Christian experience is to bring the soul to the place where it has learned how to "rejoice in the Lord," and to be satisfied with Him alone. "Finally, my brethren," Paul says, or, in other words, "The summing up, my brethren, of all I have to say to you is simply this, rejoice in the Lord." Probably, if we had written the Epistles, our "finally" would have been something very different. We would have said, "Finally, my brethren, rejoice in your faithfulness; or, rejoice in your wonderful experiences; or, rejoice in your earnest work for the Lord; or, rejoice in your growth in grace." It would almost certainly have been in something about ourselves that we would have exhorted one another to rejoice. And yet a little exercise of common-sense would show us that any rejoicing which has self for its foundation must necessarily end in disappointment, for sooner or later self always disappoints us, no matter how good or even how pious a self it may be.
"Thus saith the Lord, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the Lord which exercise loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the Lord" (Jer. 9:23, 24).
The only thing that can bring unfailing joy to the soul is to understand and know God. This is only plain common-sense. Everything for us depends upon what He is. He has created us, and put us in our present environment, and we are absolutely in His power. If He is good and kind, we shall be well cared for and happy; if He is cruel and wicked, we must necessarily be miserable. Just as the welfare of any possession depends upon the character and temper and knowledge of its owner, so does our welfare depend upon the character and temper and knowledge of God. The child of a drunken father can never find any lasting joy in its poor little possessions, for at any minute the wicked father may destroy them all. A good father would be infinitely more to the child than the most costly possessions. And similarly none of our possessions could be of the slightest worth to us, if we were under the dominion of a cruel and wicked God. Therefore, for us to have any lasting joy, we must come to the place where we understand and know "the Lord which exercises loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth."
In every-day life this knowledge is especially necessary, for every-day life as a general thing gives us very little to glory in. In our moments of spiritual exaltation we may sometimes seem to ourselves to have great wisdom, or great strength, or great spiritual riches of one kind or another, in which to glory; but when we come down from the "mount of vision" into the humdrum routine of every-day life, these grand spiritual possessions all seem to disappear, and we are left with nothing of them all to glory in.
God alone is unchangeable; what we call "spiritual blessings" are full of the element of change. The prayer which is answered to-day may seem to be unanswered to-morrow; the promises, once so gloriously fulfilled, may cease to have any apparent fulfilment; the spiritual blessing, which was at one time such a joy, may be utterly lost; and nothing of all we once trusted to and rested on may be left us, but the hungry and longing memory of it all. But when all else is gone God is still left. Nothing changes Him. He is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever, and in Him is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. And the soul that finds its joy in Him alone, can suffer no wavering.
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy. A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world. And ye therefore now have sorrow: but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you" (John 16:20-22).
If we want a "joy that no man can take from us," we must find it in something no man can disturb. No element of joy that is subject to human fluctuations can be in the least depended on. The only lasting joy is to be found in the everlasting God. In God alone, I mean, apart from all else; apart from His gifts, apart from His blessings, apart from all that can by any possibility change or alter. He alone is unchangeable; He is the same good, loving, tender God "yesterday, to-day, and for ever;" and we can rejoice in Him always, whether we are able to rejoice in His gifts and His promises or not. We rejoice in a baby just because it is, not because of anything it has done or can do for us; and something like this, only infinitely deeper and wider, does it mean to rejoice in God.
"Thou wilt shew me the path of life: in thy presence is fulness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore" (Ps. 16:11).
"In thy presence is fulness of joy," and fulness of joy is nowhere else. Just as the simple presence of the mother makes the child's joy, so does the simple fact of God's presence with us make our joy. The mother may not make a single promise to the child, nor explain any of her plans or purposes, but she is, and that is enough for the child. The child rejoices in the mother; not in her promises, but in herself. And to the child, there is behind all that changes and can change, the one unchangeable joy of the mother's existence. While the mother lives, the child will be cared for; and the child knows this, instinctively, if not intelligently, and rejoices in knowing it. And to the children of God as well, there is behind all that changes and can change, the one unchangeable joy that God is. And while He is, His children will be cared for, and they ought to know it and rejoice in it, as instinctively and far more intelligently than the child of human parents. For what else can God do, being what He is? Neglect, indifference, forgetfulness, ignorance, are all impossible to Him. He knows everything, He cares about everything, He can manage everything, and He loves us! Surely this is enough for a "fulness of joy" beyond the power of words to express; no matter what else may be missed besides.
"Although the fig-tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, and He will make my feet like hinds' feet, and He will make me to walk upon mine high places" (Hab. 3:17-19).
