Last night we took the evening to look at Paul’s letter to the Philippians and ponder this topic: How can we have joy, even in difficult times? Here are the notes:
How to Stay Joyful: A Trip Through Paul’s Letter to the Philippians
Previous to writing the letter to the Philippians, Paul had been in arrested in Jerusalem, and spent two years in prison waiting for a trial under false charges of sedition against the government. Finally he exercised a right he had a Roman citizen, and appealed to the emperor. This meant that he was sent, under guard, to wait for a personal trial before Caesar. In Rome he was under constant surveillance, probably chained to a guard at all times (Acts 28:16). He did have the ability to meet with people, and even attend Synagogue, and he rented his own place to live in. But still, for the two years he spent in Rome (as well as the two previous years) he was a prisoner, with no real freedom, and no certainty of the outcome of his case. It was during this time that he wrote the letter to the church in Philippi.
But even in these circumstances, this letter is full of joy—Paul expresses joy himself, and he expresses a concern that other Christians would have joy. In that sense, among other things, the letter is a kind of manual for joy in difficulty—how did Paul not get totally down when all his plans got ruined, when he was stuck in Jail on trumped-up charges, and he seriously had to contemplate his life being over sometime soon? And since this isn’t just a letter from a person to a church, but it’s also God’s inspired word—that means that God himself wants us to see these things—he wants us to learn the lessons Paul has learned by experience, so that when we experience our trials, even when they’re not up to the level of Paul’s, we can have a joy that’s not rocked by everything we’re going to face in life.
How to stay Joyful, even in difficult circumstances…
1:3-8 Care about God’s work and God’s people. Know what’s going on with people who love and serve Jesus, and pray for them. And in general, care about other people.
1:12-17 See the things that have happened to you as being part of the necessary battle to do God’s work. The prerequisite: actually having a life that is engaged in the work God is doing, and in the battle that he is carrying on to spread the Gospel. So: 1. actively involve yourself in God’s work to spread the gospel and to see people come to know Christ, and then 2. Realize that opposition to the work is going to affect you.
1:18 Be more moved by message of Jesus, and its spreading, than you are by other things. In this way excitement (joy) over the work of God can overshadow disappointment or aggravation.
1:20 Get excited about the glory of Jesus. When we cultivate an awareness of how awesome Jesus is, and how great it is to know him, we start to want more and more people to see how great he is—that’s what it means to glorify him. We want him to get glory among more and more people. And the possibility of that begins to excite us. And then that excitement gets big enough to overpower other things like fear—even fear of death!
When you take these verses together, you can see an important difference between the way God had taught Paul to view his life and the way most people in America today want to see their lives. Paul could maintain joy through opposition and threats because he didn’t see life as a vacation, he saw it more as a race or a battle. And he didn’t see the events of his life as random—he saw them as all related to the fact that he was in a race or a battle. So when life was hard, he could think, “yeah, races are like that.” And when he took some shots, he could think, “well, this is war.” And since he believed that this battle was important, and that the outcome of victory—the reward—would be worth it, he found a joy in thinking about the victory that lifted his spirits in the difficulty of his present circumstances.
1:23-26 Care about other people’s joy. Become someone who is all about spreading joy. Paul understood the source of joy, and how people find it for real. That’s all wrapped up in why he wrote about their “progress and joy of faith.” He knew his friends in Philippi would find joy for real the same way he had—by their connection to Jesus and his work. So when Paul became a spreader of joy, it didn’t mean that he just became some sort of hippie talking love and peace all the time. He became a serious spreader of the only message that brought people into connection with Jesus. And he spent his time teaching people how to progress in that faith and how to deepen that joy.
2:16 Think about future joy you’ll have when the fruit of your labor is seen.
2:17 This is along the same lines as what we saw in chapter one. Paul saw any suffering he went through as being worth it because of the way it furthered God’s work, especially the way it helped other believers—and he saw all of it as spreading joy.
3:1-3 Rejoice in the Lord. In other words, let the source of your joy be Jesus—who he is, what he’s done, the fact that you have a close friendship with him, and the fact that he’s coming back to be with us and fix everything. And also it probably means, within the sphere of everything the Lord is for us, within the life he’s given us to live—rejoice!
