There’s a secret happy people know. I would tell you what it is, but then you would have no reason to come to Blue Oaks on Sunday.
Join us this week as we study Philippians 2:1-11 and learn the secret happy people know.
A couple comes into a lawyer’s office, and they want a divorce. They ask him to help them get a divorce.
But what’s unusual is they’re very elderly. In fact, they’re in their early 90s and they say, “We want a divorce.”
The lawyer says, “How long have you been married?”
They say, “We’ve been married for 70 years.”
He says, “70 years? Why are you in my office wanting a divorce now after 70 years?”
They say, “We wanted to wait until after the children died.”
Okay, that probably never happened.
If it did, that couple lived for a lot of years without joy.
You see, the reason joy is such an important thing in a marriage is because it is a very powerful emotion.
The psychiatrist William Frye from Stanford University spent many years studying the dramatic impact that laughter, humor, and happiness have on our lives.
He found that joy increases the pulse rate, increases the circulation of the blood, increases oxygenation.
If we could just get a calorie-burning effect, it would be a near-perfect emotion.
It causes remarkable relaxation. I’m sure you’ve all experienced that.
Have you ever been around a table with someone, and you’re just having so much fun you hate to leave the table because your body is so relaxed and you’re having such a good time?
William Frye says this from his research:
“Humor and anger cannot coexist. Joy defuses rage. Anger demands a serious attitude, but humor banishes the tightness and the severity necessary for anger. If joy is experienced, rage is impossible.” — William Frye
Joy is an incredibly powerful emotion that needs to be used more and better in our lives and relationships.
British author and journalist G. K. Chesterton, who often found himself in the role of court jester as he would bring opposing sides together using humor, said this:
“Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering but in being weary of joy.” — G. K. Chesterton
He says we’re all starved for joy.
And here’s the promise from the writers of Scripture — You can become a joyful person.
- With God’s help it really is possible.
- It’s a learned skill.
God would not command it if it were not so.
But here’s the truth — you must take responsibility for your joy. You must take responsibility for your joy — not your friend, not your boss, not your parent, not your loved ones.
Your joy is your responsibility.
Periodically, I run across articles that instill guilt in me about things like, “Are you being intentional about saving up enough money for the end of your life?”
They’ll have little charts where you’re supposed to put so much money aside per month, and if you don’t do that, you’re going to end up on the streets.
Very rarely will you see an article that asks the question — are you invested enough in joy?
Are you setting aside enough joy every month so that when you get to the end of your life you’ll be able to look back on a full life.
I read an article that was written from a wife about her husband. She was reflecting on the fact that a day was coming up that was going to be very painful for her.
It’s the date her husband always said, “This is the day when I’m going to retire so I can enjoy my family.”
But he passed away three years earlier. So that date was approaching, and it was bringing her great pain — because he was waiting for the end of his life to make a commitment to pursue joy.
Now, for some of you, the pursuit and acquisition of joy will not be an easy thing.
Some of you in this room are joy-impaired; you are joy-challenged.
- You’ll have to fight for joy every day… but it can be done.
- With the help of God, you can become a joyful person.
- You really can… and you need just to reflect on that until you begin to believe it.
Question: When are you going to practice joy? When are you going to practice it — if it is a wonderful thing, and if it’s commanded of us?
Psalm 118:24 puts it like this:
This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.
When are you going to practice joy?
Well, it’s going to have to be — this day.
The psalmist doesn’t say, “Tomorrow is God’s day” or “Yesterday was God’s day.”
He says, “It’s today.”
He says that, I think, partly because we live in a world with this illusion that says, “I’ll be happy someday when the circumstances in my life change and become easier to be happy in.”
Did you know that when we practice being joyful we’re actually being obedient to God?
The apostle Paul writes to the church at Philippi.
Further, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.
Then in the next chapter he says:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
To the church at Thessalonica he actually says:
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.
Why does Paul command us to be joyful?
Of course, the big reason is — it’s God’s will for us in Christ Jesus.
If you ever wake up and wonder, “What do I have to be joyful about today?” you might think about how Jesus came to earth, became a human being like us.
- He showed me how to live.
- He taught us how to love.
- He died to forgive my sins.
- He rose again to defeat my death.
- I have been adopted into his family.
- I am called his friend… and that’s what I am.
- I have been given his Spirit… that’s what I have.
- I can read his Word.
- I have a purpose… and that will never end.
- I have an identity… it will never be threatened.
- I have hope for as long as I live on this earth and an eternity forever beyond that.
That’s a good reason to be joyful.
But there’s actually another reason.
