My crabby self is beginning to be won over.
A little background. I don’t put stock in easy answers. I strive for authenticity and any hint of that plastic sort of happy face Christianity well, I have to work at loving a person who espouses that. I don’t like sugar-coating things, or even coming close to it. An adjective used to describe my speaking perhaps too frequently is “real.” So I’ve eyed with suspicion verses such as “Rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16; Phil 4:4). Even if you’re sitting on the rooftop of a home sinking in water? Even if your blood sugar is low?
At other times, I’ve been fascinated by these verses. I’ve wished they could be true of someone besides the apostle Paul. Maybe someone like me. I recently was privileged to be part of the Heart and Soul Conference sponsored by Shepherd’s House and their Life Model program. They talk a lot about relational brain skills, one of which is that we can learn to “return to joy.” At first I eyed that with suspicion, but I’ve been won over.
“Return to joy” would sound too simplistic to me except for two things. First, I think of joy as “a pervasive and firmly established sense of well being” (the Dallas Willard definition). Secondly, I know such joy really is possible as we live our life in the kingdom of God here and now. Over 200 times the apostle Paul talks about living “in Christ,” “with Christ” and “Christ in you.” I have the companionship of God and that empowers me to live in another reality. I believe this enough that I experience it now and then. For a certain percentage of my life, the Lord really is my shepherd and I really do have everything I need. That eternal kind of life I’m learning to live enables - even persuades - me to return to joy.
So my current paraphrase of “Rejoice always” is “return to joy.” At any moment, I can return to that awareness that I live my life abiding in Christ, in the fellowship of the Spirit, as a companion of God. This creates a pervasive and firmly established sense of well being. I believe the Spirit is bringing that phrase, “return to joy,” to my mind and I’m making the choice to return to joy when I’ve been preoccupied with myself, feeling really tired, or listening to negative chatter in my head. So when I’ve moved out of joy, I can choose to return.
Shepherd’s House leader Dr. Jim Wilder said that it’s often easier to return to joy through our right brain, and so his mother used to sing pleasant little one-liners to his brother and him when they argued. Singing?! Did Paul and Silas sing in prison in the middle of the night in order to “return to joy”? So now I’ve worn out my old hymnal and just reglued the spine.
While “rejoice always, pray without ceasing and give thanks to God in all circumstances” used to sound cliché, they now sound like a good idea (1 Thess 5:16-18). To pray without ceasing is simply enjoying the presence of God; to give thanks in all circumstances is to find unprayed-for answers to prayer. This sounds simple enough that I can do this and move with the Spirit’s help.