A sermon delivered by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on October 10, 2010.
If you’re happy and you know it…. That’s the title to a popular children’s song that is quite intriguing. It’s sort of an odd questions, isn’t it? “If you’re happy and you know it….” Does that imply, conversely, that you could really be happy and not know it?
To be happy and to know it…is to be content.
If you’re happy and you know it, then you are a rare bird. Author/researcher Gregg Easterbrook has agreed with Freud, who theorized that unhappiness is a default condition because it takes less effort to be unhappy than to be happy. Put another way, if you’re looking for something to complain about, you’re absolutely certain to find it, Easterbrook concludes, “It requires some effort to achieve a happy outlook on life, and most people don’t make it.” (Robin Lloyd, “The Keys to Happiness, and Why We Don’t Use Them,” http://news.yahoo.com, 2/28/06)
Most people take the path of least resistance, then stay unhappy.
So if you’re happy and you know it, that means you’re content. That means you are unusual – because most people are never happy for any length of time.
You have to decide to be content. Paul had decided to be content. In Philippians 4, the church at Philippi had sent Paul a financial gift. He was thankful for their thoughtfulness. But he wanted them to know that his contentment was not dependent upon anything they might do for him. You see, Paul had learned the secret of deep peace, based on detachment from his outward circumstance.
In whatever conditions of life he finds himself, therein Paul discovers the will of God for his present situation.
Abraham Lincoln later agreed when he said, “Most people are as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
At some point, we must learn to live not under the circumstances, but above them. I know – it’s easy for me to say and hard for you to do. It’s hard for me to do. But God’s people are called to live with a steady superiority over life. Don’t be afraid of misfortune. Do not yearn after an easy life. It is, after all, all the same. Bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. Isn’t it enough if we don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at our insides? If our back isn’t broken? If our feet can walk? If both arms can bend? If both eyes can see? Isn’t it enough?
Are you someone always trying to live in the past or live, even more of you, in the future so that you cannot enjoy where you are today? There is no destiny that is going to make you happy. There is no stage in your life – be it singleness or marriage – that holds happiness. You think you’ll be happy when… When what? If you’re not happy today, you won’t be happy when. You are fooling yourself.
In fact, some scientists think it’s a genetic trait that keeps us waking up every morning thinking happiness is in the next stage of life. We fool ourselves to keep the human race going.
Robert Hastings wrote “The Station.”
Tucked away in our subconscious is an idyllic vision. We see ourselves on a long trip that spans the continent. We are traveling by train. Out of the windows we drink in the passing scene of cars on nearby highways, of children waving at the crossing, of cattle grazing on the distant hillside, of smoke pouring from a power plant, of row upon row of corn and wheat, of flatlands and valleys, of mountains and rolling hillsides, of city skylines and village halls.
But upper most in our minds is the final destination. Bands will be playing and flags waving. Once we get there, our dreams will come true, and the pieces of our lives will fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. How restlessly we pace the aisles, damning the minutes for loitering – waiting, waiting, waiting for the station.
“When we reach the station, that will be it!” we cry.
“When I’m 18.”
“When I buy a new 450SL Mercedes-Benz.”
“When I put the last kid through college.”
“When I have paid off the mortgage.”
“When I get a promotion.”
“When I reach the age of retirement, I shall live happily ever after!”
Sooner or later we must realize there is no station, no one place to arrive at once and for all. The true joy of life is the trip. The station is only a dream. It constantly outdistances us.
“Relish the moment” is a good motto, especially when coupled with Psalm 181:24: “This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it.” It isn’t the burdens of today that drive men mad. It’s the regrets over yesterday and the fear of tomorrow. Regret and fear are twin thieves who rob us of today.
So stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more, cry less. Life must be lived as we go along. The station will come soon enough.
(Ann Landers, Waco Tribune-Herald, 6/13/91)
There is no next step that is going to make you happy. There is no next step that is going to make me happy.