And I’ve never really thought about this much until recently —
When you are a joyful person you end up giving a gift to everyone who comes in contact with you.
In other words, your joy is not just about you.
We all know in our families and our offices and in school and so on… when we’re around joyful people it enhances our lives.
You owe it to the people in your life to be as joyful and as happy as you can be… because that will be a gift you give to them.
My son is a joyful person. He’s always laughing and singing. He has the most infectious laugh.
His soccer coaches love him because he’s always smiling. He just brings joy to the people around him.
God has taught me a lot about the gift of joy through my son.
Your joy is not just about you.
There’s a lot of research around this.
- Joyful people are actually more compassionate in their actions than less joyful people.
- They are more financially generous than less joyful people. This is why you have an obligation to be joyful.
- They develop more friendships and deeper friendships than less joyful people.
- They are more likely to stay married.
- They are more resilient in the face of hardship.
- They actually thrive better when they get ill.
Nehemiah said a long time ago —
The joy of the LORD is your strength.
That’s just true.
Where joy increases, goodness increases, virtue increases.
When you work, you have an obligation to be joyful in your workplace.
You all know this. When you work and you’re joyful, it enhances the work of all the people around you.
Another reason why your joy is not just about you is this —
Unhappy Christians are a stronger argument against Christianity than the strongest argument any atheist ever put down on paper.
People are watching all the time.
We just do this with each other.
People assume if Christians, if followers of Jesus are not happy, really there are only one or two explanations for you. It’s either because they’re following Jesus wrong or because following Jesus would make people unhappy.
Most people will assume it’s the latter. If they see an unhappy Christian, they’ll assume that’s what following Jesus does.
That’s why your joy is not just about you.
That’s why our mission as a church cannot be fulfilled if we’re not joyful human beings in our world.
That’s why joy is commanded repeatedly by the writers of Scripture.
You have a moral, biblical, spiritual obligation to be a joyful person with a cheerful face.
That means some of you are sinning right now.
That brings me to what I want to talk about in what’s left of this message — the secret happy people know — that you’d never guess, that is not included in most happiness studies in our day.
Paul is writing to the church at Philippi. This is the second chapter. Paul says —
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
These words were just like game changers to those people at Philippi.
A writer named Joseph Hellerman says Paul here is deliberately subverting the culture.
He’s turning the values of Philippi upside down.
And then he goes on to write about Jesus.
But before we get to the Jesus part, I want to describe the culture at Philippi… because it has so much to say to our culture… and because what was going on in that culture is the backdrop that will really help us understand the amazing words about Jesus that Paul says next.
Philippi was a Roman colony.
Roman culture was oriented around status and social recognition — in that world it was called honor.
It was all about the pursuit of honor.
They actually had a little technical phrase about the race for honor.
Ancient cultures that are talked about as honor and shame cultures exist mostly in the eyes of how other people think about me — I bring honor to myself and my family, or I bring shame.
Rome was the most status-oriented culture in the ancient world.
Ancient Roman philosopher, Cicero, said:
“By nature we yearn and hunger for honor, and once we have glimpsed its radiance, there is nothing we are not prepared to bear and suffer in order to secure it.” — Cicero
The secret to happiness in Philippi could be summed up in a single phrase — advance yourself, promote yourself, serve yourself.
Society was divided into pretty clear ranks or categories in order to make this race for honor clear and motivating for people.
Status in Philippi
The basic division was between the elites and the non-elites.
Hellerman says only about 2% of the whole population of the Roman Empire was in the elite category.
That meant 98% of the population is just the masses.
At the bottom of this group were people who were slaves.
Although, of course, there was some variation, only these were people with no status, with no honor, with no control over their lives. Their masters might punish them, might kill them — no rights. They’re at the bottom of the ladder.
Above them are what were called freedmen. These are people who are not actually slaves, so they’re not in that category, but they don’t have many rights.
Above them, the next category, still part of the non-elites, were citizens of the Roman Empire. Most people living, say, in Philippi would not have been citizens, so this is still a minority group of people. But to be a citizen of Rome meant you had rights these guys didn’t, so you had higher status than them.
Then a very small group of people in the elite, the lowest level in the elite were people who were called equestrians. This word might be familiar to you. Originally, these were people who had enough money to buy horses and take them into battle.
Above them would be a very small, very elite group, people who were members of the Roman senate — senators.
Then at the very top eventually in Rome they came to have an emperor who would be known as Caesar, just one guy.
This was the ladder everyone was trying to climb. Everything in their society was arranged to reinforce and stimulate the race for honor.
