The Apostle Paul wrote, “Rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16). For most of us, we probably read this command and wonder, “Is it even possible to obey?” What adds to the problem is that Paul claims that rejoicing always “is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:18). How can we obey God’s will by rejoicing always when we all know by experience that joy seems elusive, partial, and impermanent?
The answer is not to live a life of affected joy and so wear a mask of happiness by forcing ourselves to act the part. Instead, the answer comes through a deeper meditation on what Joy means and what constitutes a person.
What Joy Is
Joy cannot be only an emotional experience since some people enjoy harming others. And nobody in their right minds would call sadistic, murderous actions acts of joy. And if we do admit that the joy of torture and friendship are alike, then we evacuate joy of all objective meaning. So joy must be something beyond (while including) emotion.
Joy must have an objective thing to it. At its base, joy seems to signify pleasure in something worthy of that pleasure. To make it practical, an artist takes joy in her work because it represents a double good: the activity of art itself and the created product of beauty.
Now everything in life that we can rightly be said to take joy in links to something intrinsically good. And such things have goodness because God created the world to be good, very good (Gen 1:31). And so every good thing draws us to God, the source and origin of goodness. Thus, joy in its ultimate sense means drawing near to God through the enjoyment of his good gifts and of himself: “it is good to be near God” (Ps 73:28).
What Constitutes a Person
Once we realize what joy is and what objects are worthy of our joy, then we begin to realize that joy points to something different than we often think. And not only that, but joy also flows from something deeper and fuller than we usually think. Joy includes our mind, our will, and our affections.
It comprises the whole person, although in different ways. The intellect recognizes something worthy of joy, the will chooses to experience joy, and the affections allow us to experience joy through our sensory organs.
This becomes vitally important to understand when we consider how to “rejoice always.” If joy were a mere emotion, then the command is impossible—for we can be joyful on 2 of sleep and malnutrition despite the emotional signs of joy being depleted. This is because joy includes our mind and will, our whole person.
So we have the capacity to rejoice always by the Spirit who leads us to all truth through which we can discern objectively what is good to rejoice over (mind) and choose to do so (will). Ideally, we could also experience joy through tears, smiles, and whatever else (sensible organs). But not always. And we should know that this is okay.
The command to rejoice always does mean that we always have to feel okay, healthy, and exuberant at all times. It means that we have a stable object over which rejoice. It means we choose joy over non-joy. And when possible, our body’s sensory organs follow suit (our eyes tear up, our mouths smile, our mind experiences exuberance). So rejoice always for this God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.