Community Group Study Guide — Keys to Joy from Philippians Chapter 1
C.S. Lewis once wrote that “joy is the serious business of heaven”. The irony of joy and serious in the same sentence is not lost on me. To be serious means intentionality and even a determined drive; but often with joy we can think of a carefree attitude, being easy going or happy go lucky. Sometimes in church you hear people dissect differences between joy and happiness as if to feel emotional elation is temporary and wrong and instead you ought to pursue a more tempered path that we label as “joy”. We will not focus on this because we taught on how joy and happiness are intertwined at the last West Hills Weekend and we discussed how the Lord is serious about your happiness and often happiness, pleasure, delight and joy are used interchangeably in the scripture (you can find the audio here) God knows that when you delight in him your happiness is most secure and assured. It is no secret that the last 12 months have been difficult for many people because of how upside down our lives got. The answer to finding joy is not found in minimizing real hardships, mental health challenges or dire circumstances some have faced in regards to work, health or spiritual challenges. However, one hope that the Lord offers us is found in his command to rejoice regardless of our circumstances (Philippians 4:4).
Throughout the book of Philippians the word for joy or rejoice is used 14 times, which should catch our attention, but that is even more significant when you think about the circumstances Paul faced as he wrote the book of Philippians.
Philippians is one of the “prison epistles” which are a collection of letters Paul wrote from jail. Most likely this letter was written from either Paul’s 2 year arrest in Caesarea (Acts 23-26) or his house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:17-31). This arrest happened because Paul was falsely accused by the Jews of desecrating the temple which caused an angry mob to form. Roman soldiers saw what was happening and intervened to save Paul (Acts 21:27-22:29). We know from the book of Acts that the Lord was moving Paul to Rome to preach the gospel to “the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).” However, the circumstances God used to get Paul to Rome were far from comfortable. Paul faced greedy politicians, delayed legal hearings, hatred and threats from the Jews, shipwrecks, snake bites and a variety of other things that could easily be defined as “difficult circumstances”. While in prison he wrote to the church in Ephesus, Colossae, Philippi and to an individual named Philemon; and out of all of those books, the message of Philippians is uniquely centered on the Christian virtue of joy.
In the letter to the Philippians we see three unique hardships that Paul faced and yet his command to rejoice in Christ and do pursue joy is the dominant theme. These three difficulties were:
First, It appears that there was a group of people in the church who were glad that Paul was in prison (Phil 1:15). We do not know who this group is but it could likely have been the “Judaizers” who were part of the church and advocating for followers of Jesus and gentile converts in particular to keep the Mosaic Law. These Judaizers made it really difficult on the gentiles who were coming into the church and pursued acts that were exclusive to the unity of the church (Galatians 2:11-14). Another option for this group that rejoiced in Pauls imprisonment is that they could also have been part of a different faction who celebrated another “celebrity pastor” like what we see detailed in 1 Corinthians 1. Regardless, this group was “preaching Christ out of rivalry” with the hope to make Paul jealous.
Second, he did not have certainty for how his trial would turn out. Paul seems confident in his release (Phil 1:19-20) but recognizes that it could very well end with his execution. In this discussion he recognizes the benefit of being released and how it would lead to fruitful ministry, but also that it could lead to his execution and we get that famous line “to live is Christ ,to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
Third, the occasion behind the letter of Philippians is that the church in Philippi sent a gift to Paul to help him pay for his way and his food while in prison which was a requirement in the ancient world (Phil 4:15-18) but tragedy struck and Paul was informing the church about what happened. The messenger the Philippians sent was a man named Epaphroditus, and he fell ill and was close to death and this caused Paul a level of sorrow (Phil 1:27). In many ways this letter took place, by the grace of God, because of these events and the need to update the Philippian church and to instruct them to find joy even in their own hard circumstance.
