Emoji: Joy in All Circumstances by John Burke

At Gateway Church in Austin, we are going through a series called Emoji: Manage Your Moods.

Here is an overview of the series:

The life of the Apostle Paul is one of hardship, pain and uncertainty, and yet his letters to the early churches are filled with expressions of peace and joy! How did this man, who endured so much, encourage so many to have joy in all circumstances?

This week John Burke spoke on “Joy in All Circumstances.”

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Here is the video of the message:

Here are the notes from the message:

Happiness is what everyone seeks. Who doesn’t want to be happy? Yet so often, happiness alludes us. Some of us Christians are even downright joyless.

The truth is most of us don’t experience all of the joy God intends for us to experience. Instead, we let the daily grind chisel away at us until we are basically joyless on the inside.

But it can be different!

In fact, we can rise above the daily grind to experience joy that transcends circumstances, joy that overcomes fear, joy that perseveres in trials, joy that even conquers traffic jams and computer crashes and other natural disasters.

Context of Philippians

The book of Philippians is actually a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. In Acts 16 it tells the story of how Paul, Timothy, Silas, and Luke started the church in Philippi (in modern Greece). They kept trying to go north to tell people about Christ, but it says “The Spirit of God kept redirecting them” until they ended up at Troas – near the sea. In a dream, Paul saw a man crying out for them to come to Macedonia, and so they sailed for Philippi. When they got there, they led a business woman named Lydia to faith, and the church started in her house. It was an unlikely group that made up the Philippian church: A business woman, a fortune teller who came to faith, and a Roman jailer who was guarding Paul when he was thrown in prison. Some men had enslaved this fortune-teller woman to make money off her, but when she became a follower of Jesus, their profits dried up. Angry, they had Paul and Silas thrown in jail and beaten on false charges—yet God used it to reach the Jailer. This is part of what Paul’s learned and is trying to teach us—God can use the worst circumstances for good.

Now it’s 11 years later. Paul is writing this letter to the Philippian church, and it’s not the greatest of circumstances again. Paul was sitting in a dark, cold prison cell, probably in Rome. He was on trial for causing a disturbance because he was telling the Gentiles, non-Jewish people, what God did through Jesus was for everyone—not just the Jewish people. He took a financial gift given from churches across the Mediterranean to help the churches in Jerusalem who were in famine [At Gateway, every dollar you give 10% goes to help those in extreme poverty in India, Haiti, refugees in our city]. Paul brings this gift to Jerusalem, but the religious leaders who killed Jesus want to kill him. He gets arrested because of the uprising, sent to another city—2 years sits in prison, yet got to speak to 3 rulers. Sent on to Rome, and the trial was going on during the writing of this letter because in chapter 1 he makes it clear that he may be executed – the verdict is uncertain. So he’s facing the possibility of death. At the same time, there were people who were trying to stir up more trouble for Paul (1:15). To make matters worse, Paul’s finances had dried up during his imprisonment, but the Philippian church had sent a guy named Epaphrodites to bring a financial gift. While in Rome, Epaphrodites got deathly ill, but after he recovered, Paul sent him back to Philippi with this letter.

Now just picture these circumstances for a second:

  • Talk about stress – he felt the financial pressure of no resources.
  • Talk about anger and resentment – some people were trying to stir up trouble out of envy and rivalry.
  • Talk about something to have fear and anxiety over – Paul was facing the real possibility of execution.
  • Talk about temptation to grumble and complain – he had been moved from prison to house arrest to a dark prison cell – no running water, no place to sleep, a hole-in-the-ground for a toilet and nothing to do but write letters, yet he had done nothing wrong—tried to love God and love people.

What do you do in bad circumstances like that? Do you know how to find joy in the midst of bad circumstances?