Everything we’ve been seeing here kind of adds up to at least one obvious take away—the Christian life should be colored by joy. Because of who Jesus is for us, and what he did for us, and the life he’s given us to live, we should have a strong note of joy running through our lives. It should be generally dominant. At this point in the letter Here Paul’s writing to them about the fact that there are people who masquerade as servants of God, but are actually working against Jesus. So Paul says, how will we know who’s legit in terms of promoting Christ? Joy shows up again here. One of the marks of a Christian’s authenticity, is that we “rejoice” in Christ Jesus. We really have joy. Honestly, doesn’t that quality alone set Christianity apart from so many other things these days?
The other mark of being authentically connected to God is that our joy is “in the Lord.” Even if there are other, counterfeit joys, even religious ones, one mark of the person who’s truly connected to God is the fact that Jesus himself is a source of joy for them.
4:1-4 “Rejoice in the Lord.” Here it is again. This time he says it to Christians—and it seems like there was some conflict in the church. He tells them that instead of conflict over each other, they should have joy over the Lord. He says it twice in verse 4 to drive it home. And he says, it should be what we’re doing always. Now he doesn’t mean that there aren’t times in life to grieve, or to really experience the sadness and pain that so much real life brings (In Romans 12:15 for instance he wrote that Christians should follow Jesus’ example and “weep with those who weep”) —just remember that here he’s writing to people who weren’t experiencing joy because they were just fighting with each other.
And so I guess when he says “rejoice always” he means—instead of letting all the unnecessary things that we usually get upset about to dominate our thinking, make it a point to be people who rejoice.
4:10 Notice here in verse 10 Paul writes again about rejoicing in the Lord himself. This time is interesting though because it’s actually something other than Jesus himself that caused the joy—it’s the financial gift that the church sent him to care for his needs. Paul’s like, “That gift was awesome! It brought me joy!” And one thing maybe that’s obvious here is that Christians rejoice in normal things—like when friends come through and take care of you when you really need it. But again, if we look at the words Paul uses to describe how his emotions worked when he got their gift, it’s really helpful—he calls his joy over the gift, “rejoicing in the Lord.” So maybe we can say this about what he expresses in verse 10…
To have a consistent joy in life, when good things do happen…See the good things that happen to you in life as being part of God’s love and care for you. So when Christians rallied and came to Paul’s aid, he rejoiced! But he rejoiced “in the Lord” which meant, for him, everything was connected to Jesus. It’s like, “Thank you Jesus for moving your people to aid in your work by sending me these things I needed.” Again what’s interesting is that it doesn’t take away his gratitude to them for what they did, and it doesn’t take away his ordinary excitement. Actually I think it probably solidifies it. That’s what I mean when I say we’re looking for a consistent joy.
Have you ever had something good happen, and you get excited about it, but then something bad happens, and it kind of washes away the good thing—almost like the good thing never happened? I wonder—if we learn to receive our joys like Paul does here—in the Lord, from him, because of him, as part of his work—does it actually make those joys more solid, so that the next bad thing can’t just wash it away? If we don’t locate our joy on the things or the people primarily—but on Jesus, maybe we will have our joys in a more permanent way—they become eternal things, rooted in God’s eternal plan he’s working out in our lives through our connection to Jesus. Like, if God gave it to me, nothing can ever really, finally, take it away. Maybe that’s even in his language here in verse 10: “I rejoiced that you cared enough to send me a gift, and I rejoiced in the Lord.”
And there’s one more final, crucial thing in this passage. It doesn’t have the language of joy right in it, but it’s tied in to the whole letter in a pretty fundamental way, so we have to see what he says in verse 13.
4:13 Live off of the inner strengthening Jesus provides when you’re in a living relationship with him. Paul tells them that he’s content in any kind of circumstance—having a lot or having nothing, because Christ is always giving him strength. I think this turns out to be the key to everything we’ve seen.
Without this, the message of Christianity would be something like, it’s gonna get better, so think about the future, put a smile on, and try to stay happy. And of course, it is going to better. And thinking about that is a major help to us in the difficulties we face. But the open secret to the whole Christian life is what Paul describes here—when someone trusts Jesus, and follows him closely, they find that Jesus himself, through his Spirit, lives inside of us in such a way that he is empowering us to do anything and everything he asks of us. That’s the ultimate source of joy. Jesus talks about drinking water that, when it gets inside of you, it becomes a fountain of everlasting life and a river that flows out of you. You’re so full of life that you can’t contain it. He talks about life flowing from a vine to a branch so that it’s always bearing fruit. God promises the same thing in the writings of the prophets. And Paul says, the real source of my joy, even before the gift came to supply his needs, was (and is) that Jesus is living in me and giving me his strength.
