Summary: A comparison of popular self help ways to find joy with the biblical ways.

I have two different books with me today.

Anyone know what this one is?

The Bible!

The other one is a generic self-help book. We’ll call it, “The Generic Guide On How To Be Happy.”

Now how many of you want to be happy?

How many want to be miserable, depressed, obnoxious, annoying people?

How many of you have not yet decided which type of person you want to be?

OK, we all want to be happy. The problem is that life does not always work out in predictable ways and we find ourselves facing things that make it difficult for us to be happy.

Later in the service we will sing a familiar hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul.”

That is a hard song to sing, because things are not always well with our souls.

If it is well with my job, then it is well with my soul and I can be happy.

If my teenagers are behaving and my wife is happy, then it is well with my soul.

If my doctor says I’m healthy, then it is well with my soul and I can be happy.

But that is not the way life is.

It is not always well with my job.

And when my teenage son is in jail,

And my doctor tells me I have cancer …

How can it be well with my soul?

How could I possibly be happy?

Our New Testament lesson says, “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”

That is so easy to do when things are going well in your life.

When things aren’t going well, then joy does not come easily.

How can people rejoice when the world is falling apart? When the boss says, “You’re fired.” While undergoing chemo-therapy?

If you look in the “The Generic Guide On How To Be Happy” you will find the suggestion that we just need to decide to be happy, so let’s be happy.

In the old Broadway play, “Bye, Bye Birdie,” there is a song that suggests,

Gray skies are gonna clear up,

Put on a happy face!

Brush off the clouds and cheer up,

Put on a happy face!

We cannot find joy that lasts by ignoring reality and simply putting on a happy face.

But we try.

In May, 1996, I had just moved to Miami and was still living in a temporary apartment that was full of unopened boxes when I received a call from a Presbyterian minister in Tennessee. He wanted me to make a pastoral visit to some of his parishioners who were in a hotel in Miami.

The day before, Value Jet flight 592 had taken off from Miami on its way to Atlanta. Moments after takeoff the jet crashed.

The two or three witnesses who had been fishing in the Everglades at the time said the plane didn’t just crash, it nose dived head on into the Everglades. They knew exactly where the plane had gone down and when rescue helicopters arrived, they found nothing but fuel floating on top of the water. The plane going hundreds of miles per hour had pretty much disentigrated when it hit the concrete like layer of coral rock under the shallow waters of the Everglades. There were no survivors, and not to be overly graphic, but there were no real bodies left to recover.

One of the families of a victim was Presbyterian and their pastor called on me to visit the family, who had, like all the other families, gathered in a hotel in Miami.

Many of these family members were just numb and showed no emotion. Some looked exhausted. Some were grieving with great pain. The mother in this family was absolutely radiant with joy.

“He’s alive,” she told me. “I know it. He’s somewhere under water and he is trapped in a pocket of air. My faith in God assures me of this.”

But that is not faith. That’s gullibility.

Every few hours, the family members gathered in a conference room to hear reports about the progress of the recovery and investigation. They were all grieving deeply. Some were so angry that they seemed on the verge of violent outrage.

Except this woman. She was radiant with joy.

At least until she was told that a small fragment of her son had been recovered and identified, I don’t think anyone suffered more deeply than she did.

Joy that is based on denial and pretense is empty.

If you want to rejoice always, as Paul commended, this is not the way to do it.

Against that myth from the “The Generic Guide On How To Be Happy.” is what the Bible says in our New Testament lesson. Not long after telling us to “rejoice always,” Paul said, “I have learned to be content in all situations.”

He did not say, “I have been given the gift of being content in all situations.” He didn’t imply that it had come suddenly or immediately. He said “I have learned to be content.”

Learning is a process. It is often a painful one. It is often a long one. And it is always incomplete in that you can always learn more.

For example. My father taught me how to change the oil in my car. The first time I did it, I made a mess with the drive way – got oil all over the place. The second time, I did better. The third time it came a little easier. Now, decades later I know exactly how to change the oil in a car.

