Joy! We hear the word often. We sing about it in songs and read about it in God’s Word. In earthly terms, Webster defines joy as an emotion of great delight or happiness caused by something exceptionally good or satisfying. A keen pleasure or elation. A source or cause of keen pleasure or delight; something or someone greatly valued or appreciated.
Earthly joy, like all earthly things, can be temporal. But to find true, lasting, lifelong joy comes only from God and the encouragement of others. Some people, like me, often don’t realize that God is using us to show that very thing - joy in the Lord.
We are not born with it. We gain it through the love of Christian brothers and sisters, their encouragement and through Paul’s example in his letters to the churches.
True joy was how Paul was able to remain assured in his terribly unsure years in prison. We should think of a spiritually joyful Paul in prison, not someone downcast and fearful. He was striding around some small room or dismal cell in Rome, perhaps in the presence of or even chained to a Roman soldier.
We see Paul carefully dictating a profoundly positive letter to encourage the church. Paul writes hopefully of his future in spite of the obvious hopelessness of his predicament. Paul’s rather hopeless physical situation and his hopeful reactions to every situation are expressed through a letter he is writing. It is one of the four prison epistles.
This one is to the Philippians, and it becomes a message of joy. The word ‘joy’ occurs 16 times in its various forms in the letter. Spiritual joy, rejoicing in Christ, is a major theme. “I will continue to rejoice,” Paul writes to concerned believers while he is under house arrest in Rome (Philippians 1:18).
He continues, “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” (verse 19). Paul has confidence in the outcome of his situation. No matter how bleak it is, no matter what ominous turn it may take, God’s will shall be done.
Meanwhile, the power of the Holy Spirit will see him through his predicament, no matter how difficult. Through Christ, Paul will face the worst and come out the best. What may happen to him in the near future is not the issue.
Paul’s present prison life, admittedly, is less than ideal. However, that is not the issue for the apostle Paul. He learned to be content whatever the circumstances. Encouraging the people he knew and loved, Paul says, “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).
Paul’s many trials did not deter him from living a Christian life. Neither did they restrict his preaching the gospel. To the contrary, suffering seemed to motivate him to even greater spiritual service.
He said something remarkable about his adversities - “For Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). We shouldn’t, however, think of Paul as an indestructible superman. There were times when the tremendous hardships he confronted were more than he could bear. After suffering one rather malicious incident of persecution, Paul admitted he and his companions “despaired even of life” (2 Corinthians 1:8).
Yet, as we must, Paul was able to rise above his many afflictions. How did he do it? And how can we surmount our trials and troubles? Paul didn’t overcome by his own strength or will. He never took personal credit for being able to bear his painfully heavy cross. He attributed his spiritual muscle to its true source — Jesus Christ. Paul said, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
He rejoiced, not in his own will and courage, but in the power of Christ in him. And by that example we know that we, too, have access to the same spiritual power and courage.
That final verse above sits upon my desk daily and has been there for years. I never really let that joy sink in until it was called to my attention as encouragement, in a recent time as I was struggling in my walk trying to understand my situation.
All it took was those words of encouragement and the prayers of others to help see the God given me I was born to be.
We all are not Pauls, but we have that same power available to us. It is up to us to choose joy.