The Nature of Happiness   (Philippians 4: 10-13)

by | Mar 6, 2022 | Sermon Text | 0 comments

In Larry McMurtry’s epic novel Lonesome Dove, two old Texas Rangers are riding to Austin to look for a cook, and one of them, Augustus McRae, veers off the trail to ride into a grove of live oaks, down by a beautiful creek. His partner, the no-nonsense Woodrow Call, wonders what in the world has got into Gus, and he decides to ride down to his rugged partner’s side, only to find his partner’s eyes glistening with tears.

“What has come over you?”
“Woodrow, I doubt you would understand.”
“Well, if I don’t, I don’t. I sure don’t so far.”
“I call this Clara’s orchard. Me and her discovered it one day while on a buggy ride. We come out here on picnics many a time. . . . Clara was lovely. I expect it was the major mistake of my life letting her slip by.”
“If she didn’t want to marry you, I don’t guess there was all that much you could have done about it.”
“It weren’t that simple.” Augustus looked at the creek and the little grove of trees and remembered all the happiness he had had there. He turned his horse Malaria and rode on toward Austin, the memory of Clara as fresh in his mind as if it were her, not Woodrow Call who rode beside him.
“When was you happiest, Call?”
“Happiest about what?”
“Just about being a live human being, free on earth.”
“Well, it’s hard to single out any one particular time.”
“It ain’t for me,” said Augustus. “I was happiest right back there by that little creek. I fell short of the mark and lost the woman, but the times were sweet.”

I think of that passage when I consider this declaration of Paul, who was mired in circumstances that seemed anything but pleasant. Whereas that old Ranger had a broken heart, the old apostle had a broken body, his bones misshapen from years of stonings, scourgings and sundry imprisonments. His eyesight was failing. He was manacled to a Roman soldier, expecting imminent execution, yet he could write to his friends at the church in Philippi, “I do not complain of want. In whatever state I am, I am content. I know how to be abased, I know how to abound. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” Here is a man with a broken body, facing dim prospects ahead, yet an unquenchable joy radiates from his soul. How could that old Ranger with a broken heart and that old apostle with a broken body evince such joy? Their responses would suggest that their understanding of happiness differs from our superficial grasp of the concept.

When we think of happiness, we generally equate happiness with two factors: possession and freedom. We think, if I just possessed enough wealth, enough health, enough status, enough power, maybe enough fame, then my life would be wonderful. Then we think, and if I had absolute freedom, freedom from all encumbrances, freedom from all pressures, freedom from all responsibilities, my happiness would be complete. This is why travel agencies try to lure us into their businesses with images of deserted beaches, pristine waters, scenes of solitude and pleasure. We instinctively associate happiness with the absence of attachments, with the dearth of demands.

Possession and freedom would seem to us to hold the keys to our happiness, and yet, when we pause to think about it, we can ponder the examples of hundreds of celebrities who possessed unimaginable wealth, whose fame was incalculable, who seemed free from all normal pressures of existence, yet many of them ended their lives by suicide or sedated themselves into oblivion. They didn’t do so because they were so happy.

That old Ranger and that old apostle understood that happiness in its most mature iteration was not some evanescent feeling. True and enduring happiness, as they understood it, came from living fully alive, fully focused, fully engaged. The ancient Greeks referred to happiness as Eudaimonia, “having a good and healthy soul.” The Hebrews and early Christians used a word for happiness that stemmed from the word “holiness,” “wholeness.” They understood happy people to be “whole people,” which is to say their lives were not fragmented, were integrated, harmonious, fully directed and purposed.

Despite his difficult circumstances, Paul’s happiness was fed by four sources that are available to us all. The first of these sources was this: he was gripped by a sense of being caught up in a higher purpose. He felt caught up in the higher purpose of serving the Kingdom of God and answering the upward call of Christ. Paul’s early career was marked by great energy and great passion. He had gained a notorious reputation for suppressing Christians. Yet living a life of inflicting violence did not fulfill him, did not bring him lasting satisfaction. It took that Damascus Road call of Christ, summoning him to be Christ’s apostle to the Gentiles to give Paul a lasting purpose that was worthy of his talents and drive. Being caught up in the grand purpose of being an apostle for Christ gave Paul enduring contentment of soul.

Over the course of his ministry in championing the cause of Christ, Paul learned the wondrous truth discovered by the great psychotherapist Viktor Frankl amidst the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz. Frankl, amidst the unimaginably horrific degradation of Auschwitz, examined the lives of his fellow inmates and found to his amazement that despite their dark circumstances, some people refused to give in to irritability, refused to give in to pessimism and despair, because they were fed by a sense of being gripped by a higher purpose. Frankl was shocked to find that people amidst the most degrading circumstances possible were nevertheless able to maintain their psychological and spiritual health because they felt impelled by their participation in a grander enterprise. This sense of being grasped by a larger purpose gave them the ability to break even that horrific concentration camp’s hold upon their soul.

