Many people give advice to engaged couples before marriage. One nugget I remember was, “Don’t ever say ‘never’ or ‘always’,” which means I shouldn’t tell my husband he never takes the garbage out, he always mistreats me, I never mistreat him, and I always put his interests first. No one always or never does things—unless they’re a robot.
Or someone without sin.
Yet the Bible uses this type of language, sometimes as a command, creating an impossible standard for sin-natured humans to perfectly obey.
I struggle to rejoice in the Lord, in all circumstances, all the time. It shows in my relationships with others, as it overflows from a heart filled with frustration and discontentment. But here is what the Bible says when it mentions the act of rejoicing:
- “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
- “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).
- “Rejoice always” (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
- ”…as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:10, all emphases added).
I look at these verses like I look at the commandments of the law: I don’t always do them. Sometimes I covet. Other times I lie. Likewise, I lack joy during moments of suffering, or my heart distorts the source of the joy I have in an abundance of something good, rejoicing in myself or material things instead of the Lord.
Without doubt, I am not always kind to others or joyful in God during certain circumstances—good or bad. Surely, I’m not the only one. Every Christian battles his or her sinful flesh daily, perhaps before their feet hit the floor in the morning, and occasionally gives into it (Romans 7:18).
Why would God’s Word command me to do something always when I can’t? Is something wrong with me for not being capable of constant obedience?
These questions haunt me in the lowest moments of feeling defeated by sin.
The Permanent, Always-Sacrifice
Falling short of the law, according to the Old Covenant, meant death (Romans 6:23; Galatians 2:19). If the commandment was to “rejoice always,” and you complained, pouted, made a snarky remark, or lacked joy, you stood condemned for it. The law proved you a sinner. It also pointed to grace each time you took your perfect lamb to the temple and performed the ritual for cleansing and forgiveness before the high priest (Hebrews 7:19, 28).
Similarly, God commands you to obey in many scriptures, and therefore to live—but you find it impossible to be consistent in your obedience (Genesis 2:17; Leviticus 18:5, 19:2; Romans 7). You need a perfect sacrifice—an atonement for your iniquities. You need the spilling of untainted blood, a permanent kind, one that will always cover you when you sin (Hebrews 9:22).
Old Testament prophecy said there would be a future salvation in Jesus Christ, the coming Passover Lamb, the new High Priest, who would fulfill the law for you, taking your sin to the cross and defeating the death sentence your disobedience and failure wrote (Hebrews 8:20-28).
Jesus Christ did this for you. His work wasn’t temporary like the priestly sacrifices in the temple. His sacrifice proved once and for all your sins cleansed, forgiven, and deleted, if you put your faith in the redemptive work he accomplished on the cross (Hebrews 10:10). No longer do you need to fear your law-abiding incapacities to obey or die. It is done. He finished it, giving you new life, not because of your obedience, but by his gift of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9).
But what about when we continue to fail?
Although I know I can’t obey my way to heaven, I still disapprove of myself for not always coming through, particularly in rejoicing. I’m currently on bed rest, hoping the baby in my womb doesn’t come too early. No, I will not always be kind. Nor will I always have a rejoicing spirit.
In the future, should the doctor diagnose me with cancer that brings unbearable physical pain, I will not always be thankful. If things go well for a season, bringing no bad reports, no conflict, no suffering or death, still, I will not always rejoice in the true source of joy—my Lord.
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I will strive to rejoice, but I will fall short—though I have Christ. We all will. We are human, merely dust. And God knows (Psalm 103:14). He sees his Son’s blood, so he doesn’t condemn (Romans 8:1). I will fail to rejoice always, in every moment at least, but he who is faithful when I am faithless will get me to the point of rejoicing (2 Timothy 2:13). Sanctification is sure. Thus, I will rejoice in the Lord always, in whatever tribulation I tread or comfort I cradle. Eventually he will lead me there as I persevere in faith.
In John Piper’s book, The Dangerous Duty of Delight, he says, “In the pursuit of joy through suffering, we magnify the all-satisfying worth of the Source of our joy.” We may not have joy in every instance at every second, but it’s not okay to continue in deficit of it. We must fight for it by the power of the Holy Spirit and trust God to be faithful to produce it in us. “Maximizing our joy in God is what we were created for,” Piper says. Thus, let us do what he created us to do.
While we may feel sin’s defeat as we strive to obey, rejoicing always in the Lord, we know this:
…we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. (1 Corinthians 15:52)
Sin will not defeat us. Grace has covered us, so “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 57). Meanwhile, we have a Helper, the Holy Spirit, who promises to make us more and more into the image of Christ, a holy people, until we stand in perfect holiness before the Holiest of all, crying, “Holy, holy, holy” for all eternity—always—in fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).