I. Paul is not fatalistic. He does not cut the nerve of ambition or smother endeavor.
To be content is not to say “I don’t ever want to be better.” It is not just to accept our present circumstance as the only possible circumstance. But it is – even as we strive for better for ourselves and our families – that we enjoy today for today. You shouldn’t even live for the weekend. You must enjoy today, today. Don’t wish your life away.
There is such a cultural bias against contentment that we have a hard time ever finding it.
I had a hunch, so I called a hairstylist and asked the question, “Are people with straight hair happy with their hair?” “No,” she said. “They get perms so it will look a little curly or wavy.”
“Well, then, that’s good. I guess people with naturally curly hair are the really lucky ones. They’re really happy, right?”
“No. No. No.” She said, “We have to straighten the hair of people who have curly hair.”
Can we never just be happy with who we are? If you have straight hair, love straight hair. If you have curly hair, rejoice in the curls.
People who are single wish they were married. If they could only find a husband or wife. And people who have a husband or wife wish “If I could only be single again. If I didn’t have to put up with him…. If I didn’t have to put up with her.”
A pilot always looked down intently on a certain valley in the Appalachians as he flew over. “What’s so interesting about that spot?” asked his co-pilot.
“See that stream? Well, when I was a child I used to sit down there on that log fishing. And every time an airplane flew over, I would look up and wish I were flying. Now I look down and wish I were fishing.”
There is nothing wrong with ambition. I love to see somebody hunger for excellence and go after it with all of his or her might. But you still have to enjoy today.
“If I could only graduate and not have to take another test.” Some of the happiest days of my life – I took tests for a lot of years – were preparing for and taking tests. I see now what I could not see then.
Your children grow up fast. Enjoy every stage.
The last two Sundays I have spent the Sunday School hour handing out Bibles to our first graders. At the end of that distribution ceremony, after I hand each child his or her Bible, they gather all the children around and I have my picture taken with them. The parents just grin – they are so naive, these first grade parents. I was naive when I had a first grader, too. For now, the picture of Ryan on her first grade Bible Sunday sits on my desk in my office. And now she’s an adult, attending a university hundreds of miles away.
Did I enjoy the Bible Sunday like I should have? I don’t know. When somebody says your kids are growing up too fast – hug them tight today, tomorrow they will be gone – they will be. Don’t wish they would hurry up to walk or talk. Just enjoy them right now. If they’re at the dirty diaper stage, celebrate every dirty diaper. If they are learning to ride their bicycle, celebrate the scratches on their knees. If they’re walking across the stage at graduation, celebrate the milestone, the monument to independence.
II. While Paul did not negate ambition for life, He does admonish us to live above our circumstances (4:11b)
“…be content in whatever circumstance I am.”
A New York attorney who fails to make partner at a white-shoe firm by his mid-30s may find himself depressed. Needing pills. By contrast, a fruit seller in Nigeria, who makes enough in a year to feed and clothe her family may be fairly contented. How can that be? If your goal in life is shelter, food, and safety, the very notion of depression might never enter your psyche, as long as you have enough food, are safe, have a roof over your head. The problem is that so many of us have never known what it means to struggle for mere survival. We’re derailed by the want of life’s intangibles: love, purpose, and meaning.
Paul had the struggle for survival. In fact, when he pens this epistle, he is in prison. Sitting in prison saying “I’m content.”
In 2 Corinthians, Paul gives that litany of his sufferings and struggles in this life. Paul write in 2 Corinthians 11:23,
…far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death.
Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.
Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.
I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren;
I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches.
Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?
If I have to boast, I will boast of what pertains to my weakness.”
And then he adds, “God knows I am not lying about what I am telling you.”
Those of us who have the necessities of life placed in our hands every day – we have a hard time learning contentment.
“I’m starving to death,” says the high school student. “I haven’t had anything today but a Twix and a half bag of Fritos.” She speaks right before her cheerleading tryout. Her stomach revolts at the sight of her mother’s salisbury steak. “You know,” she snarls at her mom, “it’s against the law to treat your kids like this, serving salisbury steak.”
