“We’re Not Alone” Series: “Finding Your Joy”
Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian journalist, author, and public speaker who burst on the public scene some twenty years ago with his astute observations of how so much of the social sciences – in particular, psychology, sociology, and economic theory – play out in everyday life. All of his books manage to make their way to the top of the best seller lists and for good reason. Gladwell simply has this knack for holding up a mirror to our souls so that we can see aspects of our lives that we knew about in our hearts by never bothered to bring to the surface for further examination.
For example, in his book Outliers, an analysis of factors that contribute to high levels of success in certain individuals, Gladwell notes that social capital seems to be one such significant contributor. In other words, those persons who stand out in a certain field do so because of how they have benefitted from a host of relationships that have encouraged them along the way. Gladwell even goes so far as to make the point that no one – no rock star, no professional athlete, no software billionaire, no intellectual genius – ever makes it to the top of his or her profession entirely alone. At some point someone has been there to push them or to console them or to train them or to support them. There is no such thing, Gladwell contends, as a “self-made” man or woman.
You should know that Gladwell’s views on this topic are somewhat contrarian, especially in a culture that values the individual and likes to fancy itself as comprised of solitary souls who don’t need anyone’s help to succeed in life. But the truth of the matter is that when we take an honest look at our lives in every aspect – our personal lives, our professional lives, our spiritual lives – we are compelled to acknowledge that each of us got to where he or she is, as the Beatles once famously sang, “with a little help from our friends.” This is nothing about which any of us should be ashamed. It is instead a joyful reality that allows us, when we avail ourselves of it, to accomplish things that on our own we would have never been able to do. After all, why else would people today spend their time and money coming together either literally at places like Iron Tribe or CrossFit or doing so virtually on social platforms like Facebook and Instagram? We have come to see how isolation doesn’t get us to where we want to be in life; only in community do we find our way and experience life’s deepest joy.
We see this truth played out in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Philippians has been called “the letter of joy” because of the numerous times Paul employs the word “joy” or one of its derivatives. We should note that Philippians was one of Paul’s prison letters, penned while he was under Roman guard. So that fact that Paul could gush about joy in the face of such dire circumstances should not escape our notice.
Our text for the morning comes at the beginning of the letter, where Paul, as was the custom in the first century world, offers greetings and best-wishes. “I thank my God every time I remember you,” he writes to the Philippians, in all my prayers for all of you. I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (vv.3-5). What kind of partnership is Paul talking about?
If you go back to the book of Acts, you’ll see how on his second missionary journey Paul went to the city of Philippi and planted a church. After he left Philippi, the people there did something very unusual. They kept up with Paul for another ten years. Over the course of the next decade, the Philippians would send Paul encouraging letters and even financial support for his ministry. Now, Paul is in Rome under house arrest, and the Philippians have sent one of their members, Epaphroditus, to Rome (a 700 mile trip!) with some encouraging notes and another financial gift. Needless to say, Paul is excited. Paul is grateful. Paul is joyful for all that they have done to stand with him in his ministry calling so that the letter to the Philippians becomes one big thank-you note for their involvement in his life. “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you…for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.” Clearly, with all of that time Paul had while under house arrest to look back on his life and faith, he comes to understand that he would never have had the impact for Christ he had attained if it had not been for his Christian brothers and sisters in Philippi whom God raised up at critical points in his ministry to work in ways that transformed Paul’s potential despair into confident joy.
Paul’s prayer for the Philippians reminds me of the old Native American proverb I once heard, which goes: “One stick is easily broken, but ten sticks tied together have a strength of their own.” In other words, we are stronger together than we could ever be along. And we are more joyful.
When you think about your life, have you learned the joy that comes from linking your heart and joining your faith to that of others who love Jesus and want to make a difference for him, or have you given in to the false promise that we can follow Jesus on our own and have no need whatsoever for help or support or encouragement from outside ourselves? We may think that we don’t really require anyone else to make things happen for the cause of Christ, but the fact is that God has formed us for community, He has created us as social beings, and He has chosen to work through our fellowship, our partnership, in order to bring His redemptive purposes to pass. How does Paul phrase it in his prayer? “Be confident of this, that He who began a good work in you (a second person plural pronoun) will carry it on to completion until the day of Jesus Christ” (v.6).
Do you want to see God fulfill His redemptive purposes in your life and do you want to see Him use as His church to transform this community in ways that bring His Kingdom purposes to pass? Then the place to begin is to blend our hearts together around a joyful devotion to the guidance of the Holy Spirit so that we end up doing more for Jesus together than any of us would be able to do on our own.
I know that to suggest such a thing does go completely against the grain in terms of the culture in which we live, a culture in which the interests and desires of the individual always take precedence over those of the group or the community. But I’ve never really wanted to be a part of a church that goes along with the culture. I guess you’d say that I’ve always wanted to be a part of what might be called an “outlier” congregation, a congregation where everybody has somebody to lean on, a congregation that is open to everyone, even one in which flawed and imperfect people are welcome, a congregation where we are capable of carrying heavy loads and shouldering difficult demands for the cause of Christ.
I can’t create that kind of church by myself, and neither can you, not by yourself. But together? Together in the power of the Holy Spirit there is no end to what we could be able to do. “One stick is easily broken. But ten sticks tied together have a strength of their own.”