“How To Build A Life Of Joy” (Philippians 1:3-5 sermon)

Samuel Rutherford was a pastor in Anwoth, Scotland in the 1600’s, when the English government changed, and demanded that all ministers use the government prescribed prayer book, and submit to the rites and ordinances of the Anglican church, instead of following the scriptures as many of them had been doing. Rutherford and 2000 other ministers refused to submit to the government order, and they were thrown out of their churches by the government. (By the way — we may not be far from this same kind of thing happening here in the US; we need to learn from the courage and conviction of men like Rutherford.) Samuel Rutherford was banished to prison in Aberdeen. But even in exile, separated from his home, his church, and his friends, Rutherford had joy in the Lord. He wrote of his time in prison: “My Lord Jesus has fully recompensed my sadness with His joys; my losses with His own presence.”

One of the greatest signs of the genuine Christian life, is the ability to rejoice, even in difficult circumstances. This kind of Christian joy is what the prisoners in the Philippian prison saw in Paul & Silas, when they were singing in the prison at midnight. Paul knew about joy. And this Book of Philippians is all about joy. Throughout the book the words “joy” or “rejoice” are repeatedly used. The Greek Bible word for “joy” has a basic meaning of “cheerfulness” or “gladness” — but it is MORE than just “mere surface happiness.” It is something deeper. In our Wednesday night Psalm studies, we saw that David said in Psalm 4, “You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and new wine abound” — in other words, there is a kind of happiness that God gives us that is more than what worldly people experience when they have a lot of food and drink. It is deeper than that. Jesus said in John that the joy He gives, no one can take away. Joy is something we all want in our lives: we all want the kind of gladness that you can have even in times of difficulty. But how can you have it? Paul, who KNEW that joy while he was AGAIN in prison as he was writing this letter to the Philippians, reveals to us in our verses for today several things that will build joy in your life:

“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.”

These verses teach us several things about how we can build a life of joy:
:3 “all my remembrance of you”
:4 “always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all”

When you read these verses, one of the things you might surmise is that Paul sure must have prayed for the Philippians a lot. “ALL my remembrance of you” and “ALWAYS offering prayer with joy in my EVERY prayer for you all” — that does sound like a lot of praying! But what is even MORE astounding is when you read through the rest of the New Testament and see how many OTHER times he said something exactly like this:

— When he wrote to the Romans Paul said, “For God … is my witness as to how unceasingly I make mention of you, always in my prayers making request …” (1:9-10
— to the Corinthians he wrote: “I thank my God always concerning you, for the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus.” (1:4)
— to the church at Ephesus he wrote: “I … do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers.” (1:16)
— to the Colossians he wrote: “We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you.” (1:3)
— to the Thessalonians he wrote: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, making mention of you in our prayers; constantly bearing in mind your work of faith …”

It is striking that Paul would write to ALL of these different people, in ALL of these churches, and tell ALL of them, that he was ALWAYS praying for them. Now, I know that in my own life, I have made a personal commitment, that I will not just “tritely” tell someone that I am praying for them. If I tell you that I am praying for you; I really am. I told our Romania mission team that I would pray for each of them individually every day while they were gone, and I made sure that I did that. To me, that is a matter of personal integrity: if I tell you that I am praying for you, then I really AM. Here’s the thing: I don’t think that the Apostle Paul’s commitment to integrity was in any way inferior to mine! He was not just “telling” all these people in these churches that he was praying for them; he really WAS! All of which means: if he was telling that many people and all of those churches that he was continually praying for them, then he was either the biggest liar or hypocrite you have ever heard about — or he must literally have been praying ALL the time! And that’s what I believe he did. Paul must have spent more time praying than you or I can imagine.

That’s why I don’t believe that he was exaggerating when he wrote in I Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” He really meant it. He was literally praying all the time, and he was commanding us to do the same thing. Pray all the time! Start your day with a blocked off time of prayer, and then get up from that and just continue your conversation with God all through the day, praying without ceasing, about every situation you face; every person you meet; everything you think about. When you wake up in the middle of the night, then sing Psalms and pray and intercede until you go back to sleep asleep again — and start it all again the next day. “Pray without ceasing.”

When we learn to PRAY like Paul did, then we will find the JOY that Paul experienced from prayer. Samuel Rutherford, the exiled pastor I mentioned in the opening, knew like Paul the joy that comes from praying for other people. Rutherford wrote: “I have been benefitted by praying for others; for by making an errand to God for them I have gotten something for myself.” Praying is something God wants us to do for others — but when we do, we find that it is a great source of joy for ourselves at the same time.