Everything may go! There may seem to be no blossoms nor fruit in our lives, our spiritual fields may seem to yield no meat, and there may be apparently no flocks nor herds in our spiritual stalls; but if we know what it is to rejoice, not in any of these things, but in the Lord alone, we shall find, as the prophet did, that our feet are made "like hinds' feet" for swiftness, and we shall walk in "high places" of spiritual triumph.
"And they of Ephraim shall be like a mighty man, and their heart shall rejoice as through wine: yea, their children shall see it, and be glad; their heart shall rejoice in the Lord" (Zech. 10:7).
To rejoice in the Lord is not a pious fiction, nor is it merely a religious phrase. Neither is it anything mysterious or awe-inspiring. It is just good plain common-sense happiness and comfort. It is something people around us can see and be glad about. It smoothes away the frowns, and shuts out the sighs. Long faces and gloomy tones of voice disappear in its presence. It is even full of innocent mirthfulness and light-heartedness. I remember my dear father, who was a saint on earth if ever there was one, but I must confess a very jolly one, teaching me once a great lesson about this. It was during what was considered a very solemn occasion, and something struck his sense of the ludicrous, and he gave a merry light-hearted laugh. A friend present reproved him for laughing on such a "solemn occasion," when he turned to me and said in his dear merry voice, calling me by my pet name, "Han, if people who know their sins are forgiven, and that God loves them and cares for them, cannot laugh, I don't know who can." I believe I have never since had a good laugh at anything, that it has not recalled to my mind my father's genuine happiness in knowing himself to be in the care and keeping of his Father in heaven.
"Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength. So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, Hold your peace, for the day is holy; neither be ye grieved. And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink and to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them" (Neh. 8:10-12).
Joy is always a source of strength. When we are happy we feel equal to anything; when we are cast down, everything is a burden. This is true on the earthly plane, and of course it is just as true on the spiritual plane; for the psychological laws that govern the two realms are the same. It seems, however, as if many Christians thought the laws of these two realms were exactly opposite to one another, and that depression and discouragement were greater elements of strength in the spiritual life than joy could ever be. Consequently depression and discouragement are looked upon as very pious and humble frames of mind, and joy is considered to be a sort of spiritual bon-bon, only to be partaken of at rare and uncertain intervals. It is no wonder that the lives of such Christians languish and are withered.
"The vine is dried up, and the fig-tree languisheth; the pomegranate-tree, the palm-tree also, and the apple-tree, even all the trees of the field are withered: because joy is withered away from the sons of men" (Joel 1:12).
"Because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things; therefore shalt thou serve thine enemies which the Lord shall send against thee, in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things: and He shall put a yoke of iron upon thy neck, until He have destroyed thee" (Deut. 28:47, 48).
Notice the use of the word "because," and "therefore," in these two passages. "Because," the Lord is not served with joyfulness and gladness, "therefore" there can be no fruit, and service becomes "a yoke of iron" upon our necks. This "because" and "therefore" are inseparably connected in the spiritual life. The "therefore" is not an arbitrary sentence of God, but is the natural and necessary result of the "because." If we will not rejoice and be glad in heart in the Lord, then we shall inevitably be in hunger, and in thirst, and in nakedness, and in want of all things elsewhere. For our souls are of such a divine origin, that no other joy but joy in God can ever satisfy them. It is like trying to satisfy a man of culture with the joys of a savage. He simply could not enjoy them. They would give him no pleasure, but would, instead, bore him and weary him beyond words; and this is why all the joys of earth so soon pall upon us. They cannot satisfy the soul that was made for God. Solomon discovered this.
"And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them; I withheld not my heart from any joy, for my heart rejoiced in all my labour; and this was my portion of all my labour. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit" (Eccl. 2:10, 11, 17).
If ever a man had his fill of earthly joys, Solomon had, and yet at the end of it all his verdict was, "Behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit, and there is no profit under the sun." Thousands of people since have given the same testimony. Faber says --
"God only is the creature's home,
Though rough and straight the road;
Yet nothing else can satisfy
The soul that's made for God."
God, who made the soul, made it for this high destiny, and His object, therefore, in all the discipline and training of life, is to bring us to the place where we shall find our joy in Him alone. For this purpose He is obliged often to stain our pleasant pictures, and to thwart and disappoint our brightest anticipations. He detaches us from all else that He may attach us to Himself; not from an arbitrary will, but because He knows that only so can we be really happy. I do not mean by this that it will be necessary for all one's friends to die, or for all one's money to be lost; but I do mean that the soul shall find itself, either from inward or outward causes, desolate and bereft, and empty of all comfort, except in God. We must come to the end of everything that is not God, in order to find our joy in God alone.
"He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of His people shall He take away from off all the earth: for the Lord hath spoken it. And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him, and He will save us: this is the Lord; we have waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation" (Isa. 25:8, 9).
