Learning the Secret, part 1 (Philippians 4:10)

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., observes that our society is marked by “inextinguishable discontent.”  We have a yearning for more and a drive for what is new.

We want a better job with better pay and a better boss.  We want better relationships and a better car and a better backhand in tennis or a longer drive in golf.  

And, we have a propensity to live endlessly for the next thing – the next weekend, the next vacation, the next purchase, and the next experience.  We are never satisfied, never content, and envious of those who have what we have not attained or accumulated.

Walter Kerr, in his book titled The Decline of Pleasure, analyzed the discontentment of our age.  He pierced through the superficiality of much we do.  He noted that the very things that we do that should be pleasurable for us are void of joy.  Why?  Because they are being used as a means to an end.  We do not treat them as enjoyable in and of themselves.  He wrote, “We are all of us compelled to read for profit, party for contacts, lunch for contracts, bowl for unity, drive for mileage, gamble for charity, go out for the evening for the greater glory of municipality, and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house.”

That sounds a lot like the book of Ecclesiastes, which will be our next study once we finish Philippians.

A 1944 newspaper article addressed the issue of what it was to be a wife in the U.S. during World War 2, and the article begins like this:  “Marna Wilkins thinks she needs a more considerable husband, more money, more domestic help, less nervous strain, less housework to do, fewer children, a kinder mother, more sympathetic friends, but what she really needs is a finer character.”

I don’t think you’d find a 2020 newspaper article to suggest that!

But most of us can relate to Marna Wilkins: we think we could do with more of this or less of that.  We’ve bought into the lie that our contentment is dependent upon our circumstances.  We’ve bought into the lie that in order to be content, I need more of A, B, or C and the immediate removal of X, Y and Z.

We think, “If I only had better…or only had more…or less” then I would be happy.

So many times we find ourselves in less than ideal circumstances and what really needs to change is not our circumstances, but our character, our attitude.

Paul tells us that we, like him, needs to learn to be content no matter what our circumstances may be.

In Philippians 4:10-13, a man who sits in prison because of corrupt officials awaiting possible execution over false charges tells us how to find contentment.  The answer lies buried in the midst of a thank-you note.

As a prisoner in Rome, possibly awaiting a death sentence, few things turning out as he had planned, he models contentment for us.

We will look at four steps on the path of contentment in Philippians 4.

Here in this passage, Paul is going to answer the question, “How can I cultivate contentment?  What steps can I take to insure that I am content, right here and right now, regardless of what God has provided for me in terms of my circumstances, my possessions, my relationships, my career, my future, or my health?”

Here is what Paul says…

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

The first thing I want you to see is that contentment is a secret that can be learned.  Do you see it there in v. 12?  “I have learned the secret…”  It doesn’t come naturally, or magically, but in the very context of the ups and downs of life it can be learned.

Before we begin, let’s define our terms.

What is contentment?  In his classic book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs provided this definition:

“Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every situation.”

Contentment is not loud and complaining or grumbling, nor is it mere resignation or fatalism, it “submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every situation.”

Contentment is an act of faith, trusting our Father to take care of us as He promised He would.

John Stott wrote, “Contentment is the secret of inward peace.  It remembers the stark truth that we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it.  Life, in fact, is a pilgrimage from one moment of nakedness to another.  So we should travel light and live simply.  Our enemy is not possessions, but excess.  Our battle cry is not ‘Nothing!’ but ‘Enough!’  We’ve got enough.  Simplicity says, if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

For the Christian: Contentment knows that if we have Jesus we have enough.

This is what Asaph learned in Psalm 73.  At first, he envied the wicked.  They were rich, fat, healthy and had life easy.  Asaph was troubled by that, wondered what use it was to keep his life pure before God and almost voiced his defection from the faith.

But Asaph did something very important, and this was the turning point.  He went to the temple.  There he focused on truth, and on God.

God showed Asaph that the end for this wicked rich people would be terrible, while he would be with God in glory.

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.

Did you notice v. 25, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”

Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch young lady who was taken to a Nazi prison camp because she and her family were hiding Jews, once said: “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.”

It is in our times of need and want that we if we remind ourselves that we still have Christ, that He then becomes all we really need.

And John MacArthur put it this way: “If you have everything but Jesus, you have nothing.  If you have nothing but Jesus, you have everything.”

