(This first appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on October 17, 2014)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:4-7, NRSV).
One of my favorite books as a boy was Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. It’s about a little boy and a tree. The boy gathers her leaves, climbs her trunk, swings from the branches and eats her apples. Then the boy starts to grow up. He stops playing around the tree, but he comes by every now and then, looking for money, for a house, for a boat. Each time, she cannot give him these things, but she does give him her apples to sell, her branches to build and her trunk to build a boat and sail around the world. But none of those things seem to make him happy. He just keeps returning for more. Certainly we can identify with the boy’s desire to be happy, can we not?
Of course we can. Just look at the self-help industry. It was valued at $9.84 billion in 2012 (“The U.S. Market For Self-Improvement Products & Services,” 2012). The problem with pursuing happiness, however, is the phenomenon known in positive psychology called the “hedonic treadmill.” Simply put, when good things happen, one feels euphoric for a short while. When bad things happen, one is depressed for a short while. But the level of happiness always returns to the set point. The treadmill effect happens when someone attempts to improve happiness from the outside, such as through buying new things, but finds that after a short spell of happiness she adapts and is back to the lower set point. So that person might continue to buy and buy and buy, or do other things, trying to get back to a higher level of happiness, only to find herself in the same spot. It is as though she were on a treadmill. Trying to change one’s happiness by changing one’s circumstances -from the outside- is a futile pursuit. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. So how do we find happiness?
In his letter to the Philippian church, the apostle Paul urges the people to “Rejoice!” In fact, he says it twice (v. 4). Paul’s love and enthusiasm for this church, and for the gospel that he proclaims, is so strong that you can feel it in the letter. Paul is brimming with joy. And do you want to know why that is remarkable? You see, Paul is writing from prison in Rome. In fact, he has been given a death sentence. These are the worst circumstances you can imagine, and yet here he is gushing with joy. How is this possible? Well, Paul seems to have found something in his faith that is much deeper than the surface level euphoria that we often seek in our everyday lives. Paul seems to have found a “peace that surpasses all understanding” (v. 7). And if you think about it, I think that is what we are really after: a peace that we do not comprehend; a peace that withstands the ever-changing circumstances and blows of life like an ever-flowing stream of life-giving water deep below the surface of an unpredictable existence. And how does one achieve that kind of peace?
Paul gives us three tools with which to dig the well to such a stream: gentleness, trust and gratitude (vv. 5-6). The word translated as “gentleness” (epieikes) means more than the English implies. The word means equitable, fair, just and moderate. It is a quality that is concerned with harmony in a community. It means that one must plant and nurture strong social relationships. In fact, much of the research done on happiness suggests that the happiest and longest living people on earth, those with the highest and most resilient set points, are those with meaningful and extensive relationships with other people.
The second tool, living without worry, seems like a nice idea. But how exactly do we do that? Well, it’s a matter of letting go. It is a matter of letting God take over the things in your life that give you anxiety. And trust in God, like trust in anyone, takes patience. But when we prayerfully ask God to help pry our fingers off of the things we worry about and take them away, it will happen. One technique to letting go of anxiety is to replace it with something else, which brings us to the third thing: gratitude. It is nearly impossible to be worried and grateful at the same time. When you pray, think of all the things you are grateful for, and say thank you to God. And if you don’t know what you are grateful for, start with the fact that you woke up on the green side of the dirt this morning. It’s a matter of changing perspective. And when you start choosing to notice the good things in life, more good things come into view. If you don’t really “feel” grateful, that’s okay. Just say thank you anyway. Eventually, the grace of authentic gratitude will come and knock you over like a wave.
And remember, you are loved and valued so much be the Creator of the universe, that God became human, lived a human life, died a human death and rose from the grave to set us free from the power of sin and death. So you are absolutely worthy of the “peace that surpasses all understanding.” And I pray that you find it.