We begin today on a journey through the New Testament book of Philippians, Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. As we begin that journey, some background information about Philippi.
The city of Philippi was founded by Philip, the father of Alexander the Great. The area had strategic importance for the developing empire because of gold mines near the area and the city’s strategic location militarily. In fact, Philippi became the scene of a crucial battle in the Roman Empire when Marc Antony defeated Brutus and Cassius at that site in 42 B.C.
Paul, in his second missionary journey approximately 90 years later, proclaimed the good news of the gospel in Philippi and thus began the Christian community there. You can read about it in the 16th chapter of Acts. There we’re introduced to some interesting characters at Philippi, showing the social range of those touched by the gospel: Lydia, a wealthy woman for she was a dealer in rare, expensive purple goods, her home was likely the site of the early church gathering in Philippi; a slave girl from whom Paul removes a spirit of divination resulting in the disgruntlement of her owners over the loss of income which results in Paul and Silas being thrown into prison; and the middle class warden of the prison who becomes a Christian from the witnessing of Paul and Silas.
Paul writes this letter to the church at Philippi while he is imprisoned in Rome. That may seem like a strange setting for a series on Philippians entitled, "How to Live," but that very much is the point. Considering his circumstances, Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi becomes an amazing testimony of hope and joy in the faith no matter our circumstances—even imprisonment and the very real possibility of the end of our lives. Some have even referred to Philippians as the "Epistle of Joy," so keep the context of Paul’s imprisonment in mind as we journey through it.
Today, our subject on "how to live" is "Pray with Joy." Now, by that I am not merely suggesting you join the prayer ministry at 8:35 on Sunday mornings in Sweet Chapel—a prayer ministry led by Joy Dickerhoof! That would be a good thing to do, but that is not the full extent of what I mean by "pray with Joy." I believe Paul is encouraging us in the first 11 verses of Philippians to pray with a joyful spirit and, consequently, live a life filled with joy. Listen to the word of God spoken through the apostle Paul as he writes to the Christians in Philippi (read Philippians 1:1-11).
Have you ever known someone who is a constant complainer? The kind of person who, when asked "how’s it going" would break into a series of gripes and complaints. Ever known anyone like that? They’re not very pleasant to be around, are they? There’s no sense of joy in them…and they can drain the joy right out of you. It gets to the point where you don’t even dare ask them how’s it going. Eventually, you avoid all possible contact with them.
Now, think for a moment about your prayer life. Does your prayer life only consist of a series of requests and supplications of God? Is your prayer life basically non-existent until a crisis hits you and you’re practically driven to your knees before God calling upon Him to bail you out? Perhaps our gripes and complaints aren’t specifically stated, but if that’s the essence of our prayer life it seems to me they are implied. I wonder, when carefully examined, how our prayer life feels to God.
Paul encourages a better way. "In all my prayers for all of you," he writes, I always pray with joy." Later in this letter, Paul will repeat the point. "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus," (4:4, 6, 7). Paul points us to a better way to pray…and, consequently, a better way to live our lives. Joyful.
Here, in the beginning of his letter, he is led to joyful prayer for several reasons. First, he is led to joyful prayer because he focuses on fond memories of the Philippians. They have been his "partners in the gospel" and that fills his heart with joy. Secondly, his joyfulness flows out of a grateful heart. Part of the context of this letter is that the Philippians have apparently heard of Paul’s situation and have sent gifts and even a person, Epaphroditus, to minister to Paul. He is recalling their support of him, is grateful for it and, consequently, is filled with joy. And he is joyful because he is reminded that God continues to be at work in both himself and the Philippians, "being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus," (1:6). Focusing on fond memories, mindful of things to be grateful for, and aware of God’s work continuing on, Paul is filled with a joyful spirit and led to joyful prayer.