That’s the center of everything for followers of Christ. We look forward to an eternity of an ever-deepening connection with the source of all life, and it’s a person: It’s God Himself. It’s not just God in some crazy, incomprehensible sense, it’s God in Christ—a man we will have as our king and our older brother forever. This same idea is buried in another key passage in this letter, back in 3:8 & 10, when Paul writes that he’s willing to suffer everything he’s suffered in life because he’s finding that it’s so great to know Jesus. Friendship with God makes life worthwhile. It makes suffering significant. It makes the universe not lonely anymore. It reorders the value of everything, like any real relationship does—only this one is the ultimate relationship, so it’s the ultimate revaluing and reordering of everything in our life.
So that’s a trip through the letter to try to see why Paul’s talking about Joy even though he’s in some pretty rough circumstances. And I think you’re probably noticing that there’s some real practical direction for us in all this.
First, if we want an unshakeable joy, we’ve got to actively choose to connect ourselves to the work God’s doing in Christ and to his kingdom. The little things in our lives will seem random and meaningless unless they’re connected to something big. The painful things in our lives will only seem tragic unless they’re connected to something glorious. The difficult things in our lives won’t seem worth it unless they’re connected to something significant.
So Christians—we can’t hope for happiness and ignore the way the bible says it comes. We can’t live like regular Americans, figuring that trying to have fun week to week is the pinnacle of life, and wonder why we don’t have joy. We need to let Jesus call us to bigger things. The message of Jesus. The work of God in the world to save people from sin. The plan of God to fix everything. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to you.”
Second, is that ultimately, the bigger thing we need our lives connected to, the kingdom of God, is all about connection to a person. Our joy will increase as we make Jesus a real, personal focus. It’s not corny—we need to spend time in His presence, the presence of His Spirit, with his word open in front of us, and our ears open to what it says, and prayers in our mouths going up to him. We need to enjoy him directly that way, and not just indirectly by sort of assuming he’s with us wherever we go.
Third, we can’t focus on ourselves, and our own joy, if we truly want joy. Since the kingdom of God is people knowing Christ, if we’re focused on the big thing God is doing in our lives, we’ll be focused on others. And it turns out that God has made us that way. When we let our thoughts dwell on ourselves we shrivel up. When we focus on the family of humanity, with Jesus at its head, we come alive.
Finally, if you aren’t a follower of Christ, I want to just point out one seriously important way all of this is connected to our lives. If we’re tuned in at all to what’s going on in the world, I think we have to admit that loss of joy is a serious problem today. Any sort of real happiness is gone out of life for so many people—and that’s why we have millions who live on anti-depressants and what is basically an epidemic of suicide. And the only answer our culture is giving—go deeper! Watch more movies. Live out your deepest longings. Get more technology. Take more drugs. Have more sex. And we always say it here on Monday nights but, come on everyone—is it working? And if you go back and read the words Jesus said when he showed up to preach a better way, it’s so huge! What he said was, “The kingdom of God is at hand—repent, and believe the good news.” (Mark 1:17)
In other words, there’s a much bigger thing than all of these small things that are breaking you anyway—God’s kingdom is arriving! Let go of sex and Netflix and Pot and money and living for good times and all the other stuff that’s much, much worse—because the Kingdom of God is coming! Realize that your life is meant to be part of something so much bigger—every part of your life is meant to be connected to the eternal, glorious kingdom of God that Jesus is bringing—and the first step is, admit that your life has been preoccupied with those evil small things, and acknowledge that Jesus died and rose again to provide you forgiveness and escape from all that, and then become someone who is preoccupied with God’s kingdom. God wants you to hear this message—How will you guarantee that you’ll have joy in your life? How will you survive if the things that make you happy are taken away? The answer most people have is, I won’t. How many people do you know (maybe it’s you), that when the thing or the person or relationship or dream gets taken away, all the color goes out of life and they question whether life is worth living?
As followers of Jesus, what we’re saying to you tonight is that we’ve found a person who is so great, and the things he’s doing are so huge, that knowing him, having his friendship, can gather up all the details of life, even the most painful things, and transform them into meaningful parts of the greatest story—the only true story—the one that God is writing. You’re invited—your life is invited, into all of this. Jesus lived, and died, and rose again from the dead to make it all true and offer it all to you. And you should join us—you should trust him and get to know him!