These three epistles emphasize the importance of the Atonement in our lives, that without Christ we cannot succeed, but as we follow him, we cannot only be saved in the next life, but we can achieve peace and joy in this life, regardless of circumstances. Several key elements of happiness are found in these three small epistles. We'll work our way backwards from the smallest to the largest. If you are struggling with finding joy in life right now, pay close attention to see if you can find a key that you can implement in your life that may restore your happiness.
The epistle to Philemon has one object: the welfare of a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had been Philemon's slave. After he ran away, he found the gospel and joined the Church. Now he desired to return to Philemon and the fellowship of the saints in his former residence, but an escaping slave who was caught and returned to his master could, by law, be put to death. (See Bible Dictionary.)
This seems at first like such a narrow topic, one that applied to a specific individual, and has no relevance to us today. But everything in the New Testament has relevance to us to today, we just have to look at it through another angle, and in this case, it has tremendous importance if we view Paul as playing the Savior's role, ourselves as being Philemon, and those who have sinned against us or offended us as Onesimus. Let us read it through this lens:
"I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds, which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me...Receive him...not now as a servant [or as someone who owes you a tremendous amount, which was what often led to slavery in those days], but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh and in the Lord? If thou count me therefore partner, receive him as myself...
"If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee [anything], put that on mine account. I...have written it with mine own hand [think of the scars of Golgatha], I will repay it: albeit [it goes without saying] how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides. Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels [today we would say, my heart] in the Lord" (Phile. 1:10-21).
Truly, until we forgive, our peace and happiness is held hostage by the offenses committed against us. Once we give that debt over to Christ, we are free to be happy, free to live in the present and for the future, unfettered by the damaging past. (See also Col. 3:12-13.)
In one little verse in Colossians, a great key to happiness is found: "And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men; knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance; for ye serve the Lord Christ" (Col. 3:23).
My mother worked in the university library when she was attending college. Most of the books were downstairs from the library reference desk. If someone wanted to check out a book, they would bring the reference to my mother or one of her co-workers, and they would have to go down to the basement, look up the book, and then bring it back up to the patron. They went down and up those stairs constantly, all day long. They got so tired that they would just drag themselves back up. Then they discovered an amazing thing: If they ran down and up the stairs, they were energized, rather than exhausted!
We may experiment and find that in any endeavor in any area of our life, if we do it hesitantly, with misgivings, with resentments, holding back even a tiny bit from the Lord, we likely will get burned out. There is too much tension in our spiritual muscles, too much earthly gravity holding us down. But if we give it all and don't count the cost, the stress lessens, the joy increases, and we only desire to do more.
"If you are tired of walking, run!" (Credit for that little mantra goes to my neighbor, Gail Hanson.)
LIVING IN LOVE
We don't need to worry about achieving perfection through checking off lists and meeting expectations. We will, like the Pharisees, never succeed. But we can achieve perfection through doing everything we do and treating everyone we meet with love. Our goal in life should be to have love become our motivator in every instance, because charity never faileth, and charity will bring us peace. "Above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts..." (Col. 3:14).
VIEWING EVERYTHING (BUT OUR SINS) IN A POSITIVE LIGHT
In the first instance, Paul points out that everything works out, even things that appear to be negative. "But I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel" (Philip. 1:12). Because he has been imprisoned and yet continued faithful in the preaching of Christ, other missionaries have followed his example of boldness. And although some of those have preached with "envy and strife" and "of contention, not sincerely," hoping to make things worse for Paul, others have preached in "good will" and "love." Either way, it brought attention to Christ (1:13-18). "What then? notwithstanding, every way, whether in pretence, or in truth, Christ is preached; and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice" (Philip. 1:18).
TRUSTING THE FUTURE TO THE LORD
Next, Paul avers that if he continues in the faith, whatevers happens to him--death or life--will be to the glory of God. "For I know that this shall turn to my salvation...according to my earnest expectation and my hope...Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by [my] life, or by [my] death. For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain" (Philip. 1:19-21). He would like to leave this life and its afflictions and join Christ "which is far better," but he realizes it may be more beneficial for the saints if his life is spared. He feels, therefore, the inspiration that he will not be taken yet, so that their "joy of faith" may be furthered, and their "rejoicing may be more abundant in Jesus Christ" (Philip. 1:22-25).
"Do all things without murmuring and disputings: that ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; holding forth the word of life; that I may rejoice in the day of Christ...for the same cause also do ye joy, and rejoice with me" (Philip. 2:14-18).
