Joy is no Laughing Matter

Lake Shore Church, Chicago, IL – 08-24-2003


Key idea: Joy is critical to a believer’s success, and it is a by product of a heart and mind aligned with God.


Open with prayer.


Introduction: What is Joy?


Joy. I want to talk to you today about joy. This is another one of those difficult subjects that must be defined a bit before we can address it, but like many abstract ideas, it’s hard to define. But we know it when we see it, right?


Joy has been described as “Laughing so hard your stomach hurts” The dictionary says it’s an intense sense of elation, happiness, or satisfaction. John Keats, the poet, wrote, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Another poet, Richard Hovey, wrote “There is no sorrow like a love denied / Nor any joy like love that has its will.”, probably the world’s largest bookseller, listed nearly 7,000 books for my enjoyment when I searched for books associated with “joy.” I could never find joy if it takes reading that many books to discover it!


For all that, do you think there’s much joy in the world? On September 11, 2001, the world went to work on a day that suddenly seemed sucked of any possibility of joy. Darkness, despair, fear, and anger seemed to crowd out any other possible emotion. Since then, stories of criminal atrocities committed by foreign dictators, lies and theft committed by once-trusted corporate leaders, and the daily petty insults heaped upon us by coworkers, bosses, and family members only serve to deepen the sense that joy is a diminishing and rare commodity. Who has joy today—true joy? And if you think you’ve got it, you better not turn on the news, right? Because the feeling will fade fast. My wife heard a message given by a minister from Ethiopia who made a decision long ago to never watch the news or read the paper in the evening. His reason was that whatever happened that was bad, could wait till morning. His family and his own spiritual walk demanded that he go home joyful, and stay joyful, until he lay his head down at night.


Whatever joy is, whether it’s a feeling of happiness, or a deep sense of satisfaction, it must be quite fragile to suffer so much today.


But I believe what God thinks joy is and what we think joy is are sometimes two different things.


Now, I don’t usually like to reference foreign languages or the Greek or Hebrew of the biblical manuscripts, but sometimes it’s helpful to know what was going on with the ancient language, especially when our current terms defy easy definition. But we have to ask ourselves, sometimes, whether what the words the biblical writers used mean the same thing as the words we use. When the words are the same but the meanings are different, we can easily fall prey to a misinformed approach to what God is trying to tell us in Scripture.


The word “joy” as it is most frequently found is scripture, is translated from a Greek word: chara. Whenever you see “chara” you know the translation will usually be joy, or rejoice, or happiness. Now, did you know that “joy” and “grace” are two closely related terms? You wouldn’t know that from looking at the words in English, of course, because in English they are not related. But in the Greek you might be interested to know that where “joy” is “chara”, the word for grace is “charis.” You might notice they sound a bit alike--chara, and charis--and that’s because the word from grace (charis) is based on the root word for joy (chara). In fact, grace might be defined as “that which delights” or “that which causes joy.”


I went on this little word definition journey not so I could bore you or impress you with my research. Instead, I’m hoping to drive home this point. Please keep in mind that whenever the Bible talks about joy for the believer, it is not talking about the same kind of joy or emotions that you normally find in books, movies, and TV shows. The biblical view of joy is so closely tied to the grace of God that you cannot separate them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is impossible to experience the kind of joy that is lasting, that comes from God, without also experiencing his grace firsthand.


So, let’s return to our questions. What is joy? How can I have joy? How do I know I have it? As I said earlier, it may be difficult to define, and it may be impossible for the world to define it the way God sees it, but we certainly know when we see it, and we know when it’s missing.


A few years ago I read a comment by Dennis Prager, a Jewish talk show host and commentator. Listen to what he said about joy, though he uses “happiness” here to mean the same thing:


I once asked a deeply religious man if he considered himself a truly pious person. He responded that while he aspired to be one, he felt that he fell short in two areas. One of those areas, he said, was his not being a happy enough person to be considered truly pious.


His point was that unhappy religious people reflect poorly on their religion and on their Creator. He was right; in fact, unhappy religious people pose a real challenge to faith. If their faith is so impressive, why aren't these devoted adherents happy? There are only two possible reasons: either they are not practicing their faith correctly, or they are practicing their faith correctly and the religion itself is not conducive to happiness. Most outsiders assume the latter reason. Unhappy religious people should therefore think about how important being happy is—if not for themselves, then for the sake of their religion. Unhappy, let alone angry, religious people provide more persuasive arguments for atheism and secularism than do all the arguments of atheists.