All of these circumstances would be challenging and have a significant impact on one’s feelings. The goal for a follower of Jesus is not to be detached from their emotions or to feel less; that would be a stoic response or maybe even more of a buddhist view of seeing the need to separate from the world to prevent suffering. However, we ought to recognize that following Christ offers us an opportunity to find joy in all circumstances, not joy despite our circumstances. How do we do this?
There are two things we observe Paul doing that enable him to choose joy in the midst of challenging circumstances.
First, we see that key to choosing joy starts with not to losing sight of God in the midst of the challenges of life in this world.
Paul sees the Lord’s in his difficult circumstance. As we read through Philippians 1:12-30 you see how he faces each of these challenges.
Paul is in prison and his response is “I got to share the gospel with all the Romans guards!”. Then, his rivals are trying to shame him and he responds with “at least Christ is being preached!”. Finally, his life is on the line in prison and he’s thinking “to live is Christ, to die is gain!” His eyes for what the Lord is doing and his joy cannot be deterred. If you’re a little cynical you probably see this as just naive optimism. Others of us may be struggling through some hard circumstances and see this as an impossible dream. However, those two responses do not need to be our only options. Certainly joy is a choice here, but more than that it is also a command we are given (Phil 4:4). This is and imperative/a command, but that doest not mean we need to muster our self determination and effort to put into effect, but rather one that God enables us to walk in by his grace. Part of believing in God’s providence (his good care for all of creation) is that we can trust that regardless of the harsh circumstance we face there is always something he is doing and showing us about himself in it. A good exercise is to train our eyes to see it and to prayerfully think about what the Lord could be up to in it. Maybe even in this moment you can take some time to think and write about the challenges in your present life and how the Lord could be at work in them. You may be surprised with what the Holy Spirit impresses on your heart as you consider Christ and the word of God.
Second, speak the truth to your soul about what’s going.
It is easy to be dominated by your immediate circumstances because their “voice” is really loud. Sometimes the loudest voice seems like the right voice but that is simply not true. Pastors and theologians often talk about “preaching the gospel” to yourself, which is another way of saying “remind yourself of the truth you know about God.” We see King David do this in the Psalms when he speaks to his soul like in Psalm 42:5, “why are you downcast, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” David speaks to his soul directly telling it what to believe. This is part of what Paul does in Philippians 1. His circumstances would shout at him saying “your God has abandoned you” and Paul speaks to his soul “with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death (Phil 1:20).” Likewise, his circumstances would tell him that the Christian community abandoned him and they now rejoice at his imprisonment, but he says to his soul “remember the brothers… who have become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, they are much more bold to speak the word without fear (Phil 1:14).” We would do well to be aware of what voice we are listening to, assess if what we’re thinking is actually true or false and then speak gospel to our soul: God has not abandoned us, he is at work in and through this, Jesus knows what it is like to suffer and pursue joy and we have a very present help in times of trouble so we can go to God in our affliction and know that he hears us. This regular practice will grow your joy and trust in the Lord.
We do not know how this last year has been for you or what circumstances are present in your life, but our hope is that this year will be one that you look back on where your joy in the Lord grew and your relationship with Christ deepened. This is not an impossible dream or a naive hope, but something the Lord commands us to pursue and enables us to seek through his grace and mercy.
God made us in his image with emotions and feelings that help us to interpret our hearts and what’s going on around us. The danger is that often our circumstances can be the major thing that determines our joy, yet the Lord offers us a more secure place to find our joy, in him. We can experience this more and more as we develop eyes to see what the Lord is doing and grow in speaking truth to ourselves about who God is.
At your community group:
Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.
How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?
Read Philippians 1:12-30
What challenging circumstances does Paul tell us about in this passage?
How does Paul meet each of those challenging circumstances with truth about God instead of getting overwhelmed by them?
What kinds of things typically prevent you from pursuing and fighting for joy?
How can you make a regular habit of looking to what God is doing or speaking the gospel to yourself? Are there any other things you want to put into practice this week in response to the scripture, sermon and study guide?