FORGIVING OURSELVES AND MOVING ON
Remember that Paul caused a great deal of damage to the early Christian church. He caused slaughter and imprisonments, terror and scattering among the believers of Christ. He was a Carthage mob leader, so to speak. When Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus, Paul did something quite remarkable. Besides having an immediate and drastic change of heart, and besides repenting and turning whole-heartedly to Christ, he did something that many of us with lesser sins find extremely difficult to do. Although he never gloried in himself regarding the good he did for the Church afterwards, he did give himself credit for this one difficult task: forgiving himself. "Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Philip. 3:13-14). Paul could not have pressed forward if he were always looking back with shattered confidence.
President Hinckley counseled, "To any who may be grieving over serious mistakes in their lives, I hold out the assurance, given anciently and in modern revelation, that where there is repentance there may be forgiveness. Do not dwell upon the tragic mistakes of the past. Rather “'look to God and live'” ("If Thou Art Faithful, March 1992 Liahona).
NOT STRESSING OUT
"Be careful for [our modern-day phrase would be stressed about] nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus" (Philip. 4:6-7). No matter how perfectly reasonable our most intense worries are, if we want peace, we need to give our worries to the Lord in prayer, focusing not only on those requests but on gratitude for our blessings. Sometimes it's not the big fears, but the daily anxieties that destroy our peace--being late, burning dinner, meeting deadlines. It doesn't matter which: the principle is the same. Trusting in the Lord removes our fear. As I remember one of my teenage boys (Andrew) saying, "If it doesn't affect my eternal salvation, I'm not going to worry about it." This is a great attitude.
One of the truly great and uplifting scriptures we frequently quote from Philippians is "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me." We use it to encourage ourselves to meet challenges, to endure, to persevere, to achieve, to take risks, to stretch beyond what we thought were our limits. But this sentence has additional meaning if we put in in context with the verses before.
Paul "rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last, your care of me hath flourished again" (Philip. 4:10). The Philippians had for a while lacked opportunity to help Paul in his trials, but now they were again able. Paul was very grateful for this, but pointed out that even if he had not received the necessities they sent, he would still have been happy because he had learned to be happy in any situation. "Not that I speak in repect of [or, not that I give a lot of attention to] want; for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Philip. 4:11-13).
Sometimes, rather than being strengthened by Christ to conquer overwhelming odds or achieve amazing goals, we must be content to accept what is, we must be okay with giving up dreams we thought were important. In things that might be considered disappointments, we can, like Paul, learn to be content, through Christ which strengtheneth us.
SEEKING AND SPREADING GOOD CHEER
The "admonition of Paul," to use Joseph Smith's words, was to think upon things that lift our hearts, that elevate our spirits, things that are "true," "honest," "just," "pure," "of good report," "virtuous". We should focus on and share news stories that are uplifting and encouraging. We should actively seek to elevate those around us with our good cheer. We should promote happiness. We should be positive. As President Hinckley said, "We all worry. But the Lord has told us to lift our hearts and rejoice. I see so many people, including many women, who seem never to see the sunshine, but who constantly walk with storms under cloudy skies. Cultivate an attitude of happiness. Cultivate a spirit of optimism. Walk with faith, rejoicing in the beauties of nature, in the goodness of those you love, in the testimony which you carry in your heart concerning things divine" (ibid.)
SINGING WITH GRACE IN YOUR HEARTS
Both the epistle to the Colossians and the epistle to the Philippians were based around early Christian hymns of praise to the Savior. Paul quoted one in Philip. 2:6-11 and the other in Col. 1:15-20 (Harper-Collins Study Bible). Then he admonished the saints to "[teach] and [admonish] one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord" (Col. 3:16). This is one way to spread the gospel, to uplift ourselves and others, and to share love.
Charles Wesley did a great service to his fellow contemporary Christians and all those who followed in later years by the writing of inspiring lyrics for hymns of praise. Altogether, he wrote over 8,000 hymns, 6,000 of which were published! Six of these are found in our LDS hymnbook ("Jesus, Lover of My Soul;" "Ye Simple Souls Who Stray;" "Christ the Lord is Risen Today;" "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing;" "Come Let Us Anew Our Journey Pursue;" and "Rejoice! The Lord is King!"). We can share in that service by singing hymns written by him and many others. "Rejoice! The Lord is King!" shares the encouraging tone Paul set in his three short epistles studied today to seek joy in this life through the knowledge of our Savior.
If you have a vocally talented class member with a strength and gusto, you may want to ask him/her in advance to prepare and sing the following hymn at a fast tempo. If not, you may want to play a recording of the Tabernacle Choir singing it, or sing it together as a class. An excellent video recording can be found on YouTube: Women's Chorus at General Conference.