Some people are happy all the time. You know the kind of person I mean; always smiling, always bright, never frowning. The glass is never any less than half-full.
I knew a girl a few years ago who was one of those people. Whatever came her way, she smiled. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be so permanently happy. I’m pretty sure I could have run over her cat and she would have found a reason to celebrate. Though I never tested that theory… Honest!
The Novelist Zadie Smith wrote a brilliant article in New York Review of Books in which she made a crucial distinction between joy and happiness. Happiness is often rooted in circumstances. If things happen to go your way, you get happiness. But once circumstances turn sour, happiness evaporates.
Smith writes, ‘A lot of people seem to feel that joy is only the most intense version of pleasure, arrived at by the same road – you simply have to go a little further down the track.’ In other words, if you pursue pleasure in greater intensity you’ll eventually achieve joy. But this, she says, has not been her experience. She receives some pleasure every day, from people-watching, or the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle. But this is not joy. Even though pleasure has the ability to mimic joy’s conditions, it is not the same thing.
‘I “have” pleasure,’ she writes. ‘It is a feeling I want to experience and own. A beach holiday is a pleasure. A new dress is a pleasure.’ But the experience of joy is somehow different. She writes that when one experiences joy, ‘the experiencing subject has somehow “entered” the emotion and disappeared.’ Joy is something deeper, more immersive than mere pleasure or happiness.
The Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who battled many health issues and serious depression, was nonetheless able to write, ‘There is an inexplicable joy that glows all through us – not over this or that, but the soul’s full outcry.’ For Kierkegaard that joy was rooted in his Christian faith; a faith that went deeper than simply believing a few key facts and enjoying good circumstances. It was something vital and life-giving. Constant. Joy. In all of life.
Life in Twenty-First Century London is full of pressures: How can I make ends meet? What do people think of me? Am I good enough or successful enough? Do I have enough to make me truly happy? In the face of these pressures we can often feel paralysed and joy feels out of reach. But such pressures aren’t unique to our day and age.
In the first century, Philippi was a major metropolitan area; a city located on a key trade route, and a centre for industry, academia and the arts. It was a Roman colony and the location of the first European church. When Paul wrote a letter to the church around 60-62 AD, he wrote to them about many of the same pressures we face today. People worried whether they had enough money; they got ill and feared for their lives; there were power struggles and disagreements between friends. Life wasn’t always plain sailing. In fact when Paul wrote the letter, he did so from the discomfort of a Roman jail cell!
And yet time and time again throughout the letter, Paul emphasises his unwavering belief that it is possible to find joy in every circumstance. Towards the end of the letter he writes this: ‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation’. (Philippians 4:12)
Over eight weeks this Summer, we want to look at this ‘secret’ Paul had discovered, considering how he was able to experience joy and contentment in all of life, and how we can do likewise. By studying this letter, we hope to be able to learn lessons that give us hope and strength today, whatever pressures and challenges we might be facing.
Check out preaching calendar for more information about what we’ll cover, and if you’d like to read some books to help you go deeper, check out some of these recommendations:
Matt Chandler is a popular author and preacher who leads The Village Church in Texas and who spoke at ChristChurch London in 2010. This is a highly readable but challenging introduction to the book of Philippians, full of application and practical insights.
Tom Wright is one of the world’s leading New Testament scholars, but he is also incredibly capable of making his vast learning accessible at a popular level. This short study guide covers a collection of letters that Paul wrote from Prison: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon.
This book includes 60 short reflections from five of Paul’s letters: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon, 14 of which are drawn from Philippians. It’s enjoyable, challenging and full of great insights.