How Can We Always Be Happy?

…even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy. 1 Peter 1:8

Sometimes we struggle to grasp the biblical view of joy because of the way it is described today. We might confuse joy with happiness. The word happy can be sentimental, and happiness can be understood as an emotional state.

The Common English Bible, a translation sponsored by my denomination, even replaced the word “blessed” in the Beatitudes with the word “happy” (Matthew 5:1-12), possibly sending the message that Jesus wanted us to live in a continual state of carefree delight.

Many songs have been written with the theme of happiness, but one that stands out to me is Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” I didn’t realize this in the 1980’s, but I’ve noticed recently that the words “Don’t worry, be happy,” can be interpreted as instructions and not advice.

paul-silas-in-prison.William Hatherell

Paul and Silas in Prison, William Hatherell

The Bible, perhaps like McFerrin, instructs us to be joyful. We see this command numerous times in the Psalms (32:11, 34:2, 66:6, 96:11, 97:12, 105:3, etc.) We are to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) Joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Everyone experiences sadness, and so did Jesus. He was called “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). The author of Ecclesiastes tells us, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting,”( 7:2a). Feelings of sadness, depression and despair are normal, even for disciples of Jesus.

However, joy is not like what we often consider to be happiness. It is not an emotional experience that happens to us. It is something we willfully do and we are commanded to do. Paul writes to the Philippian church, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4). Not occasionally or when we are in the mood. Keep in mind that Paul wrote this letter from prison where he is facing death. Yet he tells the Philippian believers that they should rejoice despite his circumstances.

How is this possible?

Paul gives us a practical way forward in that same passage: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (4:8).

This is a call to focus our attention on what God has done for us in Christ. When we find ourselves depressed, down, irritated or unhappy, we can return to the source of our joy, and see how our difficult circumstances are insignificant when compared to the enormous riches in Christ.

God commands us to experience true joy. Not just in heaven someday. Not when circumstances take a turn for the better. Not when sorrow and darkness finally lift. God wants us to taste real joy today.

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Does God Ever Ignore Us?

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me? (Psalm 13:1)

Every Sunday in worship we pray for our homebound members, the sick and the hurting. During the week we ask God for patience with our children, peace during a stressful day at work, and healing for a dying relative. Sometimes we can say that God answers prayers. Sometimes we wonder why God doesn’t answer us.

Perhaps God is testing our patience, and we have to wait for God’s timing. Perhaps God is answering, and we just don’t realize it. But the Bible also teaches us that there are specific things in our lives that hinder prayers.

The sorrow of king David

King David’s Sorrow, by William Brassey Hole 1846 – 1917

Unresolved conflict

In Matthew 5:23–24 Jesus instructs his disciples that cannot come before God in worship if we have unresolved conflict with a brother or sister in Christ. We are to “first go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Jesus was talking specifically about worship, but since prayer is a part of our worship, our prayers are hindered when we don’t settle a conflict with a brother or sister in Christ.

Selfish motives

Even when praying sincerely, we sometimes put our own interests above those of others and God. Our confidence comes from asking “according to God’s will.” (1 John 5:14-15). We do not receive what we ask for because we “ask with wrong motives.”  (James 4:3). God will not answer our self-centered, self-serving prayers.


God will provide everything we need for godliness: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” (James 1:5-7).

Marital Discord

1 Peter 3:7 urges husbands to be considerate and respectful of their wives, “so that nothing will hinder your prayers.”  The Greek word translated “hindered” literally means “cut off.” If we don’t deal with problems in our marriages, our prayers are cut off from God.

Unrepentant Sin

The writer of Psalm 66 gives us a great lesson on prayer. Being guilty of sin does not disqualify us from the privilege of coming into God’s presence. But verses 17-20 shows us how harboring sin in our lives is the biggest barrier to prayer:

I cried out to him with my mouth;
his praise was on my tongue.
If I had cherished sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened;
but God has surely listened
and has heard my prayer.
Praise be to God,
who has not rejected my prayer
or withheld his love from me!


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Moses, the Burning Bush, and Choosing a Major

“Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” Exodus 4:10

The question of vocation seems to be a crisis at two major points in life: 1) When a person graduates from high school and enters college. They must declare a major as early as possible, so they can acquire the skills and knowledge needed for their future job. 2) This is often in midlife, when a person finds their job meaningless, unfulfilling and frustrating. They may ask: “Have I wasted my life?” or “Am I stuck in this job forever?”

Redefining the Word Vocation


Burning Bush, Sebastian Bourdon

The word vocation comes from the Latin word meaning “calling.” In our society, the word has lost its true meaning, and has become synonymous with “job.” When thinking of our future vocation, we should consider it in its original sense: a task, responsibility, or even a job that God has called us to. The question for the Christian is more than, “What do I want to do when I grow up?” When pursuing a vocation, we should ask, “Am I doing with my life what God wants me to do?”

God is the Perfect Guidance Counselor

Assessing our skills, knowledge and passion is a basic part of the decision-making process in choosing a vocation. But we shouldn’t do that alone, or we might miss out on God’s amazing plan for our lives. God has already assessed our skills. God is perfect in His selection, and calls people according to the gifts and talents that He has given them.

Consider Moses, the most important figure in the Old Testament. Becoming God’s lawgiver, prophet, miracle worker and leader could not have been further from his mind.

Read the account of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 4:1-18)

Moses: A Poor Public Speaker, an Effective Leader

When God revealed to Moses his vocation, Moses resisted it by saying that he lacked the skills for the job. Moses appealed to God that he was a poor public speaker. God rebuked him for trying to evade God’s calling by claiming that he lacked the ability to do the job.

Yet Moses did not understand what skills were needed to live out the vocation God gave him. Moses was not a great speaker, but God had prepared Aaron to help Moses with that part of the task. God was not looking for a polished speaker, because the vocation required obedient leadership from Moses. God had already assessed Moses’ gifts and abilities before calling him.

Pursuing our Vocation, Not Looking for a Job

A vocation is something that we receive from God; He may not give us a specific set of orders like he did Moses. He may not give us a vocation to which we feel well suited. But God always calls us by giving us certain gifts, talents, and aspirations that we need. Jesus promises us that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth (John 16:13), which includes the area of our work. The discernment of our vocation comes through unhurried prayer, dwelling in God’s Word, and seeking godly counsel.

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What Did Jesus Do on the First Holy Saturday?

“He descended into hell.” The Apostles’ Creed (359 A.D.)

According to the Gospels, Jesus’ disciples mourned his death and hid in fear. According to Luke, the women prepared spices and ointments on Friday, rested on the Sabbath and went to the tomb on Sunday. (Luke 23:56).

What did Jesus do on Saturday?

While the Bible offers no explicit answer to that question, that didn’t stop the earliest Christians from gleaning all they could from all relevant Scriptures, and eventually including the phrase “He descended into hell” in The Apostles’ Creed. One big concern back then — and today — is what happened to those who never knew of Christ.


Christ in Limbo, Fresco by Fra Angelico

Is there a temporary place for the spirits of the dead?

Many 1st century Jews and early Christians found Scriptural support for a temporary place where spirits of the dead wait for the end of history. In the Old Testament this place is Sheol, and in the New Testament it is known as Hades. These two are identical in Acts 2:27 where Peter quotes from Psalm 16:10:

“…you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead (Sheol / Hades), nor will you let your faithful one see decay.”

Is there hope for the unrighteous dead?

Some early Christians also found Scriptural support that redemption is possible for those who are in Sheol / Hades. Souls can be ransomed from Sheol (Ezekiel 37:12; Hosea 13:14; Jonah 2:2, 6). The Psalmist declares:

“But God will redeem me from the realm of the dead (Sheol); he will surely take me to himself” (49:15).

Early Christians also found hope in the Gospels: Saints are raised with Jesus and appeared to many (Matthew 27:51–54). Jesus speaks of forgiveness in this world and in the world to come (Matthew 12:32). He also speaks in the present tense of the dead hearing the voice of God:

“Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live” (John 5:25).

Did Jesus visit the dead on the first Holy Saturday?

1 Peter envisions Christ preaching to spirits who are in prison (1 Peter 3:19–20; 4:6). The teaching that Christ descended into Hell (Hades) after his crucifixion was supported in various Scriptures (Acts 2:31; Ephesians 4:9–10; 1 Peter 3:19–20), including the words of Paul, where Christ had “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Ephesians 4:8–9). Jesus’ words to Peter seem to portray the church as being on the offensive against the underworld:

“…on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18).

The Most Important Truth

Many Christians have understood the word Sheol to mean grave. Even if one understands “He descended into hell” as a reference to Christ’s time in the tomb, that phrase can still be a reminder that Jesus is Lord over all of the darkness in the world, and he is present in most miserable of places. In the words of Paul:

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

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Zacchaeus and The Disadvantages of Being Short

He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. Luke 19:3

As I prepare for this Sunday’s sermon about Zacchaeus, my mind keeps wandering. What was it like being short in biblical times? “Short” and “tall” are relative terms, but Luke tells us that Zacchaeus had to climb a tree in order to see Jesus, so his height created certain disadvantages for him. What other challenges might Zacchaeus have faced because of his height?

