How can a Christian have joy in the midst of trials or unfavorable circumstances?

Man holding prison bars

Written while he was chained in a Roman prison, Paul’s letter to the Philippians gives six clues to what enabled him to rejoice in literally any situation. 

YOU’RE STUCK. You feel like you’re spinning your wheels in axle-deep mud. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink. It’s the cold, rainy season in your Christian life. If you could only reach dry ground, the sun would warm your heart in no time.

But this season still has two more months. There must be some way to inject it with joy. You preach to yourself that these negative moods counter the Kingdom of God. You know that Satan loves to see you like this, listless and unproductive. You’re starving for joy!

Then you read Paul’s let­ter to the Philippians. The audacity of that apostle! To revel in his joy while lan­guishing in a Roman prison! To command joy of the Phil­ippians in a time of anxiety (Phil. 4:4). How can joy be com­manded? Unless… unless joy is an attitude that de­termines good feelings, rather than a feeling that deter­mines attitude. That would make joy a decision rather than a chance. If joy were a feeling it could not be com­manded. Feelings can only be fostered and corralled by attitudes.

Joy is a choice made by those who discipline their attitudes. Joy is not automatic. It doesn’t seize you and force you under its will like a sovereign hand. You don’t catch it like a virus. It is work. Happiness stems from what happens; it is a feeling that surges and fades. Joy, on the other hand, stems from the Holy Spirit, and can be a constant regardless of circumstances.

So, Paul urges the citizens of Philippi to control their attitudes and thereby harness their feelings. He commands joy and offers the keys to its cultivation.


Paul’s gratitude is reflected in every line of his letter to the Philippians. Impris­oned and possibly facing death, the apostle still refuses to register even the slightest complaint. He thanks God for the Christians at Philippi (Phil. 1:3). In every verse he seems to sing with thanksgiv­ing, almost as though he were composing a psalm. He denies himself the option of focusing on the negative aspects of his imprisonment:

“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has hap­pened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly” (Phil. 1:12-14).

In addition to his own suf­fering, another problem could have distressed Paul. Because he could not preach, many others were preaching. Some of them preached with selfish motives, even hoping to “stir up trouble” for Paul (Phil. 1:17). But the apostle de­clares, “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18). Paul encouraged himself by thinking about how God was using his situation to bring the gospel to others. Reflecting only on his own discomfort would have led to depression.

When you consider the ways in which you have seen God work, include the blessings He has poured out on others through you. Remember how others’ faith has grown as they have seen God glorified in your trials. Include also the evidences of God’s grace to your family and friends.

Learn to bask in God’s goodness. When refreshing rains come, fill your barrels for times of drought. Frolic like a child in even the smallest and simplest things. A glorious sunrise can bring a surge of joy, even when you have witnessed hundreds.


Paul labored and suffered with his future rest in mind. “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). His was a valiant, courageous confidence in Christ. He could see the good results of bad situations, yes. But more important, he saw the final good, the final victory.

My three-year-old daughter worried over a lost puppy on a television program. Out tumbled one question after another about the puppy’s welfare. Her mother tried to explain that it was only a movie, and the puppy would return home before the end. My wife knew there would be a happy ending but struggled unsuccessfully to communicate that hope to our child. In a similar way, Paul attempts to communicate his hope to us. He knows there will be a happy ending, and he wants us to remember that in the worst of circumstances.

The apostle cites Christ as an example of such hope. Jesus faced the Cross with a mind clearly focused on His goal. His suffering was of less importance when He considered the needs of mankind. He put aside self-pity and clothed Himself with compassion for men (Phil. 2:5-8). He did this because of hope. He focused on the victory beyond the suffering (Phil. 2:9-11). “For the joy set before him [he] endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).

Hope is a winch by which we tie into Christ and hoist ourselves out of the muck of despair. Think beyond the present. Think beyond yourself. The hope of the gospel accomplishes joy.


Success itself can’t create lasting joy. Both success and failure in worldly pursuits can result in disappointment, regret, worry, and disgust. But even minute success in the pursuit of godly goals stirs the deepest joy.

Paul kept his spiritual goals clearly in mind:

“I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:8-11).

Paul’s goal, to know Christ, meant following and imitating Christ, even in suffering and death. To know Him would be worth any price because of the final payoff – eternal life. Paul struggled toward those goals with every ounce of energy. All other desires, every selfish impulse, he considered garbage. He admitted he had yet to attain his highest goals, but wrote, “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14).

