Occasionally, I read or hear someone say something like, “Christians believe some really strange things.” They usually mean that Christians believe in miracles like a six-day creation, a man who was swallowed by a great fish (and spit out days later), and the resurrection from the dead. I understand their incredulity.
Though I have been a Christian for a long time, there are things that still seem strange to me; they’re just not the same things. I don’t balk at the miraculous simply because it is miraculous. The rejection of miracles is not a logical conclusion but an a priori assumption based on a worldview which millions of people, including some of history’s greatest philosophers and scientists, do not share.
The things that seem strange to me and difficult to take seriously are not the miracles but the commands that Christians are expected to follow. I can believe in the resurrection of the dead but believing Jesus in a way that leads me to easily obey him when he says things like, “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth,” “Turn the other cheek,” and “Do not worry” is tough.
Such things are not truth claims to which one gives intellectual assent; they are instructions to which one gives obedience. It is easier to believe the Bible about Jesus walking on water than it is to believe the Bible about “giving to him who asks.” No one has ever asked me to walk on water but, every once in a while, someone asks me to give them money.
Another thing I find difficult is the command to rejoice, which is issued by prophets, apostles, and Jesus himself. It just doesn’t make sense to rejoice when bad things happen, and normal people cannot consistently do things that don’t make sense.
The Apostle Paul tells his friends in the Church at Philippi to rejoice no less than four times. After mentioning the very real possibility that he will be executed, he tells the Philippians, “You should be glad and rejoice with me.” Who says things like that?
He says a second time, “Rejoice in the Lord,” and this time adds that it is a safeguard for them. A page or so later, he instructs his friends to rejoice always and then repeats himself one final time. He urges this even though – or perhaps because – he is aware that their church is going through a troubling internal conflict.
Because I long ago committed myself to submit to Jesus and his apostles, I have tried to be obedient to the command to rejoice. I cannot say that I have been very successful. This failure, I think, lies with me rather than with the command itself, for I notice that Jesus and his apostle were able to rejoice despite extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
While imprisoned and facing a possible death sentence, the Apostle Paul rejoiced. He continued rejoicing after his absence from the scene made it possible for preachers with false motives to gain a foothold. He even told his friends that he rejoices in what he suffered for them.
Who says things like that? Only someone who knows something the rest of us don’t. When I have tried to rejoice amidst challenges and hardships, I have done so in obedience to dominical and apostolic teaching, not because rejoicing made sense to me. But the Apostle Paul knew that it makes sense to rejoice—and he knew why.
Like Jesus, Peter, and James, Paul could rejoice in times of pain and hardship because he was certain about how things were going to turn out. He knew “the end of all things,” as St. Peter put it, and knew that it was good. He could therefore not only endure hardship, he could rejoice in the midst of it.
The biblical word for this confident future expectation is hope. Hope is not a Pollyanna positivity; it is a certainty about the future based on a life-transforming connection with the God St. Paul calls – not incidentally – “the God of hope.” This connection, established by faith in Christ and sustained by God’s own Spirit, makes rejoicing not only possible but sensible.