A recent text message from my friend Mark made me question if our feeling words fit our faith. Mark had prayed about a medical procedure for my husband and shared our pleasure when the feared tests proved the absence of disease. He wrote, “Rejoicing in the good news that they didn’t find any issues.” Mark was absolutely correct: rejoicing was the right response. Yet his message made me wonder about rejoicing. I don’t use that verb except when reading scripture aloud. How do we rejoice now?
Our feeling words don’t often match the King James Version of life where people rejoice, sing praises, and beseech their Sovereign Lord whom they address in capital letters. My world doesn’t include people strolling along a boulevard or through the gritty streets of a Broadway musical at the moment they burst into song. I’d be enthralled by the dramatic procession parading out of the old city described by the prophet Isaiah but it’s just not where I live. “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12 NKJV).
Rejoicing sounds like a Sunday word and a higher level feeling we save for church. Mad, happy, sad, glad describe most of our experiences. There’s nothing unbiblical about feeling glad; here the psalmist sketches excited gratefulness. “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126:2-3 NIV). Yet our ordinary days seem far from the grand language of the Bible.
High-fives and “You rocked it!” exclamations express rejoicing today. Shouting, “Yay, God!” may be the best we’ve got. Exciting news, the birth of a child, a marriage proposal, a resolution to a long-standing problem, these are common experiences of happiness kicked up a few notches into joy. “Man, that was epic,” conveys an exceptional moment but it hides a deeper personal reflection. Psychologists report that most people don’t even know if they’re happy.
Which words capture your faith and reflect your experiences these days? Naming what makes us joyful and why can testify about the holiness in daily life. Recognizing and claiming our connections with God can blend biblical words with everyday speech. My friend Mark rejoices more than I do but his example teaches me how to plug into that everyday joy God wants for us. Our way of speaking on Sundays shouldn’t clash with how we talk every other day of the week.
Rejoice means to intensify joy, an experience of rich pleasure and uncommon satisfaction. We receive permission to do just that in Ecclesiastes 9:7 (NIV). “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” This compelling poetry dignifies our ordinary days. The Bible constantly coaches us to be joyful, to not be afraid, to remember that God is always with us. In any translation, these loving words renew our faith when we can’t see beyond the world as it is.
The Christian narrative doesn’t limit joy to positive experiences; in fact, the Bible calls us to rejoice in all circumstances. This is a tough message, especially when strong feelings mark a time of separation, loss, and grief. “Oh, I wish we could get together but . . .” people lament, filling in the blank with sadness or the silence of unmentionable hardship. The loved one is in prison, the hospital, hospice, quarantine, or serving abroad. Some extended families face all of these circumstances at once right now. Esther put it bluntly. “For how can I bear to see disaster fall on my people? How can I bear to see the destruction of my family?” (Esther 8:6 NIV)
Yet the scriptures don’t avoid the expectation to feel joy. “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,” James challenges us in his first chapter. When Mary learned the results of her pregnancy test, she offered a song of surrender to bear and raise Jesus. In Luke 1:47 NIV, she declared to Elizabeth and to every generation, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” It took everything she had to launch Jesus and then he, too, pitched it all as sacrificial joy. Look to Jesus, Paul suggests, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2 NIV).
For the joy of dying on the Cross, Jesus sacrificed his life. How can we rejoice when a loved one dies, when catastrophe occurs, when our despair turns suicidal? Declaring that, “This is the day that the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it,” (Psalm 118:24 NIV), can seem like blasphemy. We can feel less faithful or even that we are bad Christians if we cannot rejoice when terrible things happen. Yet God also hears our despair. “Look and see, there is no one at my right hand; no one is concerned for me. I have no refuge; no one cares for my life.” (Psalm 142:4 NIV)
When we let go of joy, we lose the majesty in our everyday walk with God, no matter how hard that walk is. Troublesome questions about life, our families, our neighborhoods, soul survival, and eternal destiny require words that suit our deepest spiritual needs. What’s a practice in your life that connects you to everyday joy? Finding answers to these important questions may intensify any experience we treasure of true joy as well as true sorrow. “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17 NIV).
Beseeching is another lost art preserved in Sunday language. To seek something is basic but to broaden our search, to beseech someone for mercy, to implore them for healing, or to rescue us from a dead-end life, these are more compelling motivators than what drives us to locate a misplaced watch. When we beseech the Lord, especially on behalf of the suffering of others, our earnest pleas reach the high heavens where mercy dwells. Begging the Lord in our everyday prayer words adds depth to our understanding of scripture.
My friend Mark’s message about “rejoicing in the good news” holds a greater truth than just celebrating the test outcome we wanted. The good news can be a medical report with no bad news, but it also means the good news of the gospel. If you receive bad news, the good news says Jesus will still be with you in coping with that bad news. For Mark, the past year resembles a roller coaster careening around hairpin turns, crisscrossing through his professional, personal, and medical life. When he advocates rejoicing, he escorts me into the rich faith we share. Connecting with God’s purposes and promises is a relief that Christians in all times and places embrace.
Rejoicing makes a difference. Isaiah celebrated how people experienced deliverance at the hands of a loving and merciful God, especially in the midst of unrelenting oppression. “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” (Isaiah 35:10 NIV) Ordinary words like hope and peace or righteousness and justice bear fruit when the Holy Spirit enriches our conversations.
Give your weekday words the power of Sunday’s worship and watch unexpected gifts appear, “much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” (Galatians 5:22-24 MSG)