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The Joy You've Always Wanted

In order to experience true and lasting joy, we must cultivate thanksgiving.

The topic today is joy. And the chief question is: how do we get it? How do we have more joy more often? How can we be happy?

We are looking at Paul's letter to the church in Philippi. Philippians 1:3-6 reads: "I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 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."

What I want to focus on today is joy, which is a huge topic in the Book of Philippians, and a huge topic in life. We all want to be happy. We all want joy. Aristotle called happiness the summum bonum—the greatest good. It is the ultimate goal of people's lives. He argued that we do what we do, we seek what we seek and love what we love, because we believe these things will make us happy. He was right.

We can add that we do things we want to do—or even do things we do not want to do, like doing exercises we hate or taking medicine that tastes bad—because we believe that they will make us healthy, which will make us happy. And we can further add that happiness is our ultimate goal. We go to work in order to make money, believing that this chain of events will ultimately make us happy. We watch a movie or football on Sunday afternoon believing that this will make us happy. We do not seek happiness so that we can go to work or watch football. Happiness is the ultimate end.

People often say, "What good is money; it can't buy happiness." But they never say, "What good is happiness; it can't buy money" (see Making Choices by Peter Kreeft).

Happiness is a universal goal. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion and false thinking surrounding it. This topic is too important to be confused about, so we are going to go to school on what Paul has to say about joy. We are going to try to understand how he can be joyful while chained to a Roman guard in a prison cell and waiting for a trial that may lead to his death.

I want to make six points. But before I do that, let me try to head off any confusion by noting that I am going to be using the terms "happy" and "joyful" interchangeably here. Some people make a distinction. When they do, they link happiness to circumstances—to happenings. We happen to be happy when things happen to be going well. Joy is used to describe something deeper, more robust, and less circumstantial.

I understand the distinction, but I'm not making that distinction today. There are a handful of different Hebrew and Greek words that are all translated by the term "joy." The chief one is chara, from which both charis (grace) and eucharais (thankfulness) are derived. In some translations they are translated as "happy," so I will use "happy" and "joy" interchangeably to describe a sense of well-being and contentment—a soul satisfaction, a peace.

God is the happiest being in the universe.

God is the most joyful being of all. Joy lies at his very heart. As C. S. Lewis has written, "Joy is the serious business of heaven." Most people do not understand this and do not start here, but you cannot begin to understand God until you understand this. All of the good things of which we get a small part, all of the good things that come filtered through our broken hearts, are God's infinitely.

God desires that we should be joyful as well

God wants us to share in his happiness. In fact, he commands it. Karl Barth, who in some circles is considered the most important theologian of the 20th century, wrote: "It is astonishing how many references there are in the Old and New Testaments to delight, joy, bliss, exultation, merry-making and rejoicing, and how emphatically these are demanded from the Book of Psalms to the Epistle to the Philippians."

Over and over again, we are told to rejoice. Some people think of joy like they think of the flu: it's something you sort of catch. Others argue that it's all in the genes: you've either got it, or you don't. But the Bible talks about joy as a choice—as something we are to go after and as an attitude we are to cultivate. In Galatians 5, joy is included as part of the fruit of the Spirit— something that should grow out of our life, just as clearly as apples grow on an apple tree.

God wants you to be joyful. In fact, if you read the Bible—if you pay attention to Christ—you start to think that the problem is not that we are too happy, but that we are not happy enough. I love what C.S. Lewis writes early in his famous essay and book, The Weight of Glory:

Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

Please listen carefully here. I am not arguing for a health and wealth gospel. I am not suggesting that God wants you to be rich and have an easy life. Paul is in prison. His life was never easy. Most of the disciples died as martyrs. Nor am I suggesting that you pursue Christ because he will make you happy. We should pursue Christ because he is God and worthy of being pursued. We should embrace the Christian faith first because it is true, not because it works. It works because it's true; it is not true because it works. In this age of rampant relativism, people are ready to embrace whatever gets them through the night—whatever can make them happy—whether it is true or not. That is not what I am promoting here.