Paul’s Attitude

“I thank my God every time I remember you. I always pray with joy because of your partnership.” – Philippians 1:3

“Some…supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter…Christ is [made known]. And because of this I rejoice.” – Phil. 1:17-18

“Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.” – Phil. 1:19

“I know I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will over flow on account of me.” – Phil. 1:25

“Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.” – Phil. 2:2

“I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.” – Phil. 2:17

“Welcome Epaphrodites in the Lord with great joy.” – Phil. 2:29

“Rejoice in the Lord” – Phil. 3:1

“You are my joy and my crown.” – Phil. 4:1

“Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, Rejoice.” – Phil. 4:4

“I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.” – Phil. 4:10

Did you catch it? In the midst of adversity, stress, worry, nothing going right, Paul has this incredible attitude of joy! He is full of joy, and it spills out all over the pages of this letter. Paul has something going on inside of him that isn’t tied to circumstances, fate, or fortune – it’s rooted in the unchangeable, the immovable, because it’s rooted in God.

Don’t you want that? Don’t you want to be able to live life above the daily grind? Above the trivial things that happen that are out of your control? Above the stress and worry and busyness?

It’s possible for ordinary people like me and you to live with this supernatural joy.

What is Joy?

Joy, you see, is different than pleasure or happiness.  Joy is not just having a rose-colored glasses mentality. Joy does not deny pain and suffering in the world. In fact, joy can often come in the midst of pain and suffering. Joy rises above the daily grind because it comes from something deeper than our outward circumstances. Joy comes in the spirit of a person.

In another letter to another church, Paul again talks about joy and describes our nature–body, soul and spirit. 

Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus…May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-23

To live in joy, we must understand how it works body, soul, spirit. In our bodies, we experience sensation and pleasure. It feels good to get a back rub. It feels good to sit in a hot tub. It feels even better to get a backrub in a hot tub.

Our soul contains our mental cognitive abilities. The soul gives life to the body. When our body dies, it dies because the soul leaves it. In our soul, we experience happiness and knowledge. Happiness is deeper than mere pleasure. Happiness comes from an interpretation of what’s happening to our bodies. For instance, you can feel happiness through the sensation of falling – on a rollercoaster. You can feel happiness through the sensation of warmth and relaxation. But you can also feel happiness through pain – like a mother as she’s giving birth.

Joy comes at a deeper level than happiness. Joy comes through the spirit. It’s the spirit that gives eternal life to the soul. That’s why Jesus said in John 3:3 that “you must be born again.” Not just born through the womb, but born of the Spirit. When our spirit comes alive to God, it can receive joy from God. Joy can remain even when our feelings are upset. Joy can be in the spirit without happiness being in the soul. But usually, a joyful spirit also produces happy feelings and even a healthier body.

Joy comes from God and is a foretaste of heaven.

Most of us drastically underestimate how joyful God is. God is the happiest, most joyful being in the universe. God also knows sorrow, it says Jesus was acquainted with sorrow. But sorrow, like anger, is God’s temporary response to a fallen world. Joy is part of his character.

“Joy is the serious business of heaven.” – C.S. Lewis 

Joy is what God is about, and until we understand this, we will not understand God. When God created, He did so out of joy. He didn’t approach creation like we approach our work. It flowed from Him like a song flows out of musician. Jesus told his followers on their last night together, how much he loved them, and then said, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that you joy may be full – complete.” God is joyful.

Joy comes as a gift.

Joy comes from God to our spirit. Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! – Phil. 4:4

You can’t just muster up joy – it comes to you when you are prepared to receive it. It’s like tuning into a radio station. Depending on where your dial is turned, you will receive different radio signals. As you survey the book of Philippians, you see ways that we can tune in to receiving and experiencing this joy that poured out of Paul’s life despite circumstances.

3 spiritual exercises that tune us in to receive God’s joy:

1. Tune in to Joy – Find ways to make others happy.

If you survey Philippians, Paul was incredibly others-centered. (Phil. 1:1) He called himself a servant. Servants help others. He pours out encouragement to them.

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy…And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished…it is right that I should feel as I do about all of you, for you have a special place in my heart.
– Phil 1:3-7

In Phil. 1:18, Paul’s concern was not for his own safety first, but that others might hear about Christ’s love and forgiveness. He exhorts them also to not just look out after our own interests, but also the interests of others (Phil. 4:1). Paul says: I love you and long to see you, dear friends, for you are my joy” (Phil. 4:1)

Paul tuned in to God’s joy by serving others. You see, self-consciousness spoils joy. When we get preoccupied with self, we naturally tune out from what God wants to do through us. We kink the hose through which God’s joy can flow through us. But when we are tuned in, focused on bringing others happiness, we receive a deeper joy that comes from God.

