In this series, we are going to learn that there is an actual secret from Scripture, to be happy. And we are going to learn what it is. And if you decide, you can go into training or practice to become happy, content, satisfied deep in your soul on a regular basis.
Historically, there are two approaches to this thing called “happiness.” If you wonder what happiness is, it’s a feeling or showing pleasure or contentment.
Sometimes it’s just a feeling, or sometimes it’s showing pleasure, it’s this deep-seated sense of contentment. Contentment is: Happy enough with what one has or is, not desiring something more or different.
Satisfied with enough. Satisfied, not just with what you have, but with who you are.
Historically, one approach is: Conquer, achieve, acquire until satisfied. This was the Roman Empire, Western approach.
And so you have been taught and I have been taught: Conquer, achieve, acquire, success, fame, money, a good education, find the right person. If you find the right person, have a couple kids, have a couple of kids that grow up, they get in the best schools and on the best teams. Then they go to the best colleges, then they are upwardly mobile, you will be successful, everything will turn out right. And if you do all those things, you will be happy. Or so the theory goes.
But the horizon keeps moving, right?
The second approach is: desire less and less until it doesn’t matter. You just desire less and less until, who cares?
This was the Stoic approach. The Stoics, Greek philosophers, they basically would say, “The only way to really be happy is reduce your expectations and desires so nothing can ever disappoint you.”
Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher says, “If you do this for a sufficient time and practice it long and hard enough, you can come to the point where when those who are dearest and nearest to you die, you can say, ‘I don’t care,’ and mean it.”
I don’t know about you, but I just don’t think that’s the way I want to go. The Stoic and Eastern Philosophy really is: Reduce all your desires. The Western view is: Get all you can.
Okay, let’s look at God’s view. Paul is going to tell us that there is a way to be happy. He is going to teach us very specifically that there is a third way. And he is going to teach us that it doesn’t depend on your circumstances.
You’ll notice, the question is: How can we be happy and satisfied – circle the word – today? Much of your thinking, we have been brainwashed to think that it is an “if/then.” If I have, if I achieve, if I become, then I can be happy.
Paul is going to say, “No, no, no, no, no.” The Bible is going to teach: God wants you to be happy, satisfied, know in your heart of hearts.
Now, this doesn’t remove ambition, proper ambition. But you can be happy and satisfied and say, “I have enough for today.”
The context is Philippians chapter 4, verses 10 to 13. Paul is in prison, he is an old man, it is about A.D. 61. He is chained between two guards. It’s damp, it smells, there are rats, and the food is bad.
He has scars all over his body. Three times already in his life, it’s called, “The thirty-nine lashes.” He has been whipped within an inch of his life. He spent a night and a day in the ocean, wondering if he was going to live. One of his closest friends, a guy named Demas, bailed out and betrayed him.
So he has had emotional, spiritual, and physical circumstances, when he is writing this, that are not good. His health isn’t good, his friends have deserted him, and, oh, by the way, according to chapter 1, he’s not sure if he is going to get executed or not, but it looks pretty likely.
So those are his circumstances. Into that, he writes a “thank you” letter. The Philippian church is one of the early churches that helped him, financially. They had given two or three different gifts. And then we are not sure what happened, whether they don’t know where he is or they didn’t have any money to give, and they wanted to help him.
And Philippians is really a “thank you” letter to that church, because Epaphroditus, one of their church members, had come and brought a financial gift so he could buy food and be taken care of.
If you were in prison in Rome, they didn’t feed you. If you didn’t have friends and family to bring you food, you just starved and died. And so he writes in verse 10, “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.”
Would you underline, I greatly rejoice? He is happy! He is in prison. He has bad health, he has been betrayed, he is happy. He is happy – what? One, the word renewed there, it’s a picture elsewhere used of, you know those bulbs that you plant and the flower comes up and then it looks like it dies and it’s dormant, and then next year, the bulb pops up? It’s this word. It’s like this intimacy, this relationship. You wanted to help, but it has been rekindled. You didn’t have opportunity, you didn’t know where I was, you didn’t know what was going on.
And then, notice, he wants to clarify his motives in the next verse. He says, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances.” Would you circle learned, and put a box around the word content?
The word learned here, it’s not like, “I am learning to be content.” It’s a tense in the Greek that is at a point in time. In other words, I can say to you with all authority, “I learned to ride a bike.” You bring a bike down here, I can do it.
I could probably get better, but it’s a skill I learned. Some of you have learned to write software. Some of you have learned to hit a golf ball. But you can do it. You can always improve, but it is an accomplished skill. You’ve got it down.
