It's all joy!

Paul has no outward reason to be joyful.  But his joy has nothing to do with his circumstances, because he continues serving Christ where he is.  And that gives him joy!

Full Text: 

It’s all joy!

May 25, 2014 – Philippians 1:1-18a


As you wander through life, my friend, whatever be your goal,

Keep your eye upon the donut, and not upon the hole.

(Coffee shop sign)


            Most of us – most of the time, I think – believe that we will be happy when…  We will be happy when… the right circumstances arise, or our problems vanish, or all the stars align or our ship comes in.  But true happiness is not situation dependent.  True happiness does not come from what’s on the outside.  It’s comes from what’s on the inside.

            That is certainly true for Paul.  From the outside, Paul has no reason to be happy.  He is in prison.  He is cut off from those who love him and support him.  His sentence is undetermined.  His fate is unsure.  Most of all, he is no longer able to carry out his mission of bringing the good news of Jesus to the world.  

            Yet, Paul is able to meet his situation with joy.  “Joy” is the Bible’s word for “true happiness.”  Paul’s letter to the Philippians has often been called “The Epistle of Joy.”  The word, “joy,” as well as the word, “rejoice,” are used many times in the letter, more than in any other.  And Paul’s joy begins with gratitude:

            I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you…

            Paul is grateful for his connection to the people of the Philippian church.  They have supported his work in the past.  They may even be supporting him now by providing food and other basic necessities while he is in prison.  (It’s not likely that Roman imperial prisons served three meals a day!)  And this is not just form letter “thank you.” Paul says,

            It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart…

            That last phrase can be translated either, “because you hold me in your heart,” or “because I hold you I my heart.”  Scholars argue about it.  But perhaps it doesn’t matter.  It is a very close relationship that Paul and the Philippians have.

            For all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.

            This letter is a true letter.  And it is found in this “sharing.”  It is not something else disguised as a letter.  It is not an oration like the Letter to the Hebrews.  It is not a manual of discipline like the Letter of James.  It is not a thinly veiled polemic like the First Letter of John.  It is a letter.  It is an intimate person-to-person, or, in this case, person-to-people communication.  And so Paul’s passion for those to whom he writes is on full display.

            For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.


            Paul’s relationship to the Philippians is central to this letter and it is one of his causes for joy.  While they cannot visit him in person, it is this letter that connects them and through this letter Paul expresses his passion for them.  For this connection he is very grateful.  And this connection is a source of joy for Paul.

            Paul is also joyful because of the purpose he has.  Even in prison, he is living his mission.  He doesn’t wallow in self-pity.  He doesn’t throw up his hands and say, “What can be done?”  He continues living his life in Christ and sharing his life in Christ.

            12 I want you to know, beloved,* that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, 13so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard* and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ; 14and most of the brothers and sisters,* having been made confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, dare to speak the word* with greater boldness and without fear.

Paul is in prison for his faith in two senses:  it has led to his imprisonment, i.e., it was the cause of his arrest, but it has given him a purpose in prison – the same purpose he had before he entered prison.  Not only has he been able to witness to Christ.  Others have become more bold in their own witness because of him.

What, I think, enriches Paul’s sense of joy is that it is not an ego thing.  His purpose of sharing Christ is not what his ego is built on.  With Paul out of the spotlight, others are likely to take up the space.  There are others who are filling the gap left by Paul’s imprisonment.  Some do it from good motives; some from selfish motives.  But Paul doesn’t worry about that.  The important thing is that Christ is being proclaimed.

Paul is joyful because of people.  Paul is joyful because of his purpose.  Paul is also joyful because of his prospects.  We’ll more about this next week, but he is not concerned about what happens.  If he dies, then he will be with Christ.  If he lives, he will continue to good work to which he has been called.


            In her book, Attitudes of Gratitude, M.J. Ryan tells the story of Tom.  Tom came from a family of highly successful business people who encouraged on his vocational path by criticizing everything he did.  So Tom was critical of everything he did.  He didn’t speak up enough at a meeting.  He didn’t make enough calls.  He didn’t finish at the top of his MBA class.

            Tom experienced success in his work, but no joy in his life.  His work was drudgery. Much of the time he felt lifeless and depressed.  Finally, he went to a therapist and asked for a prescription for Prozac.  His therapist was willing to give him that prescription, but asked him to try something else for a month.

            Before he started work in the morning, he was to ask himself, “What do I feel grateful for about myself?”  That meant that he could remind himself of his strengths, his resources, and his talents.  At the end of the day, he was to ask himself, “What did I do today that I feel good about?”

            “Do you know what I discovered?” he said.  “Gratitude is a natural upper.”  It’s worked so well for Tom that he never did get that prescription.  And now he looks forward to going to work.


            Gratitude is a natural upper.  It is what helps give birth to joy.  When we are grateful for the people in our life, when we are grateful for the purpose in our life, when we are grateful for the eternal prospects in our life, we can’t help but feel more joy. 

            I’m not suggesting that gratitude is a cure-all for depression.  Or that gratitude will make that every day is a great day.  It doesn’t mean that we will be as joyful as Paul.  But I believe that, for most of us (certainly for me!) the practice of gratitude is an underutilized. 

Gratitude helps us focus on the donut.  It doesn’t mean the hole goes away.  The hole is still there.  But it does mean that we are focused more on what we have than on what we don’t have, more focused on what God has done for us, than what God hasn’t done for us. 

And that means more joy!