What is joy? Is it happiness? A good feeling? Something fleeting? A little blue-haired character who sounds a lot like Amy Poehler? Or is joy something deeper? The Apostle Paul certainly thought so.
I’ve realized throughout my life when one idea keeps popping up repeatedly—sermons, my own studying, a book I’m reading, small groups—God must be trying to teach me something. Over the last few months, I’ve been studying Paul’s prison letters: Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon, and Philippians. And of course I keep hearing sermons and Bible study lessons on these same ideas. I’m constantly amazed at the true joy that Paul conveys even from within detestable circumstances.
What a challenge! I get frustrated and “lose my joy” even when small things don’t go my way. From being cut off by another car or a shopping cart to stubbing my toe to running late because I slept in, the tiniest things can wreak havoc on my countenance.
So really, what is joy? Is it a feeling that can be lost or does it persist even when I am impatient and upset? Based on Paul’s writings, I have to conclude that joy does not disappear even in the worst times. When I’m frustrated, angry, and even heartbroken, I can still have joy.
On a mission trip during college, when I was in the middle of really trying to figure out God’s will for my life for the first time, I stumbled across some verses. I know I’d read them before, but they jumped out at me, the way God’s living Word often does at different times in our lives. These verses gave me peace and confidence, and this passage has become one of my all-time favorites. I Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV) says,
“16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
I’d been struggling to figure out God’s will, and there it was in plain English! Be joyful always, pray continually, and give thanks in all circumstances. Unfortunately, actually following God’s will is a lot more challenging than just reading it. The key is doing all three things together, the verses being cyclical. You can’t do one without the other. The only way to be joyful always is to be praying continually, specifically prayers of thanksgiving. I find that in my hardest, most painful times, if something to be thankful for can be found, it changes my perspective. I stop focusing on myself and see a larger picture. I remember all the many, many blessings God has given me. And it helps me to truly rejoice even in the difficult times. By giving thanks in everything, it causes me to pray continually, and therefore be joyful always.
In fact, this is exactly the attitude Paul shows in Philippians 1:3-5 (NLT):
Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. 4 Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, 5 for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now.
There he is sitting in prison, and thanking God for the Philippians! He prays with joy, thankful that the Good News is spreading even though he can’t be out there preaching it. He even goes on to say in verses 15-18 that he is thankful for the people who are preaching about Christ out of jealousy and rivalry. They have impure motives, are competing with Paul, and even thankful that he’s in prison. And does that get Paul down? No way! He’s excited that, despite these people’s skewed perspective, the world is hearing about Jesus. “But that doesn’t matter. Whether their motives are false or genuine, the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice. And I will continue to rejoice.” (Phil 1:18, NLT)
That hits me hard! I would have a very difficult time rejoicing in those circumstances. Not only is Paul in prison, but also there are people out there basically taunting him. Honestly, just thinking about that makes my blood boil! Apparently I have a long way to go in this rejoicing business. I get upset even hearing about this happening to someone else. And it was 2000 years ago!
How did Paul do it? How did he find joy, even while locked away, being kept from his desire, his longing, his passion of preaching to the nations? Not only that, but his joy was overflowing, enough that he could teach his churches that were hundreds of miles away to be filled with joy.
I think it goes back to my Thessalonian verses. Paul is thankful in every situation. No matter what happens to him, he can find something to be thankful for. He’s gone through horrible circumstances, and he has never seen God fail him. His love for God is so complete and his awareness of God’s love for him is so profound, that Paul can have joy at all times. Paul hints at it later in Philippians:
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:10-13, NIV)
Again, I shake my head in wonder. I get cranky if I go a few hours without eating, but Paul is content even when truly hungry. And we know from the accounts in Acts that Paul has gone through more trials than most of us can imagine: shipwrecked, stoned, imprisoned repeatedly, whipped, hated, put on trial, and run out of town. And still he has joy. I have so much to learn!
This world will bring us plenty of sorrow. We will lose friends and family to death and distance. Our hearts will be broken. Our bodies will fail us. Our plans will not go as expected. Fires, both figurative and literal, will sweep through our lives. And yet, we can have joy. God has promised to be with us. It’s okay to get angry and cry out! God cries with us. I love the verses in Habakkuk where the prophet rejoices in the Lord, despite everything in his world being wrong.
Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NIV)
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
As we go into this week of Christmas, I challenge you to rejoice, no matter what your circumstances. This is a lesson we all can learn, to turn our eyes from fear and instead focus our hearts on joy. We have a Savior who loves us and who has given all of Himself for us. Let us cling to Christ and be thankful for Him, praying constantly. As Paul says in Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (4:4, NIV)
About the Author:
Carrie Goldsmith – Mobilization Coordinator
Carrie is a part of the US Mobilization Team based out of Boise, Idaho. Her job takes her around the country speaking to church bodies to encourage those who have a call to missions to get involved. Some of Carrie’s favorite things include teas and creating videos of Disney princesses reading stories for children.