What if we exchanged being overwhelmed by life for being overjoyed in Jesus?
What if you decided right now - regardless of what you will face today, tomorrow or the coming year - to face it all with hell-shattering, darkness-defying joy?
Could you make the commitment in advance of the spilled coffee, the traffic jam, the internet outage, the lost account, the politics, the betrayal, the sickness, even the death, to “Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in everything; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)?
Does this seem unrealistic or stir an inner rage in you from even suggesting the possibility? Maybe you’re thinking, “You don’t understand what I’m going through right now or what I've had to endure.” You're right. I don’t. And I wouldn't dare try to minimize an ounce of anxiety or pain you've experienced.
But God knows every bit of it, and He cares deeply for you (I Peter 5:7).
This exhortation from the Original Joy Maker, in Whose image we are made and designed to reflect, isn’t intended to frustrate or usher us into a state of fantasy. It's not a callous call to action but a compassion-filled plea to guide us in this complicated and broken world.
It’s the hope of what is possible amidst the all-encompassing arms of affliction.
We have this hope, firm and secure, as an anchor for our souls (Hebrews 6:19).
Jesus, like a pragmatic prophet – not a starry-eyed Pollyanna - reminds us that we will have trouble in this world but to “take heart!” because He has overcome the world (John 16:33).
We can rejoice always and give thanks in all circumstances not because we won’t have trouble but because Jesus has already overcome all that troubles us.
As a society, statistics show we are making bad trades. We are trading the joy of the Lord for the weight of the world. According to a recent Gallup Poll, younger Americans between the ages of 15 – 49 years old are the most stressed, worried and angry in the United States.
Additional research revealed:
Roughly 66% of those younger than 50 years old said they experience stress frequently.
50% said they worry a lot.
At least 25% said they are angry a lot.
More than 50% of college students polled have felt “overwhelming anxiety” before, and nearly 33% had problems functioning because of depression.
Women are more than twice as likely as men to acquire an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
Anxiety also now affects 1 out of 4 children, and girls are twice as likely as boys to struggle.
Anxiety is threatening to overwhelm the next generation.
Lexico’s definition of being overwhelmed paints a vivid and dreadful picture: “to be buried or drowning beneath a huge mass of something, completely covered, inundated, overpowered, completely defeated.”
This is not God’s will for our lives, yet so many of us are living in a perpetual state of anxiety.
Christians are by no means immune to this epidemic. Even the charge to live our lives worthy of the Gospel can induce stress in a culture that is bent on shaming and silencing followers of Jesus. Satan doesn't sleep or stop taunting just because we are saved. Quite the opposite; he clocks in overtime preying on the sons and daughters of God.
I know many Christian families that have children who regularly deal with anxiety, either from the pressure to perform, bullying, knowledge of terrorism and mass shootings, separation issues or the constant state of being “on” in our digital age of texting and instant messaging.
The enemy will use any tactic available to cripple us.
Scripture and prayer must be our first line of offense and defense. We must know how to properly wield the Word to fight back against the snares of the enemy.
In His infinite wisdom, God’s will for us to rejoice always, pray continually and give thanks in all circumstances is because He knows worship - through song or His Word or prayer - is our greatest weapon in the war on our minds. God knows without this protection, His children will continually be fearful, fretful, ineffective glory makers.
When we feel caught by the greedy grip of anxiety, we must remember that it will never be stronger than the everlasting arms of God.
"The eternal God is a dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms" (Deuteronomy 33:27).
Nothing can snatch us from His nail-scarred hands, the ones that reach farther and wider and longer and deeper than any feeling or circumstance ever could (Ephesians 3:18).
God's love, peace and compassion do not run out on us. In the very moments we feel bound up, overtaken, smothered and defeated, God wraps His boundless arms around us to protect us and drive out the enemy before us.
Jesus thankfully calls all of us – even those who are hard-wired worriers - to the fullness of joy as we abide in Him.
“These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11).
“These things” that Jesus has spoken to us are all found in His Holy Word, which illuminates the kind of Biblical joy Jesus had in mind. Joy is not synonymous with happiness, although we often see it used interchangeably. Happiness is a product of our happenings. It’s easy to be happy when we’re rested, on vacation, or things seem to be going our way. But that’s not lasting joy; that’s temporal ease, leisure and triumph.
Biblical joy runs deep, like a quiet river that calms a soul set in "the tumultuous billows of the troubled sea" (MacLaren's Expositions commentary).
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells” (Psalm 46:4).
Joy is a product of the Holy Spirit, a supernatural response to a situation that would otherwise baffle a mind and break a heart (Galatians 5:22-23). It’s a work of Christ in us as we abide in Him that would not naturally occur from our own broken nature.
The response of the flesh when something fails is to fight, flail or flee. The response of the Spirit is to rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances. It is the Spirit in us completing the will of God for us as we abide in Jesus.
Jesus is talking about the kind of joy that can carry us through our lowest valley and our deepest pit. This kind of joy is born from the parents of audacious faith and perplexing peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
“For the joy that lay before Him, He endured the cross …” (Hebrews 12:2b).
What kind of joy could trump the cruelty and injustice of a Roman cross? What kind of joy could pull Jesus from the terminal tomb in the garden? The joy of God. The joy of eternity with God. The joy of a sin-free, tear-free, disease-free world that is promised to us, where all God’s promises are yes in Christ Jesus (II Corinthians 1:20).
When situations rub us wrong or rob us of life as we expected, how we choose to respond says a lot about Who we’re choosing to worship.
The only way this God joy will flow through us is if we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2a).
Wasn’t it Jesus who told us not to worry about tomorrow – or even our clothes or food or life – for today has enough troubles of its own (Matthew 6:25-34)? Didn’t perpetually shipwrecked and imprisoned Paul echo these words when he told the early church to not worry about anything, “but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6)?
Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances.
This is the refrain I have to keep repeating to myself, in the morning before I get out of bed and anxiety tries to rise with me, in the evening as the sun sets and the weight of the day sits on my shoulders. This is the chorus that keeps me worshipping instead of weeping.
Rejoice always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances.
It is God’s will for us to trade our worry for joy, to exchange being overwhelmed by life for being overjoyed in Jesus.
And because it’s His will, He will provide a way.
When we abide in Jesus, we can rejoice in the Lord – not for the situation – but in the midst of it because of Who Jesus is and what He has already done for us. There will always be bad news, but nothing can change the Good News of Christ come to save us.
Even better than a problem solved is the constant presence and provision of Jesus - Immanuel, God with us - during the problem (Matthew 1:23).
“I will never leave you or forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5, Deuteronomy 31:6).
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18).
“God is in the midst of her” (Psalm 46:5).
In the chemo room, in the courtroom, in the classroom, in the board room. God is with us in every stressful situation and anxious bout.
Even better than a trial gone is the spiritual growth that goes on and will keep going long after the trial has passed.
“Though he falls, he will not be overwhelmed because the Lord supports him with His hand” (Psalm 37:23).
We will slip. We will fall. We will have trouble, and our hearts will sometimes be broken. Like Peter, we will take our eyes off the steadying company of Christ and stare at the daunting circumstances around us. And we will start to sink. We may even begin to drown.
But Jesus promises to reach down, grab us and pull us out.
Jesus faithfully abides in us, even when we forget to abide in Him.
In His endless goodness, God doesn’t expect us to know how to trade in worry for joy on our own. He gives us His Word and the Psalms in particular, wonderfully raw and authentic, to instruct us on the process. Praise God for His mercies!
Read next week's Abide in Jesus for six steps found in Psalm 40 that teach us how to stop being overwhelmed by life and start being overjoyed in Jesus.