What Is the Secret of Joy in Suffering?

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

If it’s true that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him as we saw in Philippians 1:20–21, then joy or satisfaction in God is a mandate. It’s not optional. If we say joy in God is icing on the cake or a caboose on the train, then we’re saying glorifying God fully is icing on the cake. It isn’t.

There are texts in Philippians that make that crystal clear. Philippians 3:1, “Rejoice in the Lord.” And Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” These are commands. But I want us to focus on two texts in particular that describe the mandate for joy in the settings where it would look almost impossible to have it.

Do all things without grumbling and questioning that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. (Philippians 2:14–15)

Paul tells us not to grumble, not to murmur in a setting where there is crookedness and darkness and evil. You can think of a dozen circumstances in your life where it just feels so right and natural to complain and murmur and grumble. And Paul says: Don’t go there. So, what is the opposite of grumbling? Contentment, peace, and joy. This is a reverse command to do all things with joy, even in circumstances where it would most likely be natural to grumble.

The Secrets of Joy in Hunger

The other text is Philippians 4:10–13:

I rejoiced greatly that you have revived your concern for me and that you were concerned, but you had no opportunity. Not that I speak of being in need. For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound in any and every circumstance. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Paul is saying, You can hunger, you can be abased, you can go without. I think he would even say you can die content and peaceful. So what is the key? What’s the secret? “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger.” The key, the secret that Paul is talking about is the supremacy of the sovereignty of Christ and the supremacy of the sweetness of Christ. Both of these themes permeate this book.

The Sovereignty of God

I am going to trace a thread through Philippians on the sovereignty of God in Christ. Let’s start with Philippians 1:6: “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Christ Jesus.” God is sovereign over our perseverance. If we are going to make it to the end, it will be because he causes us to make it to the end.

Then there’s Philippians 1:12 about his imprisonment, “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” My imprisonment has resulted in all of Caesar’s household knowing that I am in jail for the name of Christ, and therefore God has ruled in his sovereignty over my imprisonment and turned it for his glory and my joy.

Or Philippians 1:29, “It has been granted to you for the sake of Christ that you should not only believe in him, but also suffer for his sake.” So there are two gifts: the gift of faith and the gift of suffering. God is sovereign over when he gives faith and when he gives suffering. Or Philippians 3:21, “[We await a Savior from heaven] who will transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.” So God in Christ is sovereign over all things, absolutely.

Or Philippians 4:19, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” The supremacy of the sovereignty of God in Christ pervades this book. And that is an essential part of the secret that enables you to enjoy contentment in every circumstance, because you know he is in charge of every circumstance and he is going to cause every circumstance to turn for his glory and for your good and your ultimate joy in the end.

The Sweetness of Christ

So, while you are watching and waiting for God in his sovereignty to turn everything miserable right now for good, is there any present consolation? Is there any present sweetness?

Philippians 3:8 says, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” In other words, knowing Christ right now, experiencing fellowship with him right now, is more precious, more satisfying, more sweet than anything else. We are not just waiting to see how all the circumstances are going to turn out when he works everything for good. We are experiencing the sweetness in Christ right now in the moment.

So, what is the secret? I have learned the secret of being abased and hungering and going without and I have learned the secret of abundance and prosperity. The secret is faith in God’s sovereignty and in the sweetness of Christ.

When we have little and have lost much, Christ comes and reveals himself as more valuable than what we have lost. And when we have much and are overflowing in abundance, Christ comes and he shows that he is far superior to everything we have. The secret of joy in the hardest of times in this book is the supremacy of the sovereignty of Christ and the supremacy of the sweetness of Christ.