Go to another culture.
“I am starving,” says the little girl in a third world country. I would walk one hundred miles through the desert to reach a handful of millet. The sight of a sparrow carcass would make my mouth water, if only I were not too dehydrated to salivate.”
Now who is starving to death? You’re starving to death because you’ve only had a Twix and Fritos and turned down the salisbury steak? Really?
Jeanne Hill remembers a gas station philosopher who displayed the secret of contentment. It was April and she was already dreading the three months of scorching heat in Phoenix that were approaching just around the bend. She expressed her dread to a local merchant, Mr. Simpson who owned the gas station, as he filled her tank.
“Now you don’t want to worry the season that way,” he gently chided. “Dreading the scorchers just makes the summer start sooner and last longer.”
Summer, in her thinking, was already upon her, making a five-month hot spell.
“Treat the heat like a welcome surprise,” he said, handing her the change. “Take advantage of the best of what our summer offers and ignore the rest under air conditioning.”
“It there a best about summer here in Phoenix?” she asked.
“Ever up at 5 or 6 in the morning?” he asked. “Those July morning skies are so rosy in Phoenix – like heaven is blushing. And on August nights, the stars look like icebergs floating in a dark blue ocean. And a person doesn’t know the real joy of swimming until he’s jumped into the water on a 114 degree day!”
As Simpson walked away, another customer said, “You’ve just had Simpson’s Special – free with every fill up.”
She stopped dreading. It worked. April and May were great.
Years later, Jeanne’s family was transferred to Cleveland. The neighbors there were already worrying about winter in September – when December brought snow. Her kids from Phoenix, David and Dawn, had a blast. The neighbors gathered to watch the nutty desert kids who had never seen snow before. They enjoyed sledding and skating in a way the local kids had long forgotten to enjoy.
A neighbor remarked, “For years, snow for me has just been something to shovel. I’d forgotten just how much fun it could really be until the crowd from Phoenix moved in.”
Simpson’s Special. A wonderful secret to happiness – instead of dreading life’s minuses, enjoy its pluses.
III. Paul’s contentment was in Christ.
Look at verses 12 and 13.
I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
A. Money won’t bring you contentment.
It will bring you stuff. It might bring you prestige and status. But money will not bring you contentment. You can look at the wealthy and see this is absolutely true.
If you were to call AA and ask the question, “As someone’s income rises, their substance abuse will decrease, right?”
“No, wrong,” the answer would come forth. More money does not numb the darts that life throws. It only accelerates the darts.
Have you heard the story of the king who never found happiness? All the musicians and court jesters could not bring him the needed life. A wise man told the king that he needed to wear the shirt of a truly happy man. The king went from village to village and he heard of a man who was known as being truly happy. He searched far and wide for this man so he could wear the man’s shirt and find true happiness. There was only one problem. When he found the man, he discovered that man was too poor to own a shirt. (Michael Shannon, Preaching, January/February 2003)
Among the paintings at the Vermeer exhibit in London was one by Van Ostade that be longs to Queen Elizabeth II. It’s a painting of the interior of a peasant’s cottage. Imagine! The Queen in the splendor of Buckingham Palace – have you ever seen Buckingham Palace? I have – sits, looking and staring at the painting of a peasant’s cottage. Maybe we all want to know how the “other half” lives. Maybe if you’re poor, you’re not happy because you want to be rich. And maybe if you’re rich, you’re imprisoned by riches, are we not, and by your position. You wonder what it would feel like to live in a normal village, in a normal cottage. Even Buckingham Palace can be a prison. The queen is kept behind a fence and guards.
Maybe if you’re a queen, you’d like to ask the question from a Broadway show, “I wonder what the common folk are doing tonight?”
Whether cottage or palace, we must learn to be content with life as we experience it. We thank God for our blessings, both large and small.
