A few days ago I realised that Paul used the words “rejoice,” “rejoiced,” “joy,” and “glad” a total of sixteen times in the Epistle to the Philippians. The great Bible scholar A. T. Robertson aptly named his classic exposition on Philippians, Paul’s Joy in Christ. This Epistle was written from prison. Paul was an activist with great plans for what he wanted to do for the gospel. But though he was confined to a prison cell for a significant period of time, he remained joyful. This emphasis on joy in Philippians lends credence to the claim of Christian writers like C. S. Lewis that joy is the hallmark of the Christian life. From prison Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).
Then why is it that so many Christians are unhappy people? I think there are several reasons for this. One of them is that many Christians harbour what I am calling “residual anger.” Bad things have happened to them, and they have not fully got over the anger over that. God says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:34); but they keep remembering the sins done against them. I am not saying that we will always have the supernatural ability to completely block out the memory of unpleasant events from our minds. But we can live as if they are no longer having an adverse effect on us. That is what is meant by Paul’s statement that love “keeps no record of wrongs” (1Cor. 13:5 NIV). The Greek word used here (logizomai), which we often translate “reckon” or “count,” can be used in the field of accounts, where bookkeepers keep a log of financial transactions so that they could be referred to at a later time. When we forgive, we refuse to reckon the harm done to us, that is; we refuse to keep recalling it as something that has a significant effect on us. Interestingly Paul uses the same verb in 2 Corinthians 5:19 when he says that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Just as God does not count our sins against us, we must not count sins done to us against people.
We have good reason for refusing to reckon wrong done to us. Paul says, “…we know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). There is no reason to harbour anger because God is going to turn what was done to us into something good. If we continue to keep resentment over these things we make a statement which insults God: that the person who harmed us is more powerful in our lives than God is. That is an honour that person does not deserve. When the Bible commands us to be joyful, it is actually commanding us to believe in God. It is belief in God that enables us to be joyful despite what happens to us. This is well expressed in Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” When we believe that God is with us and for us and will turn everything to good; we open to door to “joy and peace.” But that is not all. When we believe in God we “abound in hope.” Yes, bad things do happen. But because we believe in God we can hope that even these bad things will be turned to good. With such hope we can always be joyful.
A king once made a list of the names of all his enemies in his kingdom. And beside the list he marked the sign of the cross. People thought that he had done this with a plan to take revenge on these enemies. But he explained that he marked a cross beside their names in order to remember to forgive them as Christ did at the cross. He made a decision to obey the call to forgive.
The British Methodist preacher William E. Sangster preached and practiced a philosophy he described as “remembering to forget.” Though he was often criticized, he tried to “remember to forget” the wrongs committed against him and to focus on serving God instead. His wife once saw him addressing a Christmas card to someone and was shocked. She exclaimed, in disbelief, “Surely you are not sending a greeting to him!” She reminded him of something that man had done to him eighteen months earlier. In truth, Sangster had entirely forgotten the incident! He had actually remembered to forget!
One reason people cling to the hurts they have received is that it gives them an excuse for being angry and for their unkind behaviour. Their anger results in them hurting others. They say hurtful things; they become overly critical of others. Finding errors in people helps buttress their belief that people do bad things. This in turn is an excuse for their ongoing anger. When someone makes a mistake, they pounce upon it with a reaction like, “See! See! See how dishonest these people are!” Paul says that love “believes” and “hopes” all things (1 Cor. 13:7). That is, it yearns to see people being good and doing well. It wants to believe the best about people. It wants to see the possibilities of grace enacted in people’s lives. But these angry people end up doing a lot of damage by giving the worst interpretations to people’s actions. They spread false stories about people based on their misinterpretations, forgetting how the Bible so severely condemns the sin of bearing false witness. The command not to bear false witness may well be the most neglected command among evangelicals today. Many of these unhappy Christians are leaders who have suffered because of their good principles: they are “righteous” people who act unlovingly and hurt others!
What is the answer to this problem? Let God love you! Believe what he says about his awesome love, and his ability to heal our wounds and turn our tragedies into triumphs. Then unencumbered by the weight of anger, you will be freed to love people and to face difficult people and situations with a positive outlook. A few days ago I told my wife that if we got really annoyed over each other’s weaknesses, our home would be like a war zone. As we get older some of our weaknesses, like forgetfulness, get worse! How good to know that God is the most important factor in our home, not us or our performance. He is strong and he is good. By being undergirded by his strength and his goodness we also have strength to show sacrificial love to people and to be patient with them.
When F. B. Meyer, a prominent twentieth century preacher, was travelling on a train, a lady with a very sad face was seated next to him. They struck up a conversation and Meyer found out that both the lady’s husband and her only child, a daughter, had died. She told Meyer how she had enjoyed caring for her sickly daughter. She said that, now with the daughter gone, she did not like going to her home anymore. Meyer told her something like this. “When you come home from work every day, and when you put the key into the keyhole to open the front door, say, ‘Jesus, I know you are here.’ When you light up the fire at home, tell God what happened during the day, just as you would tell your daughter. When you switch off your light to go to sleep at night, stretch out your hands into the darkness and say, ‘Jesus I know you are here.’”
Some months later this lady came for a meeting at which Meyer was preaching. Her face radiated joy rather than announcing sorrow. She told Meyer that she had done what he suggested and that it had made a huge difference in her life.
If only we would keep remembering how wonderful Jesus is; how wonderful his love for us is in spite of our continuing disobedience! Then we would not continue to harbour anger in our hearts. Yes, when we are hit, we will first react with anger. That is because of the God-given sense of justice in us and also because of the hurt we feel. It is natural and right that we get upset over wrong. But after an appropriate period of lament and groaning, faith takes over and affirms that God’s power and love are greater than the hurt we have received. Then, though the hurt may remain, the vision of the beauty and power of Jesus drives away resentment and gives us reason to rejoice.
Earlier I said that a key to overcoming our anger over what has been done to us is to let God love us. But sometimes in order for us to be open to his love, we may first need to have our wounds healed. We may need to get the help of another in whose presence we bring our wounds to the surface so that God’s grace can be applied to them and bring healing. Those who are serious about their walk with God would be so eager to overcome our resentment that they will seek out help to heal their wounds. Most of us have personality weaknesses which make us particularly vulnerable to the attacks of Satan. We must pay special attention to them and get all the help we can get to overcome them. Resentment is such an area in the lives of many Christians.