We would all like to be happy, but is true happiness even possible? People who have seen their dreams dashed on the rocks of disappointment have concluded happiness is not possible. I am one of those people who do not believe human happiness is possible over a long period. I do, however, believe that it is possible to experience joy no matter what the circumstances. What’s the difference? Let me explain.
Many people look for happiness that is contingent on their circumstances. If things go as planned and people treat them the way they expect, then they feel happy. The problem with this model of happiness is that we rarely have control over our circumstances and even less control over people. Just look at how this pandemic and the subsequent lockdown have impacted our lives. We are all trying to adapt to this very uncomfortable situation. If this describes your pursuit of happiness, then you know how frustrating this kind of life can be. You find disappointment robs you of your enthusiasm as your plans fail to work out. You feel hurt or even angered by the rudeness and disinterest of others around you. Chasing happiness this way feels like you are the yoyo that is being spun up and down with no way to stop the cycle. Unfortunately, this is the way that many people live their lives.
On the other hand, joy is a gift from God that is not dependent on circumstances or the mood or behavior of others. Joy is an attitude that we choose even in times of disappointment or anxiety. The Apostle Paul actually commanded the Philippians to have joy, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!” (Phil 3:1). Again in chapter 4, he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).
Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, makes it clear that our source of joy is the Lord. The origin is outside of ourselves and not dependent on us, our circumstances, or others. Paul sees joy not so much as a feeling but as an attitude—an attitude that we choose. Paul has the credentials to teach about joy because he has learned to model it during trials, and he has had plenty of them. This letter to the Philippians is written from a Roman prison without a hint of self-pity.
On the contrary, Paul is grateful that God has given him opportunities to witness and share the gospel to the Pretorian Guard—the soldiers who guard Caesar. He would never have had the chance to do that had he not been in a Roman prison. Paul has learned to model joy in such a way that inspires the Philippians to do the same.
Paul even looks at death with joy when he says, “But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me” Phil 2:17-18). Paul isn’t sure how things will turn out for him in Rome, but even if he meets with death, he will retain his joy. He also wants the Philippians to rejoice with him if such a thing would happen.
The apostle continues to emphasize that joy is not a result of pleasant circumstances or prosperity. Joy is a relationship with Jesus Christ. If we understand that and discipline ourselves to have an attitude of joy, we will be able live above our circumstances no matter how bad they are. When we choose joy, we refuse to allow people or adverse circumstances to steal our joy because it is not dependent on them.