Most biblical scholars say that this passage is a conglomeration of a number of different sayings. Maybe, they argue, it was all written at one time, but most likely this passage bears the hand of a at least one and maybe many different editors, adding in bits and pieces to fill out the list of exhortations. Or maybe it was all Paul, just running down his checklist without regard to content or narrative flow. This is like a shopping list or a menu from a Chinese restaurant, one from column A and one from column B.
Maybe there is coherence here, however. What if Paul is trying to define joy in these verses? This is a recipe for the joy entree. This might explain why it feels disjointed, but it comes together to produce something whole, and satisfying, and delicious, to boot!
Joy, says Paul, is revealed in gentleness, in how we treat those around us, in how we respond to slights against us, and in how we reach out to those who are hurt. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (4:5) says Paul. Let it show. Joy is found in the knowledge and experience of the nearness of God (The Lord is near), a nearness that diminishes anxiety and brings out a willingness to connect with God with gratitude and with hope (in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God). Joy is found in that communion, that peaceful confidence that comes from living in Christ.
But then, it gets sticky. Paul throws a messy word in there. “Always.” Dang it, Paul. Why did you have to throw that word in there? That unreachable, impossible word? That always word. Take that word out, and this is a nice little passage about being happy, about finding your joy, about walking on the sunny side of life. (It’s got a nice beat and you can dance to it. A spoonful of sugar . . . all that sort of stuff.) But, no you weren’t happy with that. You wanted something more, something deeper. You wanted something (dare we say it?) . . . eternal.
Cover one eye and read this without that scary word. Just for a moment. “Rejoice in the Lord.” Well, of course! Who would say no to that? Again, I say rejoice. Sure, keep reminding us; we need the boost. We also need to be reminded of the source of this joy - rejoice in the Lord. Certainly, we can do that. We have done that. We can remember a time when there was joy in the Lord, in worship, in fellowship. Sure, it happens. Been there, done that.
And then, Paul says, let it spill out. That joy in the Lord is not just for you. It is not just so that you get a boost, a lift, a skip in your step. Let it come out. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Gentleness? Hmm. Not sure that’s the best word, actually. A good word, but not the best. It doesn’t quite convey what Paul is getting at here. Patience, some say; forbearance, if anyone uses that word anymore; magnanimity, if you want a real tongue twister. Peterson’s The Message says, “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.” That’s good. An earlier paraphrase said “Let all the world know that you’ll meet them half-way.” It’s about hospitality, about welcome, about inclusion, about the fact that we aren’t the judge; we don’t point fingers; we don’t accuse, we dropped our stones long ago, even since Jesus told us that only the sinless can throw them. We aren’t looking to pick fights, to call names. What we have to share is joy. Joy in the Lord. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Everyone? Paul almost slipped in an always there, didn’t he? Everyone. Hmmm.
Don’t worry about anything. Yeah, OK, thanks Paul. But no thanks. How in the world are we going to do that? It’s one thing to know we aren’t supposed to worry, but how do we stop? And then because we can’t stop, we end up worrying about worrying.
I guess that’s why there is a comma there and not a period. “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). Don’t worry, says Paul, but get on your knees. Don’t worry, but pour it out. Don’t worry, but beg and plead and pound on the doorways of heaven with both fists, even as you know – not hope, not assume, but know – that you are heard and that answers are already all around you when you open your eyes again and put one foot in front of the other. Don’t worry because you don’t have time to worry; you are so busy bending God’s divine ear. Don’t worry because your life is now a prayer, and the answers are coming fast and furious and surprising.
Don’t worry because from somewhere comes this sense that maybe, just maybe, you are not alone in the universe. This sense that maybe you do have a place, a home, an identity, an existence right here and right now that is meaningful, useful, transformed and transforming. From somewhere, who knows where, God, it must be, comes a peace that even on your best days you can’t define or even describe. It just is, passing all understanding, or your understanding anyway.
For now, though, choose joy. Rejoice in the Lord. Always. We’ve come back to that. It is still there. We can only squint it away for so long. We can only ignore it for a time. Rejoice in the Lord, Always. Maybe we could negotiate with Paul. Rejoice in the Lord, when it is convenient. Rejoice in the Lord when we’ve got the time. When we’re in the mood; when the world hasn’t taken yet another sideswipe at my confidence. Rejoice in the Lord when I’ve run out of excuses not to. Rejoice in the Lord . . . Always. Always?
How in the world do we do that? Focus on the next one? No, focus more deeply on this one. “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” 4:8). Think on, dwell on, meditate on, take your cue from, be obsessed with these things. Look at the list: True, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy. What is that? Who is that? Implied in the directive is the confidence that there is enough of this out there in the world to fill us up. And not only fill us up but give us joy. Real joy; in the Lord, joy. Always joy. Paul says go find Christ in the world. Go find the one you love, the one who loves you; focus on that, and you will know joy. Think about these things, he writes; live in these things; fill yourself up with these things.
Then, he says, live in community, that’s where we find joy. It is a corporate experience, not an individual one. Find a mentor, someone who can show you the faith at work, someone who walks the walk. (Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.) Engage in acts of kindness, give, serve, love. Also, be content where you are; bloom where you are planted instead of always wishing things were different. And finally, take risks. Step out in faith, knowing that as long as you walk with God, you cannot fail. (Read on a few verses: I can do all things through him who strengthens me [4:15].)
Joy, then, is dynamic, the result of an ongoing relationship and way of living that keeps us engaged with God and with people. It leaks out as we engage with others; it shapes our language and our vision. In short, it shows. In everything we do, in who we are, in the attitudes we present, in the face we offer to the world, it shows.
Think on these things as you are pressing on. Think of these joy things, these always things. Think in gentleness and confidence and prayer. Think on these things. It’s the only way to be strong enough to press on.