"His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share in your master's happiness!'"
-- Matthew 25:21
Millions are unemployed, the president is entangled in multiple scandals and gasoline costs about $3.50 a gallon. If you believe the news media, there's not a lot to feel happy or joyous about these days. But the truth is that millions of people around the world would do just about anything to trade places with us. That's because even the poorest of the poor in the United States are considered rich (at least statistically) when compared with the rest of the humanity.
Of course, poverty and wealth are relative terms. And they don't respectively go hand-in-hand with misery and happiness. Money and possessions can be blessings, but having a big bank account is no guarantee of contentment. And a recent Gallup poll seems to confirm this biblical truth. It reveals that Panama--a relatively poor nation--has the population with the most positive emotions in the world. And the citizens of other impoverished nations such as Paraguay, El Salvador and Venezuela follow close behind on the happy list. Meanwhile, Singapore--the nation with the world's highest gross domestic product (GDP)--comes in last place on the survey. Less than half of the respondents in Singapore said that they smiled a lot or felt treated with respect. Even the residents of Haiti, Syria and Afghanistan were more upbeat!
Regardless of what advertisers would have us believe, money and possessions can't buy happiness and joy. In fact, the Bible tells us that for many people, excessive wealth can actually be a stumbling block to spiritual health. Rather than a reaction to something external--like a new car or piece of jewelry--real joy is an internal source of gladness and thanksgiving that helps us see the true picture though the most difficult of circumstances. As Christ-followers, our relationship with Jesus grants us access to our Creator--a loving Father who hears our prayers and looks for ways to bless us. So no matter how bad things get in our lives, we already know that our ultimate story will end on a very positive note.
The life of the Apostle Paul is a rich illustration of this principle:
"Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea," he wrote in 2 Corinthians. "I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers."
That doesn't sound like a fun-filled existence. Yet Paul wrote that he was joyful.
With so much negativity in the world today, what's the secret for achieving a joy-filled, Christ-centered life? The Bible tells us to blend thanksgiving for our blessings and authentic, regular prayer with discernment--the ongoing intentional functions of living, thinking and acting positively. Christ-followers must habitually look for the good and dwell on the positive.
When we have lives that are filled with joy, even the most unpleasant of circumstances can't bring us down. Paul spent years in prison chained to his guards while under the constant threat of death. But he always prayed thankfully. And instead of feeling sorry for himself, he used his circumstances to change the lives of fellow prisoners and jailers alike--and all while writing much of what we today know as the New Testament.
Yes, times are tough these days. But Paul's advice to today's weary Christ-followers is all the more simple and profound:
"Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!"