One of the reasons for this, among other things, is that praying constantly keeps you in the presence of God, and as we saw Wednesday night, Psalm 16:11 tells us: “In Your presence is fullness of joy.” The Bible teaches us there that joy is found in the presence of God. It is being in the presence of God that will give us joy for eternity in heaven. And though we can’t know His presence fully until we get there, we can “taste” that joy now, through prayer. Continually spending time with God in prayer is the foundation for a life of joy.
:3 “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you”

Here we see that one of the great keys to joy is gratitude. Paul said, “I thank my God.” Not just praying “in general”, but specifically giving God thanks is one of the keys to having contentment and joy.

People look at the Apostle Paul, and wonder: HOW could he rejoice, considering the situations he was in? In that story in Acts 16, he and Silas were on a mission trip in a foreign country, and they were thrown into prison for preaching the gospel. Can you imagine, Romania team, just back from your trip, how you would have felt if you had been arrested and thrown into prison while you were over there? What if, while you were distributing that food to the families in Hrip, the Romanian police had come and arrested you, and taken you to the prison in Satu Mare? That is exactly what happened to Paul. And yet from that prison in Philippi, Paul & Silas sang for joy to God. And now here Paul was in prison again, writing to the Philippians and talking about the JOY that he had.

People often quote Philippians 4:13, a verse found at the end of this book, and which is very well known: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. We use that verse for a lot of different things we face. When I lived in Oklahoma years ago I used to run around our mile section (4 miles around) and up some big hills, in 100 degree heat. Going up some of those hills I used to quote that verse out loud as I was panting: “I can do all things through Christ” and it would help me to get up the hill. And I think it’s ok to ask the Lord to help us do little things like that, but we really need to understand the greater context in which Paul was writing those words. He had just said in :12 that he had learned to be content in whatever circumstances he found himself. He said, “I know how to get along in humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity …” — it was in THAT context that he wrote in :13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He is actually writing about something much more difficult than just running up a hill or winning a basketball game; he is talking about how God gives him the ability to be CONTENT in ANY circumstances — which is a GREATER miracle for most of us!

And HOW could Paul be content in any circumstances? Because he walked with God daily; and a key element in that daily walk was constantly giving thanks. Paul was always giving thanks.

For example, the Philippians were not a perfect church. If you read ahead, you can discern that they had some problems: from Chapter 2, you see they had some selfish, divisive people; and some grumblers (:14) Chapter 3 shows us they had some danger from some legalistic false teachers who were trying to lure them back into Judaism; Chapter 4 flat out says that a couple of women in the church were at odds with each other — Paul called them by name there, and says I urge you to live together in harmony (wouldn’t it be embarrassing to be called out by name by the Apostle Paul in a letter?!) So they had some problems at the church there. Philippi wasn’t the perfect church. But Paul didn’t begin his letter focusing on all these things; he began with thanksgiving: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you” — and that is evidently the way he prayed as well. He focused on giving thanks for the good things God was doing, and it helped him stay joyful as he did.

This is one of the reasons why God commands us in Psalm 100: “Enter His gates with thanksgiving, and His courts with praise.” We should begin our prayers with thanksgiving; begin our days with thanksgiving; continually give thanks like Paul did; it will make a huge difference in our lives if we will continually give thanks.

Giving thanks is a key to joy. Will Moody was a deacon in our church in Louisiana, and now in his old age he lives with his daughter in Texas. He is one of the sweetest and most joyful and encouraging people I have ever known. Without fail, after every message I preached, I knew that he would come up to me and say something positive about it. And he always had the sweetest, most positive disposition. One day I found out one of the reasons why: he told me that he had made it his practice for some years, before his feet hit the floor in the morning, to give God thanks for 10 things he was grateful for. I thought, you know, that really would impact your day; it would help you start the day in a good and positive way!

And this attitude of thanksgiving is one of the most important attitudes in life. One of the biggest problems many of us have, that is really ruining our outlook on life, and our relationships with other people, is that we are not thankful. We are always wanting things to be different; always wanting more, always griping about what we DON’T have — instead of being grateful for what we DO. If you are continually saying things like: “Why can’t I have this” or “My wife never does that”, or “I just wish my husband were more like so-and-so” or “I wish my job were more this way …” If you are continually saying and thinking things like that, then you will be constantly dissatisfied, and constantly miserable. (And there are probably a lot of people who wish they didn’t have to be around you!) But if instead you would turn that around, and say: “I am thankful for what I DO have, and I am thankful that my spouse DOES do this or that does that … or I am thankful that I HAVE a job …” or whatever — it will make a HUGE difference in your attitude — and in your mental and emotional health, and in whether people want to be around you or not! In all your circumstances; find what you can be grateful for, and thank God for it. It will do amazing things to your outlook, and help you be content and find joy in every situation.
:5 “in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.”