You get behind the driver’s seat and drive to Jiffy Lube.

OK, maybe that’s not a good example – but the point is that anything we do well in life, we do because we went through a learning process. Learning takes time. It takes practice.

And when Paul said, “I have learned to be content…” he was telling us that it had been a long process.

If you want to be able to rejoice in all situations, even those difficult times, you don’t learn it by denying reality -- you have to learn joy slowly, deliberately and with practice.

Now there is a second step that many of us take in trying to be able to rejoice at all times. It might come straight out of “The Generic Guide On How To Be Happy.” This second myth is that you can rejoice and be happy at all times IF you understand the will of God.

So many times I have heard people say, “If I could just understand why God is allowing my suffering, I could accept it.”

The problem with that is that we don’t always understand the will of God.

Many years ago I had a parishioner who was murdered. It was a tragic situation. She had married a police officer and for a short time all seemed to be going well. Then her husband was dismissed from his job because he had what we would today call “anger management issues.” He was out of control.

Unfortunately, he expressed his anger toward his wife as well, and he would often beat her.

She left him. They divorced. But from time to time he would call and ask for one more chance. She would never agree to that, until one day she finally decided that maybe he had changed. She agreed to meet him. No one knows exactly what happened after that, but the results were that he had shot and killed the woman, and then he had committed suicide.

Meeting with the family was difficult because they believed in God and they were Christians, but they had never gone to church. They had never gone to Sunday School or Bible Studies. And now they had what one might describe as doctoral level questions about life and faith and God, but with only a preschool level of faith knowledge.

It seems that their entire theology had been built around watching episodes of “Touched By An Angel.” That was a great show, and I loved watching it. But it doesn’t sustain you in times like this.

It was so difficult to meet with that family. They told me that they would be able to accept their loved one’s death IF they could understand WHY God had done this. And we sat there around a kitchen table and they all looked at me and waited – they wanted me to explain God.

Which I could not do.

I cannot explain why my son acts the way he does. I can’t explain myself sometimes. How can I explain God almighty?

Our ability to rejoice in the Lord always cannot rest in our ability to understand God’s will.

It rests in our ability to trust in a God whom we can never fully understand.

The myth is that we are able to find our joy in understanding and explaining God’s will.

In Paul’s letter, 1 Corinthians, in chapter 13 beginning with verse 9, we read that Paul said, “We know in part and we prophesy in part.”

Here he is affirming that we don’t know all there is to know about God, or about life.

He continues with that train of thought and in verse 12 he says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now – meaning in this life -- I know in part; then – meaning in heaven -- I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”

In this life, we can only get hints at understanding his will, but our understanding is imperfect. It is like looking at a poor reflection in a mirror.

We will not completely understand God’s ways or his will until we leave this life and go to heaven.

So if you base your joy on your ability to understand the will of God, you have a shaky foundation.

In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, chapter 40, the prophet says in verse 1, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”

The rest of the chapter is a dialogue about how to comfort people in times of distress. And if you move down to verse 12 you begin to get a biblical argument against the popular notion that you find comfort by understanding the will of God.

“Who has understood the mind of the LORD?”

What is the answer to that question, “Who has understood the mind of the Lord?”

None of us.

Like Paul says, we get glimpses, but it is like looking at a poor reflection in a mirror.

The myth is, “If I could just understand why God did this…”

The truth is, “If I can just trust in God whom I barely understand.”

Proberbs 3:5 says, “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

Another myth we might read in the “The Generic Guide On How To Be Happy” is that we can rejoice in the Lord always IF we live a righteous and pure life, because the good and righteous people are immune from pain.

If only that was true.

I think the most difficult funeral I’ve ever done, besides my father’s, was for a fellow named Dan.

Dan was a single parent, caring for his five year old daughter. Seeing that little girl on the front pew was one of the things that made that service so difficult. It fell on me to tell her that her father had died, and I remember she kept asking, “who is going to take care of me?”

Her mother was there and she said she would take care of her, but even at the age of 5, Jane knew that her mother was not responsible enough to be a parent.