When God gave us Jesus, He gave us not just His best, but also everything.  We are truly rich because we have Christ, our all in all.

When we have Jesus, we truly have everything.  Jesus is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption and our success.  In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Now, we too can learn the secret of being content no matter what our circumstances are.

  1. The first step is to delight yourself in the Lord and his present provision.

Look at verse 10.

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.

Paul is referring to a financial gift that Epaphroditus brought to Paul from the Philippians when he first arrived in Rome, a gift that really helped him.  They had heard of his need and sent a gift (cf. v. 18).

You “revived your concern for me” Paul says.  This is a word used of horticulture—of trees and flowers sprouting again in Spring, to grow anew.  That’s a good manifestation of this care and concern—the evidence that their concern had blossomed again.

They had provided a gift for Paul before, and now again they had renewed their concern.  It had been awhile, but they came through for Paul again.

Gerald Hawthorne writes: “Like a person rejoicing over the first signs of spring after a harsh winter, so Paul rejoiced to see again the signs of personal concern from Philippi after a long interval of silence.”

Then, almost as if Paul catches himself, realizing that they might take that last statement to mean that they hadn’t really cared for him during the long interval between gifts, he adds, “indeed you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.”

He understands why they hadn’t helped in the meantime.

It doesn’t say how or why they hadn’t helped.  Maybe it was their own poverty, maybe it was the lack of a message from Paul of his need, or possibly they didn’t even know where Paul was.  Whatever the reason, Paul is clear that he was not attaching blame to them, but something outside their control had prevented their giving.

Now, however, their concern is shown by their donation.

The apostle rejoiced in the generosity of the Philippians’ monetary gift because prisoners in the Roman system were dependent upon outside support for everything.  But Paul’s joy went far deeper because the gift was indicative of the distant Philippians’ continuing authenticity and spiritual health. 

Now catch this:  Even though Paul is here expressing his gratitude to the Philippians for their concern and their gifts, his ultimate joy was in the Lord.  “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.”

In other words, Paul is saying, “Your gift gave me reason to rejoice in the Lord again, because ultimately I know it came from his hand.”

This was important for both Paul and the Philippians to realize.  Paul saw anything that happened to him to be cause for him rejoicing in the Lord.  Back in chapter 1 Paul, knowing that some were preaching the gospel for selfish reasons, said this:

18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,

But Paul also wanted the Philippians themselves to realize that even though they had given the gift, they could only do that because of God’s blessing in their lives.  Both the giver and the receiver need to remember that God is behind it all.

Paul knew that God was in control, God knew his need, and God would supply or not supply as He saw fit.  Paul was subject to the Sovereign God in this most practical area of his financial support.  I don’t think Paul let his needs be known to others, as we will see later in this passage.  That God therefore had moved their hearts to give, reflected His goodness to Paul.

Again, like Asaph, we need to learn to find our contentment in Christ.  A contented heart is a thankful heart, rejoicing in whatever God gives because we know that it is God’s good will for us.

Even if everything else is taken from us, we still have Christ.  Whatever comes to us comes because of our Father’s good pleasure.

When I preached through Philippians in 2007 at Grace Bible Church, I had just returned from a mission trip to Belarus.  While traveling I had plenty opportunity to watch people who had missed flights (as I had) and how they reacted as they tried to get help to fix their problems.

They would speak animatedly and earnestly as they plead for help in getting a new flight, then they would get angry and make threats when they could not, and finally they would resign themselves to a new reality with sullenness.

That’s not contentment.

Contentment is not saying, “Oh well, I guess that will do Lord…if that is the best you can do.”

We find this attitude often in marriage.  “Okay, so my marriage can’t be great,” so she resigns herself to mediocrity.  That’s not contentment.  Contentment is joyfully submitting to God’s providential plan, knowing that God has my best in mind, even when that means disappointment and trials.

Being content with our circumstances doesn’t mean that we cannot work to change them, it just means that we carry a contented attitude with us while we work for change.

What we see here is Paul’s underlying confidence in the providence of God.  Providence is that theological word which refers to God’s active and continuous involvement in this world by which He brings His divine intentions to pass.  God is constantly at work bringing about the things that he had planned in eternity past.

We know from Romans 8:28 that God’s purpose in both the good and the bad things that happen to us is to “works all things together for our good.”  Our problem is that we want to define “our good” as health and wealth and care-free living.  In that passage, God defines “our good” as being “conformed to the image of His Son,” to become more like Jesus.

When the Philippians had been unable to send a gift to Paul, that was all part of God’s divine plan.  But when they revived their concern and sent a gift, that too was part of God’s sovereign plan.

The Philippian gift, pointed back to the Philippians’ concern, that ultimately point back further to God’s providence, His good plan.  And so, Paul rejoices in the Lord.

John MacArthur writes this:

“Paul’s gracious attitude reflectsHis patient confidence in God’s sovereign providence.  He was certain that God, in due time, would arrange his circumstances to meet his needs.  There was no panic on his part, no attempt to manipulate people, no taking matters into his own hands.  Paul was content because he knew that the times, seasons, and opportunities of life are controlled by the Sovereign God who works all things after the counsel of his will, thereby causing all things to work together for the good to those who love God….Those who seek to control their own lives will inevitably be frustrated.  A confident trust in God’s providence is foundational to contentment.”

Thus, if you want to learn the secret to contentment, you must begin by delighting yourself in the Lord and in His present provision for your life.  Don’t worry about tomorrow’s provision or amassing enough to meet future needs.  Rejoice in the Lord and His ability to provide for your needs today.

Don’t say to yourself, “What I really need in life is this or that, a better this or a better that.”  Instead, realize that in your present circumstances, right now—is exactly what God has orchestrated for you.  All of this has been orchestrated by God himself.

The battle cry of a discontented heart is, “I don’t deserve this; this ain’t fair.  I deserve something better.  I deserve for things to go smoothly, to go my way, to meet my needs.”

The contented heart realizes that all I really deserve is hell.  It delights in the fact that God has called me His child and lavished every spiritual blessing on him, so I submit to what God has provided me first right now, realizing that He does all things well.

David, in his psalm that is precious to so many, started out by saying,

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

I like the way the New Living Translation puts it:

The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need.

Truly, if you have Jesus as your shepherd, you can know that he will lead you to green pastures and still waters, providing what you need today and tomorrow and the next day.  So enjoy His blessings today, enjoy Him, and trust Him for tomorrow.

A Beautiful Mind, part 4 (Philippians 4:8-9)

Today we’re finishing up four weeks on verses 8-9 I’ve entitled “a beautiful mind.”  A mind that is constantly focused on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy, will find their lives enriched.  Ultimately, what we think about affects how we feel, the choices we make, and our behavior.  Then, it radiates out into our relationships and all of life.

The great Puritan John Owens emphasizes the importance of what we think about:

The mind is a leading faculty of the soul.  When the mind fixes upon an object or course of action, the will and the affections (heart) follow suit.  They are incapable of any other consideration… the mind’s office is to guide, to direct, to choose and to lead.

As someone has well said “You’re not what you think you are; but what you THINK—you are!”

In other words, what your mind dwells on is what you become.  That is why it is so important for us to dwell on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy.

Tony Merida writes

“What we think matters, and it matters more than we think. We need God’s Word to saturate our minds that we may be renewed and kept from offensive ways.” (Exalting Jesus in Philippians)

Paul uses the word logizomai, which is a word that expresses intense and studious gazing upon these things, not merely a passing glance.

You see, our minds naturally drift towards negative thoughts.

Dr. Elinore Kinarthy in Homemade, Sept., 1988, stated “The average person has more than two hundred negative thoughts a day—worries, jealousies, insecurities, cravings for forbidden things, etc.  Depressed people have as many as six hundred.  You can’t eliminate all the troublesome things that go through your mind, but you can certainly reduce the number of negative thoughts.

What Paul is calling for here is the disciplined, intentional directing of our thoughts towards positive things—positive things about God, about the world, about one another, about ourselves.

Of course, we’re not to think “more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment.” Which means that we think about “whatever is true” as a grid for all our thoughts.

Thinking as we ought to think requires the discipline of refusing certain thoughts that are false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, unlovely, reprehensible, inferior and unworthy and choosing instead to focus our attention (and affections) on what is constantly focused on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy.

It is like going through security at an airport.  When you go through security, an alarm goes off when you have something that shouldn’t pass through.  You have to empty your pockets and take things away in order to go through.  Likewise, our minds should be alert and alarms should go off when we start entertaining thoughts that are false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, unlovely, reprehensible, inferior and unworthy.