For example, people’s clothes were all about their status.
If you were a freedman, you were able to wear a special hat. It sounds goofy, I know, but it was called the freedman’s cap. You would wear that with some pride because it would tell everyone, “I’m not a slave. I’m a rung up.”
If you were a citizen, you could wear a toga.
Some of you have heard of togas and remember it was associated with ancient Rome, but it actually was a status and honor deal. If you were not a citizen, it was forbidden for you to wear a toga.
They were actually kind of a hassle to wrap and to wear, and so people wore them because they wanted people to know, “I’m not a slave, I’m not a freedman.”
If you were an equestrian, not only could you wear a toga, you were also allowed to wear a gold ring. It’s a way of saying, “I’m not one of those guys down there. I’m an elite.”
If you ever read through the New Testament book of James, James warns the church —
Don’t show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes…
He’s talking about the elites.
Then a level above that are senators. Senators could not only wear a gold ring and a toga, they could wear a toga with a purple stripe on it.
Wouldn’t that be cool? If you were an equestrian, you couldn’t wear the purple stripe. The purple stripe was really cool.
Then, of course, Caesar had all kinds of perks and stuff Caesar could wear.
Alright, let’s talk about legal rights —
The legal system was designed to reinforce status, so your rights and punishments would vary deliberately.
The idea that everyone is equal before the law — not in Rome.
And that wasn’t considered an embarrassment. That was considered appropriate because it helped reinforce this honor culture.
Citizens could not be flogged. Non-citizens could be flogged.
If you know about Paul, when he was in Philippi, there was quite a controversy over that because he was flogged, and then they found out he was a citizen.
The most dishonorable status was a slave.
The most dishonoring punishment was to be hung on a cross.
The Romans were quite good at capital punishment, and they used many forms of it.
The most dishonoring, the most disgraceful, the most humiliating was crucifixion, and it was generally reserved for slaves because its purpose was not just to kill but to humiliate.
It wasn’t actually called crucifixion in Rome. They had a technical phrase for it — it was called the slave’s punishment.
One writer says it was considered so vile that in polite Roman conversation it was regarded as obscene and not to be used.
Seating at public events was all about status.
I was trying to think of analogies in our day.
It’s a little like flying.
In our day if you’re going on a flight and you have good seats, we’ll say you are flying first class — in class language — not second class, not economy, not coach, not with the riff-raff back there.
They actually put a little curtain up so the riff-raff doesn’t even get to look into the Holy of Holies where the first class people sit.
Airlines actually assign you status.
One airline has all these names, platinum, gold, emerald, sapphire, ruby… cubic zirconium, linoleum…
All these amazing words that are designed to get you to want more and more status.
They’ll do things, again, to reinforce the hunger for more status, so higher class passengers get to board the plane before lower class passengers.
If you’re lower class, you have to wait and watch the higher status people go before you.
Not only that, some genius with some marketing firm who works for the airlines had a great idea. We could put down for the first-class people a red carpet, and then if you’re first class, you can walk onto the plane over six feet of red carpet. Won’t that be fabulous?
Then we’ll roll up the red carpet, and we’ll make the low-class passengers walk on regular old airport carpet. How shamed they all will feel.
Then there’s a monitor in the gate area, and it’s called — again, it’s just this language is so interesting — it’s called the upgrade list because everyone wants an upgrade.
They will actually put the names of people with moderate but insufficient status, and you’ll be listed in order of your status. You can just read where you grade out on the status list.
The more people below you in status, the better of a chance for an upgrade you have because it’s a competition deal. You just look on that monitor, and there’s your name.
You know exactly where you grade out and if you might be available to get an upgrade.
What you’ll never see in an airport is a downgrade status.
You’ll never see the names of first-class people vying to see who might get to go in economy and let someone else take their first-class seat. That doesn’t happen at airports.
In Philippi, if you went to a public event like an athletic contest or a theater, seating was arranged, not as we do by ticket price, but actually by status.
The senators sat the closest to the stage in the theater, then the equestrians, and so on.
It was illegal if you were a citizen to try to sneak up and sit in their section. You’d be arrested for that.
Succeeding meant succeeding publicly. Status or honor was a public commodity. Your worth is mainly the status you have in other people’s eyes.
One historian says for the Romans everything was about being seen. What other people think of me is my status. Succeeding meant I use whatever status I have to try to climb higher.
What would happen is…
People almost never went from one category to another.
Among senators there was a series of offices that had titles attached to them, and if you were a senator, the race for you — the race for honor — was to try to get from one office to a higher office in order to get the title.