Frankl makes his point negatively in telling the story of a world-renowned musician in Auschwitz who dreamed that they would be freed from camp by the end March of 1945. For about six weeks, noted Frankl, this musician was almost ebullient, even amidst the concentration camp, because he was so sure that his dream would come true. But as March waned, and the war news became bleaker, Frankl witnessed his friend’s spirit beginning to falter. As the month dragged on, his soul withered. By the 30th of March he lapsed into a great fever. He died on March 31st. The medical report said the man died of typhus. Frankl knew better. He knew the man had died because his friend had lost his sense of being gripped by a higher purpose. By contrast, Paul always held on to that source of strength and happiness.

Second, besides sensing his being gripped by a higher purpose, Paul felt gripped by the sense of communion with a Higher Power. Again, I can make this point by means of an analogy. The great musician Johann Sebastian Bach returned home from a short musical tour to find that an epidemic had claimed the life of his wife and two of his children. Certainly, he was not “happy” in our superficial, conventional sense of the word. Yet, shortly thereafter, the great Bach wrote the most amazing entry in his journal: “Dear Lord,” he wrote, “let my joy not leave me. May my joy not leave me!” Even in the wake of crushing loss, Bach felt fed by his communion with the Spirit of God, and this relationship with the divine gave him an unquenchable joy that emanated in his immense creativity. In a life marked by constant turmoil, enervating crises, crushing disappointment, numerous rejections, what sustained the ever faithful Bach and allowed him to continue to create magnificent music was his inviolable sense of communion with the living God. Here, indeed, is where our happiness is rooted and defined. Our happiness is founded on our sense of communion with God’s Spirit. This Spirit gives us strength and joy. Our circumstances can change. Circumstances can turn dark and painful, but if we maintain our sense of communion with the Divine, then that communion can serve as a source of a lasting soul contentment that allows us to rise above whatever darkness assails us.

Third, caught up by a grander purpose, fed by communion with a Higher Power, Paul’s enduring happiness was also fed by an unshakeable confidence that God had endowed him with a sense of competence to face whatever life might bring his way. Paul could declare with utter confidence, “I know how to be abased. I know how to abound. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.” Paul knew there was nothing that life could throw at him that God could not grant him the strength to overcome. He could do all things through Christ who strengthened him! A strong element of his happiness was his sense that God had given him competence sufficient to whatever challenges life might throw at him.

I am something of a Churchill scholar, and on the day that Winston Churchill became prime minister of Great Britain, the news from every corner of the world seemed dark and dismal. Life as everyone had known it seemed to be falling apart at the seams. Yet Churchill, who was in his mid-60s when he became prime minister, had lived a life defined by grievous disappointments, stifling isolations, humiliating rejections and disastrous defeats. Churchill saw all of these painful experiences as having equipped him for leadership in this very moment. He believed that he had developed a competence sufficient to deal with whatever might come his way. So, on a day marked by disastrous news from every corner of the world, Churchill convened his first Cabinet meeting and looked everyone squarely in the eye and declared, “Personally, I couldn’t be more delighted with our situation.” That old politician, like the old apostle, knew how to be abased and how to abound. Both possessed a confidence rooted in their sense of competence that would allow them to overcome even the darkest circumstances.

Fourth and finally, one more resource fed Paul’s joy and gave him enduring contentment: he enjoyed the sense of support that can only come in knowing that he was connected to a larger community. Some years ago, gerontologists, scientists who study old people, conducted a massive study of senior citizens to identify what factor most contributed to their happiness. They found, to their great surprise, that good health was not the determining factor in people’s happiness, nor the status of their financial portfolio. The universal factor in defining the happiness of senior adults was the width and strength of their social system! In short, the defining factor in the happiness of senior adults was how many friends they had. Paul was fed by the fact that he was connected to a great host of churches who shared with him a commitment to advancing the Kingdom of God. Paul had established the church at Philippi, had edified it, and nurtured it, and allowed the church to nurture him, so even though he knew his own personal ministry was coming to a close, the larger community that shared his vision would keep his work going forward. His great ambition to spread the Gospel would not end with his death. The larger community of faith would keep advancing the cause of Christ. That sense of being connected to the larger community of faith was a crucial source of Paul’s enduring contentment. So he could exclaim in utter honesty, “I know how to be abased. I know how to abound. I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things through Christ!”

Many of you here know Kirby Godsey, long-time president of Mercer University. What you might not know is that Kirby’s son Raleigh delivered our daughter Clara. Melissa was Raleigh’s Sunday School teacher, and when Raleigh’s wife Judy suffered a near-fatal car accident, Melissa and others in their close-knit family of faith banded together to provide the Godseys with every possible means of support and love, and that communal connection was a key constituent in Judy’s miraculous recovery. The Godseys knew throughout every moment of their trauma that they were surrounded by a community of faith that would see them through their crisis.

Caught up in a sense of a larger purpose, communing with a Higher Power, buoyed by a confidence in the competence provided by God’s Spirit, and connected to a larger community of faith, these were the sources that fed Paul’s enduring happiness. And every one of those sources is available to us as well.