Not Waiting for Happiness

“I’m not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content in any circumstance. I know the experience of being in need and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or being poor. I can endure all these things through the power of the one who gives me strength.”

Philippians 4:11–13

Have you noticed how many people have delayed their happiness? They seem to believe that if they can achieve a little more success, acquire a little more wealth, or marry the right person then they will possess happiness. Happiness, they believe, is what follows effort, time, and, perhaps, a little luck. It is as though happiness is somewhere out in front of everyone who is industrious enough to pursue it. Happiness is something to grasp, they believe, and their minds remain fixed upon it until they have taken ownership of it. Striving day upon day toward the possession of happiness, what they miss is that the secret of happiness is already present in the lives of those who long for it.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church provides the secret of happiness—as God’s people, we are to live in humility, looking out for others more than for ourselves. That is a great reversal of the commonly accepted formula for happiness. Essentially, Paul teaches that if we are always chasing after happiness, happiness always remains beyond our grasp. On the other hand, if we occupy ourselves with looking out for others, adding value to other people, and promoting their welfare, happiness quietly joins God’s people and takes-up residence in them. Paul is urging God’s people to break free of the tiny little world of themselves and join the great enterprise of God’s work in the world.

Here, in the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippian Church, Paul further develops the secret to happiness. Having shared the secret of happiness, disclosed in the activity of Jesus who accepted humility to become like us, for the purposes of restoring us to God, Paul points to a mysterious strength that converges in our service to one another. That strength comes not from any person—or from the community of God’s people—but from the outside. It is God’s strength. There is far more going on when God’s people join with one another for the promotion of the welfare of others. The same Christ who became human to serve now empowers and enables God’s people in their service to one another.

Shortly following the death of his wife, J. R. Carmichael entered a nursing home. Yet, if you inquired about him, you learned that he is never in his room. It seems that each morning Mr. Carmichael would shower, dress, eat breakfast, and then move from one residential room to another. In each room, Mr. Carmichael spoke with the resident about their family, read the Bible to them, prayed with them, and told them that he loved them. Then it was off to the next room to do the same thing. Mr. Carmichael missed his wife every day but he never waited for happiness. Happiness found him, as he loved others deeply.



Where Battles Are Won

“Jesus was telling them a parable about their need to pray continuously and not to be discouraged.”

Luke 18: 1 (Common English Bible)

Here is a specific teaching of our Lord to be used against the assault of circumstances and battles of life: continuous prayer. Jesus teaches that prayer is the predominant means available to access the power of God and to experience God’s grace. The practice of prayer was a constant in Jesus’ life and ministry. After exhausting himself teaching and healing people, Jesus withdrew to a deserted place for prayer. Before calling together the twelve who would be his disciples, Jesus prayed all night. When faced with five thousand hungry people, Jesus took five loaves and two fish and prayed for a miracle. Once everyone had eaten, the disciples filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. And on the night of his arrest, the night that preceded his crucifixion, Jesus prayed. Jesus urges others to do what he was always doing.

What is it that we do when we pray? Simply, we bring our spiritual enemies, our battles that must be fought, into the presence of God. The enemies remain and the battles must still be fought. But we face the enemy and fight the battle in God’s presence. It is God that changes the equation. As a child, one of my favorite television shows was The Equalizer. The premise of the show is that someone—someone who is being unfairly victimized—finds that the odds are stacked against them. The battle was uneven. There simply was no possible route to face the battle, the enemy, and win. Then, through an introduction with a person with uncommon ability—the equalizer—the game is changed. The battle moves from hopelessness to certain victory. What is changed is that the battle is brought into the presence of considerable power.

There are people who seek to face an enemy or fight a battle on their own. There is an admirable grit that drives them. The desire of self-sufficiency occupies every cell of their being. One can hear the faint voice of a child, “I do it!” Unfortunately, many are sadly beaten. Bruised and broken, a reassessment of the enemy or battle is considered, strategy is modified, and they engage once again—alone. Present is a reluctance to accept the intention of God that we never face life alone. We are rarely strong enough for life’s enemies or the battles that must be fought. Jesus’ invitation in this teaching from Luke’s Gospel is that we take the battle into God’s presence and engage there. Life’s critical battles are lost or won by the decision we make. We are conquerors when the battle ground is prayer.

