Some Bible verses lend themselves quite well to becoming a tweet, a “life verse,” or the inside of a greeting card. But when we read the Bible looking for catchphrases and mottos, we risk mangling the meaning of the Bible and invariably miss out on important truths. Two verses in particular have become slogans for inspirational posters or t-shirts: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice” (Philippians 4:4), and “In everything give thanks for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Well-meaning people drop these verses on folks in the midst of a crisis, pressuring them to put on a happy face, and burdening them with guilt if they are sad.
Growing up in church, I often heard these verses, and quite often they left me scratching my head. How am I supposed to rejoice always or in everything give thanks? I heard a few preachers along the way try to explain that the preposition solves the riddle. They said we don’t have to give thanks for everything, but in everything. Their explanations left my confusion completely intact. How can I possibly rejoice when my sister is diagnosed with cancer? How can I give thanks when bad things happen? Of course, I’m not thankful for these things, but how can I even give thanks in them? My efforts to muster enough positivity to overcome the negative things I saw and experienced seemed forced and phony.
Several years ago, while meditating on Philippians 4:4, the Lord helped me glimpse why it makes sense to always rejoice—even in hard times—and how it is possible to give thanks in everything. The key is not just the preposition “in,” but the phrase “in Christ.” Nowhere does Paul instruct his readers to rejoice or give thanks in a vacuum, but always in Christ. The key to joy is our union with Christ. In Philippians 4:4, Paul uses the phrase in the Lord and in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, he uses the phrase in Christ Jesus.
Union with Christ is a major New Testament refrain. Paul uses phrases like “in Christ” or “in the Lord” about 150 times. We cannot unite ourselves to Christ; it comes as a gift through the gospel. The gospel is the only way to experience union with Christ. United to Christ, His joy becomes my joy, and His joy is infinite. Apart from the gospel, joy is more ephemeral than a soap bubble, a mere pretense, an illusion, a vapor.
Without Christ, there is no reason to believe that things will get better. Without Christ, there’s no reason to hope. Without Christ, this world is the best I’ll ever get, and when I die, I face hell. Life is literally a tragedy.
Because of Christ, I have an entirely different perspective on suffering. With Christ, this world is the closest to hell that I’ll ever be. If I’m in Christ, no matter how bad the situation I’m facing, it isn’t the end of the story. I grieve, but not as those who have no hope. In strict literary terms, life is a comedy, which means the story has a happy ending.
The joy of the Lord has the astonishing characteristic of being compatible with other emotions. Deep joy can co-exist alongside profound sorrow. I don’t need to suppress my pain or sugarcoat my grief. I can weep and lament while simultaneously clinging to the hope-giving promises of God. Because I am united to the One who overcame death, to use Tolkien’s phrase, “Everything sad [is] going to come untrue.”
Union with Christ means the good things I experience now are a foretaste of eternity with Him, and the bad things I endure are temporary. That’s a good reason to rejoice.