A man went to see a psychiatrist, and told him that he was lonely, despondent, and miserable. He begged the doctor to help him. The psychiatrist suggested that he needed to laugh so he instructed the patient to attend the circus and watch the clown who was famous for being able to make anyone laugh. His patient looked him in the eyes and said, “But Doctor, you don’t understand! You see I am that clown!”
That man’s name was Joseph Grimaldi, one of the most celebrated English clowns of the late 18th and early 19th century.
We live in a society where many people are desperately consumed with looking for true happiness, peace and joy, but coming up empty. People have tried to fill that huge empty hole with work, families, relationships, wealth, fame, power, purpose, alcohol, sex, etc., but still failing to find the peace and joy they long for.
The psychologist Carl Jung recognized this emptiness: He wrote "About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis but from the senselessness and emptiness of their lives".
Danny Sugerman, who was manager to the band ‘The Doors’, acknowledged and documented this emptiness: "From the time we can speak, we are bombarded with the message that we alone are not enough: take this; buy this; have this; feel better, stronger, safer, sexier, more desirable, more secure, more powerful, and none of it works because we’re looking in the wrong place. . . “
Many people believe peace and joy can be found in fame, and wealth. Elvis Presley had it all, the fame, fortune, adoration of fans, and incredible talent, and yet he lacked real happiness and joy. In the last days of his life he became increasingly dependent on prescription drugs, and shortly before he died said “I’d rather be unconscious than miserable.”
On his deathbed Jay Gould, one of America’s richest men, said: “I suppose I am the most miserable man on earth.” His wealth did not bring happiness.
Ultimately there is only one person that can give us the true peace, joy and happiness that we all long for, and that is Jesus Christ. Only Jesus can satisfy that emptiness in your soul! That is the message of our reading today from Philippians.
It is worth remembering that Paul wrote Philippians whilst he was imprisoned in Rome. Not an environment that you would imagine would lead to one feeling full of joy and hope. Therefore it makes this theme of joy even more significant. If Paul could know and write about true joy while imprisoned, then there’s hope for us that in whatever circumstances we are in, we too can know true joy.
The Christians that Paul was writing to in Philippi were facing hostility, oppression and persecution, and yet Paul’s instruction to them is to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
It may seem an extraordinary thing to write, because when life is tough, when it feels as though the world is against us, the last thing you feel like doing is rejoicing, or being full of joy.
But Paul had the supreme qualification to issue this call, because he himself was engaged in the same struggle as they were. In encouraging the Philippians to be full of joy, and to rejoice, Paul is reminding the Philippians to place their trust and faith in the Lord. It is above all an appeal to faith.
What enabled Paul to be full of joy was the knowledge that no matter what happened to him, Jesus Christ was with him. Several times in this letter Paul urges the Philippians to be joyful, because it was a message they clearly needed to hear. It’s all too easy to get discouraged about unpleasant circumstances or to take unimportant events too seriously. We need to see life from the right perspective.
One of the best known stories of the Old Testament is the story of David and Goliath. We read in 1 Samuel 17 that when Saul and the army of Israel heard Goliath’s challenge, they were dismayed and terrified. Saul and his army looked at Goliath and were totally overcome with fear. But David was not intimidated by Goliath and the Philistine army, because he looked to God, and trusted in Him.
The "giants" of outward adversity dwindle to insignificance when compared to God. From our viewpoint the giants of financial failure, workload, loneliness, worry, difficult relationships, and serious illness are huge and very intimidating. But we are called to look not to our problems but to God. This is what Paul is encouraging us to do when he says ‘Rejoice in the Lord’. Look not to your troubles, worries or anxieties, but look instead to God, and trust him. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 10:13, that ‘God is faithful and will not allow you to be tested beyond what you can bear.’ And the author Max Lucado writes ‘God is able to accomplish, provide, help, save, keep, subdue… He is able to do what you can’t. He already has a plan. God’s not bewildered. Go to Him.’
The message of Philippians is that true joy doesn’t have to depend on our outward circumstances, but is grounded in our relationship with Jesus. Therefore we can be joyful in every circumstance, even when things are going badly, when we feel like complaining, even when no one else is joyful. Christ still reigns, and we still know him, so we can rejoice at all times.
When Jesus sent out the 72 in the Gospel of Luke, they came back rejoicing at the incredible things they had witnessed. They said “even the demons submit to us in your name.” (Luke 1017) But Jesus’ response was “do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20) Our joy and hope is based in what Christ has already done for us.
Happiness depends on our circumstances, and this can change. But joy runs deeper and stronger. Joy is the confident assurance of God’s love and work in our lives, and that He will be there no matter what!
Paul goes on to write ‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’
The problem with anxiety, and worry, is that it ultimately displays a lack of trust in God. But Paul’s advice is to turn our worries into prayers. Do you want to worry less? Then pray more! Max Lucado said “No one can pray and worry at the same time.” When we pray we are handing over our worries and concerns to God, and asking Him to deal with them. This is the path that leads to true peace.
Paul talks about ‘prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.’ Supplication means to ask humbly or earnestly, or to beseech. So when we pray, we are bring to God our needs, we are bring to God our direct and specific requests, handing our worries and concerns to God, and trusting Him for the right outcome. But Paul also says that we should pray with thanksgiving.
Two men were walking through a field one day when they spotted an enraged bull. Instantly they darted toward the nearest fence. The storming bull followed in hot pursuit, and it was soon apparent they wouldn't make it.
Terrified, the one shouted to the other, "Put up a prayer, John. We're in for it!"
John answered, "I can't. I've never made a public prayer in my life."
"But you must!" implored his companion. "The bull is catching up to us."
"All right," panted John, "I'll say the only prayer I know, the one my father used to repeat at the table: 'O Lord, for what we are about to receive, make us truly thankful.'"
Thanksgiving is an important part of true prayer, which we often forget about! But when we pray with thankful hearts, we are taking time to remember God’s goodness and mercy. It also helps us to count our blessings, and helps protect against over concern with our immediate problems, forgetfulness of God’s gracious dealing with us in the past, or disregard of the needs of others who are less fortunate that we are.
It is our relationship with Jesus which is the true secret to happiness, peace and joy. The peace that God gives, is different to the peace the world gives. It is not found in positive thinking, in absence of conflict, or in good feelings. Real peace comes from knowing that because God is in control, our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom is sure, our destiny is set, and our victory over sin is certain.
And Paul writes that this peace ‘will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ Paul here uses a military metaphor, one that would have been familiar to the Philippians who lived in a garrison town, and would have been used to the sight of a Roman sentry maintaining his watch. Paul likewise says that God’s peace will garrison and protect our hearts and minds. John Bunyan uses this picture in his book the ‘Pilgrims Progress’. ‘Nothing was to be found but harmony, happiness, joy and health’ in the town of Mansoul as long as Mr God’s-Peace maintained his office. But when Prince Emmanuel departed the town of Mansoul, Mr God’s-Peace laid down his commission and departed also. It is a reminder that we only enjoy God’s gift of peace in Christ Jesus, by our obedience to him and submission to his authority.
So are you looking for the secret to true joy, peace and happiness? It is not to be found in money, wealth, fame, work, relationships, it can only be found in Jesus Christ. If we reject worldly anxiety, and demonstrate in our prayers and actions the qualities of thankfulness and compassion which reflect God’s heart and God’s priorities, our reward will be that the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
It is in this attitude of thankful, prayerful, generous hope that we wait for the coming of our Lord and the fulfilment of his promises.