One of his most famous quotations of Cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo is, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” As you can tell, he was trying to get the message across that we are often our own worst enemies. This is especially true when it comes to JOY. There are many ways that we actually sabotage our own lives and sabotage our joy. I want to have lots of friends, but I drive people away through my anger and resentment. I want to be healthy, but I refuse to exercise and eat properly. I want my kids to obey and respect me but I speak disrespectfully of my boss, the police or the government. I want people to be nice to me, but I am not nice to them. There are so many things that we can do that can be counterproductive to our own interests.
I think that we are often our own worst enemies when it comes to our pursuit of JOY. Joy is something we all want. Nobody actually wants to live a life of despair and depression and yet so often our own choices lead us down that path. I’m not saying always. I understand that depression can have a medical cause. I am saying, though, that sometimes we must take an honest look at ourselves to see if we really are being our own worst enemies. I have been blessed by people who quietly took me aside and in love and with love showed me how I was being my own worst enemy when it came to the lack of Joy in my life. If you have ever been blessed with a friend like that, you may have had to remind yourself what Solomon said in Proverbs:
Pr 25:12 Like an earring of gold or an ornament of fine gold is a wise man’s rebuke to a listening ear.
One of the ways that we can find out that the enemy actually is us is how we often blame our lack of joy on our circumstances. It seems the logical thing to do. Sometimes our circumstances are downright bad. Life is not always a bed of roses. Sometimes all we see are the thorns. Life conspires against our comfort, our security and our self-esteem. If that is not enough, we face the ultimate enemy – death. Death takes our loved ones and eventually it will come for us. And so to be bitter, angry, depressed and sullen seems logical. It seems to be the appropriate response. And so it is with some astonishment that I read the book of Philippians. You see, if Paul had written this book from the inside of a palace or even from a comfortable villa somewhere in Greece I would not have been surprised. The book has a joyful, triumphant note in all of it. If all we saw in the book was Paul’s attitude and not the content we might be convinced that Paul was living the life of Riley when he wrote it. The note of joy in the book of Philippians hits you in the face like a coconut cream pie from the hand of a clown. It permeates this letter and practically screams from every word. If we didn’t know any better we would think that Paul was lounging on a coach getting fed peeled grapes from the hand of a beautiful Greek maiden and on top of the world. In a way, he was on top of the world, but not because of that. Paul wrote this letter from prison, probably in Rome. And so he was probably living in a cold, damp, dark, cramped and unhealthy cell. He had no freedom. He would soon be on trial for his life. He had no income other than the gifts of his supporters. He had people who should have known better trying to make life difficult for him. He had every reason to be bitter, NOT to be joyful. How do we explain his joy? More important, how can we find it ourselves? How can we find joy in the midst of all the garbage that happens to us? How can we keep trucking along when there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel? How can we avoid getting bitter against God and the entire world?
I. Paul aligned his priorities with God’s priorities.
God’s priorities were more important than his comfort and convenience.
12 ¶ Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
Paul recognized that his imprisonment was something that God was using to advance the Gospel – a priority very close to the Heart of God.
First of all, notice how Paul says that he is in chains “for Christ.” In the Greek, it actually says, “In Christ.” Paul is actually identifying his suffering with that of Christ’s. Just as Christ’s sufferings were redemptive, Paul sees his suffering as redemptive. Just as Christ suffered for the good of humanity, Paul sees that his suffering is for the good of humanity.
Sometimes we must see our suffering and difficulties in the same light. In fact, that’s how Paul encourages the Philippians at the end of the chapter where he says:
27 ¶ Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved— and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.
Take special note of verse 29:
29 For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him
That might not sound so great to most of us, I suppose but it does tell us something very important to our joy – our suffering need not be meaningless. God can bring great purpose to our suffering if we let him.
In Paul’s case, he knew his suffering had a great purpose in God’s plan. The palace guard was responsible for guarding Paul. The people who were closest to the powers that be in Rome were the ones who had to make sure he had a soldier chained to him every day. Somewhere along the line one of these men were going to ask Paul what crime he had committed and Paul would be able to tell his story. In addition, these guards weren’t allowed to leave when people came to visit Paul and Paul dictated his letters or when people came to him to learn about Jesus. They would be there when Paul prayed. They would get to know Paul intimately whether they wanted to or not. When they got back to their fellow guards at the palace, they would talk about Paul and his message with each other. Suddenly, the gospel was going to places many people may have imagined it never would get to. It was going to the seat of power. It was almost as if Paul pulled a coup. He couldn’t have made things better if he had planned it. Instead of feeling frustrated and victimized, Paul laughed at the open window of unique opportunity offering numerous possibilities. Paul’s joy was outrageous.