Practically what that means is that we give time, dedicated, ongoing, concentrated time to reading, studying, memorizing and meditating on God’s Word.  The greatest danger in our busy, increasingly post-literate world is that we make little or no effort to think God’s thoughts after him, to hide his word in our hearts so that we might not sin against him (cf. Psalm 119:11).

Meditation is the activity of calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God… It is an activity of holy thought, consciously performed in the presence of God, under the eye of God, by the help of God, as a means of communion with God.” (Packer, J I: Knowing God)

We cannot be profoundly influenced by that which we do not know.

Warren Wiersbe says…

If you will compare this list [in v. 8] to David’s description of the Word of God in Psalm 19:7-9, you will see a parallel.  The Christian who fills his heart and mind with God’s Word will have a “built-in radar” for detecting wrong thoughts. “Great peace have they which love Thy Law” (Ps. 119:165).  Right thinking is the result of daily meditation on the Word of God.

It is worth noting that in the preceding verse (4:7) Paul had assured the saints that God would guard their hearts and mind in Christ Jesus.  In verse 8 Paul is emphasizing that the saints themselves have a responsibility in the matter.  God does not garrison the thought-life of a man who does not want it to be kept pure.

Paul follows his verse on a beautiful mind with instructions on how to live a beautiful life.

9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Notice from that last sentence that Paul all along, from verse 6 to verse 9, has been telling us how to enjoy the peace of God, even in the midst of conflict, even in the midst of trials.

Warren Wiersbe entitles Php 4:8 “Right Thinking” and Php 4:9 “Right Living.” I think those are great, practical titles of these two great verses.  In his devotional Wiersbe adds “Right praying (Php 4:6-7), right thinking, and right living: these are the conditions for having the secure mind and victory over worry.”

It is true that orthodoxy leads to orthopraxy, right beliefs lead to right living.  If your thinking is off, your life will be off.

Sinclair Ferguson says: “How we think is one of the great determining factors in how we live.”

And A. W. Tozer, knowing that we sometimes have to give thought to our work or other matters, says this:

What we think about when we are free to think about what we will—that is what we are or will soon become.

Right thinking is what leads to right living for Paul.  And it will be for us as well.

This is another passage where Paul speaks of the vital importance of discipling others through your life, not just your teaching.  It is about imitation, not merely instruction.  This picks up what Paul had said back in 3:17 when he said, “join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”

Too many would-be disciplers want to teach through a workbook and are satisfied if their disciple fills in all the blanks and does all the assignments.  But that does not a disciple make.

The spiritual life is more caught than taught, and what people need most is an example to follow.

If people can see a discrepancy between what you say you believe and how you live, they will not be attracted and eventually will call you a hypocrite.

How do we live a consistent, godly life and become an example to others?  By focusing our mind on the Word of God so that we focus on what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy.

Paul had the integrity to present himself as an example of all these things to the Philippians.  He really could say, “Follow me as I follow Jesus.”

Paul had lived out each of the eight qualities that he was calling his readers to think about so long and so hard.

He contemplated whatever was true and then lived it; he thought and lived honorably; he thought and lived justly; he thought and lived purely; he thought of the lovely and lived in accord with it; he thought and lived commendably. (Kent Hughes)

These eight qualities were not exalted abstractions, but real-life down-in-the-dirt behaviors.

They had seen these qualities in the way that Paul had lived while he was with them.

The words “what you have learned and received” indicates that Paul had given them his personal instruction.  They had received the apostolic doctrine and the truth from God’s Word through Paul’s teaching ministry among them.

Now, that first word is the verb manthano, “learned.”  And it is related to the noun mathetes, which we often translate “disciple.”  Many people think of a “disciple” in terms of a student at school, learning through lecture.  I believe a better analogy is the apprentice, who learns through imitation and practice.

Wayne Detzler says:

“The emphasis on discipleship in Greek is not formal school learning, but rather fellowship with the teacher.  It is seen in two situations.  First, it refers to the followers of a certain philosopher.  They derived not just information from their teacher but also inspiration.  Disciples learned the teacher’s entire outlook on life, not just the facts which he taught.

Second, discipleship had a religious context.  It was seen in the pre-Christian mystery religions and in the Greek schools of the Epicureans and Stoics.  Discipleship involved two principles.  First, it meant that the disciples had fellowship with their teacher.  They lived with him as Jesus’ disciples lived with Him.  Second, disciples carried on the tradition of their teacher.  After he died they taught the same things that he did.  Disciples were the main means of perpetuating teaching in the ancient world, since many great teachers wrote no books. (New Testament Words in Today’s Language).

