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c__j__mahaney__2Recently, I spoke to a pastor walking through a prolonged and difficult season in his church. As he was informing me about the specifics, I had a mixture of emotions. I care deeply about this friend and pastor. And as he communicated his diverse challenges, I grieved with him and sought to counsel him wisely.

After listening thoroughly to his situation I communicated my care and sadness and then sought to draw his attention away from the immediate circumstances to evidences of God’s grace in his life and the church (which are easy to ignore or overlook in trials). Also, I drew attention to issues of his heart now being revealed by these circumstances so that he could apply the gospel to his heart.

But most importantly in that conversation, I attempted to strengthen my friend by reminding him of God’s sovereignty, wisdom, and grace. God is working through these difficulties to accomplish his good purposes. God is at work in the adversity to sanctify his heart. God is at work using the trials to draw my friend into a deeper relationship with himself.

Rejoice in the Lord

And I drew my friend’s attention to one particular passage: Philippians 4:4—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (ESV). There was nothing new or unique in what I said. I was only applying counsel I have learned from others and—by God’s grace—applied to my own soul.

I find this verse easy to ignore in the midst of adversity. But I must not ignore this verse or assume that this passage doesn’t apply to me. It does. God has given this verse to us for the good of our soul and, ultimately, for his glory.

A Digression

Permit me to put this story on pause in order to explain why I normally draw attention to just one verse when I have the privilege of caring for someone. This approach of focusing on one specific passage in counseling settings is one I learned from my friend David Powlison, articulated in his article “Think Globally, Act Locally.” He writes:

In a nutshell, connect one bit of Scripture to one bit of life. In other words, always ask two questions for yourself and others: What is your current struggle? What about God in Christ connects to this? … Apply one relevant thing from our Redeemer to one significant scene in this person’s story. Bring one bit of Bible to one bit of life. You can’t say it all at once. (The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Fall 2003, p. 3)

Well, you cannot and should not say it all at once, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying in the past! My impulse is to help others by downloading as much information as possible. But I’ve learned this is not wise and really unhelpful. Those we counsel can contemplate and apply a limited amount of information, so in caring for their souls—and especially in the immediate situation—I want to provide counsel they can easily consider and remember. And that’s where David’s wisdom proves so valuable.

In these situations, we must restrain the impulse to bury others under vast amounts of theological information.

Back to the Story

Now, back to my friend. I reminded him of Philippians 4:4 and passed along D.A. Carson’s comments on the verse from his book Basics for Believers: An Exposition of Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1996):

The ultimate ground of our rejoicing can never be our circumstances, even though we as Christians recognize that our circumstances are providentially arranged. If our joy derives primarily from our circumstances, then when our circumstances change, we will be miserable. Our delight must be in the Lord himself. That is what enables us to live with joy above our circumstances. As Nehemiah puts it, “The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the Lord sometimes allows miserable circumstances to lash us—that we may learn this lesson.…Whatever the mysteries of evil and sorrow, they do have the salutary effect of helping believers to shift the ground of their joy from created things to the Creator, from the temporary to the eternal, from jingoism to Jesus, from consumption to God. (p. 106)

How about you? Are you personally experiencing a season of adversity with no end in sight? If so, rather than peering into the future trying to predict the concluding date of the trial, I recommend you look down and then up.

Look down and realize a transition is under way to shift the ground of your joy “from created things to the Creator.” Then look up and delight in the Lord himself. Contemplate his changeless character and the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross. Then—dependent upon God’s grace—obey this command given for our good and his glory. Rejoice as you realize afresh you are doing much better than you deserve.

This will not alter the severity of your trial, but it will transform your perspective and strengthen your soul for the trial.