Another dynamic is also discovered when we bring our enemies and battles before God, they lose their stature. Frequently, the enemy appears as large as a shadow that is cast from a light on a dark sidewalk. From one place, the shadow is considerably larger than we are. Such a shadow can have a terrifying impact. It is all out of proportion with the image that has been caught by the light. The result is that we feel diminished. Yet, move along the same sidewalk, and the shadow changes. It may increase but keep moving. Eventually what is seen is that the shadow begins to decrease. This is the experience we have when we bring our battles before God. We bring them to a holy place where they are right-sized; the threat is shrunk. That is because we have brought them to a much larger place. That is where battles are won.



The Inner Circle

“During that time, Jesus went to the mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night long. At daybreak, he called together his disciples. He chose twelve of them whom he called apostles.”

Luke 6: 12, 13 (Common English Bible)

John C. Maxwell, internationally recognized leadership expert, speaker, and author, writes, “Nobody does anything great alone.”1 Maxwell identifies this as The Law of the Inner Circle—the understanding that those closest to you determine your level of success. One of the earliest teachings in the pages of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, is that God intends that men and women live in a manner that includes God in their inner circle. Life isn’t to be a solo act, but one lived in the presence and guidance of our creator. Following this teaching, the Bible unfolds the narrative of lives that include God or those who chose to move forward without God. What comes into focus is that one choice results in life, the other death. A powerful plea is heard from the lips of God in the Book of Deuteronomy, “Choose life!”

In this teaching from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus goes to a mountain to pray. Jesus prays to God all night long. Jesus is including God in his inner circle. The content of Jesus’ prayers is soon disclosed—Jesus is seeking guidance for the extension of his inner circle. At daybreak, Jesus identifies and calls together twelve who will be called apostles. There is a night of prayer, and then there is a great decision. Our great lesson here is that our Lord took time to pray before he decided. Life also presents each of us with choices, choices that are personal and choices that are professional. Choices that may seem of little consequence and choices of considerable weight. Prayer always surrounds the choices of our Lord, and if we are truly wise, we will acknowledge that we are the stronger when God is included in all our decisions, small and large.

What did God do for Jesus in prayer? Prayer gave magnitude to the decision that Jesus would make. The choice of Jesus’ inner circle, the choice of the twelve that Jesus would teach, and mentor, and send into the world to share the Good News of God’s Kingdom, was a momentous decision. Prayer possessed Jesus’ mind of the gravity of this decision. Each of us is prone to live small lives with tiny purposes, lop-sided prejudices, and ambitions that rise no higher than a sunflower. As someone once said, the good is the enemy of the great. Without prayer, the gravity of decisions is reduced to little consequence. The natural result is a life that neither strives for something great nor achieves all God intends. Nothing kills the little things like our prayers.

Prayer also reaches beyond our own limited understanding of possibility. Someone once wisely commented that if we can ever grasp God and understand God’s mind, we must begin looking for another God. A God that we can comprehend is far too small to save us! Prayer to God, including God in our inner circle, is to draw upon insight and wisdom, and resources greater than what we possess. When we pray, we move into the realm of knowledge and possibility that we could never have imagined. Bigger ideas, bigger motives, bigger sympathies take possession of us. Prayer opens the windows of the soul to grandeur vistas where rich discoveries are made, and the heart is stirred to wonderous activity not before realized. Here Jesus teaches that the biggest outlooks come to those on their knees.



1 Maxwell, John C., The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, 25th Anniversary Edition, (Harper Collins Leadership, 2022) p. 135.


The Great Wisdom of Prayer

“Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.”

