Special Study – Joy in Philippians

Every year, researchers publish their results of the Happy Planet Index (HPI) identifying the happiest countries in the world. Right now (2014) the happiest country on the planet is Costa Rica. To discover a country’s happiness quotient, researchers multiply life expectancy by something called “Experienced Well Being” and divide by “Ecological Footprint.” An interesting note: the top ten countries were almost all Central or South American countries (although Vietnam was 2nd). The US ranks near the bottom at 115th.

The question everyone wants answered is “How do I be happy?” Barnes & Nobel stays in business selling shelf-fulls of books explaining how to be happy. Consider several authors’ take on how to be happy:

Joel Osteen

In his book Your Best Life Now:

  1. Enlarge your vision
  2. Develop a healthy self-image
  3. Discover the power of your thoughts and words
  4. Let go of the past
  5. Find strength through adversity
  6. Live to give
  7. Choose to be happy

Happiness for Dummies

The author offers 4 ingredients:

  1. Feeling of safety
  2. Sense of satisfaction
  3. Sense of perspective
  4. Quietude

Plus, other “ingredients”… Satisfaction, pleasure, gratitude, serenity, and well-being

John Chaffee

From his book The Thinker’s Way, he offers 8 steps:

  1. Think critically
  2. Live creatively
  3. Choose freely
  4. Solve problems effectively
  5. Communicate effectively
  6. Analyze complex issues
  7. Develop enlightened values
  8. Think through relationship

Scott Peck

The Road Less Traveled: “Life is difficult” (1978)

Further Along the Road Less Traveled: “Life is complex” (1993)

The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Failure to think is “the problem” (1998)

While all these attempt to offer solutions to the happiness crisis many people face in life, there is truly only one Book – the Book of books – that can explain how to satisfy man’s deepest craving which is joy and not happiness. But first, let’s discuss the difference…

The root word of “happy” is “hap” which is defined as one’s luck or accidental. Thus, when circumstances and situations are good, one is happy; when they are not, one is unhappy.  What all of these writers fail to discover is that it is not positive thinking which will counter negative thinking; it is truth thinking which trumps both (all) thinking patterns. The Biblical paradigm is one which seeks to guide and shape people’s thoughts. Very rarely is happiness used to describe the state of the saint. Instead, New Testament writers often speak of “joy.” While happiness is influenced and affected by circumstances, joy is not. That is why Paul can repeatedly write from a Roman prison cell, “Rejoice!” Positive thinking will only get one so far down the happiness trail since happiness is rooted in circumstances. But the psychological significance of truth-thinking transcends circumstances and situations. Now for some background…

The Philosophical Idea of Joy

The philosophers spoke of “joy” (Gk chara) to express certain Hellenistic ideas. Plato saw joy as being equal with hedonism. Aristotle, though, saw hedonism as being greater than joy. Then, the Stoics got the idea that hedonism is nothing more than a special kind of joy but it, like other self-gratifying emotions, was bad. It should be evident that the only thing to change in the secular understanding of happiness and joy is the time and date.

The Biblical Idea of Joy in the Old Testament

The Biblical writers introduce a vastly different concept of joy. David speaks of “the joy of Your presence” (Psa 21.6). Several times, God’s work in salvation is a chief reason for joy (see Psalm 5.11; 9.2; 16.9). There is singing associated with the joy of salvation. Indeed, the whole being is summoned to rejoice. When people are faithful to God’s word there is joy (Isaiah 65.13-14) causing God Himself to rejoice (65.19). Perhaps Jeremiah is the most explicit when he writes, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy (chara) and the delight of my heart” (15.16). Here one finds a direct correlation between joy and the word of God. When people (especially God’s people) consume the word of God, are faithful to His law, and are thereby saved, joy is manifested. This joy is not merely internal and inward; it has a cause and finds expression, especially in singing.

The Biblical Idea of Joy in the New Testament

Much of these ideas get carried over into the New Testament and are amplified at the realization and fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. In Matthew, chara carries an eschatological emphasis (see especially 25.21, 23). Mark only uses the word once but it is significant because chara comes because of the reception of the word of God (4.16, parable of the soils). Joy shows up in the final discourse of Jesus recorded by John; it is used 6 times in the span of three chapters (15.11; 16.20, 21, 22, 24; 17.13). It is Luke, though, who uses chara the most (8 times). It is joy which is a theme running through his gospel narrative from Jesus’ arrival (2.10) to His ascension (24.52). The overarching connection seems to be with the coming of the King into His kingdom.

Paul and Joy

No New Testament writer used the word chara more than Paul. It is never used in a secular sense but is usually connected with his work as an apostle. In other words, Paul never uses the word group in a mundane way, but in a majestic way. Philippians is no doubt Paul’s treatise on joy. This book is riddled through with chara. Early in the epistle Paul sets the stage for the entire letter by explaining that he is a joyful servant (Philippians 1.1, 4).  The joy Paul has is reciprocal in nature, from him to his brethren in Philippi through his fellow worker Timothy (2.28-29). Indeed, the Christians at Philippi are the embodiment of Paul’s joy (4.1). Over and over, Paul exhorts his brethren through command to “rejoice in the Lord” (3.1; 4.4). This kind of rejoicing should be the Christian’s disposition at all times (or “always” see 4.4). Even when confronted by a situation in which Christ is preached out of envy and rivalry with the intent of somehow harming Paul, so long as Christ is preached Paul has joy (1.18). The source of this kind of supernatural joy is faith in Christ (1.25). So Paul presents the Biblical and psychological significance facets of joy in this short epistle.