When we are busy pursuing godly goals there is no time for anxiety, regret, or disappointment. Instead of becoming desperate for worldly happiness we become desperate to follow Christ, and joy is our reward. Our minds are set on Heaven, where our citizenship lies and from where our Savior will return to transform these weak bodies into something like His glorious one (Phil. 3:20-21). Such a pursuit can only produce joy.


The impulse to pray when we are in trouble is almost automatic. Even the non-Christian cries out to God for help in his most desperate moments. But prayer is more than an appeal for deliverance; it is more than a toll-free order system by which we obtain circumstances that make us happy.

As we make our appeal to God, we often feel it is our “right” to grumble and worry until He delivers us. Not so, according to Paul. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). It is our privilege to be free of anxiety, to “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4).

The alternative to anxiety is prayer. Joy does not wait on the answer to prayer, but grows through prayer itself. To continue worrying is a breach of faith. Further-more, it is a denial and a resistance of the Spirit’s work within us. For Paul makes a promise after the injunction to pray: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

A friend described to me how intensely he had been praying over his friend’s sickness. Since he thought of little else, his mind would lead into prayer over and over again. He wondered if he might be wearing God out. In truth, he wore himself out. He made an appeal for God to accept his request, but did not accept God’s promised peace. When he realized this and opened himself to God’s guarding peace, he found “the most refreshing relief I’ve ever known.”


Paul writes:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9).

Tragedies and difficult circumstances have a way of cutting off our fresh air. We become so engrossed in the painful moment that we see, hear, think, and feel little else. We begin choking on stale, cloudy thoughts. But Paul points out that we can choose what to think about – we can focus on gloom and doom, or on promises and praise. We can engage ourselves in self-pity, or in love for others. The joyful person brings feel­ings under control by concentrating on joyful thoughts.

If you are an analytical person like me, you tend to think through problems and decisions thoroughly – sometimes too thoroughly. Rehearsing all the options and tangents and possible disasters can preoccupy our thoughts. Sometimes we need to simply back off and leave every­thing in God’s hands. Dwelling on the negative and sulking in self-pity can do nothing but make us feel and behave as we think. By substituting pure thoughts we occupy our minds with more healthy pursuits.

Once while I was in college I caught the mid-semester blues and sloshed my way into a rut of joyless self-pity. One night my wife and I attended a banquet, and afterward I lingered to assist in the cleanup. At home I fell into a chair, exhausted. But inside I felt renewed. God’s joy had returned – the joy of serv­ice. Focusing my thoughts on service raised me out of the self-centered rut. How were my thoughts redirected? By action. Again and again since that day service has renewed my joy.

Thoughts are not easily rearranged or disposed of. The moment you decide not to think about something, it becomes fixed in your mind like concrete. We can easily sort priorities in our minds, but bringing them to fruition is another story. Thoughts are best disciplined by action. Continuing in godly deeds helps us to maintain godly thoughts.


Paul learned to be content in any situation (Phil. 4:11), and certainly he often found himself in joyless circumstances (2 Cor. 11:23 – 12:10). When we worry over the things we don’t have instead of finding contentment in what we do have, joy shrivels and dies.

Jesus encouraged us to get busy with the present, and let tomorrow take care of itself. For “each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt. 6:34). It is enough to handle what we have without asking for more. Contentment is never found in amount, but in attitude.

A tourist observed Mexican women washing their clothes in a place where hot and cold springs bubbled side by side. They boiled their garments in the hot springs and rinsed them in the cold. The tourist remarked to his guide, “I suppose the people think their God is generous to them.”

“No, señor,” the guide replied, “just the opposite. There is grumbling because He does not supply soap.”

Dissatisfaction breeds anxiety and frustration. Contentment fosters joy. Discontent blackens everything around it. Contentment transforms turbulence into peace. And while discontent seems to occur naturally, contentment is grown through small, painful steps of cultivation. You don’t just decide to be content, you learn contentment.

How is contentment learned? By exercising self-discipline and self-control – products of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). Maintaining grateful hearts, focusing on future hope, and all the other steps to joy will produce contentment in us as well. Above all, contentment is learned by seeking first the Kingdom of God (Matt. 6:33) instead of seeking the things of this world.

Sadness is a necessary human reaction to suffering or loss. Jesus reflected sadness, even grief (Jn. 11:35). Trouble begins only when sadness or grief takes control of our lives, depriving us of God’s peace and joy. Our gaze shifts inward to answer a desire for compassion. Preoccupied with self-pity, we voluntarily enslave ourselves.

Paul suggested and modeled an alternative we can have by choice: joy.

Mark ReedDiscipleship Journal


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