Mark 1:35 (Common English Bible)

It was said of the disciples long ago that people held them in wonder and awe that they had been with Jesus. To be with one of the disciples was to experience one degree of separation from our Lord. That close proximity to Christ resulted in an experience of spiritual vitality and power. God’s love, wisdom, and strength were no longer limited to one’s imagination as stories of Jesus’ life and ministry were shared. In the company of a disciple—or disciples—God’s presence seemed to come near. The vision of God’s glory grew more expansive in the heart as a result of being in the presence of one of the disciples. Perhaps that same fascination is what drives each of us to be photographed with those we admire. There is an unmistakable attraction and thrill to standing in the presence of those who have acquired a larger-than-life persona.

In this passage from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had just finished a hard, grueling day. A similar day would follow. How could he be ready for it? What would be the spring of fresh physical, emotional, and spiritual strength from which he would drink? Mark gives us the answer and with it the key to Jesus’ vitality and stamina, “Early in the morning, well before sunrise, Jesus rose and went to a deserted place where he could be alone in prayer.” This one verse suggests the great wisdom of prayer: Every morning, draw from the inexhaustible power of God by drawing near to God’s presence. That is done in prayer. Once when a man was asked what he was doing each day sitting alone in a church, gazing upon a picture of Jesus, he answered, “I am simply looking at him and he is looking at me.” Prayer is time with God.

The weakest, humblest life can be made stronger when placed before God. As we pray, the Bible promises that God will be there. There will be days when God seems absent. The Psalms tell us this. Pray anyway. Know that God is present. Day after day the eyes of the soul become more sensitive to God, the heart more aware of God’s still small voice speaking. Eventually, prayer becomes that daily practice by which the individual soul becomes intertwined with the presence and strength of God. The fact of intimate communion with God is the great reality of true, regular prayer. In prayer, we come to see ourselves surrounded by God’s love and concern for us as we begin each new day.

How strange, how foolish it must seem to God that we should be content with so little prayer. This particular occasion, mentioned in this one verse of Scripture from Mark’s Gospel, was no unusual occurrence for Jesus. Jesus prayed often; Jesus prayed for himself and for others. Jesus took time for prayer before each day and before every difficult challenge that drew near to him. Jesus teaches prayer to us by example, for he knew from his own experience that prayer was a vital part of navigating the inevitable difficulties that each one of us must face. Today, many Christians are troubled by weakness, doubt, and fear, largely because they miss the help that prayer might provide. The greater wisdom of prayer is simply discovering—and experiencing—that we never have to face a day alone.



Memory and God

“But Zion says, ‘The Lord has abandoned me; my Lord has forgotten me.’ Can a woman forget her nursing child, fail to pity the child of her womb? Even these may forget, but I won’t forget you.”

Isaiah 49:14, 15 (Common English Bible)

I was once told of a college professor who had been married for nearly thirty-five years when his wife became ill with dementia. Anyone who is familiar with this cognitive disease knows that eventually all memory is stolen from the individual. The professor did his best juggling his teaching responsibilities and caring for his wife until he could no longer do both. As he put it, he faced one of the most difficult decisions of his life when he placed his wife into a memory care center located nearly two hours from their home. Each day, following his last class, he would drive the two hours to share dinner with his wife. After some time with her, he drove the two hours back home to teach the next day.

Four hours of drive time each day eventually caught up with the professor. The emotional and physical toll was unmistakable as he realized that such drive time each day was not sustainable. Only one option presented itself – one option as the professor saw it. He would resign his teaching position at the college, sell his home, and move closer to his wife. When this decision was shared with the administration of the college and his students, they urged him to reconsider. With love and compassion, the administration and students told the professor that his wife no longer knew who he was, that she has now forgotten him. Perhaps make the drive less often – maybe on the weekends. Stay, they all asked. Stay with us.

With equal love and compassion, the professor refused. “Yes, my wife no longer knows who I am. She has forgotten everything. But I know who I am. I am her husband. Thirty-five years ago I made a promise to her. I intend to keep that promise.” That day the professor did more than demonstrate the worth of a promise made and a promise kept. Most powerfully, the professor taught his greatest lesson of all – that a loss of memory does not make any of us less a person. As long as his wife had breath, she was a person of value, a person to be cherished. Those who can no longer remember our names or of stories shared in the journey of life continue to hold a special place in our hearts and mind.