Paul is saying, “I have learned – I’ve got it down, I experience this on a regular basis – to be content.” And this is a very interesting word. Literally, I have learned to, by the power of Christ, adapt to either high or low circumstances, and experience this joy and contentment and have perspective on what comes into my life, where I’m not depressed, I’m not discouraged, and I’m not thinking, Someday, someway, I’ll be happy if…
The word is translated in a couple of other places as: “Self-sufficiency.” It’s not self-sufficiency in what you have of yourself, but it’s: I’ve got all that I need, is what the word means. It means: Emotionally and spiritually and relationally, I’ve got enough. It’s where this series comes from.
And so he says, “I’m not writing to get another gift. I just want to say ‘thanks.’” Notice, he begins to explain that in verse 12. He says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned,” the same word, same tense, “the secret of being content in every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
And then he is going to give, well, how did you learn that? “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” He says, “There is something about this relationship I have with God, through Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit that has allowed me to do that.”
Now, this isn’t hypothetical. Before Paul was a Christian, his name was Saul. He lived in a metropolitan city called Tarsus. He was from a wealthy family. He had Roman citizenship, which was a really big deal.
He went to the finest schools, he was trained, he was a Pharisee. And Gamaliel was the top teacher of all the teachers of all the Pharisees. In our day, basically, he went to Harvard to do undergraduate, he went to Wharton School of Finance to do his MBA, came to Stanford to do his doctorate, and then did his post-doc work at Yale. That’s this guy.
He could go anywhere, he had money, he had education, he had fame, he had knowledge. Will Durant, who is a secular writer and historian, he has, I’ve got them, they are, like, fifteen volumes of the whole history of the world. When he comes to this section of history, he says, “The brightest mind on the face of the earth was the apostle Paul in the first century.
So guess what? He has learned to be content, happy, satisfied living there. But he has been beaten three times, he has the pressure of the Church, he is betrayed by people, he has bad health, he’s got scars all over his body, and he is currently in jail eating bad food.
And he says, “I have the same level of contentment and happiness and satisfaction.” Why? “Because I learned a secret, and I am going to teach you that secret.”
Now, this is a silly question, but I think I know the answer. But how many of you would like to be happy all the time? Satisfied? At peace? Content? I think all of us, right? In fact, that’s why a lot of you get up. In fact, that’s why, if you look at your schedule, if you open your smartphone and you look at your schedule, that schedule tells you: This is what I am doing to be happy and content and satisfied.
If you look at where all your money went last month and last year: This is what I am doing to be happy and satisfied. Because we are all driving toward that. The question is: What if we got it wrong? What if we have bought into one of two approaches that don’t work?
“Happiness is not a thing to be achieved, but a secret to be discovered.” I believe that right out of this passage, out of his modeling of his life and teaching, he will give us four principles and four practices so that you and I, now, can put on the training wheels and then practice to be happy.
I have news for you. When I learned to ride a bike, when my kids learned to ride bikes, when my grandkids learned to ride a bike, we didn’t put them on a bike and go, “Ooh, wow! That was great!” Right?
Training wheels, and then you push them, they fall. You push them, they fall. Right? When you learn something, there is trial, error, practice; trial, error, practice; rhythm, discipline. You learn to play an instrument, you learn to draw, you learn to paint – it takes time and practice.
The happiness and contentment and satisfaction is going to require truth. But there are four specific practices that you begin to practice and I will tell you, in thirty days, in sixty days, in ninety days, in six months it will transform what you experience in terms of genuine happiness and contentment.
The first principle – contrary to the lie that my circumstances and when my circumstances align with my desires, that’s what we unconsciously believe – says this: Genuine happiness is not dependent on our circumstances. Genuine happiness, contentment, satisfaction is not dependent on our circumstances.
And you say, Where do I get that? What does it say? Verse 10, “I greatly rejoice. I have learned to be content in any situation.”
See, what we believe is what I call, “The when/then syndrome.” It is baked into your mind, it is baked into our culture, it’s baked into advertising, it is baked into how you have been brought up. And the “when/then syndrome” is a lie and a myth.
When I am successful at sports, then I will be a somebody. When I get good grades, then I will be happy. When I get into this school, then I’ll be happy. I’m single. When I get married, then I will be happy. We are married. When we have children, then I’ll be happy. When we have one less child and they get out of the house, then I’ll be happy. Right?
When I make enough money and you name a number, then I’ll be happy. But two years later, that number doesn’t work anymore, does it? When we go public, then I’ll be happy. When we can get out of this trying to go public, and I get my life back, then I’ll be happy.