My point is that God is joyful and he wants us to be joyful. I want you to realize that in addition to setting aside times for fasting and prayer, our heavenly Father set aside times for celebration. Christ said he came so that we might have life abundantly (John 10:10). We are commanded to be joyful (Philippians 4:4); indeed, to not be joyful is a sin. The joyful God of heaven—whose joy is to be our strength—wants us to be joyful. Many Christians do not understand this.

Life works better when we are joyful.

When we are joyful, life works better in a handful of ways. First of all, we are happier when we are happy! Most of us understand this. Kids sure do. I emphasize this because there is a whole camp of intellectuals who pride themselves in coming across as sullen and cynical. They have somehow convinced themselves that solemnity is the dignified response, which means that they are only happy when they are sad. As Peter Kreeft has pointed out, some things are so simple that only a Ph.D. could miss them. We are happier when we are happy.

Secondly, joy compliments love and hope, which we are also told to possess. It's hard to be loving, hopeful, and joyless.

Thirdly, joy brings energy. Nehemiah wrote that "the joy of the Lord is our strength" (Nehemiah 8:10). Its chronic absence makes us weak.

The list goes on. Joy makes sin looks less attractive. If we label all joys and pleasures as sinful distractions, that actually weakens us in our efforts to live godly lives. As Dallas Willard wrote, "Failure to attain a deeply satisfying life always has the effect of making sinful actions seem good."

I should also note something Lewis spends a fair bit of time pointing out: it's impossible to be full of joy and full of pride at the same time. Joy actually makes us self-forgetful. In The Screwtape Letters, his imaginary correspondence between a senior demon, Screwtape, and his underling nephew, Wormwood, who is just learning how to tempt and destroy a human, Lewis has a section on joy. Lewis has the senior demon saying: "Keep your charge away from joy. We do not understand it. We have not been able to produce it. We know that it accompanies music and that it happens in heaven; and that bad things happen." (Which would be good things, right? These are demons writing: what they think is good we would think is bad). Bad things accompany joy, and one of them is that people have less pride.

So, in review: God is the most joyful being ever. He wants us to be joyful. Life works best when we are joyful.

True happiness is a byproduct of a life rightly lived.

True happiness is the result of an ordered life—of right desires rightly pursued. There are two things you need to hear here. First, the focus is on "lasting joy"—a joy that is neither fleeting nor fragile; a joy that can hold up even in prison. The trick is not to be happy for a second. If that is your goal, then sin is almost always your best option. It can make you happy in the moment. At least that is what it claims. No one would pay sin any attention if it revealed itself for what it is—a defective good. Sin will always ultimately disappoint. But it can bring happiness for a moment, or a day, or a week.

As an aside, let me note that one of the great frustrations of life is that our broken hearts, our fallen natures, are drawn to evil. For some reason, evil often presents well; it looks good. Simone Weil, the French philosopher and Christian mystic, writes about this in her book, Gravity and Grace: "Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating."

We think that the devil has all the good music; that only the good die young; that freedom comes when we walk away from God's law. All of these ideas are wrong. Sin always ultimately disappoints. Sin never leads to joy, nor does it lead to freedom. Sin leads to slavery, although it can satisfy for the moment. A lie may get you out of trouble at that moment. Violating your marriage vows may put you in the arms of another for a half hour. Sin can lead to pleasure for a period of time, but lasting joy, lasting happiness, is the byproduct of a life rightly lived.

The second thing I want you to hear is that joy is a byproduct. If you seek joy directly, it proves elusive. It's not just the Bible that says this. Hedonism, the aggressive pursuit of pleasure, has been proven not to work over time. If you seek pleasure for pleasure's sake, if you make it your chief end, it is elusive. It fails to satisfy. If you like chocolate cake and you keep eating it, at some point you will not like chocolate cake.

We were made to seek God. Joy comes from a right relationship with him. He is the author of all good things—which is another big point I can only hint at. Many Christians fail to see God's hand behind many of the things they enjoy. Many Christians are anti-joy and think God wants them to be anti-joy. It never occurs to them that God is behind all kinds of things that bring joy. He gave us the afternoon for a walk in the park. He wired us to enjoy friendship over a cup of coffee. He is behind all good things, and we can thank him for all good things.