Isaiah asks, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, fail to pity the child of her womb?” Tragically, answers Isaiah, “Yes, sometimes yes.” Yet, Isaiah quickly moves the conversation forward and adds these words, “Even these may forget, but I won’t forget you.” Isaiah announces to us that, in the end, what ensures our worth – our value – is not what we can remember or fail to remember. What ensures our personhood is that God remembers us. Often our memories are so much a part of who we are that we cannot imagine an identity without them. What the professor teaches us – and Isaiah affirms – is that we are more than our memories. When our memories foil us they are held on our behalf by those who love us.



A Real and Vital Faith

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.”

Matthew 5:8 (Common English Bible)

Jesus teaches, “Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.” The “pure heart” is a faith that is “backed up by convictions, whose outward deeds match their inner commitments.”i  What Jesus is saying is that those who have “pure hearts” will have a faith that is real and vital. It is a faith experienced in the deep recesses of the heart, a faith that influences every moment of our lives. Such a faith confronts the God of the Holy Bible as an inescapable reality. Vagueness and doubt dissipates, senses become alert as though biting into something hot and spicy, and confidently we know that God is right in the midst of the present moment. 

This is not a faith that simply believes in God or has opinions about God. The church has multitudes of people who do that. It is one thing to recite the creeds of the church and utter words of belief, as almost all of us do. It is quite another thing to say, “God is in this place! I feel God’s presence.” That experience is like taking notice of a beautiful piece of art, imagination stirred by the rich use of colors or the complexity of brush strokes or standing on a beach watching a sunrise as if you had never seen one before. No one argues with a beautiful piece of art or with a sunrise. It is simply experienced.

The critical difference is awareness. Consider a conversation I had some years ago in Pasadena, California. During my graduate studies there, I commented to a resident what a joy it is to wake each morning, pour a cup of coffee, and enjoy the beautiful mountain range. At that comment, my friend looked-up at the mountains, with no discernable emotion, and said, “After living here for a while, you no longer notice them.” My friend acknowledged the presence of the mountains but they were not real to him. He had lost his capacity to notice them and have them move him deeply by the beauty that they generously shared day after day. His heart was not pure. Rather, his heart, muddied by the multitude of the small and large things that occupied his thoughts, fell numb.

Anything real to us results in emotional vividness. If such emotion is absent, we may question if we are paying attention, eyes wide open expecting the unexpected and anticipating wonder. Belief can be a profound matter, even courageous when such statement of belief may result in marginalization or persecution. However, often our beliefs lie at the surface of our lives, very present but lacking any meaningful impact on us. Perhaps attention to responsibility, to fulfilling daily tasks, or simply cynicism and exhaustion of the daily grind has narrowed our focus. Experiencing the uncommon in the ordinary requires a pure heart, that is, a heart released on occasion from the urgent tasks always before us, and open to the nuances of the present moment. It is what the Bible speaks of as stillness before God. Such a heart sees God in a child playing, in nature, in ordinary situations, and in opportunities to be useful to others. 



i Thomas G. Long, Matthew, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) 50.


Happy People

“‘Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.’”

Matthew 5:30 (Common English Bible)

Crowds again gathered near to Jesus. Wherever Jesus seemed to travel, word would quickly move among the community and people would drop whatever activity that engaged them to listen for a word from Jesus – any word. Such was the power of the spoken word that fell from the lips of Jesus. That day was no different than today. As the old maxim goes, “Time is money.” If people stopped whatever they were doing to hear a word from Jesus, there was perceived value in that word. The value was simply that Jesus addressed life – life, as we have to live it. Jesus’ words were never dissociated from life. They were deliberate, vital, life-giving. Jesus never spoke to simply capture an ear. Jesus came to solve problems with living.

On this particular day, the first word spoken by Jesus was, “Happy.” It is not possible to over-estimate the significance of that beginning. This was not a chance word – a word chosen at random. Jesus could not begin his sermon that day with any other word. It was an inevitable word. The whole point of God coming to God’s people in flesh and blood, to live life as we lived life, was to experience life as we experienced life. Life is difficult. Daily, the determination to be happy, to experience life as God intends, meets with disappointment, inequity, and struggle. Our experience is Jesus’ experience. In the final analysis, Jesus sought to lessen the struggle. So, Jesus chooses this day to offer practical guidance for a happy life.