Studies on happiness say once you get above the poverty line, more money does not mean more happiness. Go Google that one, and you will see I’m right.
B. Other relationships will not make you happy.
Paul certainly had his difficulty with relationships. He had enemies in almost every city where he started a church.
•In Iconium, the Jews had tried to stone him.
•At Lystra, they did stone him and left him for dead.
•In Philippi, he was jailed.
•He was run out of town in Thessalonica. and Berea.
•He had difficulty with false teachers and enemies.
•His own friends deserted him.
•Some think he had a broken marriage.
•He had trouble in his relationship with John Mark.
•He had trouble in his relationship with Barnabas.
Paul didn’t always have the best luck with relationships. But relationships were not what made Paul happy.
If you learn this, it will radically change your life. Don’t give anybody else the power to make you happy or sad by their giving or withdrawing relationship.
Two little teardrops were flowing down the river of life. One teardrop asked the other, “Who are you?” The second teardrop replied, “I am a teardrop from a girl who loved a man and lost him. But who are you?” The first teardrop replied, “I am a teardrop from the girl who got him.”
Sometimes we cry over what we don’t have, not realizing we might have cried twice as hard had we actually gotten it.
Paul says, “I’m happy when I have and when I have not.”
C. A life of health, ease, and tranquility will not make you happy.
Remember the litany of Paul’s hardships? Sometimes it’s the hardships that make us the best. The reality is that we struggle through life. We face suffering and we face challenges and hardships. We engage in a steady work ethic. We build a middle class family. Then we try to save our kids from all the work and hardships and sufferings that made us who we are.
When it comes to health, we think about the Baroness Blixen in the movie Out of Africa. The lead character. She returns to Africa from a visit to Denmark. Her servant, Farah, meets her at the train station. Upon seeing her, he asks, “Are you well, Msabu?” She replied, “I am well, Farah.” She then asks him, “And you, Farah, are you well?” Farah replies, “I am well enough, Msabu.”
I am well enough. What an amazing statement of contentment. In our time, a very rare sentiment, indeed.
Christ alone brings real happiness. Money is spent. Friends, even spouses, come and go. Health, really, for all of us is deteriorating. And contentment only comes from being who we are in Christ.
We’re not like the Stoics who think we are above life’s circumstances because of our own self-sufficiency. We don’t suppose ourselves to be a rock that won’t yield to the pounding of the ocean. No, as followers of Christ, we stand content that God will somehow, some way, see us through.
Paul is saying, “I know a secret. I know how to cope when I’m humbled.” The literal translation is “when I am lowered,” as one would take down the level of water behind a dam.
Then he gives the antithesis: “I know a secret. I know how to deal with it when things are abundant.” Sometimes living in riches is the hardest way to live.
Depravation could do him no harm, and he was immune from the harm when fortune smiled – because Paul knew the secret. He had come to know it. The secret of being full – like a fattened animal. He knew the secret even when he had to go hungry, to be in need.
How? Because “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (verse 13).
When life is turbulent like a sky before a mid-summer storm, I can handle it.
When life is calm, like the glass topped ocean, Paul says, “I can handle it, because I am in union with the one who infuses me with strength.”
The secret? The paradox? Paul’s independence from life’s circumstances was based upon his dependence with another – his dependence on Christ.
“I can do all things through the one who continually infuses power.” That’s Paul’s language for Christ. “The one who strengthens me.”
He whose life was seized by Christ, he who gladly gave it up for Christ, he who paradoxically gained it all by losing it for Christ, he who longed to know the power of His resurrection – he found a source who made him empowered with contentment, despite his outward circumstances.
So, if you’re happy and you know it…you’re content. If you’re happy and you know it…you’re not the usual fare. If you’re happy and you know it…you’ve learned to rely on Christ, to be dependent upon His grace and His love, and to measure all things by His all-sufficient grace and not by comparing yourself to your neighbor.