(Dennis Prager, talk show host, author, columnist , Happiness Is a Serious Problem (Regan Books, 1998), p.4)


That’s a serious charge, isn’t it? “Unhappy…angry, religious people provide more persuasive arguments for atheism and secularism than do all the arguments of atheists.”


What does a life without joy look like? What would you say about a man who lacks joy? You’d certainly say he was unhappy. He is probably anxious and restless. He probably doesn’t laugh much--even though laughter isn’t a good test for joy (after all the Gospels don’t show Jesus laughing, but he was definitely joyful). There’s probably a good amount of anger in a joyless man’s life. Don’t forget fear, apathy, and disinterest. A joyless person might also be depressed, lonely, or burned out.


So how does one get joy? How can I be joyful and have joy in and through and around my life? How can I be the kind of person so that others notice my joy? And, by the way, who are the people who will first notice the presence or absence of true joy in your heart? Your closest friends, right? And your family. Who hasn’t seen this situation: Mom and Dad are getting ready for Sunday morning church and the kids are sleepy and unruly as usual.  Bobby can’t find his shoes and Cindy won’t eat her cereal. And the baby, oh, the baby is crying so loud! Before long everybody’s rushed into the car, the kids are strapped in, and the short drive to church commences. But before we’ve even hit the first stoplight Mom and Dad are arguing. It doesn’t matter about what because it’s different every Sunday. Sometimes it’s the tithes, sometimes it’s about the condition of the car or the empty gas tank, or maybe someone forgot to get the groceries for the Sunday dinner. It doesn’t matter what, but every Sunday there’s a fight. But then, a miracle seems to happen. Dad parks the car, Mom unstraps all the kids, and everybody troops into the church where, suddenly, all the arguments are forgotten and everybody’s smiling and talking about what a great week they had!


If I were a betting man, and I’m not, I’d wager that Bobby and Cindy and the baby would be the first to notice if Mom and Dad suddenly started living in and nurturing an atmosphere of joy around the house. How many of you think that if your best friends, your mom, your dad, or your spouse, started experiencing true joy that it would go unnoticed? How many of you think that if you started experiencing true joy your friends wouldn’t notice?


They would.


The Passage


And they can. It’s possible for you, right now, to start living in an attitude and posture of joy, and Paul the Apostle shows us how. Let’s look at a passage in Philippians that lays it all out for us.


Philippians 4:1-9


   Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!


   I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.


   Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.


   Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


There are a few things you should know about what’s going on here behind this passage before we dig too deeply into it. Paul, after his conversion, went on three major journeys, evangelizing, defending the gospel, planting churches, and generally getting run out of town. The church at Philippi was one such church and it was founded by Paul on his second journey. The account of that journey can be found in Acts 16:11-40. When he arrived in Paul discovered that there were not even enough Jewish men to have formed a synagogue there, so he started with the few Jewish women there who gathered every day for prayer. After starting a small church, Paul cast a demon out of a slave girl, and the town erupted in anger, throwing Paul and Silas, who was traveling with him, into jail.


Philippi was a Roman town, in fact it was so Roman it was considered a “Rome away from Rome.” Now here’s something you should know about prisons in Rome and in Philippi:


Roman imprisonment was preceded by being stripped naked and then flogged—a humiliating, painful, and bloody ordeal. The bleeding wounds went untreated as prisoners sat in painful leg or wrist chains. Mutilated, bloodstained clothing was not replaced, even in the cold of winter.


Most cells were dark, especially the inner cells of a prison, like the one Paul and Silas inhabited in Philippi. Unbearable cold, lack of water, cramped quarters, and sickening stench from few toilets made sleeping difficult and waking hours miserable. Because of the miserable conditions, many prisoners begged for a speedy death. Others simply committed suicide.

("How the Apostle Paul Suffered in Prison",


We know from Acts that Paul and Silas were given the full treatment. They were stripped, severely flogged, thrown into jail, and their feet were roughly locked in stocks.


But something amazing happened in that dark, damp, bloody cell. A song of joy was lifted up and the notes of grace and mercy floated out to unbelieving ears. Paul and Silas, beaten to within an inch of their life, feet shackled, were exercising their joy in Christ: they were “praying and singing hymns to God.” The result was an earthquake, a literal earthquake that burst every door in the prison wide open.


Once the Philippian magistrate learned that Paul was a full Roman citizen, he let both him and Silas go, telling them to leave the city, and they did. But now fast forward several years into the future after Paul has completed his third missionary journey and now finds himself imprisoned in another Roman prison, this time in Rome, and this time Paul is preparing for death for his is ill, and aging, and the hardships of his journeys have worn him down.