It is a welcomed word. The world is captive to an instinctive desire for happiness. Many may struggle for happiness day following day on what seems an endless journey. We might imagine that to be the story for many who gathered that day to listen to Jesus. Yet, the desire remains undiminished. However painful life may become, people cling to the hope – the possibility – that happiness might be claimed. Each of us believes in it, we seek it, the thought of happiness possessing us, demanding to be possessed. It is as though the great verdict of the world is that God intends that we are happy and Jesus has come do what is necessary to deliver on God’s intention.

As the people listened that day to Jesus, they heard God’s manifesto – they heard God’s singular concern for the well-being of all people. This would be the driving purpose, the driving force at the center of Jesus’ ministry. The absence of happiness was the cause of the world’s misery. The broken, the listless, the weary gathered at the foot of a mountain that day to be encouraged that hope remained in their grasp. Lives scorched by sin, lives on the cusp of despair nevertheless hoped against hope that there might be another day with beauty available to them. Matthew tells us that such a number gathered that they were a crowd. Looking at them, Jesus sat down and taught them. He began with one word, “Happy.”



Unfinished Discipleship

Every Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character, so that the person who belongs to God can be equipped to do everything that is good.

2 Timothy 3:16, 17

There are people in the church who have a favorite hymn but not a favorite Scripture. They have picked out a favorite piece of music to feed their soul, but they do not have a favorite selection from the Bible to feed their mind. The soul is well nourished. The mind is not. Why would this be? I recall a woman telling me that she does not need to study the Bible. She studied the Bible formally in college classes. That was forty years ago! Asked what her favorite Scripture was, she responded, “To thine own self be true.” That is not from the Bible. It is from the Shakespearean tragedy, Hamlet. Yet, she sings in the church choir each week. Classic, traditional church music feeds her soul, she told me. Nourishing the soul while neglecting the mind.

Paul writes to Timothy that God inspires Scripture for expanding the mind. The essential value of Scripture is to teach, show mistakes, for correcting, and for training character. Beautiful sacred music inspires and takes a weary soul to a place of rest and nourishment. That is important in the life of a disciple. However, it is not enough. Paul reminds us here, as he does in other places, that God created us for a purpose. God created each person to be useful to God. Scripture makes us useful. Scripture shapes us, forms us, and equips us to be participants in God’s work in the world. Inspired by sacred music while lacking usefulness to God is unfinished discipleship.

We belong to God. Paul is clear on that point. Can you imagine staffing your business with people who lack the basic skill set to get the work done? Christian baptism is Kingdom staffing. Baptism is God’s claim on us. God chooses us and provides the Bible as a training manual for equipping us to be useful. Baptism is also our promise. We promise to make God’s work the very center of our life. That means that we will expand our capacities for accomplishing each task God places in our charge. Done well, God’s Kingdom expands continually affecting positively more and more lives. That results in the exponential growth of God’s purposes in the world. That is, if each newly baptized disciple is useful.

I am asking that you feed your mind daily on God’s word in the Bible. Memorize passages that seem particularly meaningful. Throughout the day, as you go about other tasks, recall to mind those passages you have memorized. Think deeply about why that particular passage is important to you. That simple process accomplishes a big part of God’s work in each person—reflecting on what God intends for us to hear from a portion of Scripture that resonates with us. Prayerfully ask two questions: “What would you have me hear, O Lord?” and “What would you have me do, O Lord?” Day after day, you will discover that God’s Spirit is upon you, equipping you for God’s good purposes in the world. That is what discipleship looks like.



Where Joy Is Found

“Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry. This is because an angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness.”

