It's insulting to look a hurting person in the eye and answer their hurt with a rousing "Be happy!" Insulting, that is, if there is no objective and substantial reason to be happy. To the man who has lost his wife, it is trite and silly to ask him to look on the bright side of things if the brightest thing he can look to is a coming vacation or "this to shall pass." What are these in comparison to his wife who will never return? But, it is also true (and very sad) that we have nothing hopeful to offer our friends (or our own souls) if tragedies like these have the final word.
If there are objectively true reasons for this man to be happy, reasons that are profoundly superior to his loss, than, far from being silly, our greatest gift to him would be to patiently and graciously help him see those reasons. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ has the substance and eternality to give a reason for joy in every difficulty. Consider the astounding reality that, though we deserved an eternity of torment, we have been, by His grace, accepted into the presence of God forever. Jonathan Edwards reminds us of this redirection and why it is the basis for eternal joy:
"How far less [are] the greatest afflictions that we meet with in this world...than we have deserved.... The greatest outward troubles and calamities that we meet with...must needs appear very little things to the misery which we have deserved.... A man may meet with very great losses...his cattle may die, his corn may be blasted, his barn may be burnt down and all the goods consumed, and he may be brought from a comfortable living to a poor, low, stricken state. This is very hard to bear, but alas, how little reason have such to complain if they do but consider how little this is, compared with that eternal destruction that we have been informed of." (Jonathan Edwards, Works [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997], p. 321)
Likewise Martin Lloyd Jones in "Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure" states that many Christians find no hope or happiness in their circumstances because they have forgotten the gospel (2 Timothy 1:8-10):
Would you like to be rid of this spiritual depression? The first thing you have to do is to say farewell now once and for ever to your past. Realize that it has been covered and blotted out in Christ. Never look back at your sins again. Say: 'It is finished, it is covered by the Blood of Christ'. That is your first step. Take that and finish with yourself and all this talk about goodness, and look to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is only then that true happiness and joy are possible for you. What you need is not resolutions to live better life, to start fasting and sweating and praying. No! you just begin to say:'I rest my faith on Him alone; Who died for my transgressions to atone."Take that first step and you will find that immediately you will begin to experience a joy and a release that you have never known in your life before. 'Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without deeds of the Law.' Blessed be the Name of God for such a wondrous salvation for desperate sinners."
Real, Gritty Joy: Paul's Letter to the Philippians
The Apostle Paul understood this and it was the fuel for his strong, joyful finish in this life. The book of Philippians is a remarkable letter from a happy, imprisoned man to a healthy but anxious young church. In the face of his own execution and a growing persecution of Christianity in Rome, Paul tells the Christians in this Roman colony to rejoice, because it is a reasonable response for those rescued from eternal torment (Col. 1:13, Phil 4:4-5)... regardless of their circumstances. The Gospel is the ground for "Real, Gritty Joy." In this introduction to our series on Philippians, we look at the context and major themes of this great letter.
Joy or Happiness?: a side-note on the message
You'll note that the interchangeable use of "joy" and "happiness" as the goal of Paul's letter (Phil 1:25, Phil 3:1, etc) throughout the message. That is intentional. Somehow, in American Christianity, we have subscribed to the notion that God offers us joy in all circumstances but joy might not be attended with heartfelt emotion. You may have heard it said that "We are commanded to be joyful, but doesn't mean we'll be 'happy.'" That is ridiculous. Consider again Edwards:
The things of religion are so great, that there can be no suitableness in the exercises of our hearts, to their nature and importance, unless they be lively and powerful. In nothing is vigor in the actings of our inclinations so requisite, as in religion; and in nothing is lukewarmness so odious. (Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections, p. 238.)When, in Philippians, Paul refers to his joy or the imperative "Rejoice" he uses the words coming from the Greek root chara or chairo which are emotional, not merely cerebral, words. These words describe what we refer to as being happy or merry. So it is proper to interchange joy and happiness here, especially in a culture which more readily associates a condition of the heart with happiness than with joy.
From the "...all things" archive: