No doubt you will have said the words Happy New Year many times over the New Year weekend, and similarly will have heard them said to you by dozens, if not hundreds, of well-wishers as we launch ourselves into the year 2018.
I wonder what it would take for you to be really happy. Do you even know what would make you happiest? Often the things we look to provide happiness disappoint, failing to live up to expectation and resulting in an anti-climax.
An influential US preacher, John Piper, is known best for his teaching about Christian Hedonism which is most succinctly explained by the phrase 'God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.' He was recently taken to task by someone who objected that it was not possible to combine the words Christian and hedonism together.
At first glance the objection seems valid. Hedonsim is a philosophy of life that argues that the pursuit of pleasure is the highest good and proper aim of human life. Put another way if you believe something will make you happy then it is right to pursue it. If it will make you unhappy then it is right to do everything within your power to minimise its pain in your life. Whilst few people in the UK would claim to be hedonists we only have to look at the decisions that people make to see that pursuing what we think will make us happy is the dominating motivation of our lives. Whether it is binging on chocolate or alcohol the power those have in us is the belief that consuming them will either make us happy or blot out the pain. Even altruistic acts of kindness are often driven by the warm fuzzy feeling we get by doing them.
Christian Hedonism however is a biblical understanding that replaces the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of God. The Christian life understood and lived right leads to the greatest joy imaginable. Joy is the by-product rather than the goal.
Paul, writing to the Philippians, says that the source of his joy is Christ and Christ alone. He was writing from jail and agitators were doing their best to make his imprisonment more uncomfortable. Rather than asking for prayers for his release Paul's concern is that his reader's love for Christ would grow deeper and that he would have more opportunities to share the gospel. He even goes so far as to say "For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain" and "I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far;" Phil 1:21 & 23
Paul is not speaking from a place of tormented desperation where he craves death as an escape from his present difficulties. Rather he has such a profound grasp of his identity in Christ that he passionately longs for deeper intimacy with him. He knows that the ultimate expression of this will only be realised when he dies and goes to be with Christ. In the meantime he rejoices in Christ despite his circumstances which, without Christ, would otherwise rob him of joy.
Spiritual disciplines such as prayer, reading the bible, worship and fellowshipping with other believers won't on their own lead to joy like this. They will however point us in the right direction and provide opportunities for the Holy Spirit to mediate Christ to us in such a profound way that we can echo Paul's words "for me, to live is Christ to die is gain." No one and nothing matters more than Christ.
I don't know what this year will hold for any of us but I pray that we will all discover such true joy in Christ that whether our circumstances be easy or hard we will find our natural response is to rejoice in Him.