If I really wanted to do great, I would have Caesar be the one to award me that title because the amount of honor I received was proportionate to the honor of the person who elevated me.
The rest of these different categories would all have their own kind of titles, their own imitations of this. That’s what society was about.
Sometimes people would lose status for one reason or another, maybe their behavior, maybe loss of wealth or so. They would actually go down from one title to a lower title. That was terrible.
I read an article this week by a frequent flyer expert titled, “How to Cope with Losing Your Elite Status.”
I’m not making this up. What a terrible thing, to lose your elite status.
Every year on March 1 for the airlines, they reassess your status.
This writer actually called it Judgment Day. You can go from diamond down to linoleum or whatever.
He said that’s to be avoided at all costs.
In the Roman culture — the ancient world where Philippi was — this loss of elite status was called being humbled.
That was the technical expression for it.
You’ll understand where all this is going when we look at Jesus in a moment.
- Being humbled happened in that culture.
- It was always regarded as a tragedy.
- No one ever volunteered for it.
- No one ever said, “I’d like to be humbled,” but it happened to people.
- It was always a tragedy when it did.
“It is more uglifying to lose praise, than never to have been praised at all.” — Pliny
“It is more uglifying to lose praise, to go down, than never to have been praised at all.”
This is life in Rome. This is especially life in Philippi.
Interestingly enough, there are more records of inscriptions — these titles and offices… the race for honor in people’s account of their lives, because you were expected to talk about this — there are more records of those in Philippi than any city in the ancient Roman Empire.
Jesus is going to mess with Philippi… and maybe the Bay Area too.
This is what Paul writes:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage…
Paul is using loaded language here, and everyone knows it.
That little phrase, “in nature God,” is used in the Old Testament to describe the visible manifestation of God’s glory.
- In other words, Christ is clothed in God’s glory.
- Christ is clothed in majesty.
- Christ is clothed in splendor.
But he did not consider his status something to be used for his own advantage. He chose to disadvantage himself for the benefit of other people.
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage…”
He wasn’t climbing higher.
“…rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”
With Jesus, there was no divine splendor, no purple stripe, no gold ring, no citizen’s toga, no freedman’s cap.
Paul actually and deliberately uses the word slave.
- Jesus has gone from the highest position to the lowest position.
- Jesus has volunteered for the ultimate downgrade — to become the slave, the servant of all. This was Jesus.
He doesn’t even stop there. Paul goes on.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
“And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself…”
Again, in that ancient Roman world, sometimes people were humbled. No one humbled themselves voluntarily.
Jesus humbled himself voluntarily. He took a divine downgrade.
Paul says, “…he humbled himself by becoming obedient…”
No one became obedient. The Romans hated that word.
- That was a word for a child.
- That was a word for a slave.
- That was a word of weakness.
None of these guys ever used the word obedient to describe themselves. Jesus became obedient to death. He became a slave, became obedient to death, not just death, Paul says.
He ends this description, “…obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
That’s as low as it’s possible to go. That is the ultimate humiliation for the lowest status person on the planet.
The Lord of all has become a crucified slave. That’s God.
By the way, we’ve been talking about the happy life or the meaningful life.
When Jesus was alive, which did he choose for himself? The happy life or the meaningful life?
He chose meaning.
Do you understand this?
Everyone in Philippi, anyone in Rome, would look at this story, would look at those few words about Jesus with scorn, with contempt… at best confusion.
“Are you kidding me? He went down, and he did it on purpose?”
This is why Paul talks about the folly of the cross.
To the Gentiles it’s folly. It’s a loser strategy. No one does that.
But Rome was wrong.
Look what Paul says next:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Therefore, Paul says, now God acts in the first part of this wonderful little passage. It’s Jesus who’s acting, and he humbles himself. Now God is going to act.
One who is infinitely above Caesar is going to exalt One who became infinitely below Caesar.
“…that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…”
That day is going to come.
Remember the Romans all knew honor is not honor if it is not public.
Paul says, “One day, guys, just know it’s going to be this public. Every knee in heaven and every knee on earth and every knee under the earth is going to bend, and one day every tongue in heaven and on earth and below the earth is going to confess. Caesar isn’t lord after all. Jesus is Lord, the crucified slave.”
The kingdom of God is this new reality that breaks into the kingdom of Rome or the kingdom of Phlippi or the kingdom of the Bay Area.
- where the first end up being last
- where the servants are the great ones
And the secret happy people know is the road to joy lies not through the advancement of self… but death to self.
