If you knew you were receiving a letter from an unjustly incarcerated man, what would you expect to read? Frustration? Anger? Gloom?
The book of Philippians actually is such a letter—a prison epistle. The Apostle Paul penned this letter from the recesses of a Roman prison. While we would expect the letter to be sad and gloomy—or at least mournfully resigned—it’s not. The book of Philippians is even known as “the epistle of joy.” In these four short chapters, Paul mentions joy, rejoicing, or gladness no less than nineteen times!
So what was Paul’s secret? How could he maintain a positive outlook and even mentor others in joyfulness while he was enduring such difficult circumstances? I believe the answer is found in another oft-repeated word in Philippians—mind. Paul used mind, think, and remember at least sixteen times in this epistle.
What do we learn from this? The secret of Christian joy is found in the way the believer thinks—her mindset. You can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how you will shape your mindset.
In the book of Philippians, Paul describes an attitude of mind that will produce joy regardless of surrounding circumstances. This short epistle has much to teach on how we can cultivate the right kind of mind.
The Single Mind
In Philippians 1, Paul discusses his difficult circumstances and faces them honestly. But he looks at them from a completely different perspective than most of us would. Rather than looking at the circumstances in themselves, he looks at them in relationship to Jesus Christ.
Paul’s greatest passion was to know and serve the Lord. Thus, every circumstance he faced was viewed by how it could be used to accomplish his goal. Prison, hunger, loneliness, unjust treatment, fear, uncertainty—none of these things could rob Paul’s joy, because he was not living to enjoy circumstances. He was living to serve Jesus Christ. When we look at our circumstances through Christ, everything changes.
For instance, Paul referred to the chains he wore, not as heavy restrictions, but as “my bonds in Christ” (verse 13). He did not see himself as facing an unjust civil trial but as being “set for the defense of the gospel” (verse 17). He even went so far as to explain his adverse circumstances as ultimately good in verse 12: “But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel.”
Joy is a matter of choice. It is a positive mindset we choose to embrace and express. It does not come from our circumstances; it comes as we choose to see our circumstances in relation to Christ.
Two people can experience the same circumstances, but their emotions can be on opposite spectrums.
One ship sails east;
One ship sails west.
Regardless of how the winds blow,
It is the set of the sail—
And not the gale—
That determines the way we go!
How did Paul set his sail toward joy? What did he tell us in this prison epistle to choose to think about?
Our Personal Relationship with Christ
The very foundation of our joy is that we know Christ. Paul’s opening words in Philippians affirmed his relationship with Christ as well as reminded his readers in the Philippian church of their relationship with Christ: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi….”
Regardless of the ebb and flow of earthly circumstances, we can rejoice in knowing that we have a secure home in Heaven and an eternal future greater than any of us could plan.
And yet, our relationship with Christ gives us so much more than a home in Heaven. It gives us direct access to our Heavenly Father and the privilege of an ongoing and ever-growing relationship with Christ Himself. In fact, Jesus pointed to this as the best part of the eternal life He gave us at salvation: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (John 17:3).
David enjoyed an intimate relationship with the Lord, so much so that God called him “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14). Although David faced a myriad of overwhelming circumstances, he consistently found great joy in God’s salvation. Throughout the Psalms, he often came back to this as a cause for rejoicing.
The king shall joy in thy strength, O Lord; and in thy salvation how greatly shall he rejoice!—Psalm 21:1
…I will rejoice in thy salvation.—Psalm 9:14
Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation; and uphold me with thy free spirit.—Psalm 51:12
The prophet Habakkuk also made a choice to rejoice in his relationship with the Lord—even when circumstances were bleak and, humanly speaking, hopeless.
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.—Habakkuk 3:17–18 (emphasis added)
Sometimes we just need to refocus our attention from our circumstances to the blessing of knowing the Lord. We need to choose to remember the privileges we have in Christ.
Our Position as Servants
At first thought, the position of a servant may not seem to you a very good reason to rejoice! But that would depend on whom you had the opportunity to serve.
Several years ago my husband was traveling, and he happened to be on the same plane—several rows behind—former President Ford. He noticed how eager the airline staff was to serve President Ford. It seemed they were tripping over themselves to bring him anything he may need or enjoy. Others on the plane, too, seemed to look for reasons to walk by his seat. No one thought of his needs as a bother; they were tickled for the opportunity to serve this man whom they respected.
This was how Paul felt about the opportunity to serve the Lord. In Philippians 1:1, he focused on his special position: “Paul and Timotheus, the servants of Jesus Christ….” Serving Jesus was a privilege to Paul!
Paul faced many difficulties through his ministry (including hunger, shipwreck, beatings, and imprisonment), but even these he endured cheerfully, because he chose to remember that serving Christ is an honor. In Acts 20:24, Paul shared his view on the difficulties: “But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.”
This position, when faithfully fulfilled, also gives us the incredible opportunity to one day experience the joy of hearing the Lord Himself say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord” (Matthew 25:21).