For only having three letters, it is a really big word. It’s the one emotion that drives us to work harder, encourages us to love better, and motivates us to look beyond ourselves.
Because there are just as many ways to find joy as there are ways to lose it, how we understand it and embrace it is critical to our spiritual growth and transformation.
No one knew this better than Paul, in whose letter to the church in Philippi we get this perspective from Philippians 2:1-11
It's a bit ironic that of all the books of the Bible, the most joyful among are the “prison epistles.” Most of them are letters written by Paul while imprisoned in Rome - including this one written to the Philippians.
Now, I have watched enough episodes of Orange Is the New Black to know how difficult it is to find joy behind bars. Yet, while facing death, Paul is able to rejoice because he knows he is connected and united with God and the good people of Philippi.
Philippi is a wealthy and influential Roman territory. The folks there are considered Roman citizens, and they enjoy all that comes with this privilege. For example, they don’t pay taxes! And for some reason, they are lacking in joy which causes Paul to send them a letter of encouragement.
He writes, if you have learned anything by following Christ, if his love has made a difference in your life then change your mindset, and live accordingly to his way and you will have a reason to rejoice.
Everything with Paul hinges on his interconnectedness with Christ.
I think the vast majority of Christ followers hold to this truth that through our faith we are united to Jesus. Because of that connection, we also believe we are united with his love, his hope, his salvation, and Spirit. If that is true, then would not the same notion apply to his joy?
Whatever prison cell of despair we find ourselves in, be it real or metaphorical, we have a reason to rejoice like Paul.
We have a reason to rejoice always because we have the fullness of Christ dwelling within us. Yet, knowing this…I still felt completely joyless after dropping my daughter off at college. I spent roughly 800 miles trying to figure out why.
Part of this void was merely the sadness of letting go of someone I loved. The emptiness of the passenger seat was my constant reminder of that. But as I drove on, I remembered sadness is not the opposite of joy. It is the opposite of happiness.
I think we often confuse joy with happiness.
According to Charles Schultz, the beloved creator of Peanuts, “Happiness is a warm puppy.” In all the different translations of this passage, Paul never describes joy as something that chews up your favorite pair of shoes. Or digs holes in your backyard.
Joy is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind. But joy is deep within our soul, in the very essence of our being.
It always makes me happy to hear my kids laughing together … or whenever I get to enjoy a delicious curry. But eventually the meal comes to an end. And my kids find something to argue over. Joy isn’t rooted in fleeting happiness. It’s rooted in Christ Jesus. God’s greatest joy made manifest for us.
If Easter taught us anything it’s that nothing can kill God’s joy. It is eternal. And the resurrected Christ is our proof.
Our external circumstances come and go, so Paul encourages us to look within ourselves where we are eternally united to Christ.
By this faithful unity to him, we are also united with each other through him. If our faith is tied to God, then we must have faith in one another as well.
Joy is not only personal, it’s also relational.
The Spirit of Christ’s joy empowers us to love one another like he loves us, to forgive each other like he forgave showing the same humility, compassion, and sympathy for others like he did. In other letter’s Paul calls this being in imitation of Christ. Allowing the divine manifestation of God’s glory move through us towards others.
I like how Eugene Peterson translated Paul’s words in The Message. He wrote, “Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourself long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourself the way Christ Jesus thought of himself” (Phil. 2:4-5 MSG).
In the gospel according to John, Jesus said, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and remain in his love. I tell you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10-11).
As followers of Christ, we must remain both faithful and obedient to our call to love God, love others, and serve both. This was Jesus’ mission. And it is ours as well.
So we can rejoice always – in good times as well as bad times – knowing that whenever we seek justice, promote peace, walk humbly with God and others, God rejoices with us and through us.
By living in the likeness of Christ, we become something greater than the problems we are facing. We become the face of hope, the heart of love, and the hands of generosity.
We become the true Spirit of God’s grace bringing tenderness, compassion, and sympathy to others in the world.
By being like Christ, God’s greatest joy, we too can become the physical manifestation of God’s glory in every space we enter.
Therefore, let us enter Anamesa rejoicing, knowing we are all one body - sharing one heart and one mind with Christ and with each other.
Driscoll, Mark. Preach it, Teach it. Nov. 4, 2007. (accessed April 6, 2016).
Holladay, Tom. Philippians: The Eight Places Joy Is Won or Lost. El Toro: Saddleback Church, 2014.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”