The verb “received” has the idea that the Philippians not only understood it clearly, but also accepted it and had given assent to it and in so doing they were now responsible to live out the truth.

This is always the principle when we learn and receive truth from a pastor or a teacher. God will hold us responsible to live according to the light we have received.

Another way of thinking about this word “received” is that it involves taking truth in and dwelling on it (like we saw in v. 8) until it becomes a part of our inner man.

This is the way Paul described what happened at Thessalonica…

And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.

The word “received” there is the same word as in Philippians 4:9, but Paul adds “accepted,” which could be visualized as opening the door (of our minds) and welcoming in a long-lost friend, someone we are really glad to see.

That is the way we should treat the truth we hear from God’s Word, to receive it with joy and delight.

Along with this, Paul had given them his personal example, which they had “heard and seen” in him.  Both when Paul was with them and even when he was when away, the Philippians heard about Paul’s character and conduct — his bravery, how he faced trials, his devotion, his prayer, his patient suffering, his resiliency.

And when he was with them, they saw his godly example and his modeling of these eight qualities he was asking of them.  They had before their very eyes the pattern of an excellent and worthy life.

A. T. Robertson reminds us “The preacher is the interpreter of the spiritual life and should be an example of it.”

Edwards adds that “Paul now covers the spectrum of things he wants them to do.  We see Paul’s great heart for discipleship here as well as his total commitment of life to Christ… The truth is first demonstrated, then declared.  From that point the Philippians accept it and then finally embrace it.  This ought to be our pattern of discipleship.  We are responsible that the men we are working with see and hear the truth in us.  Then they must respond by accepting and embracing the truth we have transmitted.  The goal of all this, though, is that they do the truth they have embraced.  It is not enough for us to accept and embrace the truth, we must be equally zealous to do it also.

It is vital that our thoughts turn into actions.  They will if we continually dwell on them.

J. Dwight Pentecost reminds us that…

“… maturity in the Christian life is not measured by what a man knows but by what he does.”

Truth is not only to be pondered, but to be practiced.

Steve Coles identifies in these four verbs—learned, received, heard and seen—four components of our sanctification.

(1) The intellectual–“What you have learned”; (2) The volitional–“What you received”; (3) The behavioral–“What you have heard and seen, which you must practice”; (4) The emotional–“The God of peace shall be with you.”

I think this order is correct.  We don’t start with our emotions.  We start with our minds.  We focus our attention on the truths of God’s Word, which will eventually cause us to choose obedience to God (the volitional), which we then do (behavioral).  All of that leads to good feelings.

So Paul encourages them to “practice these things” (these eight qualities).  It is not enough to be hearers, we must be doers.  There is always a danger that we might deceive ourselves into thinking that just because we’ve heard it, that that is enough.

The word “practice” (prasso) refers to repetitious and continuous action.  It is also present tense, which means that this is not just a momentary emotional response but is to become the saints’ way of life.

When we consistently do this “the God of peace will be with [us].”  This is a play on, and step beyond, what Paul said in v. 7 when he said: “And the peace of God…will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

The peace of God is a gift to us from God; but this is actually the promise of His very presence with us.

This must be a step beyond and deeper than merely God’s omnipresence.  By His omnipresence, we mean that God is everywhere, as Psalm 139:7-11 indicate.  I believe what Paul is promising here is a special sense of God’s presence.

It is that presence that we need when we walk through the fire or the flood (Isaiah 43:2) or the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4).  We need not fear because God is with us.  He is with us to calm us and support us and eventually deliver us.

In this case, the special sense of God’s presence is communicated to us as a supernatural peace, a calmness and serenity in the face of deep trouble and difficulties.

Elisabeth Elliot once overheard her young daughter singing to her cat, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like you!”  We’re all like that, aren’t we; the truth applies to the other guy!

“If just my wife and kids would apply this to their lives, we’d have a happy family!”

No, I need to apply the content of the Christian faith to my daily conduct. Then, the God of peace with be with me.  Let’s all practice being doers of the Word and not hearers only who deceive themselves!