To this audience at Philippi, who remembered his expression of joy in the Philippian jail, he expresses joy once again! The Philippians were facing hard times, there was disagreement in the church, and they were deeply worried about Paul’s future. They knew he was dying in prison, and their hearts went out to him, and they worried for him. They were anxious. But in his darkest hour Paul speaks to their deepest need as a church and he gives them a resounding command: rejoice!


And there’s no better person than Paul to say it. These people knew his life. They knew his example. Paul lived what he preached, and he knows what he’s talking about.


For one thing, Paul knows that the chief enemy of joy is anxiety, or worried. I believe that it’s impossible for both conditions to be present in your life and mind simultaneously. You cannot live in a state of joy and be worried about whether your company is going to fold next week, or if your boss is going to be irrationally made about something. You cannot be in a state of joy and even be angry. Like love, and peace, joy is an exclusive emotion, crowding out all the negative stuff that usually characterizes the hearts and minds of everybody living without Christ.


Joy in Unity


Let’s look a little more closely at this passage and see exactly what Paul’s saying to the church and to us.


Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!


This passage actually concludes what went before, but it’s shown in our bibles as the first verse of chapter four. This is probably because whenever you see Paul using the word “Therefore” he’s beginning a section of practical advice and exhortation that is based on the argument that went before. Roman’s 12:1 begins the same way. This is a style of argument that Paul uses frequently, and it helps to pay attention to it because you’ll often find his key ideas and key verses at this pivot point from description to command.


We won’t go into it deeply here, but Paul just opened chapter three with warnings about Judaizers, who advocated circumcision as a requirement for salvation, and he described the ultimate goal of being resurrected from the dead like Christ. He closes chapter three with simple instructions on how to attain that goal with him and, in chapter four, he immediately moves into a very practical example of what it means to stand firm in unity. He starts by addressing a specific problem between two church leaders who have been a part of the Philippian church from the very beginning. He says:


I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.


We don’t know what the problem was between Euodia and Syntyche, but we know the division and strife between them was enough to have disturbed Paul all the way over in Rome, while he was dying in prison. I can’t imagine what went through these two women’s minds as they sat, probably in opposite corners of the room, while Paul’s letter was being read out loud to the gathered church. I’m sure their faces burned with shame and embarrassment. I’m sure everybody’s eyes turned toward them from every corner of the church! I’m also sure, at that moment, the last thing on each woman’s mind was joy.


Have you ever been publicly called out in a church service for correction? Do you know what that kind of shame anxiety that creates? Unfortunately, I do. I’m not happy to admit it, but it happened to me, twice, in the space of about two weeks. I was 16 years old and sitting in church, giggling, and talking with friends. At one point I leaned over and started to say something to the pretty girl in the row ahead of me when I heard my name coming over the sanctuary loudspeakers! My ears instantly turned read, and I felt every eye on the church turn toward me as, on the other side of the sanctuary, my Mom and Dad shrank into their seats. “Richard, I need you to pay attention now!” The next time occurred only a couple weeks later when I was sitting next to a guy that I looked up to and wanted to impress with how funny and witty I was. At some point in the service, I leaned over to him with some clever observation on my tongue when it happened again! “Richard, I need you to pay attention now!” Again, there was the red face, the heads turning toward me, and my parents wanting to flee in shame. I’m not sure my parents ever recovered from that humility. But having gone through that, I can sure imagine Euodia’s and Syntyche’s public anxiety at that point.


But, mercifully, Paul spends no time on the cause of the problem. Just like whatever I had to say to my buddy in the next seat, it wasn’t important what these two ladies disagreed over. It was only important to Paul that everybody wake up to the fact that division in the church cannot be tolerated because, like the scene I described before--with Mom and Dad arguing before church--wherever there is strife and anger and disunity, joy cannot reign and God’s grace cannot flow.


So, Paul simply says, “agree with each other in the Lord.” Agree with disagree, but stand firm together. And he tells the rest of the church to help.


Joy Without Anxiety


And while his words are still hanging in the air, while the shame must sure still burn on each face, Paul seemingly changes the subject with the very next heartbeat:


Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus


Now we get to the meat of the issue. Paul issues some very direct commands to the church at Philippi, and they are not optional for the successful Christian life. There are four parts to the command:


  1. Rejoice
  2. Be gentle
  3. Do not be anxious
  4. Pray


And, before we go any further, Paul describes a condition of life that comes about as a result of following these commands: peace. Peace, overwhelming, impossible to understand peace will protect and surround the lives and minds of those who follow these commands.


