Are Christians Really Happy?

Are Christians delusionally optimistic or toxically positive in the face of suffering? Is religion just a sad excuse for a crutch in the face of our crushing circumstances? I would say: absolutely not! Christianity avoids both delusional optimism and toxic positivity, and our text this morning shows us how. 

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Photo by Alioune Thiam on Unsplash 

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear. 

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. 

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Philippians 1:12-26)

Do you know anyone who’s just so optimistic it’s irrational? Like, they’re optimistic to the point of absurdity? No matter what comes their way in life, they always seem happy. Sometimes this is called toxic positivity. It’s refusing to recognize any negative emotions either in yourself or others. For some, that might be a coping mechanism to avoid the harsh realities of life. But there are others out there who aren’t in denial—they just can’t seem to see the glass half empty, even when it’s bone dry. 

There’s a scene in the movie The Ant-man which illustrates this well. Paul Rudd’s character Scott is released from prison and picked up by his buddy Luis in an old beat up van. Scott asks Luis, “It’s been a year! How are you doing?” And Luis answers “Good, good man! My girlfriend left me. And my ma died. And my dad got deported…” And there’s a second of silence before Luis says, “But I got the van!” 

We can all laugh at that because we recognize he’s a complete fool of an optimist—getting some raggedy old van is not an equal consolation prize for all those horrible things. I wonder how many of us view Paul this way; or maybe, if you’re visiting this morning and you’re not particularly religious, maybe you view all Christians this way. Are Christians really happy? Are Christians delusionally optimistic or toxically positive in the face of suffering? Is religion just a sad excuse for a crutch in the face of our crushing circumstances? I would say: absolutely not! Christianity avoids both delusional optimism and toxic positivity, and our text this morning shows us how. 

Here’s the one thing I want you to hear today: Even in the face of death, Christians can have genuine joy, because our lives are about something greater than ourselves. We’ll see exactly what that something is as we unpack our text today, and we’ll see this unfold in three stages. First, we see the position Paul finds himself in. Next, we see the principle that guides Paul. Finally, we learn the purpose of Paul’s life. 

The position Paul finds himself in

Let’s be honest. When most of us look at Paul’s position, we’re a little weirded out by his enthusiasm. Really, Paul? You rejoice? I can hear the skeptical voice in the back of my head quipping, “Tone it down, man, if it’d been me I would be pretty miserable right now.” But notice, Paul’s actually not at all focused on himself. His circumstances are only important insofar as they concern what really matters to him—the preaching of the gospel. 

Let’s be clear: Paul is not saying, “Hey, this isn’t so bad. They’re treating me well, I’ve got a comfortable bed, these chains are pretty light and loose.” We have no reason to believe Paul’s prison stay is more luxurious than sitting in a dark sewage hole with only enough food to survive. In fact, we see that there’s a real, solid chance that Paul is at death’s door. This trial he’s about to face could very easily result in his execution. On top of that, look at verse 15. It’s not like everything’s hunky dory outside of his prison walls either. Paul’s rivals are taking advantage of his imprisonment and vying for influence while he’s gone. 

None of this sounds ideal, to say the least, and that draws out how remarkably not concerned Paul is at all of this. If he gave a self-focused update about his life with the same upbeat temperament he has here, he’d sound ridiculous. He’d sound like Luis! If Paul were Luis and we asked him “Hey, how are you doing?” we might think his reply would be, “Good, good man! I got arrested. And I might get executed for treason soon. And people are trying to usurp my authority while I’m locked up in here…But the gospel’s being preached!” That’s ridiculous! But that’s not at all what Paul is doing here. The gospel being preached isn’t just a consolation prize for him, it genuinely is the source of joy in his life. 

Again, we can accurately say that none of this sounds good for Paul, but for Paul, things going good for himself is not the top of his concerns. Look at verse 18, Paul concludes his assessment of his situation: “in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” So that’s Paul’s position. “I’m in prison, I might die soon, rivals are trying to afflict me, and that’s a good thing because the gospel’s going further.” 

