On as many Fridays as possible, I slather my fair-skinned children in sunscreen, we put on our matching shirts, and my husband and I slip away with the family to “The Happiest Place on Earth.”
We stroll together down the idyllic Main Street USA, where every square inch is manicured, maintained, and downright magical. The cast members who work at this enchanting world make it their mission to assist, direct, and care for our every whim. The smells of cotton candy, popcorn, ice cream and fascination emanate from every picturesque corner. Each attraction is designed to thrill, inspire and please. Every aspect is centered on our enjoyment, pleasure and constant happiness.
With everything constructed for our delight, it’s difficult to understand why our last visit included one child sulking over the length of the line for Dole Whip, one complaining about the unfairness of a ride closure, and yet another kicking and screaming on the bathroom floor for still-unexplained reasons. And why were their parents moody, temperamental, and anything but joyful? In a place built for the sole purpose of joy, why was it so elusive?
Paul’s writings to the Philippians offer us an undeniable answer.
In only a little over 100 verses of Philippians, Paul uses the Greek words for “joy” or “rejoicing” 16 times. And he does this, not from a place of comfort or ease, but from the confines of imprisonment, surrounded by every conceivable obstacle to either of those words. He was chained next to a Roman guard, set to stand trial before Caesar (possibly Nero), and it was very possible that he would be executed. If Paul could find joy in worst of situations, why couldn’t we find it in the best? At this point in his ministry, Paul had been in Roman custody for several years; but, instead of allowing unfavorable circumstances to drive him to despair, he was able to uncover the profound ability to rejoice. Paul wrote to the Philippians to show them how they could do the same.
Paul told the Philippians that their joy would unequivocally come, not from any outward means, but solely from God. “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil.4:4). The word “rejoice” comes from the Greek root “char” which means “favorably disposed, leaning toward.” To lean towards something, you necessarily lean away from something else. Paul counseled the Philippians, and us, to lean into God, and lean away from our circumstances. As we lean into God, it doesn’t mean life miraculously gets better, but it does mean we have miraculous power to overcome anything in life. Our day at the Magic Kingdom became sour because we leaned into all the wrong things. We leaned into short lines, happy kids, and low humidity to deliver us the dose of happiness we sought; all things that change, fluctuate, and ultimately led us to despair.
But is it really possible to lean towards God, when our circumstances pull us in the complete opposite direction? Paul’s ability seems almost super human, and we find that it actually was.
A few verses later, he reveals his secret, “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13). Real joy is not found in the absence of problems but in the promised steadfastness of God. There is no question that life will bring sadness, disappointment, and pain, but we always have access to joy, because we always have access to Christ. Often God will lovingly strip away things that would bring us temporary comfort, but only for the purpose of showing us that far greater joy is possible when we are willing to press into Him in the midst of our disappointment. The command to lean into joy has nothing to do with our ever-changing lives and everything to do with our never-changing God
Paul continues in Philippians and shares a simple, but revolutionary, truth that will upend and transform our entire existence if we allow it. He tells us simply to pray and give thanks (Phil. 4:6). Not only do our thankful prayers allow us to recognize who God is and the miracles He has already performed, but they look forward in faith to what God has yet to accomplish on our behalf. Gratitude thanks God for the answer before it’s even in our possession. Paul was wise enough to know that gratitude provides the perfect weight that enables us to lean away from our circumstances and tips our hearts toward true joy.
No matter how splendid our surroundings or how spoiled, we will only know joy to the same degree that we know thanks. The Magic Kingdom couldn’t supply joy for me, but a Roman prison provided it for Paul. Philippians shows us the irrefutable truth that joy isn’t found in a place or a position but is discovered exclusively in a Person.