TODAY’S VERSE TO PONDER: Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice! – Philippians 4:4 (NKJV)
Two people. Two very distinct and beloved books. One common link: chains.
In the holiday classic, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the tormented spirit of Jacob Marley famously appears to Ebenezer Scrooge. When Marley’s ghost materializes, he is described as wrapped in a chain “made…of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.”
In the Holy Bible, the Apostle Paul mentions in the first chapter of his letter to the church at Philippi that he too is bound in chains. “…So it has become evident to the whole palace guard, and to all the rest, that my chains are in Christ…” (Philippians 1:13 NKJV) Many biblical scholars agree that the Book of Philippians likely was written by Paul while he was in prison in Rome, most probably facing execution.
A few lines after his appearance in A Christmas Carol, the spiritually tortured Marley, when asked why he was chain-bound, tells Scrooge, “I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” In a few more lines, Marley curses his eternal suffering at Christmastime and alludes to the story of Jesus Christ’s birth: “Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode?”
Three chapters after first mentioning his imprisonment, the Apostle Paul, bound likely just as tightly by chains as the fictional Jacob Marley, implores the church at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4, NKJV)
Chains are chains, and imprisonment is imprisonment. In A Christmas Carol, Marley is imprisoned by the eternal weight of chains forged by his lifelong greed and his lack of love and compassion for other people. In the Bible, the Apostle Paul is wearing prison chains because he shared the story of salvation through Jesus Christ.
Marley and Paul also have two very different reactions to their circumstances. Marley’s existence is hellish and torturous. Paul urges his fellow Christ followers to be joyful, be grateful and be content in their relationship with Jesus. “…I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content… I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11; Philippians 4:13, NKJV)
Indeed, Christmas is so often celebrated as a season of joy, and for many it is very easy to “Rejoice in the Lord.” It doesn’t take a lot of mustering to sing “Joy To The World” when you are surrounded by people you love and who give love in return, when your blessings are plentiful, when there are presents under the tree, food on the table and a warm fire burning in the fireplace.
However, finding joy when your whole world is crumbling down around you – relationally, financially, spiritually – can be a seemingly impossible task. It can be a struggle to find the voice to sing “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel!” when it feels like God has turned His back on you.
But the Apostle Paul, writing the divinely inspired Word of God, did not say to rejoice in the Lord when everything is perfect in your life. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” the apostle wrote, at a time when he was wrongly imprisoned during a life in which he also was beaten, stoned, mocked, shipwrecked, and ultimately executed.
Life as a Christ follower is not easy; the Bible tells us that even when we accept God’s gift of salvation, we will experience pain and struggle. We all have our chains to bear, but we do not have to accept an eternity of torment like Jacob Marley.
We don’t have to go through life with our eyes turned down and never seeing our fellow human beings, never experiencing for ourselves how sharing life with others – the good times and the tough times – can bring joy to our lives, never reaching out to care for others, and never showing the love and compassion that can bring us contentment all year long.
Instead we can learn from both the unwavering joy of the Apostle Paul – “Rejoice in the Lord” – and the perfect hindsight of Jacob Marley. We can live our lives this Christmas and year-round as Marley never did: instead of walking through our days with our eyes turned away from Heaven, we can “raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode.”
By chaining ourselves to the hope in Jesus Christ, we may break the chains of despair. We may truly have joy this Christmas.