Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Lessons for the Joyful Life


'Cheer up,' they told me. 'Things could be worse.'  So I cheered up and, sure enough, things got worse. 

This is a quip we've probably all heard before and smiled wryly about, because life can be a bit like that; we try to be cheerful but then something else goes wrong . . .

Paul, in this epistle of joy, exhorts his readers to, 'Rejoice in the Lord always'.  He thinks this such an important thing for believers to grasp that he says it again: 'Rejoice!'

As believers, we have plenty to rejoice about:
  • our sins are forgiven,
  • we are loved by our heavenly Father,
  • we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit,
  • and we have the sure and certain hope of everlasting life. 
And yet, we need reminding to rejoice.  We need reminding because we are still human and, sometimes, life can be tough, and we lose our focus on the things that really count when our minds are bombarded by difficulties and obstacles. 

There are at least four sermons in this last chapter of Philippians, but I want to try and draw out from it three lessons that help us to find that place of rejoicing in the midst of life, three things that help us to keep our minds clear and free.

I want to talk about:
  • Dealing with our anxieties
  • Training our minds
  • Learning contentment

Dealing with Anxiety

Paul tells his readers not to be anxious about anything.  At the time he was writing, Philippi was a Roman colony; the sort of place where emperors settled their retired war veterans.  Government went very much along Roman lines, which could well have made life difficult for Philippian Christians.  They could easily have responded with, 'Well, that's easy for you to say, but you don't have to live here.'

But Paul is in a good position to hand out this kind of advice.  It's clear from the earlier parts of this letter that Paul is writing whilst under arrest, probably in Rome, and that his execution is a very real possibility in his mind.  And yet, he rejoices.  He is not anxious.  He is at peace.  He has no need to lash out because of his predicament: he can be gentle in his dealings with others and he exhorts the Philippians to be the same.

As we read this today, we don't have to be anxious about threats from Rome but, let's be honest, there are plenty of things we can find to be anxious about: money worries, health matters, family issues to mention just a few.  Paul isn't saying that it's wrong to have concerns but he wants to spare us the destructive enervation of anxious thought, especially when there's something very positive we can do about it.

Anxiety focusses on the problem rather than the solution, on the threat rather than the resources.  Anxiety is the enemy of faith.  If we are overcome with anxiety, we'll find it difficult to exercise trust in the God who cares for us.

Again, it's not wrong to have concerns; we'd be foolish to ignore problems and difficulties.  Paul tells us what to do with them: '6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.' (NIV)

He tells us to take our concerns to the God who cares for us.  In the Shorter Oxford Dictionary,  prayer and petition are defined in terms of each other.  I think Paul's repetition (of prayer and petition) implies an earnest approach to God and a very real concern in the heart of God for our well-being.  I believe his meaning here is that we should go very definitely into the presence of God and tell him exactly what our problem is, exactly how we feel about it, and exactly what we'd like him to do.  God cares.

Paul tells us to take our concerns to God with thanksgiving.  If anxiety is the enemy of faith, then thanksgiving is the friend of faith.  It says, 'I believe you care about me and the things that concern me.  I believe you hear my prayers.  I believe you will be with me in all of this.  I trust you.'

I'm sure Paul took the possibility of his execution to God.  Wouldn't you?  He seems, in chapter 1, to expect release but he also seems quite calm about the alternative, knowing that whatever happens he'll face it with God. 

We have to acknowledge that taking issues to God is no guarantee that the problems will disappear.  But there's a very clear and definite promise for us when we do: '7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.' (NIV)

In the greek of the New Testament, the word translated as 'guard' is a military term.  We can think of God's peace being set about our minds like a garrison, constantly on watch for attack and ready to defend us from the onslaught of those anxious thoughts.

This is all well and good but does it work?  Well, in my experience, yes it does.  There was a time in my life, back in the 80s, when the circumstances I found myself in had my mind in turmoil.  I was almost completely debilitated by anxiety.  Then I came across this passage of scripture and began to cry out to God.  And, you know, I was utterly surprised by what happened. 

I suddenly found myself completely at peace.  And, as Paul's letter implies may be the case, I was at a complete loss to understand why.  None of my circumstances had changed.  All of the things that gave me cause for concern still existed, but in one second I was in distress, and in the next I was at peace.  The pattern was broken and, over time, I was able to deal with or find a way out of my circumstances.

So, yes, it does work.  God's promises hold good.

What troubles are you wrestling with at the moment?  Is anyone here driven to distraction with anxiety?  Take you anxieties before God and read these verses in his presence.  Claim the promise and allow his peace in.  Give yourself the freedom to rejoice.

