Jane was a member of my congregation when I was a parish priest in England. She was a remarkable woman with great faith, but who had suffered so much over the past years as her husband struggled with cancer. She was brave, courageous, resilient, but it was clear the light had gone out of her life. But I remember, on one New Year’s Day, she came up to me in church and said, “Geoffrey, I’ve made a New Year’s Resolution – or rather a new year’s prayer.” I remember thinking, O good – maybe she’s going to travel or get a new job. “No, she said, not that. I’m going to ask God for JOY again in my life. I want the gift of JOY.”
I’d never heard anyone say that to me before – but I can honestly say that God did answer her prayer, and as the year went on, I saw her come alive again. God gave her the gift of joy. It was beautiful to see.
Joy. “Rejoice in the Lord always, I say, and again I say rejoice!” (Phil 4:4) These wonderful words from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. I don’t know any other book in the Bible which is so infused with joy. And yet this letter of joy is written by Paul from prison. In the midst of great suffering and possibly of death, here’s Paul absolutely overflowing with joy! He writes, “I am constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for you all.” (Phil 1:4) “Yes, I will continue to rejoice – I rejoice greatly in the Lord.” (Phil 4:10) How could he be so joyful when his outward circumstances were so dire?
Clearly joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is triggered externally – when things are going well, when life is good. But joy, it seems to me, comes from within. You can know joy even in the most appalling circumstances. Joy comes from within, and Paul tells us that joy is a gift from God, one of the gifts of the Spirit – a gift which is there for the asking.
So how did Paul get this gift of joy, bubbling up within him, and more to the point, how might we get joy. I believe I know what joy is in my life – but I also know what it’s like when I am joyless. So what is your experience of joy? Are you joyful? Some of you here today might be feeling that you have lost joy – that the light has gone out of your life. Or maybe you’ve forgotten what it was like to be filled with joy. Maybe some circumstance, some event in your life, or some experience of loss or diminishment, and you have kind of forgotten what it was like to be joyful and full of life. But the truth is, that God does want to fill us all with joy. In John’s Gospel chapter 16, Jesus says these beautiful words to his friends, “You will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy – and no one will ever take your joy from you.” (John 16:20) That’s a promise. The joy God longs to give us cannot be taken away by any external circumstances, however dire. God longs to give us the gift of joy.
So today, if you find yourself, like my dear friend Jane, longing for joy again – how do you get it back?
Well, Paul, in this short passage from Philippians chapter 4 verses 4-9 gives us three very clear, practical ways to recover this gift of joy.
First, he says in verse 6, and it’s a great motto to learn and remember, (I had it on a card), he says, “Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything.”
I said earlier that I believe happiness is triggered by external circumstances – and so is unhappiness. Each day is full of things that make us happy but also anxieties and events which make us unhappy. Up and down. But if you start the day with a quiet time with Jesus, in prayer, in stillness, something very amazing happens.
Happiness is triggered by the external events of the day – but joy, I think, at least for me, comes when I make peace with who I am, and I make peace with why I am.
In the morning I re-establish who I most truly am. My deepest identity. In my prayer with Christ, I know again that I belong to him, that I am his, that I am beloved, redeemed, set free. This re-confirmation of who I am can fill me with joy. Whatever happens in the day can’t take that away.
And this time of prayer also helps me make peace with why I am. I am here for a purpose: to love and glorify God and to be Christ’s body in the world. And that gives me joy.
If you know who you are and why you are, there is a joy and a freedom given – which no one and no circumstances can take away from you.
And into that precious place of quiet with Jesus, you can bring all your cares and worries, and anxieties, and give them to him. “Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything.” (Phil 4:7)
And the second way to get joy into your life comes from verse 8. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…think about these things.” These beautiful words are actually about practicing mental discipline. Paul is saying that what you choose to think about, to read, to look at will have an effect on you. What we look at, what we gaze at, what we listen to, what we imagine effect our souls. In our world of social media and information technology, Paul’s words are particularly instructive. If you have no guard, no discipline about which images and how many images you allow to bombard your imagination, this can do violence to your soul, and can take away your joy. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, think about these things,” says Paul.
So, I would say, practically, when you wake in the morning, don’t open your internet, or read the papers, until you have first said good morning to God. Have a prayer, or a psalm that you say first thing, to greet God, to reaffirm who you are, and why you are. Rediscover joy first thing in the morning: think on what is true, and lovely, and honorable and pure, before you face the world – and Facebook.
Then thirdly, the 3rd way Paul wants us to get joy into our lives is at the very end of verse 6. “Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything” and pray with thanksgiving. Paul is always giving thanks. To the Philippians he says “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy for all of you.” (Phil 1:3-4) Even when things go wrong, even when he is suffering he gives thanks.
I thank my God in all circumstances.
In my own experience, when I start giving thanks, instead of moaning or complaining, that’s when something inside changes, and in a mysterious way I open myself to receive the gift of joy. I think Paul would say, if you want joy in your life, start practicing giving thanks. A good time to start is when you wake up. Greet God, and give thanks. Maybe choose 5 things, and say I am not going to think of anything until I’ve named 5 things for which I am thankful.
But then the end of the day is a wonderful time to give thanks. Spend a little bit of time gently reflecting on the day: what happened. What gave you joy? Keeping a spiritual journal can be a great way of reflecting on the day – and giving thanks. This practice of giving thanks for everything helps you remember the simple things: the food you’ve eaten, people you’ve met, a kind word, the sounds of nature. Thank you Lord for this amazing day. And that gift of joy may come bubbling up.
The Letter to the Philippians is a beautiful letter – my favorite of Paul’s letters, as you may have guessed. I commend it to you to read and pray with. As you pray with it, listen again to Paul’s wise words about how to rediscover joy.
- Don’t worry about anything – pray about everything.
- Whatever is true, pure and lovely – think on those things.
- Pray to God at all times with thanksgiving.
Seek joy – and the peace of God, which passes all understanding will guard
your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
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