Ambassador of Reconciliation
6/1/12 at 01:48 AM 2 Comments

Joy Is a Choice, Part 1

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In the summer of 1989 I had the opportunity to go on a wilderness trip with La Vida, a Christian Outward-Bound-style program. We spent eight days camping and hiking and canoeing in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. One of the themes of our time was “Choose Joy”—the idea that joy is not something that happens to us when all the circumstances are right, but rather a choice that we can make at any time. We don’t have to be lying on the beach in the warm sun with a good book; we can be lying on the ground in a soggy sleeping bag in the pouring rain.

Toward the end of our trip we each went on a solo, a 36-hour period of being alone in the woods with no food, no flashlight, no fire—just the clothes on our backs, a jug of water, a sleeping bag, and a Bible, notebook, and pen. During that time I decided to explore the theme of joy in the book of Philippians. Paul knew about finding joy in difficult situations; he understood that real joy is not dependent on circumstances or emotions; it is a choice. His letter is full of references to joy despite the fact that he was suffering in prison.

Here are some of the practical choices we can make to free ourselves from hindrances to joy:

1. Rather than complain about my circumstances, be content in my circumstances and thank God that He is working in my life.

Do everything without complaining or arguing (2:14).

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances (4:11).

He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion (1:6).

Paul says to “do everything without complaining or arguing so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God…[who] shine like stars in the universe” (2:14-15). Complaining is a very natural human reaction; not complaining really sets apart the children of God and makes for inward and outward peace.

Paul had learned to rise above his circumstances instead of letting them rule him. He said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (4:11-12). He was not held captive by the whims of circumstances but was able to remain steady through ups and downs. I can also learn (through a process, not an overnight transformation) to be content with the way God has made me, where He has put me, and what He has given to me.

It is also reassuring that God is working in my life through all my circumstances. “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6). In everything that happens God is at work to mold me into the image of His Son. Sometimes it’s like labor in childbirth—the more it hurts, the more is happening inside. Maybe the results aren’t immediately visible, but the work is progressing toward completion nevertheless.

2. Rather than envy others or compete with them, be united with them, love them, esteem them, help them.

Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others (2:2-4).

Sometimes I find myself looking at my friends and feeling very inadequate; they seem to be so much more successful/spiritual/satisfied, etc. Then I realize that I’m not _______ or _______ or _______ (fill in the blanks with the names of super-together people); I’m me. God doesn’t want me comparing myself with my friends; I should have the true humility that allows me to see myself accurately (“think of yourself with sober judgment,” Rom. 12:3) and not be intimidated by others. We’re all on the same team and I should rejoice in others’ strengths and help them in their weaknesses.

The flip side of comparing and feeling inferior is comparing and feeling superior (“vain conceit”), which is also destructive (“do not think of yourself more highly than you ought,” Rom. 12:3). I picture Euodia and Syntyche (4:2-3) as strong-minded and opinionated women who loved the Lord but thought their own ideas about how the church should operate were the only way to go. Paul wanted them to come together in unity to work cooperatively rather than competitively.

God longs for us to have “encouragement from being united with Christ,” “comfort from his love,” “fellowship with the Spirit,” “tenderness and compassion” (2:1). Paul says that the path to complete joy is being “like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose” (2:2) and looking to the interests of others (2:4). We should be looking for ways to build others up, not wasting energy trying to keep up with them or prove ourselves better.

3. Rather than boast about what I have achieved or hang onto what I have attained, consider it all loss compared to knowing Christ.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things (3:7-8).

Paul had plenty to brag about—pedigree, titles, honors, achievements—but he counts it all of no value. He could have had worldly wealth and success, but he considers all of it “rubbish.” His goal is to be found in Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own…, but that which is through faith in Christ” (3:9). His overarching purpose is “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (3:10-11).

I shouldn’t be puffed up about what I do or proud of what I have; God is the one who enables, and it is for His glory, not mine. As Paul prayed, we should be “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God” (1:11). I will find more joy just knowing Christ, seeking God’s glory rather than my own.

4. Rather than being consumed with guilt about what I have or haven’t done, receive God’s forgiveness and get on with my life.

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus (3:13-14).

I could spend the rest of my life wallowing in guilt over what I’ve done or failed to do, but it would be a waste. Jesus died not only to get us into heaven, but also to free us from bondage to sin and guilt.

Paul had done some pretty rotten things in his life, and he could have held onto the guilt and been paralyzed into inaction. But he learned to forget what is behind and press on toward the goal of pleasing God and doing His will. Being released from the guilt of our past by God’s forgiveness allows us to experience His joy now and to get on with the work to which He has called us.

5. Rather than dwell on what I am suffering, see how God can use it to further the gospel, and be thankful that I can share suffering with Christ.

Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly (1:12, 14).

The important thing is that in every way,… Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice (1:18).

It has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him (1:29).

Paul had lost his freedom and was living under miserable conditions in prison, but what was important to him was that more people were learning about Jesus. Many realized that he was in chains because of his faith (1:13), and they were drawn to the gospel. His courage in the face of suffering also emboldened other believers to preach the word more courageously (1:14). And as long as Jesus’ name was being lifted up, Paul was full of joy (1:18).

It is a privilege to be able to suffer with and for Christ (1:29). As we identify with Him in suffering, we are drawn closer to Him and we have the joy of knowing that our witness is bringing honor to Him. And Paul says that it is through sharing in His suffering and death that we will also share in the resurrection from the dead (3:10-11). What greater joy than knowing we will be raised from the dead to share His life forever!

Part 2 will highlight five more principles from Philippians for experiencing the joy of the Lord.

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