I don’t want to be misunderstood to be saying that a joyful prayer life is a kind of Pollyannish exercise that denies the realities exist around us, a kind of spiritual whistling in the dark. It’s much more complex than that. I do believe, however, that it is a practiced discipline at which we get better and better and begin to experience a joyful spirit that rises above whatever circumstances we face. Praying with joy becomes an expression of trust in God no matter the circumstances. Keep in mind that Paul is writing from prison to Christians in a city in which he was also thrown into prison. Not all of his memories are fond ones! But he has developed an attitude of trust as a result of previous experiences with God—a prison term leading to prayer and hymn singing which, in turn, leads to the salvation of the warden, as one example—and his gratitude for that and other similar experiences with God have led to a joyful spirit. Do you suppose Paul had thoughts of the warden as he writes? Of Lydia? Others? No doubt he did. And his gratitude for them and the events that led to their coming to faith in Jesus Christ fills his heart with joy. It’s likely also that Epaphroditus is with Paul as he writes, or dictates his letter, and his presence fills Paul with joyful reminders of the Philippians.
I’m not suggesting that living with this kind of joy will be easy. The days are filled with difficult events that rob us of our joy. But I do believe a joyful spirit is a learned behavior, an acquired attitude developed through diligent practice of praying with joy. It’s not easy, but it becomes easier as we experience the Spirit of God working in us through the difficult days.
Friday was such a day for me. The irony was not lost on me. I intended to work on my sermon, a sermon about praying and living with joy. But instantly, my plans went awry.
The day started with my walking from the parking lot to the front doors and discovering someone at the door looking for assistance. That in itself was ok for that experience was a pleasant one as it turned out. It altered my day a bit, but nothing unmanageable. It was the next event that sucked the joy of ministry right out of me. As soon as the first person left, I received a phone call from another person seeking assistance. I won’t go into the details, but it was a very distressing experience. On the one hand, you want to help. On the other, there’s always questions about the veracity of their story…and there was that sermon I needed to be working on. But, he pushed all of my buttons—a tragic, emotional story (if true!), distress over rejection from other Christians and churches (if true!), and a challenge to my sense of fulfilling my call to be a servant of Jesus Christ. I decided to do something about his situation—by that time I was in no frame of mind to focus much intelligent thought or energy on my sermon unless I did something—so I left to address some of his needs. Without going into a lot of details, I adhered to my policy of never giving cash to someone. I purchased some bus passes, a gift card from Safeway to purchase some food, and extended his motel room stay a couple of days. I even offered to purchase a gift card for gas to help him get home…if he could give me some contact info to verify his story. It was all received with a kind of dissatisfaction, even anger. Much of that is understandable, if his story is true. But it was also disturbing because it felt like the anger was directed towards me and my policy of gift cards and not giving cash. In sum, it was a very unpleasant experience. I was left with doubts as to the truth of his story—these experiences almost always are laced with such doubts—and I returned to the church with a troubled…dare I say joyless spirit. The morning for sermon writing was now gone. Worse yet, my heart just wasn’t into it. To be honest, I tried to re-capture the joy. To practice what I would be preaching! I tried praying with joy. I tried listening to some John Michael Talbot music which usually helps calm my troubled spirit. Even that didn’t help. I needed some distance from that experience. I needed some time to re-focus my mind, and my heart, on my gratitude for God. I needed some time to re-capture the joy that God has for me. Unlike Paul and Silas, I was not able to pray and sing hymns to God in the midst of my personal prison, which in itself pales beyond comparison to the circumstances of Paul and Silas. I long for the day when a joyful spirit in me rides above the turmoil of whatever circumstances imprison me that day, or that hour, that moment. I’m certainly not there yet. I’m better than I used to be. Still, I have a long way to go. But, I look forward, and hope you do also, to when God brings to completion the good work begun in me…and in you. And even that thought—of God beginning a good work in me and bringing it to completion in Jesus Christ—fills my heart with gratitude…and joy.
So I invite you to join me in being more intentional in our prayer lives in praying with joy. If need be, write out a list of things for which you are grateful to God and include that in your prayers. Thanking God in all of our prayers, being intentional in praying with a joyful spirit, will help us grow into living more joyfully whatever our circumstances.