James 1:19, 20

Sydney Harris shares an occasion when he was walking with a friend home from the office. On the way, his friend stopped at a newsstand to purchase the evening paper. Completing the transaction, Harris’ friend thanked the vendor politely. The vendor didn’t even acknowledge it. “A sullen fellow, isn’t he?” Harris commented. “Oh, he’s that way every night,” shrugged his friend. “Then why do you continue being so polite to him?” Sydney Harris asked. “Why not?” inquired his friend. “Why should I let him decide how I’m going to act?” Notice that the operative word is “act.” His friend acts toward people. Many of us react toward them.[1]

This is the guidance James provides—“quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.” In addition to conforming to the format of a letter, James belongs to the literary genre of Wisdom literature. Such literature was widespread throughout the Middle East during the first century CE. Advancing understanding of wise instructions for life in general, sacred Wisdom literature communicates to readers how to live happily as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Various values and actions consistent with discipleship are examined and urged as faithful expressions of fidelity to God. Here, James implores Christians to “act” toward one another rather than “react.”

James knows who he is. He is a disciple of Jesus Christ. This knowledge provides James with an understanding of the behavior that is now expected of him—the understanding that refuses to return anger with anger, incivility with incivility. Each one of us has natural impulses and internal responses to the behavior of others. Yet, failure to harness those impulses, when they would be hurtful to another, is to surrender the command of our conduct. That is slavery to impulses, which make us mere responders to others. That is when our discipleship stumbles—those occasions when we pour out invective after it has been poured out over us.

Throughout the teachings of Jesus, we are enjoined to return good for evil, to turn the other cheek when the hand of another strikes us. That requires uncommon strength, and uncommon control of sinful impulses to defend our honor. That requires that we “act” as Jesus demonstrates in his own life and ministry, rather than “respond” as Peter did with the sword the night Jesus was arrested in the garden. Nobody is unhappier than the one who has surrendered command of his or her inner impulses and strikes back when injured—physically or emotionally. Yet, God’s righteousness expands when we return anger with love. That is where joy is found.

[1] Nightingale, Earl, Transformational Living: Positivity, Mindset, and Persistence, Shippensburg, Sound Wisdom, 2019. 37.


The Gift of Encouragement

“So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already.”

1 Thessalonians 5:11(Common English Bible)

In the January, 2020 issue of Runner’s World magazine, a woman shares her struggle to complete the New York City Marathon. Halfway through the twenty-six-mile run, personal resources ran out. Physical and emotional resources depleted, she would walk to the sidelines and drop out. Except, there were people on the sidelines. Strangers to her. Moreover, not one of them would let her stand with them on the side of the street. They were not rude. Rather, they shouted, cheered, and pushed her forward with words of encouragement. Strangers would not allow her to quit. She finished the marathon in last place. However, she finished the race!

That is the business of the church! We encourage people not to give up on the race. We shout words of encouragement. We urge them to continue, particularly when it is difficult. We do so in the certain confidence of God’s strength that never falters. Showing up for worship is a shout from the sidelines. Serving in some ministry, alongside others, is a shout from the sidelines. Financial giving to ensure that the church continues to move forward is a shout from the sidelines. Paying attention to others, listening deeply, and caring with an expansive heart, is a shout-out from the sidelines. Each is a real and meaningful means of urging people forward when they face every kind of struggle, difficulty, and challenge.

Some years ago, the distinguished Christian thinker and teacher, Lesslie Newbigin taught that the primary task of the Christian is engagement. Preaching is important. Teaching is important. However, the primary task of the Christian is deep and meaningful engagement in the lives of those we encounter every day. What the church preaches and what the church teaches is not the primary concern of most people. What is most urgent in the lives of the common person is the question “Is there someone who cares?” Authentic engagement in the life of another, championing them through difficulty, create a ripple effect that changes multitudes of lives.

The single greatest mistake that Christians make is the assumption that their faith is a private matter. Such an assumption directs the believer down the path of selfishness. Comments such as, “I can be a good Christian without going to church” reveals that selfishness. As Newbigin argues—and as the apostle Paul asserts here in his letter to the Thessalonian Church—Christians are to gather so that they may mutually encourage one another. Demonstrations of care, support, and encouragement are shouts from the sidelines to those discouraged and defeated by life. These “shoutouts” become enough for those whose own resources have become depleted to finish the race.