What Does “Rejoice in the Lord” Mean?

What is rejoicing in the Lord supposed to look like? by Michelle Van Loon www.MichelleVanLoon.com and www.MomentsAndDays.org

Not long ago, an acquaintance asked me how I was doing. She knows my husband and I are facing a number of serious trials. I was having a hard day, and told her so. My words hung in the air for a moment. She rushed to fill the uncomfortable silence with a Bible verse encouraging me to rejoice in God’s faithfulness.

We’ve all been there – either on the speaking end or the receiving end. I cringe remembering times I’ve offered words meant to comfort someone who is hurting, only to have those words clank like plastic platitudes they are because I’ve spoken them trying to quell my own discomfort with the other person’s pain. And I’ve received words meant to encourage, but sometimes those words have in the past seemed to me a bit of a demand to perform so the person speaking them to me would feel better about me or my situation.

There are numerous injunctions in Scripture to praise the Lord no matter what the circumstances are. (There are also commands to mourn, lament, confess, and remain silent.) I believe the acquaintance who encouraged me to rejoice per Philippians 4:4-7 meant well. But I wondered what she expected me to do in that moment. What is rejoicing supposed to look like in times of trial or loss?

There are amazing testimonies of praise for God that emerge out of the darkest moments of life. We rightly celebrate and recount those stories. They’ve strengthened my faith through the years. But they do set up the expectations in some circles that if our faith is sound, we will appear confident and victorious in the midst of a crisis. Those expectations are soul-killers, but nonetheless, they persist in some congregations.

A few days after I was urged by my acquaintance to rejoice already, my husband and I were attending a service at our Messianic congregation. As is almost always the case, the mourner’s prayer known as the Kaddish was a part of our liturgy that morning. This ancient Hebrew-Aramaic language prayer is drawn from Ezekiel 38:23: “And so I will show my greatness and my holiness, and I will make myself known in the sight of many nations. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” It is a surprising prayer for mourners, as the Kaddish never mentions loss or grief. Instead, the text is a song of praise devoted only to magnifying God. Some scholars (both Jewish and Christian) note that the Lord’s Prayer and the Kaddish share some similar themes.

At our congregation (as in many synagogues), those who are in active mourning and those remembering the anniversary date of the death of a loved one are invited to remain standing as the Kaddish prayer is chanted. The rest of the congregation joins in, and it is an opportunity for the rest of us to intercede for those mourners and rejoice in God as a community. That image, of a mourner surrounded and supported by those who could freely lift their voices in praise to God, gave me a fresh image that morning of what rejoicing in God is supposed to look like in the midst of a trial. The mourner is encouraged to sing those ancient words of praise when it’s time for the Kaddish, but their tears may be the only praise they can offer that morning. Sometimes showing up and standing up is all the rejoicing a broken heart can offer.

The next time a well-meaning brother or sister in Jesus urges me to rejoice in the midst of a trial or loss (because it will happen!), I will thank them for the reminder to do just that. And I will ask them to intercede for me – and to rejoice in God as they do.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.