Philippians 4: 4-7
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6 Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Have you heard the term “toxic positivity?” Generally speaking, it’s “a denial, minimization, and invalidation of the authentic human emotional experience.” A rule of thumb I like to use is this: is someone telling me how I ought to be feeling about a circumstance in my life? Or am I doing that to someone else? Am I saying, “Cheer up, it could be worse,” when I have no clue the depth of emotion this person is experiencing? My guess is somewhere along our way- we’ve been at the receiving and giving end of such comments. I bring up toxic positivity for this reason. It’s the opposite of true joy. Often, people insist on the need to feel happy all the time (or worse, insist that someone else just cheer up already), because they’re scared of dealing with the breadth of human emotion. Grief and doubt, pain and rage find their origin in discomfort. Who likes to be uncomfortable, right? So denying that discomfort is what can create a toxic positivity mindset. “I’m just fine!” (when inside I’m actually gripped with fear.) And sometimes it’s honestly more convenient to leave it at that, right? “I’m just fine!” Because we can’t trust that our vulnerabilities will be treated with dignity. So the cycle continues. Don’t deal with the pain, cover it up with niceties.
Enter the Apostle Paul’s writing to the believers in Philippi. “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!” How do we know that Paul’s words speak of real joy and not toxic positivity? Because Paul’s joy has been forged in the fires of pain. Paul writes these words from a prison cell--held captive by a regime intimidated by freedom & justice in Christ’s message. Paul has been thrown in prison at least three times by this point, endured mental, emotional, and physical torture. Why? Because he just won’t shut up about Jesus. And somehow, in the midst of real pain, Paul has chosen joy.
Paul’s rejoicing comes from his commitment to live beyond himself. Paul’s spirit of joy is not about his momentary circumstances, it's about what’s happening in his heart. He is alive with the breath of Spirit, he is set on fire by the truth that Christ loves even him. He has chosen a way of life in which the joy of Christ surpasses momentary (even long seasons of) pain. And the very people he writes to, about this peace of God that surpasses all understanding-- keep his joy alive. Joy is a shared experience, and we get to choose it as a way of life despite whatever circumstances come our way.
Each year as we usher in the story of an expectant Mary, the way we romanticize Jesus’ birth brings me back to my first days as a mom. Ten days into Briggs’ life I wrote in my blog, “If I think about my past week-and-a-half while simultaneously stripping away my support network, income privileges, education, sound mental health, environmental calm, etc., I am honestly not sure how I would have gotten through without dangerous thoughts.” I went on to say, “I get how moms recovering from the bodily trauma of birth, struggling to breastfeed, might just lose it.”
Now my own mom, who once upon a time used to want to read my writing, commented to me after this post on my blog, “well, it sure wasn’t very positive, was it?” No mom, it wasn’t, and the fact that we insist on new moms being positive- well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? I get it, it's uncomfortable to hear a new mom’s pain when you simply want to ooh and aah at a newborn.
But here’s what I think is SO important to understand. Being positive is not a prerequisite for joy. And dismissing negative human emotion is antithetical to experiencing real joy. See, joy is a glimmer of hope you hold within, even when life sucks. True joy is not a fleeting feeling. It’s a chosen identity, a narrative we set for ourselves, that might just see us through the pain to the other side.
Here’s the key phrase: we set this narrative for ourselves. No one can tell us how to feel about something or how to respond to pain. See, if the letter to Philippi had been the other way around, if Paul’s associates outside of prison were writing to him, “Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul, it’ll be fine!” as he sits in chains, we might call that toxic positivity. But when Paul, in his authentic and diverse experience of human emotion proclaims, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” That’s joy as a way of life. Because that’s the identity Paul chose for himself.
Friends, we too can embrace a spirit of joy beyond our momentary circumstances; we too can be made alive with the breath of Spirit; we too can be set on fire by the truth that Christ loves even me. I know for many of you, momentary life circumstances are not good. Finding true joy takes a willingness to embrace our discomfort, to acknowledge its effect on us, and to choose joy even in the midst of the pain.
I will never quote you Apostle Paul, “Don’t worry about anything, just pray and give thanks!” as a prescription for the Christian way of life. It’s not. But I will invite you to consider choosing joy in the midst of pain, if that’s the identity you wish to claim. I’m happy to be a conversation partner along the way. Joy is a shared experience, forged in the fires of generations who've known deep struggle & chosen to rejoice in their Creator anyway. I give thanks for the saints of old, like the Apostle Paul, who reveals that joy IS possible in the depth of human pain. Lord knows I’ve needed their witness more often than not.
In my same blog post as a new mom, I wrote: “My first week of being a new mom was not awesome. There, I said it. Positive, happy-go-lucky Emily did not have a great week. This is not to say that I didn’t have moments of joy, because I couldn’t help but discover joy in Briggs’ serene face after a feeding. He is truly remarkable, and it gives me pleasure holding him while he happily coos. Even so, Briggs and I are still working on his latching issues, I’m still fighting off mastitis, and those pesky hormones still arise to remind me of how well I cry.”
As we move our hearts toward Christmas, the sacred story of Jesus’ birth, I hope we make space in our hearts to hold both joy & the depth of human emotions, whatever they may be for you. This is what God reveals in the birth of a divine child to a human mother. Joy moves us toward hope beyond current circumstances. Mary believed holding joy, alongside every single emotion a new mom faces, is possible.
May we find ourselves moved beyond momentary happiness to claim an identity as people of joy. Rejoice in the Lord always- again I say rejoice. Paul & Mary lead the way.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.