To every soul there must come sooner or later a time when we, too, can say, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for Him; we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation." Through all the experiences of life this is what we are "waiting" for, and all our training and discipline is to lead us to this. I say "waiting for," not in the sense of any delay on God's part, but because of the delay on our own part. God is always seeking to make Himself our "exceeding joy," but until we have been detached from all earthly joys, and are ready to find our joy in Him alone, we must still "wait for Him." We think that the delay is altogether on His part, but the real truth is, that all the waiting that is necessary is for Him to wait for us.
"Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy; yea, upon the harp will I praise thee, O God, my God" (Ps. 43:4).
To "go" to Him is nothing mysterious. It simply means to turn our minds to Him, to rest our hearts on Him, and to turn away from all other resting-places. It means that we must not look at, or, in other words, think about and trouble over our circumstances, or our surroundings, or our perplexities, or our experiences, but must look at and think about the Lord; and must ask ourselves, not, "How do I feel about this?" but, "How does the Lord feel?" not, "How shall I manage it?" but, "How will He manage it?"
"Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid: for the Lord Jehovah is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation" (Isa. 12:2, 3).
Until we can truly say "God is my salvation" -- meaning God only, and nobody and nothing else -- we shall not be able to draw water out of the wells of salvation. If anything beside God seems to us to be our salvation, any "experiences," or "blessings," or "good works," or even "sound doctrines," we are manifestly not drawing water out of the wells of God's salvation, but are instead trying in vain to draw it out of broken cisterns that we ourselves have hewed, and that hold no water (Jer. 2:13).
"But let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy, because thou defendest them: let them also that love thy name be joyful in thee" (Ps. 5:11; see also Phil. 3:3; Luke 1:46, 47; Isa. 29:19; Ps. 104:33, 34).
The Bible is full of these declarations concerning rejoicing in the Lord. I can only quote a few of them, but it will repay Bible students to look them up.
In order, however, fully to understand the subject, we must have a clear comprehension of what spiritual joy and gladness really are. Some people seem to look upon spiritual joy as a thing, a sort of lump or package of joy, stored away in one's heart, to be looked at and rejoiced over. Now, as a fact, joy is not a thing at all. It is only the gladness that comes from the possession of something good, or the knowledge of something pleasant. And the Christian's joy is simply his gladness in knowing Christ, and in his possession of such a God and Saviour. We do not on an earthly plane rejoice in our joy, but in the thing that causes our joy. And on the heavenly plane it is the same. We are not to rejoice in our joy, but we are to "rejoice in the Lord, and joy in the God of our salvation." And this joy no man nor devil can take from us, and no earthly sorrows can touch.
All the spiritual writers of past generations have recognised this joy in God, and all of them have written concerning the stripping process that seems necessary to bring us to it. They have called this process by different names, some calling it "inward desolation," and some the "winter of the soul," and some the "dispensation of darkness," but all meaning one and the same thing; and that thing is the experience of finding all earthly joys stained or taken away, in order to drive the soul to God alone.
One of these writers says that the spiritual life is divided into three stages: the stage of joyful beginnings, the stage of desolation, and the stage of joy in God alone. First, there is the stage of beginnings, when the soul is full of sensible delights, and when everything in our religious life seems to prosper. Then, as the soul advances in the divine life, there comes very often the stage of desolation, when the Christian seems to pass through a wilderness, and to suffer, it may be, the loss of all things, both inward and outward. And then, if this period of desolation is faithfully traversed, there comes finally, on the other side of it, the stage of an unaltered and unalterable joy and gladness in God. All has been lost in the desert stage, that all may be found in God further on. The only danger is lest the soul in this desert stage should faint and fail under the stress of desolation, and should turn back to the fleshpots of Egypt for its joy. Our writer says quaintly that this desert is filled with the bodies of "frustrate saints;" and I think we can understand what he means.
"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away" (Isa. 35:10).
Every ransomed soul must come sooner or later to this place of "everlasting joy;" and if the only path to it lies through the wilderness, then, so be it, we will welcome the wilderness, and traverse it with a cheerful faith. We must learn to have all our joy in the Lord, and to rejoice in Him when all else in heaven and earth shall seem to fail. We must learn to "rejoice in God," just God alone, simply and only because of what He is in Himself, and not because of what He promises or of what He gives. This is the positive command of the gospel. Do we obey it?
"Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice" (Phil. 4:4).
Can we answer with the Apostle and the Psalmist that we do joy and rejoice in God?
"And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement" (Rom. 5:11).
"So, Lord, if thou takest from me all the rest,
Thyself, with each resumption, drawing nigher,
It shall but hurt me as the thorn of the briar,
When I reach to the pale flower in its breast.
To have Thee, Lord, is to have all Thy best;
Holding it by its very life divine,
To let my friend's hand go, and take his heart in mine."
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