Training the Mind

The mind is where many of our battles are won or lost before we even confront the challenges we face.  The trouble with anxiety is that, once it takes hold, it leads our thinking into endless, repetitive cycles of thought that can be difficult to break out from.  Taking our concerns to God and receiving his peace is a way to break that pattern.  Paul gives us some more advice that will protect us from destructive thinking and, even better, lead us into constructive living.

The outward expression of our life is very much determined by the way we think.  What goes on inside our heads?  What do we fill our minds with?

We need to be careful about what we feed our minds on: the TV we watch, the books we read, the gossip we listen to.  But we should also be positive about the way we conduct our thought-life. 

Paul tells us to fill our minds with good stuff: things that are
  • true, noble, right,
  • pure, lovely, admirable,
  • excellent and praiseworthy. 

We need to pursue these good things;  to meditate on them; to contemplate them; to see the value in them; to allow them to shape our living.

Paul tacks an interesting instruction on the end of these thoughts: anything the Philippians have been taught by him, anything they've seen him do, they are to do those things too.  What a statement!  What a responsibility these words place on those who stand in pulpits!

So, Paul tells us to fill our minds with good thoughts, to copy good examples, and he ends this section with another promise: the God who is the source of peace that is beyond our comprehension will be with us.  Isn't this something to rejoice about?

That's something I want more than anything else in the world.  What about you?

Learning Contentment

From verse 10 onwards, Paul expresses his grateful thanks to the Philippians for their continuing and generous support.  But he also slips in another important lesson for them.

He writes, '… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  … I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. … I can do everything through him who gives me strength.' (NIV)

We live in an increasingly hedonistic and materialistic age.  People in our land have more wealth than ever before.  Many people may even say they are happy.  Our government has supported initiatives to assess how happy we are as a nation.  But how much joy is there in our society?  Joy that fills your heart even when times are difficult.  How much contentment is there?

Contentment is a learned response, as Paul makes clear.  Contentment is something developed through the ups and downs of life.  Happiness probably depends on getting what we want.  Contentedness is more about wanting what we get.

Paul experienced plenty and need.  He was content in both extremes.  He learned that having plenty was because of the kindness and generosity of God, not because he had rights or entitlement.  And, when he was in need, he still had his God, he still had his salvation, and he'd learned that God could be trusted and would come through for him.  When the hard times came, he didn't grasp for the material things he was enjoying, he took a firmer hold of his God.  He discovered that, come what may, with Christ giving him strength, he could do anything.

In my previous church, I belonged to a creative writing group.  One evening, we were given the task of writing a poem about something we feared.  To make the job easier, we were given a formula to follow.  I wrote a poem called, “The Fear of not Having Enough” which was a genuine concern I lived with at the time. 

I constructed the poem, following the formula, and was reasonably happy with the outcome; and in the bit at the end, I had God responding to the complainant.  However, when I had to read it out loud, I found that God spoke to me.  Here's the poem what I wrote:

The Fear of Not Having Enough

The bread is stale,
Its few remaining slices
Green with mould;
Its dankness fills the air.
A bitter, empty wind
Threads through a tottering fence.
Pharaoh’s last, wizened cow
Would bellow its woe
Had it strength enough.

The eagle soars,
Oblivious to dearth,
Its vision attuned
To its realm’s bounty.

O, to be that monarch of the skies;
To fly away and beyond
To Cornucopia’s shore
Where lack alone is wanting…
One day, my child, you shall fly
Far beyond the eagle’s range.
One day, my child, riches will abound
But, until then, I Am with you
And enough is enough.

There's something wonderful when God speaks to you so clearly.  It changes your life.  I put away that fear and allowed myself to live more generously, more contentedly, because God is with me always, and what more can I need?  I am about to retire and will have less income but I will have just as much of God, who comes in endless supply.

Contentedness is something we learn but learning is optional.  We can choose to learn rather than waiting to be taught.  It can be a hard lesson to learn but it's a lesson worth learning because the hard times will come anyway …  As Paul writes to Timothy, '… godliness with contentment is great gain.'


So, from this chapter, we've discovered
  • what we can do with our anxieties
  • how to retrain our thinking to head off anxiety and improve our living
  • how to live well whatever the circumstances
  • And that God gives us peace, that he is peace, and the source of our strength.

Life in Christ empowers us to face an uncertain future, life or death with peace in our minds and joy in our hearts.  So, let's rejoice in the Lord always.  I'll say it again: Rejoice!