Now the temptation, when looking at this passage, is to be distracted by the condition, peace, instead of the point that Paul’s making here. It’s easy to read this passage and think it’s only about peace, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I think this passage is about destroying anxiety through obeying God’s commands, and that peace is the result of obeying the commands. And it’s important to remember that Paul repeats the one command that is probably the most needed: rejoice!


He really wants to make it clear: you are to rejoice!


Looking closely at this passage I see a pattern in the first three commands. Do you remember the fruit of the Spirit that Paul described in Galatians 5:22? Here they are:


But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.


The first three fruits of the Spirit are love, joy and peace. When you examine the rest of the fruits of the Spirit you see that they are all, in some way, related to the first three. Where there is love, there will be patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where there is joy, there will be patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Where there is peace, there will be patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.


I think it’s clear that, for Paul, the fruits of the Spirit are not the passive outworking of the Spirit being in our lives. Instead, they are the result of a conscious, dedicated, disciplined soul that has determined to exercise its power to choose in such a way that love, joy, and peace are the result.


Remember how we talked about grace and joy being related? How grace is based on the same word for joy? I think they are related in Paul’s mind too, because nobody on Earth, by sheer willpower alone, can live a life that is consistently loving, gentle, and free from anxiety. While these things must be decided and you must exercise your will to choose to love, and to choose to be gentle, and to choose to avoid anxiety--in the end you are only able to make those choices because you have opened yourself up to God’s grace by prayer. And that’s the fourth item on Paul’s list: prayer.


It is by God’s grace that you are able to love your neighbor as yourself. It is by God’s grace that Euodia and Syntyche can put aside their differences and “agree in the Lord.” And it is by God’s grace that we experience joy and a release from worry and anxiety.


And this peace, gentleness, and joy will come about only as we dedicate our lives to knowing God, through prayer and reading the Scripture.


Joy Through Discipline


Paul concludes with a few more words about spiritual disciplines here, words we are all familiar with and words that are always in danger of being taken out of context because they are read and memorized without reference to what happened in the first part of this chapter. Paul says:


Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.


In this study we have seen that joy and peace are the product of a lifestyle. Joy cannot exist in a mind that is troubled and full of anxiety. Have you ever been to a doctor with a complaint about some physical problem, like a fever, aches, and pains, and found that because he didn’t know what the real problem was, you were treated for the symptoms instead of the actual cause of the illness itself? I’ve been sick this last week, you can probably hear it in my voice, and you can certainly hear it in my cough. I didn’t go to the doctor because I know the symptoms will run their course, and I will recover. But I can’t say I did nothing. No, I did plenty of things. I drank medication, I swallowed pills, I stayed in bed, I slept long hours, and I drank lots of water. These things are all good, and necessary when you’re sick. But, still they’re all addressing symptoms. Cough medicine didn’t get rid of my cold, it just cleared up my cough.


But Paul doesn’t do that here. He sees that the primary problems of the Philippian church were anxiety, and worry. Some of that anxiety was over the disunity between Euodia and Syntyche, and some of that anxiety was over Paul dying in prison. And Paul knew that anxiety can disrupt the flow of God’s grace through the church like almost nothing else can. Let me make an analogy here, that may be useful in seeing how anxiety and worry can blind us.


Did you know that, according the Bureau of Standards, a dense fog covering seven city blocks to a depth of a hundred feet contains less than one glass of water. All of that fog, if it could be condensed into water, wouldn't quite fill a drinking glass.


Compare this to the things we often worry about We worry about fights in the church, problems at home, physical illness, even death. Like fog our worries can thoroughly block our vision of the light of God's promises, but the fact is, anxiety has little real substance. (“Worry Hinders our Faith”,

But  Paul doesn’t stop with addressing the symptoms of a condition, the fog of anxiety. He doesn’t simply stop with the command to stand unified. He doesn’t simply stop with the command to rejoice and have joy. He doesn’t say “Here, take two of these and call me in the morning.” No, he goes to the root of the problem: that of the Philippian  church’s thought life.


What you choose to think about determines the character and tone of your life. The diet of your mind affects everything from relationships, to your job and even to your physical health. Everything you do reveals the state of your mind and when you “blow it” by sinning, it’s because you allowed the temptation to sin to enter your mind and camp out. When you dwell on sin and when you dwell and hurt, and resentment, your actions reflect your mental reality.


Paul could not have said it more clearly. The Philippian church desperately needed joy, but to get there they had to stop fighting each other, and they had to stop worrying and thinking negatively.