I've not read the book Pure Pleasure by Gary Thomas. Gary and I used to work together. He sent me this book, and though I've only skimmed it, it is clear that Gary has been changed. Twenty-five years ago, Gary did not think anything not overtly spiritual was good. The reviews on his book now suggest that he has discovered God behind all joy. As one review says, "It's not a sin to have fun. A daily latte is money well spent. God delights in our enjoyment. Gary Thomas wants to set the record straight: pleasure can point to God rather than compete with him, and God himself can become our highest joy."

The goal of life, the center of the bulls-eye, is God, not joy. But God is the author of joy, and joy is the byproduct of a life rightly lived.

Lasting joy comes through right thinking, especially thanksgiving.

In his letter to the Philippians—just like in his letter to the Romans, Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Thessalonians—Paul moves from saying, "Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ," into an expression of thanks. He consistently tells those to whom he is writing that he thanks God for them. For instance, in Romans 1:8 we read, "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world." In Ephesians 1:15 he writes, "For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers." In Colossians 1:3 it's, "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you."

With the Philippians he is particularly thankful for their participation or partnership in the Gospel. The Greek word here is koinonia or fellowship. That is not to be overlooked. What Paul is thankful for needs to be noted, but there is a lot to be said for the simple fact that Paul routinely thanks God for things. Part of his discipline—part of his spiritual habit—is to thank God for stuff. This contributes to joy!

So much of how we experience life is based on perspective or context. Some people are thankful when they have a dollar in their pocket; others are upset when they only have $100. Some people celebrate a glass half full; others lament a glass half empty. For Paul, the glass is always half full. He cultivates thankfulness. He trains himself to see good and to thank God for it; he rehearses his blessings—which he does not believe he deserves. He does not start with a sense of entitlement; rather, he starts with the idea that he is a broken person who deserves to be punished, but God has graciously given him life and support. God has forgiven him and allowed him to be part of an eternal plan. With this perspective—the vantage point of right thinking—Paul is thankful.

There is much to be said for making yourself rehearse your blessings. I am consistently surprised at how easily I can change my mood if I force myself to write out my blessings—even if I just start the list. Please hear me: this is not an unqualified endorsement of the power of positive thinking. Though there is power in positive thinking—as one person said, "People who think they can and people who think they cannot are often both right"—this is not an endorsement of it, because so many people take that in crazy directions, thinking they can change reality. What we need to realize is that there is great power in right thinking. And those who have been adopted into the family of God can say, "God loves me, in spite of who I am and what I've done wrong. He is that good and gracious." That changes your perspective. That brings energy, and that brings joy.

Those who love God can tell themselves, "Nothing is outside of his ultimate control. All things work together for good for those who love Christ, and are called according to his plan" (Romans 8:28). Those who know Christ can rejoice even when they are in prison, because, as Jesus says in Luke 10:20, their names are written in the Book of Life. Those who know Christ can rejoice in the certain truth that God has forgiven them and invited them to the great banquet feast in heaven. For a Christian, right thinking leads to joy.

Joy is available now.

This leads to my sixth and final point: joy is available right now. In fact, if you are waiting for something to happen in order for joy to arrive, you are doing something wrong. If you are thinking, I'll be joyful after I finish my degree, when I get married, when my marriage ends, when I get that job or that promotion, when we have children, when the kids leave—if you are waiting for joy—then you are doing something wrong. Paul wrote about joy while chained to a Roman guard in a prison cell awaiting trial.

If you are going to wait until conditions are perfect to be joyful, you will wait until you die. It is often the people who are in the most pain who are the most joyful. If you don't rejoice today, you will not rejoice at all. "This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it" (Psalm 118:24).


Are you happy? Are you joyful? If not, what are you doing wrong? God is the most joyful being ever. He desires for you to be joyful. He commands it. Your life will work better when you are happy. That happiness will follow a life rightly lived—a life spent pursuing God and a life guided by right thinking and thankfulness.

Joy is available now. If you know Christ and you do not have joy, you are doing something wrong.

Mike Woodruff is senior pastor of Christ Church Lake Forest in Lake Forest, Illinois.

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Sermon Outline:


I. God is the happiest being in the universe.

II. God desires that we should be joyful as well.

III. Life works better when we are joyful.

IV. True happiness is a byproduct of a life rightly lived.

V. Lasting joy comes through right thinking, especially thanksgiving.

VI. Joy is available now.