This same Jesus who came then… he comes to you and me right now with the oddest recruitment slogan in the history of human causes.
He comes and says, “Take up your cross.”
Who builds a movement like that? Who recruits people like that?
We recruit people with, “We’re looking for the few, the proud. Be all you can be.”
- Do you want to follow me? Deny yourself.
- Take up your cross and follow me.
- Die to your sin.
- In humility value others, serve others.
- Seek the advancement of others above the advancement of yourself.
- Take up your cross.
- Deny yourself, your sinful, idol-worshiping, fearful, petty, small-minded, me-first, ladder-climbing self.
- Just die to that so the you God planned — a nobler, better, truer you — might live.
The secret the joyful followers of Jesus learn is joy comes, not through indulging my sinful self, but dying to it.
Will you die to that life?
Paul begins his letter to the church at Philippi, “From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus. I’m a slave of a slave. I’m a slave of a crucified slave.”
Not just that, Paul says:
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. — Galatians 2:20
Paul says, “I am the crucified slave of a crucified slave.”
How low can you go?
So Jesus comes to you and to me today — “Take up your cross.”
I know this raises all kinds of questions and alarm bells for us.
- You mean I have to voluntarily sacrifice myself?
- You mean I have to put limits on how much I can accumulate?
- You mean I have to deliberately serve people who are lower in status than me?
- You mean I have to watch people get ahead of me and actually cheer them on?
- You mean I have to forego comfort, security, and pleasure when everyone around me says, “Go for it. You deserve it.”
- You mean I’m supposed to disadvantage my lifestyle for the benefit of people I don’t even know and maybe don’t even like?
- You mean I’m to deliberately humble myself by confessing my flaws, my guilt, my sin to someone even when I didn’t get caught?
- You mean I’m to get on my knees daily and confess my inadequacy, insufficiency, guilt, and need to a God whose mercy I don’t deserve?
Yep, that’s what I mean — take up your cross.
God knows how hard it is for us to die to self, to die to that sinful self.
That’s why Paul says, “I was crucified with Christ. I can’t even get being crucified right by myself.”
Sometimes people think Jesus died so we don’t have to die. That’s not exactly right. Actually, Jesus was crucified for us so we could be crucified with him.
Take up your cross.
If you haven’t done that yet… I just have to tell you sometimes people can go to church for weeks or months or years, listen to messages, and they never get serious around this question —
- Will you die to yourself?
- Will you take up your cross?
- Will you die to your sin as best you can, as God helps you?
- Will you be wholly devoted to Jesus?
I’m just asking today… have you done that?
If you haven’t done that, I’ll ask you a question.
- Has climbing the ladder, has this strategy, really gotten you what you wanted?
- Has getting that new job, that new house, that new salary, that new perk, that new success, that new relationship, that new pleasure really satisfied your soul?
I don’t know how else to say it — If you just have to keep climbing the ladder to get it out of your system, go ahead. Get it out of your system… but I’ll tell you right now, you will not find joy by trying to advance yourself.
If you are ready to fully surrender your life, this is God’s call for us. This is the invitation of Jesus — “It’s not about your will, having your way, your reputation, your time, your money…” Take up your cross.
I’d like to invite you to pray about this.
Would you bow your heads for a moment?
This is an ultimate question.
I don’t know what taking up the cross means for you today.
Maybe in this moment as best you can tell, as sincere as you can be with it, you are just fully surrendered to Jesus.
In your heart you resonate with this, and you say, “God, you know that’s my heart. God, help me more and more. God, I’m just fully surrendered, fully abandoned to you.”
Maybe you’ve been holding something back and there’s something that bothers you when you hear those words, “Deny yourself.”
What you want to say to God right now is, “God, I’m going to need your help. I know there is sin in me I have to die to. I’m scared, God. There’s anger and bitterness inside me or this drivenness I don’t understand.”
Jesus would say to you right now, “I know. Just take up your cross. Just trust me.”
God, we ask for your help in this. This is very hard for us. There are people with really big crossroads or real decisions being made right now.
May this mind be in us that was also in Christ Jesus. Would you help us take up our cross and follow the One that we love?
I pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.
There’s a secret happy people know. I would tell you what it is, but then you would have no reason to come to Blue Oaks on Sunday.
Join us this week as we study Philippians 2:1-11 and learn the secret happy people know.
1 Thessalonians 5:16
I will take responsibility for my joy level.
I will not wait any longer to pursue joy.
I will give the gift of joy to those I come in contact with.
I will humble myself and serve others.
I will not climb the ladder, but descend into greatness.
I will surrender my will to God.