Dan had been a great father. He worked hard. He was a member of my church, sang in the choir, lived an upright life.

He died in an accident.

After his funeral a Jewish woman began attending our church. She had met Dan the very night he had died and in a casual conversation he happened to tell her, “If you ever have any problems, go to the Presbyterian Church on 68th Avenue and you will find people there who will help you.”

He was such a great guy, and it is difficult to accept a death like that because we like to embrace the myth that if you live well, you will live a painless life.

But the Bible does not promise a pain-free life. In fact, it promises just the opposite.

In Psalm 34, it says in verses 18 and 19, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all.”

The promise of Scripture is right there – the righteous will have many troubles.

To make matters worse, listen to what it says in Psalm 73:

Beginning in verse 3, we read, “For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills.”

That’s reality.

The myth is that the righteous will live a life immune from pain.

The truth is that suffering is part of our calling in life.

Righteous and faithful living do not immunize us from painful experiences.

On the other hand, we have what the Bible says about how to live a happy, joyful life.

Take a look at our New Testament lesson for today. Philippians chapter 4 verse 4. Open your Bibles to that and keep them open for a few moments. You can find this passage in your pew Bible on page 832.

What does verse 4 say? Let’s read that one single verse together, out loud.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!”

God’s will is for us to be joyful and happy people.

How does this happen?

Take a look at verse 6. What does it say? Let’s read it together, out loud:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

OK, God wants us to be joyful and happy people.

What do we have to do to get that way? Pray. Present your requests to God.

And what happens when we pray?

Does everything get better?

Does cancer disappear? Do I get a new car? Does my boss give me the raise because I pray for that?

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

Why pray if God doesn’t answer step by step all of our prayers and grant our requests?

Take a look at verse 7. Paul says pray, present your requests to God and then this will happen – what does verse 7 say will happen when we pray? Let’s read it together out loud:

“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It is not so much that the things that are around us will change, but rather that the things that are within us will change and we will find joy. We will learn to be content in all situations. We will find a peace and joy that we will not understand. The situations may or may not change, but the peace of God which passes understanding is given. And then we learn to be content, and finally we can rejoice in the Lord always.

In a few minutes we will sing a hymn that may be familiar to many of you – “It is Well With My Soul.”

I love than hymn. It’s not a peppy hymn. It’s not what I would call a joyous toe-tapper.

But it is a true and sincere hymn of someone who has been through difficult times.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul!

There is a story behind this hymn.

Over 100 years ago there was a businessman from Chicago named Horatio Spafford. Horatio was very successful in his business and in his family, and was a man of great faith.

He and his family were planning a vacation to England and they were going by ship – which was at that time the only way to travel to Europe. Horatio’s business forced him to stay behind and catch a later ship, but he encouraged his wife and four daughters to go on ahead as planned, and he would catch up later.

Tragically, the ship collided with another vessel and both ships quickly sank.

The mother and the four girls survived the collision and were thrown into the sea. The mother tried to keep the girls afloat, but they drowned, and only their mother survived.

Back in Chicago, Horatio received news of his children’s deaths.

He immediately sailed for Europe to be with his wife and during the voyage, the captain of the ship he was sailing on called him to the bridge. Pointing to the chart, the captain told him that they were just passing the spot where the ship with his family had gone down.

Many of us, in such a situation, would have been filled with grief and anger.

But as Horatio walked the deck in his sorrow, his faith was all that sustained him. He was overtaken by a feeling of peace that was beyond his understanding as he thought about how he would see his daughters again in heaven. As he watched the waves rolling on the ocean he recalled the words of Isaiah 66:12, "For thus says the Lord, I will extend peace to her like a river..." and wrote the words that have come down to us as one of our most enduring hymns:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,

When sorrows, like sea-billows, roll;

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,

It is well, it is well with my soul!

Let us stand and sing to the Lord, Hymn number 705, "It is Well With My Soul."

Copyright 2006, The Rev. Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh

All rights reserved.

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