Tomorrow we look at some of the reasons for permanent joy. Before we do, it is important that we realise what Paul is not demanding. First, Paul is not insisting that a Christian should always have a silly grin on his face. There will be many situations in life in which an inane grin would be completely inappropriate and no doubt Paul did not have a grin on his face when, for example, he had to discipline a fellow-believer because of sin. Yet he could have joy in such a situation because he was aware that chastisement would restore the sinning believer.
Second, Paul is not saying that it is easy for a person to snap out of a time of spiritual depression. Many believers suffer from this problem in various degrees. Yet often they are helped when their thoughts can be turned away from their preoccupation and focus on the Lord. We can see this change in outlook in many of the psalms. Sometimes, the psalmists are oppressed by their sins, at other times by their providences. In these psalms, the authors face up to their situations and assess them in light of God’s promises. Having done so, they usually experience joy instead of sadness although their circumstances had not changed. Often, the path to joy is a process.
Third, Paul is not saying that the presence of joy means the absence of sorrow. Even in this letter, Paul expressed his great sadness when he thought of those who were enemies of the cross of Christ (3:18). Whether his sadness was caused by the havoc they produced in the churches or was caused by the awful fate that awaited them in hell, the fact is that he was very burdened about them. In a Christian, sorrow and joy co-exist, as Jesus made clear in one of the Beatitudes when he said, ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.’
Fourth, Paul does not mean that the pursuit of joy should prevent us facing up to problems. Some people imagine that happiness in a church is only found in toleration, by turning a blind eye to wrong things that are taking place. Such a situation may make them happy, but they do not have the joy of the Lord. Even in this chapter, in which Paul lays such a great stress on joy, he has told Euodia and Syntyche to face up to their wrong attitudes. Earlier he had told the church to give no place to false teachers (3:1-3). The joy of the Lord is not found by refusing to face up to what is wrong.