The two chief enemies to joy in this life are a failure to love and a failure to control what you dwell on in your mind. We like to think of joy as an emotion, that’s a very American and Western way to view life. But that view is really more about giddiness, or ecstasy, or delight, than it is about real, true joy. Rather, in Paul’s view, and in God’s view, joy is a state of being that allows for giddiness, or ecstasy or delight. You can be giddy, yet still profoundly depressed. You can have feelings of ecstasy yet still feel lonely and blue. You can delight in something yet still be unhappy. This is one of the main forces driving many people’s addictions. They want to feel something, anything, and their need to feel joy, release, happiness, or peace escalates beyond anything that a drug, a new sex partner, or material riches can provide. When I was young I used to turn to reading fiction as an escape. You could chart the depth of my depression by seeing how many books littered my bedroom. Others I know seek solace in the joy of cooking or eating. Some go to movies to escape, or alcohol, or worse. All of these things can become a weak substitute for the true joy found in Christ, but none of them satisfy.


And here, Paul’s saying, there’s a way! You can have true joy. You can have that sense of deep satisfaction that all is well with my soul. You can experience the comfort of knowing that you need nothing, and that God will take care of you. That God will provide and that you need not worry about a thing.


It’s all here. But you have to choose.


Conclusion: Joy through Choice


Author Bob Reccord, author of Forged by Fire: How God Shapes Those He Loves, tells about a choice he had to make, a choice to embrace joy and not anxiety.


As I write this book, I'm having to exercise the faith of dealing with the prison of pain. Unexpectedly, I suffered a severe cervical spinal injury. The pain was so excruciating, the hospital staff couldn't even get me into the MRI until they had significantly sedated me. The MRI showed significant damage at three major points in the cervical area. The orthopedic surgeon's assistant later told me, "Bob, your neck is a wreck." He said there was hardly any way I could avoid surgery.


Because of the swelling of injured nerve bundles, the only way I could relieve the pain was to use a strong, prescribed narcotic and to lie on bags of ice. Sleep, what little there was, came only by sitting in a reclining chair.


Approximately 48 hours from the onset of the injury, doctors estimated that I lost about 80 percent of the strength in my left arm. Three fingers on my left hand totally lost feeling. Even the slightest movements would send pain waves hurtling down my left side and shoulder. To add insult to injury, physicians said I had to step away completely from my work (which I love), and begin to wear a neck brace…24 hours a day for five weeks.


About halfway through that experience, I found myself sitting on the screened-in porch behind our home. The day was cold and blustery, but I was committed to being outside, just for a change of scenery. Suddenly a bird landed on the railing and began to sing. On that cold, rainy day, I couldn't believe any creature had a reason to sing. I wanted to shoot that bird! But he continued to warble, and I had no choice but to listen.


The next day found me on the porch again, but this time the atmosphere was bright, sunny, and warm. As I sat, being tempted to feel sorry for myself, suddenly the bird (at least it looked like the same one) returned. And he was singing again! Where was that shotgun?


Then an amazing truth hit me head on: the bird sang in the cold rain as well as the sunny warmth. His song was not altered by outward circumstances, but it was held constant by an internal condition. It was as though God quietly said to me, "You've got the same choice, Bob. You will either let external circumstances mold your attitude, or your attitude will rise above the external circumstances. You choose!"


[Bob Reccord, Forged by Fire: How God Shapes Those He Loves (Broadman & Holman, Nashville, TN, 2000), p. 112]


Your first choice, if you haven’t made it already is to enter into a relationship with Christ, where his grace can flow through your life. What does that mean? That means that you need to recognize that nothing you do will ever in any way merit God’s favor. He loves you already, nothing you can do will improve on that love. You just need to accept his love for you and accept the future he has for you. That’s his grace.


If you’re a believer already, then you need to keep your heart and life open to God’s grace by practicing the spiritual disciplines Paul describes here in this brief passage in Philippians. Let me outline them again for you, quickly:’


1.       Rejoice

2.       Be gentle

3.       Do not be anxious

4.       Pray

5.       Think on these things

6.       Put God's commands into practice


In John 15, Christ said:


If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.


If you’re feeling anxious or worried this morning, if you don’t feel joyful, perhaps this is a symptom of something even deeper and you need to align your life with Christ again? Perhaps you need to rededicate your life to walking in the light and following his commands.


It’s possible, and it’s not easy, but it’s not hard, either. Christ bears the burden with us. Just a couple chapters earlier, Paul said:


Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.


God is there for you, and he’s already done all the work. He’s doing the work even now. Won’t you pray with me, and ask him to help?


Close in prayer.