Our doctrine of inspiration tells us that although every word of Scripture is the very Word of God, the Holy Spirit was nonetheless pleased not to violate the linguistic conventions in use when the Bible was written. The Lord did not force the prophets and Apostles to adopt writing styles foreign to their cultures or experiences; rather, He used these styles to give us His inerrant Word.
Practically speaking, this means that Paul’s epistles share structural similarities with non-inspired letters from the first century. In such letters, for example, firstcentury authors often used a form of teaching known as paraenesis — a traditional form of moral exhortation and instruction that deals with practical living. Philippians 4:4–9 is an instance of paraenesis in the Apostle’s writings, though Paul spends time on matters of piety (vv. 4–7) in addition to traditional moral topics (vv. 8–9).
The Apostle here adopts the stylistic conventions of his non-Christian contemporaries, but the God-inspired nature of these verses is evident in their thoroughly Christian character. First, in today’s passage, Paul emphasizes the importance of rejoicing in the Lord always. “Joy in the Holy Spirit” is one distinguishing mark of the citizens of the kingdom of God (Rom. 14:17), so a permanently dour disposition is inconsistent with Christian discipleship. Paul commands us to rejoice; thus, having joy in Christ is not optional, and none of us should be sourpusses. Of course, we will sin on occasion, fail to find joy in our Savior, and repent. But that is far different than living a life that in the main does not display Christian joy.
Importantly, Christian joy does not masochistically relish pain in and of itself. We are told to count suffering as joy because of the way the Holy Spirit uses it to mold us into Christ’s image, not to pretend that suffering is good when disconnected from the larger context of our sanctification — our growth in holiness (James 1:2–4). Moreover, Christian joy is not inconsistent with grief. In many ways, John Chrysostom observes, Christian joy actually requires grief. “The one who grieves for his own wrongdoing and confesses it is joyful. . . . It is possible to grieve for one’s own sins but rejoice in Christ” (ACCNT 8, p. 267). True sorrow for sin leads ultimately to deep rejoicing that we are graciously pardoned in Jesus.
When we suffer for Christ’s sake, experience the death of a loved one, or encounter the same problems and sins in our lives yet again, it can be difficult to rejoice. Yet despite the reality of pain in these circumstances, we can rejoice as we recall that Jesus has paid for the sins of His people and that God works all things for His good and our glory (Rom. 8:28). These truths give us a deep, abiding sense of joy that we can feel no matter our difficulties.