But listen: this not just a matter of “positive thinking.” If you are a Christian, you really DO have a real reason to be thankful no matter what happens to you here on earth, because you have the gospel. And it is notable that THIS is what Paul said he was thankful for here, in the Philippians. What was it he was specifically giving thanks for? Their “participation in the gospel.” The word “participation” here is “koinonia” in Greek, the word for “fellowship.” “Koinonia” means to share something together with someone. Paul was saying here that the Philippians were “sharing together” in the gospel, and THIS is what he specifically mentioned that he was grateful for when he prayed for him. The reason why he was so thankful for this, is that sharing in the gospel is the most important thing there is. Paul could have thanked God for their health, or for their business success, or for their nice homes — or a raft of other things. But he said THIS is my reason for thanking God: because you are participating in the GOSPEL — and that is by far the most important thing that any person can have.

If you and your loved ones have this, then you have the most important thing there is — and you have the foundation which can give you joy in every situation.

You may say, “My kids are not Olympic athletes like some of those at Rio this week”. But if they are saved — you have a lot to be grateful for! If they are participating in the gospel, rejoice and be glad! There is nothing more important than that. If you yourself have eternal salvation, then you have the most important thing, and the most important reason for joy.

In Luke 10, Jesus has sent His disciples out to minister and they came back and said, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name.” They were so excited about this power they had. But Jesus corrected them in :20 and said: “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven.” Jesus was saying, listen, NOTHING is more important than this. Nothing you can have here on earth is more important than knowing that your name is written in heaven. No circumstance is more important than knowing that you are a participant in the gospel. So if you know that you share in the Gospel, then you really do have a reason you can rejoice and give thanks in every situation.

So for the Christian person, giving thanks in every situation is not just “positive thinking.” A Christian person really DOES have a reason to give thanks in every situation, because we have eternal blessings that are greater than any temporary inconveniences we might experience.

When that Scottish pastor Samuel Rutherford was in prison, he could rejoice and give thanks because he knew that his imprisonment was just temporary. He knew it was just a brief time, and soon he would be in glory with the Lord forever. Writing of the glories of Jesus in heaven, he said, “Put the beauty of 10,000 thousand worlds of paradises like the Garden of Eden in one; put all trees, all flowers, all smells, all colors, all tastes, all joys, all sweetness, all loveliness in one. And yet it would be less … than Christ, heaven’s wonder.”

Knowing that he had that glory of the Lord Jesus Himself waiting for him in heaven, Samuel Rutherford could give thanks even in his exile. It wasn’t just “positive thinking.” He really DID have a heaven; He really DID have a Lord Jesus waiting for him, with glories & joys we can only imagine now! And that is why he could rejoice and give thanks, even in that Aberdeen prison.

And its the same way with us today. IF you are really a Christian — and that is the BIG IF you need to make sure of — IF you are really a Christian, then you really DO have something to give thanks for in every situation of your life; you really DO always have a reason for joy. You’re like a person who has just been told that you have inherited a million dollars, but you have to go to the courthouse to get it — and you have to endure an uncomfortable taxi ride through bad traffic in a big city with heavy pollution and a slimy-looking, obnoxious cabby to get there to get your inheritance. But all that doesn’t matter, does it? Does it matter how bad the ride is? Does it matter how bad the traffic is, or how bad the pollution smells, or how obnoxious the cabby is? You can put up with anything along the way — you can look past all that and rejoice and give thanks — those minor inconveniences don’t matter because you have so much waiting on you!

That should be how it is for us as Christians. You have something better, richer, more glorious, and more permanent waiting for you in heaven, than any of the temporary inconveniences or sacrifices you can experience right now. So you can give thanks, and have joy in any situation you face.

But it all depends on this question: are you really a Christian? Do you know that you really have all that waiting for you in heaven? Can you really say that you have “participated” in the gospel, by repenting of your sin and following Jesus as the Savior of your sins and the Lord and Master of your life? Is this more than something that you have just heard about, but something that you can say that like the Philippians, you have a SHARE in this; that it is really a part of your life?

If you can really in your heart say “yes” to that, then you have all the foundation you need to have joy every day of your life. You can get joy by praying every day, and by giving thanks in every situation, because you have share in the fellowship of the gospel, and an inheritance waiting for you in heaven that no one can ever take away.

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, features the text of my sermons, book reviews, family life experiences -- as well as a brief overview of the Lifeway "Explore the Bible" lesson for Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers.
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