Joy can come even in struggle and suffering. 

Paul says:

For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it. – Phil. 1:29-30

You see joy comes to us as we look for ways to bring happiness to others. It’s a gift from God. So even in the struggles, even in the sufferings, when joy is evading you seek to make others happy, and joy will surprise you.

2. Tune in to Joy – Notice what is good.

Tuning in to the good things in life sets our spirit’s receiver to receive God’s joy or to block it. Paul says:

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable.” – Phil. 4:8

In our brains we have what’s called a Reticular Activating System. It’s located at the base of our brain, about the size of a walnut, and it functions to screen information so you don’t get overloaded. It screens out what is not important to you, and makes you aware and kind of prioritizes or sensitizes you to what is important. Here’s an example of how it works. Did you notice last time you bought a car, if you were interested in the new Ford Mustang, suddenly you saw Mustang’s everywhere. If you were looking for a 4X4, you noticed trucks. Your brain tells you what to notice by what you focus on. God wired you that way.

So we can choose what we tune our minds to focus on –
toward seeing what’s good, or what’s not.

What’s working or what’s broken. What is or what should be.

When we slow down to notice what’s good and experience it, joy comes to us from God – even if this is not our natural inclination.

Joy is found in the moment. The problem is that we live so much of our life in between. In transit. Waiting to start something or hurrying to finish something else, worrying about what might happen. We speed through from one moment to the next, never really experiencing much of any moment. But joy comes when we focus on what’s good in the moment.

We can learn a lot from children about experiencing joy in the moment. Jesus said that “unless we become like little children, we cannot experience the kingdom of God.”

Psalm 118:24 says:
“This is the day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it.”

Consider the following exercise: Pick a day, and take a journal with you, and write down every good thing you notice and thank God for it. Don’t just notice it, but experience it, take it in, revel in it, and thank God for it because every good thing comes from Him. And see if His Joy doesn’t surprise you.

3. Tune in to Joy – Rejoice in the Lord.

Paul tells the Philippian church:

Whatever happens, my dear brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you these things, and I do it to safeguard your faith. – Phil. 3:1

Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! – Phil. 4:4

This is not an option, it’s a command, and he says, “We need to be reminded.” It’s a safeguard, I believe against grumbling and complaining (2:14) which steals our joy. Though we can’t directly pursue joy, it comes as a gift, but we can rejoice in the Lord. But what does this mean?

Joy comes ultimately from knowing God, because Joy comes from God.

It’s no coincidence that the name of Jesus appears 51 times in these 104 verses of Philippians. Paul knew Jesus, and in his experience of Jesus, Paul found joy.

Last week we looked at this verse where Jesus said:

When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow! – John 15:10-11

To rejoice IN the Lord, is to focus on His character and love for us—to soak in it, meditate on it, and as we trust him and obey him out of love for God, joy overflows in us—it’s a gift that comes to us from God.

This is what all the Old Testament Celebrations were about. They all came together and they partied – they celebrated by eating and drinking and singing and dancing – all aimed at rejoicing in how great God really is and how much he had poured out his love and goodness on them. Celebration – rejoicing in the lord – is a needed spiritual discipline in our lives. It comes as we know more about who God really is, and one way to do that is to know the Bible. Because the Bible is like God’s biography interacting with people—why we’re reading together.

God offers Joy to us freely as we learn to celebrate Him – to rejoice in knowing Him.

Consider this exercise: Do something that you love with God and rejoice in who God is and how much God loves you. Go biking in the hills and let it be a springboard for you to tell God how beautiful He must be to create so much beauty. Go do something fun with a group from Gateway and as you do, rejoice in God’s relational heart that created us for loving relationship. Spend time alone reading God’s word and celebrating back the things you discover about God.


Take these 3 exercises and try putting them into your life this week:

  1. Make others happy
  2. Notice what’s good
  3. Celebrate God’s goodness.

As you do, see if joy doesn’t surprise you, even in the daily grind.

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