Not only that, but because of his imprisonment, many people were encouraged to preach the gospel themselves. They were rising to the challenge. You might think that Paul’s imprisonment might make people more scared to preach the gospel. However, the opposite was true.
When I was a student, sometimes a teacher or someone in authority at the school would come to our class and say that he needed volunteers to do either an unpleasant, dirty or a difficult task. For about 30 seconds or so, there would be silence and nobody would speak. Then, one guy might put up his hand and volunteer. Then, suddenly five or six others would also put up their hands and volunteer. Why? Because the other five or six would reason that if so and so could rise to the challenge, they could too. People felt that if Paul could rise to the challenge of paying the price to spread the gospel, they could too and they did. Paul rejoiced in that.
Paul remained JOYFUL because he asked the right questions. He could have asked the negative question, “Why did this happen to me?” Instead, we choose the positive: “How has this resulted for some benefit God had in mind.” To be joyful, we need to be asking the positive questions ourselves.
When faced with suffering, we have a choice to make: we can become BITTER, or we can become BETTER. Choosing to become BETTER will increase our joy.
Becoming BETTER involves making sure that we have aligned our priorities with God’s.
If our priorities are being rich, comfortable and living a hassle free life, we shouldn’t be surprised when circumstances steal our joy. Very few people get to live that way. If we live for pleasure, we shouldn’t be surprised when circumstances steal our joy because life inevitably brings us the opposite to pleasure – pain. If we live to pump up our own ego, we shouldn’t be surprised when circumstances steal our joy because people will always do things to hurt our feelings and our pride. If we align our priorities with God’s – if we desire holiness and righteousness and love and His will done on the earth as it is in Heaven – we can rise about our circumstances because even the worst of them can be used of God to bring these about if we are submitted to God. That truth can bring tremendous joy, even in the midst of pain.
B. God’s priorities were even more important to Paul than his ego.
15 It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
It is difficult to believe that someone might preach the gospel to spite someone else who preached the gospel. We like to think that preachers and pastors and evangelists are above such pettiness. It is not so.
a. A few years back I went to the Winnipeg Prophecy Conference. They hold it every year in one of Winnipeg’s bigger hotels. I arrived just in time to hear a message on the Trinity by a well known author. I had never heard this author speak but I had read one of his books. Now I love hearing preaching about the Trinity. I love to hear Biblical teaching on how our One God can be Three Persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I love to listen to Biblical proof of the doctrine. I love to hear about what it says about the nature of the unity of God. I love to hear about the relationship of love within the Trinity. I love to learn new insights into the nature of God. And so I sat down in great expectation of getting good teaching. What I got instead was an attack on another author. Now, both these authors have similar ministries. They are both dedicated to exposing heretical and false teaching. They preach the same gospel. I left the conference very disappointed not only because I didn’t learn anything about the Trinity but because the speaker used that forum to attack a fellow Christian teacher. I don’t fault him for disagreeing with the other author. I just felt that the spirit in which he attacked him was not worthy of a man of God. I felt that his attack was motivated by envy and rivalry rather more than anything else.
And so Paul experienced something similar. As difficult as it might be to believe, people may have been attacking Paul while still remaining true to the message of the Gospel. But Paul wasn’t worried about it. As long as the message wasn’t tampered with – as long as people preached the crucified, risen and saving Lord – as long as they preached salvation by grace through faith - he really didn’t care. He only cared when the message was tampered with. The aim and the passion of his life was the spreading of the Gospel. The commission Jesus Christ gave him was to spread The Gospel. His aims and his goals were so aligned with God’s that he was able to find joy even when other people didn’t like him. God’s priorities were more important than his ego.
It is good to have the kind of pride that lifts of your chin. It is good to have self-respect. It is good to have a healthy self-esteem. However, there will be times when God will call us to set our ego aside so that the work of the Kingdom will be advanced.
John the Baptist is a great example of this. After Jesus began his ministry, more and more people came to hear Jesus than who came to hear John. John’s disciples were very concerned about this and when to him and said:
"Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan— the one you testified about— well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him." 27 To this John replied, "A man can receive only what is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ 29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete. 30 He must become greater; I must become less.
Notice how John said that his joy was complete on seeing the work of Jesus. His ego was submitted to the work of the Gospel. God’s priorities were more important to John than his ego and, note this, he found great JOY!
The book of Proverbs says:
Pr 29:23 A man’s pride brings him low, but a man of lowly spirit gains honor.
