It can be hard to find much to be happy about these days.
Information about the Coronavirus (COVID-19) has overtaken our televisions, radios, podcasts, newspapers and social media feeds. Every day, we hear or read about more confirmed cases and more deaths. We are continually confronted with the reality of unemployment and economic downturn. We are advised or ordered to stay home and away from each other.
All of that is, quite frankly, depressing — which is why I find the book of Philippians to be incredibly uplifting in this time of crisis.
Philippians has earned the nickname “the book of encouragement” because of its overarching theme of joy. In the English translation of Philippians, the word “joy” occurs five times, the word “rejoice” occurs seven times and “glad” occurs twice. All of these words call for one thing: celebration!
The amazing thing is, the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was imprisoned for his faith in Rome. Imagine: a man who was a prisoner (who was being guarded by some of Rome’s highest ranking soldiers) rejoicing!
We can learn much from Paul’s example, and especially his words in Philippians 4:4-9:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” (ESV)
There is a lot to unpack in this passage, so I’d like to focus on four main takeaways that can help us learn to rejoice in the midst of adversity:
1. God is near.
Verse 5 reminds us that “the Lord is at hand.” Throughout Scripture, we find that God is with believers in their trials. Psalm 34:18 tells us that God is close to the brokenhearted, and the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel 3:8-25 shows us that God, literally, walks with us in the fire. And when Daniel himself is thrown into the lion’s den, we see God shut the mouths of lions (Daniel 6). God has promised never to leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5). And Jesus told his disciples before his ascension to heaven, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Now, we who follow Jesus have his Holy Spirit living inside us, so we can rejoice when we face difficult circumstances. God is near to us, closer than our very breath.
2. Reach out to God in prayer and reach out to others.
Verses 6 and 7 encourage us to take our fears and anxieties to God. So, when you start to feel panicked or downhearted, or when your thoughts start to keep you up at night, pause and pray. Be honest with God about how you are feeling. He has said that he will give you his peace.
You can also reach out to a trusted friend or professional counselor. Although we are having to practice social distancing, that does not mean that we cannot maintain our connections to others. Call, text, email or direct message someone. Sometimes, speaking your worries aloud or writing them down can actually help you to work through them.
3. Remember who you are and who God is, and remember the hard moments in the past.
It can be easy to lose sight of Jesus when we have so many other things and people competing for our attention. Verse 8 instructs us to think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and praiseworthy. Instead of letting negative thoughts consume our minds, we need to take the time to meditate on these eight things, all of which describe God himself.
Don’t forget who God is and how he’s cared for you in the past. When you recall how God has provided for you before, it’s easier to trust him to provide for you now. And don’t forget who you are either! If you have placed your faith in Jesus, then he declares you a child of God.
4. Serve others.
Lastly, think about how you can serve others. Verse 9 urges us to “practice these things.” People are in great need of encouragement right now. So, write a note, a text or an email to let someone know that you are thinking about them and praying for them. Or, give them a call or video call them. If you are able to go out, offer to pick up groceries and other supplies for the elderly or compromised individuals in your community. Helping others will not only bring them great joy, but can also improve your mood and be beneficial to your mental health! Stay plugged into the power source of God’s Word so you can be empowered to go serve.
Many of us are experiencing sadness, fear and anxiety right now. But God calls us to trust him even as we feel these emotions. And because we can trust him, we can rejoice always.