In our one of our photo albums we have a picture of all four of our kids together in their Sunday best. It was right before we were getting ready to leave for church. The three oldest were all smiles, but our youngest was as frownie-faced as she could be. I get a chuckle out of that picture every time I see it. Jane and I don’t know what she was mad about, but she was mad, and she wanted everyone to know. We can be like that even as adults. There can be all kinds of reasons to have joy, but we still find ourselves to be unhappy.
Joy is a constant. Happiness is subject to our circumstances. So far in Philippians we have seen Paul find constant joy in his remembrance of the Philippians faith and faithfulness, and in the effect his arrest was having on the spread of the gospel. Paul could have made his epistle about the misery of being unjustly imprisoned, but his incarceration is more of a backdrop than a focus in his letter. His attitude can all be traced down to one statement:
For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)
Paul was so focused on what he had in Christ that he was torn between whether he wanted to continue his earthly ministry, or go onto glory:
Philippians 1:22-24 (ESV)
(22) If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.
(23) I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
(24) But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.
We tend to think of eternal life with God and its blessings as all future. Some of those blessings are future, but we have eternal life and fellowship with God right now. Paul understood this. It was one of his “joy influencers.” (Just made that up.) It was that kind of joy that got him up every morning, and that kind of joy that motivated his interactions with the people around him every day: “I get to serve the Lord and help people today!” With that kind of heart, it’s no wonder Paul had joy every day.
As eager as Paul was to be in the presence of the Lord, he knew that as of the writing of this letter, it was God’s will that he be released to continue serving Him on earth (Philippians 1:25). If it were me, I think my attitude might have been: “What? You’re making me stay here? I want to be in heaven!” But another one of Paul’s “joy influencers” was his selflessness. Paul knew that whatever God did in his life, it was for God’s glory and always about God, never about Paul: “Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you” (Philippians 1:24). I don’t know how many times I’ve had to rebuke myself for doing what I do for the glory of me. How many times have you been about the Lord’s work, and felt a little miffed when someone didn’t at least say, “thank you?” That is a negative joy influencer. Not only does that rob you of joy, but it robs God of the glory He deserves. Paul was always about giving God all the glory, even if his efforts were rejected: “And I will very gladly spend and be spent for you; though the more abundantly I love you, the less I be loved” (2 Corinthians 12:15).
Paul exhorts the same kind of constant and selfless attitude of his Philippian readers:
Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ: that whether I come and see you, or else be absent, I may hear of your affairs, that ye stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel. (Philippians 1:27)
Paul ends this chapter with an unusual take on Christian joy. He says that most Christian joy comes not out of happiness, but out of suffering:
Philippians 1:28-30 (ESV)
(28) and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.
(29) For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,
(30) engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.
Real joy is hard work. It is a byproduct of obedience, not an end in itself. Doing what is right will meet with resistance. Paul was a clear example of that. He met with resistance everywhere he went, but even in his suffering – and often because of it – he had constant joy.
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