Joy in Unexpected Places
Always be full of joy because you belong to the Lord. I will say it again: “Rejoice!”
Joy can be found in the most unexpected places and not least in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The theme of joy pervades the book from beginning to end: in fact, the words “joy” and “rejoice” appear no less than fourteen times throughout this short letter. Yet who would know that, when Paul wrote it, he was facing death in a Roman prison — hardly a place that would be fill the average human being with much joy. So one might ask what kind of joy was this? Was he always on that kind of high? Or was this some kind of perverse masochism on his part, deriving a warped sense of pleasure from his own pain?
The reality is that Paul’s sense of joy had grown out of a long learning process over many years of experience as a Christian — as he later explained, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (4:12). Indeed, one of his first lessons had been learned right here in Philippi many years before, and no doubt, as he was writing, his mind would have flashed back to that first visit, when for no good reason he and his friend Silas had been beaten mercilessly and thrown into prison, with their feet fastened in the stocks. The other prisoners would have been feeling sorry for themselves, but not Paul, who at midnight surprised them all with loud and joyful songs.
Others, both believers and unbelievers, have learned this same lesson. The composer Ludwig van Beethoven called his last great symphony the “Song of Joy”. But who on hearing it would have any idea of the years of suffering that had led to it: years of physical and emotional abuse during childhood at the hands of a drunken father; years of chronic ill health (including a skin condition that disfigured his face); and then the final years of increasing deafness that cut him off from the outside world. “Don’t think about it,” said Beethoven, “Rather, let us raise our voices in more joyful sounds! Joy! Joy! Joy! Joy!”
For the Scottish preacher, George Matheson, joy was a quieter experience. He sang about it in one of his hymns:
O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee …
And his pain was not deafness but blindness, which struck him as a teenager and not only deprived him of a coveted academic career, but also turned his fiancée away from marrying him. Yet through it all he learned the same deep-seated contentedness that Paul knew.
And for all of these three people, Paul, Beethoven and George Matheson, joy was no optional extra. In fact, just in case any might be tempted to underestimate its importance, Paul repeated it several times: I will say it again,” he insisted, “Rejoice!”
— Walter Raymond, Christchurch