When/then, when/then, when. When my kids get into this school, then I’ll be happy. And I don’t care – when/then, when/then – whenever you get to the “then,” just set your watch. Six days, six months, or six years. Whatever it was, it doesn’t deliver anymore.
But your current schedule: When all my kids are exposed to youth sports and ballet and piano and violin and gymnastics and get on the right team and then make the traveling team and then get good grades and then get a scholarship and then go to this school, then I’ll be happy.
When we own our own home, then I’ll be happy. When we can upgrade to a…
And I am telling you, the pulsating force in your life and your energy and your relationships is believing that lie – and it’s the world system.
But Paul says, “That’s really not true.” And he models it. So what is the practice? How do you break out of that? Here’s the practice: Be thankful. Be thankful. See, if you start habitually thanking God for what you do have, instead of focusing on what you don’t have, your orientation changes.
Now, this isn’t against a healthy, godly ambition or focus or goals. But what I’ve got to tell you is that all of us, if I gave you one hundred pieces of information, ninety-five were good and five were bad, and I gave you a test, two hours later you could remember three of the five bad ones and probably very few of the good ones. Our minds gravitate toward what is wrong, what is bad. And then we focus on that and then we start looking through that.
A very unpleasant confession, and I’d like to say it was just the first year of our marriage, I just learned it then and I have had to practice since. My wife she loved God, I loved God, we got married, put our stuff in a van, drove to get training for seminary, and I had idealistic views about what marriage was going to be.
And so within about six months, I realized, You know what? I’ve got a great wife. Ninety-five percent of all of her is awesome, but there is this five percent. There are a couple things she does that she probably shouldn’t be doing, a couple things she really needs to do, and one that just really bugs me.
And so being a teacher, a leader, and the kind of husband that you ought to be in your family, I decide that I am going to develop the game plan to help her change that five percent, because, what are you laughing about? And I’ve got to develop a plan, and when she changes that five percent, then I’ll be happy.
Now, I can’t be happy when she keeps doing those two things and doesn’t do these other two things, and the one thing that really bugs me, that’s just got to go.
So I develop a plan to correct her and help her become the woman she needs to be, so I will be happy. What’s wrong with this picture?
So guess what? Ninety-five percent of my marriage was great. Guess where my focus was? On the five percent. When I focused on the five percent, guess what happened? It grew to ten percent, then it was twenty percent, then it’s thirty percent. Then I’m driving in the car and I have this wife who loves me and she’s loyal and she is great to our kids. But my five percent is now at a twenty-five percent. I’m not happy in my marriage!
And divorce isn’t an option. So what do I do? I’m stuck. In fact, those two things got to four things and apparently, because I’m frustrated, I seem to be doing some things that is causing her level of frustration and unhappiness to go…we are in this vicious cycle of unloveliness.
So, yes, we went and got counseling and got some help and all that. But I will tell you, all the counseling and all the tools and unpacking baggage, thank you, Lord. But I will tell you, what helped the most was I began to not allow those five percent to dominate my thinking.
Every time that came to my mind, we had a game plan, we had to address a couple of things, I had to address some things. But I would thank God. God, thank You. I’ve got a wife who loves me. I’ve got a wife who is loyal. I never have to worry about fidelity. I’ve got a wife who really prays for me. I’ve got a wife who, every time I come home, there is a meal on the table. Man, she looks great and fixes herself up. I’ve got a wife who so cares for my kids, I’ve got a wife who, she is my best friend. Thank You, thank You, thank You, thank You, thank You, thank You. See what it does to your relationship?
Let me ask you, think about the thing that frustrates you, that makes you most discontent or most unhappy or least satisfied, right now. What is it? You got it? Here’s the deal. Start thanking God for what you do have, instead of what you don’t have. Thank God for where you do live, instead of where you don’t live. Thank God for the health that you do have, instead of the health that you have lost.
Now, I’m not saying that you go into denial. I am saying this is practice number one. You begin to thank God. The other thing is, it puts you in the center of His will. 1 Thessalonians 5:18, jot that down if you would, verse 16 says, “Rejoice always.” It’s a command.
Verse 17 says, “Pray without ceasing.” That’s a command. Verse 18, it says, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus.” The apostle Paul would write to the Ephesians and he would say, “Be careful how you live, not as the world is,” but instead, he says, “don’t be foolish but understand what the will of God is.” And then he tells them the will of God, “Don’t be drunk with wine, which is dissipation, but be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
And then he says, “Filled,” the idea is to be controlled. Allow Him to run your life. And then he says, “Here’s how you can know: Speaking to one another in psalms, in hymns, and spiritual songs, giving thanks for all things, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, as you submit one to another.”