An essential ingredient to Joy is humility. Joy is found in having a lowly spirit. Joy is found in aligning our priorities with God’s priorities. If our priorities line up with God’s, we will rejoice when we see them accomplished – even if we pay a price in terms of our comfort and our convenience and even our ego. Even if we suffer for it.
II. Paul could have joy in the face of difficulties not only because his priorities were aligned with God’s, his faith was aligned with God’s Promises.
Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 ¶ For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.
Paul knew that two destinies awaited him. Either he would be freed to continue his work of preaching the gospel or he would be sentenced to death. He is actually debating which outcome would be better!
22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two:
Most people would call the better choice a no brainer: continue to live! But notice how Paul’s priority is that Christ be exalted. He wants whatever outcome happens to be one that exalts Jesus Christ. If he lives, Christ will be exalted by his fruitful labour. If he dies, Christ will be exalted as he experiences eternal life with Him.
This is because Paul’s attitude is rooted in FAITH. Actively believing the promises of God gave him three things that helped him be joyful.
First of all, he had faith that that things would turn out exactly as God directed whether he lived or died. That gave him a mind calming PEACE.
Secondly, he had faith that what may have temporarily brought him pain and discomfort would ultimately result in Christ being exalted in his body. That gave him HOPE.
Paul also had FAITH that he would not be ashamed for his work in spreading the Gospel. That gave him CONFIDENCE.
Paul refused to be crippled by other people’s words. He refused to submerge himself in self-pity. He refused to take criticism and attacks personally. He even refused to let the possibility of death get him down. He remained strong, positive and sure. How could he be so strong? The answer is that for him CHRIST WAS CENTRAL.
21 ¶ For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Again, Paul could have JOY because his priorities were in line with God’s.
Any other priorities just don’t cut it.
For me to live is MONEY ... and to die is to leave it all behind.
For me to live is FAME ... and to die is to be quickly forgotten.
For me to live is POWER AND INFLUENCE ... and to die is to lose both.
For me to live is POSSESSIONS ... and to die is to depart with nothing in my hands.
As Chuck Swindoll says:
When money is our objective, we must live in fear of losing it, which makes us paranoid and suspicious. When fame is our aim, we become competitive lest others upstage us, which makes us envious. When power and influence drive us, we become self-serving and strong-willed, which makes us arrogant. And when possessions become our god, we become materialistic, thinking enough is never enough, which makes us greedy. All these pursuits fly in the face of contentment ... and JOY.
Only Christ can satisfy, whether we have or don’t have, whether we are known or unknown, whether we live or die. And if to live is Christ, and to die is gain, death only sweetens the pie.
And from this we can see that the secret of joy is the cultivation of a Christ-centred, Christ-controlled life. Joy comes much more easily when our priorities are aligned with God’s and our faith is aligned with HIS promises.
Both I know and you know that your life has its share of problems and difficulties. I have sat with many of you and heard your stories. Some of you have gone through things I hope I never have too. Some of you are facing problems now that are huge. My encouragement to you is not to let them steal your joy. Don’t give into despair and discouragement because you don’t have to. Despair and encouragement are NOT your only options here. You can choose joy. However, it might involve realigning your priorities. Maybe you are giving into despair because what you value and what God values for you are actually two separate things. One key to joy in any difficult situation is to ask yourself, “what is God trying to accomplish in me in this situation? How is he trying to work his holiness and righteousness and love in me? How is he seeking to advance the Gospel through me?” You might be surprised at the answer you find. You will probably find reason for joy. Then, align your faith with God’s promises.
When Debra and I were going through a difficult time many years ago, God kept reminding us of Jeremiah 29:11:
11 For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.
I know that this Scripture was first written to the Jews who were exiled in Babylon, but I can’t help but think that God wants this for all His people. That promise gave us Peace, hope and confidence and therefore JOY, even when life wasn’t going tickety boo.
We often can’t control what happens to us, but what we can control is how we respond to it. Paul shows us that we can choose to respond with joy even when life throws curveballs at it. This is more than just, “if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” Sometimes to get this kind of joy we need major surgery on our priorities so that they are aligned with God’s. Sometimes we have to stop being our own worst enemies. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves of God’s promises and cling fast to them. Joy does not come easy.
How would your life look if you, like Paul, choose joy? How do you need to change your view of suffering? What priorities in your life would you have to change to be in line with God’s? What promises do you need to take seriously?
I think that Grace Bible Chapel is a joyful place but we can always use more joy, can’t we? Paul shows us that if we realign our priorities with God’s and realign our faith with God’s promises we will find ourselves much more joyful.
C. 2012 by Rev. Steven Brown. You are free to use portions of this message but please do not pass this off as your own.