Did his career suffer? Did he ever have trouble getting a job, or getting a promotion? Did he experience unconscious bias from potential employers? I wouldn’t dismiss this possibility out of hand – usually the taller presidential candidate wins. Apparently Zacchaeus overcame this obstacle. He was eventually able to get a foot in the door, becoming a tax collector for the Roman Empire.


Zacchaeus in the Sycamore, James Tissot 

Did his romantic life suffer? I realize that men didn’t exactly date in biblical times, but as the Italians say, height is half of beauty. Maybe the father of a potential bride disapproved of Zacchaeus, preferring a taller, more attractive man for his daughter?

If there were such things as resumes and applications back then, would Zaccheaus have been tempted to exaggerate his height, adding an inch or two when he thought he could get away with it? This would be understandable, since society often valorizes the tall and belittles the short.

If, as psychologists say, height and self-esteem are so enmeshed, what were the psychological consequences of Zacchaeus’ height? Did he view himself more negatively than his taller peers? Given the pervasive tendency to associate height with power, did Zacchaeus ever struggle with a sense of vulnerability?

Obviously there are no answers to these questions. But our tendency to prefer the tall over the short is undeniable: it’s embedded in our very language. We look up to people we consider superior; those without influence are the little people. Perhaps we see in Zacchaeus an example of who God calls and how God works. The Apostle Paul writes:

God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. 1 Corinthians 1:27–30.

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Can Christians Be Certain?

Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 1 Corinthians 13:12

One of my favorite quotes comes from a book titled The Workshop Way of Learning, which was written in 1951. Dr. Earl C. Kelley writes about the challenges of education:

“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. Indeed, we sometimes feel we have not completely answered any of them. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”

The quote raises some important questions for Christians: Can we be certain when it comes to our knowledge of God? Or is there room for doubt and confusion?

I prefer the word confidence over certitude when it comes to my faith in Christ. When I think of certainty, I think of mathematic certainty: Since the 1st grade, it has been impossible for me to conceive of 1+2 being anything else but 3, but Christian faith is not the same as mathematical certainty.


The Disbelief of Thomas, by James Tissot 

Here’s why I struggle with using the word certainty:

We are made in the image of God, but that image has been shattered because of sin. Even though the Holy Spirit indwells us, we still struggle with sin and human limitations. Our minds are still prone to misinterpretations, misunderstandings and ignorance of Sacred Scripture. We still struggle with pride and prejudices, which can skew the way we approach the Bible and form our views of God. Christianity and the Bible has been used to marginalize women, justify slavery and conclude that the earth is flat. Which is why we must allow others to challenge our interpretations, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions.

I will not enjoy certainty in this side of eternity,  but I am confident in the claims of historical Christianity: God exists. Christ is God in the flesh. Christ’s death brings me salvation from my sin. Christ has plans for my life. Such confidence has led me to make life altering decisions.

Being completely confident in the truth of Christianity does not mean the absence questions, doubts, and confusion about God. I can have confidence in Christ, while  having a theology that needs correcting from time to time.

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Father Abraham and Sexual Exploitation

“He treated Abram well for her sake…” Genesis 12:16

The Old Testament is replete with sexual violence, which is not so different from The Game of Thrones or the news. Thankfully, organizations like the International Justice Mission are opening our eyes to the global reality of sex trafficking of women and children. There are numerous national and local organizations providing information and resources on sexual violence and exploitation of women and children.

The Old Testament writers didn’t skim over the reality of sexual violence.


Pharaoh Returns Sarah to Abraham, Isaac Isaacsz

Consider Abraham, the second name mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:1-2). When he moves to Egypt to avoid a famine (Genesis 12:10-20), he orders Sarah to pretend she is his sister, so no one will kill him to take her.

As a result, “she was taken (Genesis 12:15)”- words that imply sexual activity – by Pharaoh into his harem. To thank Abraham for sharing his “sister,” Pharaoh rewarded him with livestock and servants. (A similar event takes place in Genesis 20.) God called Abraham to be a blessing, but in both cases the only person “blessed” was Abraham. Sarah is betrayed, while Abraham gets richer.

If we gloss over the details when telling these stories, we miss some of their importance.

We see ancient examples of a modern reality: People in power – including those who profess faith in God – can use their power to exploit the vulnerable. The Bible does not gloss over this painful reality.

The consequences of sexual exploitation are severe, but God’s grace is even greater. God works in and through all people: even those guilty of heinous sins, as the genealogy of Jesus shows.

For Christians, our identity comes from our unity with Christ in his suffering, death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-7). We can trust that Jesus, in winning the victory over sin and death, gives us the victory over all the sins committed by us and against us.

I realize these words may ring hollow in the ears of victims of sexual violence. I cannot identity with that painful experience. However, I have experienced God’s grace that meets us where we are, heals us gradually and brings meaning to our pain.

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