According to some secularists, happiness consists of success (especially business and financial), popularity, and influence. While those things may contribute to an overall feeling of pleasure, they’re also uncertain, temporal, and fleeting. Success is hard to measure, and the money a person has can evaporate even more quickly than it took to earn. As the Covid pandemic taught us, businesses can turn over amazing profits one moment and then be boarding up their windows the next. Influence only goes so far—no mere mortal can be everything to all people.
So, what gives a person lasting happiness in this uncertain world?
To answer the question, we have Paul’s letter to the Philippians, sometimes called “The Epistle of Joy.” In just four chapters, the apostle uses the word joy, or a variation of it, at least sixteen times. Though the world tries to define happiness through the lens of worldly pleasures and achievements, Philippians establishes a different definition of happiness and how to attain it: Happiness is true contentment in Jesus, thankfulness to God for the gospel, and enjoyment of one’s salvation, which can only be experienced in a relationship with Jesus. The Protestant Reformer John Calvin may have had Philippians in mind when he famously said, “Joy is a quiet gladness of heart as one contemplates the goodness of God’s saving grace in Christ Jesus.”
Consider what Philippians teaches about lasting happiness:
1. Happiness is contentment in Jesus as the greatest treasure.
The one who possesses a treasure will, indeed, experience joy for a time. But the problem with earthly treasures is that they’re temporal. Moth and rust can corrupt treasures on this earth, thieves can break in and steal, and fires can destroy (Matt. 6:19-20). A treasure can only truly satisfy if it’s eternal, everlasting, and in no danger of being lost.
Jesus alone is this eternal, everlasting, and incorruptible treasure. In Philippians 3:7-8, Paul writes to the Philippians, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.” He was willing to lose everything else if only he had Jesus. Why? Because he knew that Jesus was the Savior of his soul, the provider of all good things, and the source of all hope and confidence for the future.
Paul wrote this letter of joy from within a dark, dank prison cell (Phil. 1:7-8, 29-30). He found contentment despite life’s circumstances; in Jesus, he found strength to face the challenges of the day. Paul teaches us that God can turn sorrow into joy, even if the circumstances do not change (Jer. 31:13). He does this through reminding us of the great treasure that we possess in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
2. Happiness is contentment when the gospel is advanced and Christ is glorified, regardless of circumstances.
Paul’s desire, above all else, was to know Jesus and make him known. Thus, he could rejoice in the spread of the gospel and in the knowledge that, when he closed his eyes in death, he would be immediately brought into the presence of Jesus. At that moment, he would know him more fully than he ever had before. So he was able to say that if he lived, he rejoiced in the opportunities he had to serve Christ and spread his gospel and, if he died, he rejoiced all the more because he was going to be with Jesus forever (Phil. 1:21).
With reoriented desires and the Holy Spirit directing our lives, we too can learn to rejoice when we grow in the knowledge of Christ, make him known to others, and are persecuted for his sake. This is the heart of true contentment in Jesus, leading to lasting happiness.
3. Happiness is having the mind of Christ to rejoice in trials.
While some may say that putting our faith in Jesus will make life perfect, Paul knew that wasn’t the case. On the contrary, Jesus had promised that, because the world hated him, it would also hate us (John 15:18). He promised trouble and tribulation for those who faithfully followed him (John 16:33). Yet Paul, like the other apostles, found happiness and joy in even the trials of life because he considered it an honor from the Lord to be counted worthy to share in the sufferings and reproach of Christ (Phil. 3:10; see also 1 Peter 4:13 and James 1:2-4).
Therefore, Paul set forth the humble mind of Christ in Philippians 2:5-10 and encouraged the Philippians to emulate him. Christ was humble, learned obedience to God, and knew his suffering would directly lead to his glory. In much the same way, the Christian must understand that we can rejoice in suffering because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:3-5).
Happiness and joy are things the Christian must choose to be, while rejoicing is something the Christian must choose to do (Phil. 4:4). Jesus never promised his followers a perfect life; he promised us eternal life with him. While we walk this vale of tears there will undoubtedly be trials. The key to finding happiness in these moments of trial and sorrow is reflecting on the everlasting treasure that is the Lord Jesus Christ, being content with him and the gift of salvation we possess through him, and finding eternal satisfaction in knowing him and making him known to others.