Paul, that sounds crazy! How can you say that? 

The principle that guides Paul

That’s why we need to look at the principle that guides Paul. We see this in 1:18-24. First, Paul explains his reason for rejoicing: this situation will turn out for his deliverance. Verses 19-20 get a little wordy and complicated—Paul basically says that between the provision of the Holy Spirit and the prayers of the Philippians, he knows he’ll be delivered and that Christ will be honored. What Paul means by being delivered is a little obscure, especially when he finishes verse 20 by opening up the two possible outcomes of his trial: either he’ll live, or he’ll die. 

That’s why I’m thankful Paul makes it crystal clear in verse 21. It doesn’t get anymore simple than this: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” This right here is the principle that undergirds his whole understanding of life. It’s this principle that rescues Paul from being no different than Luis. The reality is, Christ is precious to Paul. If he lives, he gets to continue sharing the gospel, and if he dies, he gets to be with Christ forever. Paul has got genuine joy because whether he lives or dies, it’s a win-win. 

Why is the gospel so precious to Paul? Because it tells the message that Paul was precious to Christ. One of my old pastors once put it this way: For Jesus, verse 21 reads very different. Jesus says, “For me, to live was you. The reason I came to this earth, empty, as a servant, was to redeem you, Paul. It was to rescue you from the prison of your own sin which separated you from me. And for me, to die was also you. I didn’t just face execution to draw attention to myself. I died so that you might live forever. For me,” Jesus says, “to live was you and to die was you.” That’s the heart of the gospel. Jesus loved Paul—loved every one of his followers, loved you—so much that he devoted his life, death, and resurrection to their redemption. Because that’s true, because Paul has tasted and seen the heart of Christ for him, that’s changed everything for him. Paul knows that life will not end at death. In fact, death can only bring the beginning of true, everlasting life with the God who created and rescued him. That’s why the gospel is worth dying for, and that’s why death is only gain. In light of the gospel, Paul’s disposition makes perfect sense. 

The purpose of his life

And so, with that principle guiding Paul’s life, we can fully understand the purpose of Paul’s life. See in verses 25-26, Paul actually settles with the “choice” of staying alive to serve the church. Paul’s been rescued from his own sin—and he’ll be rescued from his prison cell—so that he might see to Christ rescuing others. Paul’s entire purpose, the reason he is on this earth, is to help people see how precious they are to Christ—that he endured the cross because he deemed the cost worth it. That’s in fact why he took the time to write this reflection. 

You see, Paul’s not just giving a life update for the sake of talking about himself—this is a teaching moment. Paul lays all this out because he recognizes his friends are in a very similar position as him. They’re also facing some miserable situations. And I wouldn’t be surprised if many of us today are in a similar position. Let me ask you: what is your position? It’s very unlikely that you are in a literal prison, but what is your equivalent? And if I may take this one step further, Where are you turning the gospel into a consolation prize? “My dad has cancer…but at least I have Jesus!” Or “My boyfriend is ghosting me…but at least I have Jesus!” 

Friends, could it be that the very position that is causing you misery is the very same vehicle God is using to proclaim Christ? Is that a source of genuine joy for you? If not, it might be because you haven’t considered the heart of Christ. Do you realize you are not a consolation prize for Christ? God considers you precious. Even in the face of death, Christ had genuine joy, because his death accomplished the redemption of those he loved. It’s for that reason that for you and me, in the face all our suffering and even death, we too can have genuine joy, because our lives are about Him. Christ is worthy to be honored, he’s worth our lives. So let’s live for him. 

1 comments on “Are Christians Really Happy?”

  1. Pat,

    I just got this and look forward to reading it.

    This computer and I don’t get along together. I hope I don’t loose all my computer friends for non responsive contacts but it gives me problems, was so anxious to look at pictures Beckie sent from the Mohay family in CA but I can’t see the pictures she sent. Oh, well. ,life goes on!

    Our invitation still stands: when you two busy people have time to come for dinner – , pick up whatever you like to have, we’ll reimburse you.

    Til then, remember – we’ve knowing you are there.





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