A Beautiful Mind, part 3 (Philippians 4:8-9)

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve noted how Paul, in Philippians 4:8-9, emphasizes how vital the mind/heart is in our spiritual formation.  If we think about things that are false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, unlovely, reprehensible, inferior and unworthy, then our feelings, choices and behaviors will move towards those things.  But if we think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy, then our feelings, choices, behaviors and ultimately our lives will be characterized by these things.

Which do you want?  What destiny do you desire?

J. Dwight Pentecost has said…

“On the authority of the Word of God, I submit to you that the greatest conflict being waged is not international, not political, not economic, and not social.  The greatest conflict taking place in the world today is the battle for control of our minds.”

And he is right.

Paul says in these two verses…

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Remember, we are to “love God…with all our minds.”  That is, our thoughts should be focused on Him.  HE should have our attention, not other things, nor other people.

What we think about is vitally important.

The fourth quality that we should focus our minds and heart upon is purity, “whatever is pure.”

This word comes from the Greek word hagnos, which comes from the ceremonial language of animal sacrifice.  Sacrifices were to be free from blemish.  Hagnos is that which is holy, morally clean, and undefiled. 

William Barclay adds that when hagnos was “used ceremonially, it describes that which has been so cleansed, so perfect that it is fit to be brought into the presence of God and used in his service.”

So we might ask: Are my thoughts worthy of being brought into God’s presence and used for His glory?

This is the word used in 1 John 3:2-3, which says

2 Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

In Psalm 12:6 David states:

6 The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.

In this context, it means that God’s word is unmixed and unadulterated.  When silver was refined, the impurities would rise to the top and be wiped off, creating a more pure metal.

So God’s Word is pure.  It does not have truth and error.  It is only true.

This word not only refers to the lack of spot or blemish in sacrifices, and the complete accuracy of God’s Word, but also to the moral purity of our lives.

It especially means keeping our bodies undefiled by abstaining from sexual sins, but we can only be successful by battling immorality and pornography at the thought level.  Ephesians 5:3-10 says…

3 But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. 4 Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. 5 For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7 Therefore do not become partners with them; 8 for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light 9 (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10 and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.

In 1998 Joe Lieberman began giving out Silver Sewer awards.  His motive was to embarrass TV, videos and movies who visually lifted up the sordid.  Now, the things he was policing are considered tame compared with what it coming out today!

So we need to test what think about through the “grid” of hagnos and ask ourselves these simple questions – Will it defile or is it intrinsically pure?  Will it corrupt our thinking if we give attention to it?  Will it stand the scrutiny of God?  Will it make me more like Jesus Who is perfect hagnos?

One of the interests we really need to watch over, and likely to change, is how much time we spend on social media.  The typical teenager today spends over 7.5 hours each day connected to some form of media.  We adults aren’t far behind.

For today’s teens, technology and purity can be incredibly connected.  Twenty percent of all teens say they have sent/posted nude or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves.  And there’s worse…but I’m stopping there.  The point is that today’s Internet makes moral sins incredibly accessible (and deceptive) to young people at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives.

Pray for yourself and your children, that God will protect them you temptation (Matthew 6:13), that you will purpose in their own hearts not to defile themselves (Daniel 1:8), and that you will keep yourselves pure (1 Timothy 5:22).

In Psalm 119:37 David prays…

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.

To stay pure in our minds and hearts, we have to constantly turn away our eyes from alluring images that are placed on billboards, magazines, television, internet ads.

J. R. Miller writes:

We must be always turning—if we would keep our life true and according to God’s commandments.  There are some flowers which always turn toward the sun.  

There was a little potted rose-bush in a sick-room which I visited.  It sat by the window.  One day I noticed that the one rose on the bush was looking toward the light.  I referred to it; and the sick woman said that her daughter had turned the rose around several times toward the darkness of the room—but that each time the little flower had twisted itself back, until again its face was toward the light.  It would not look into the darkness.

The rose taught me a lesson—never to allow myself to look toward any evil—but instantly to turn from it.  Not a moment should we permit our eyes to be inclined toward anything sinful.  To yield to one moment’s sinful act—is to defile the soul.  One of the main messages of the Bible is, “Turn from the wrong, the base, the crude, the unworthy—to the right, the pure, the noble, the godlike.”  We should not allow even an unholy thought to stay a moment in our mind—but should turn from its very first suggestion, with face fully toward Christ, the Holy One.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus.  One glance is not sinful, but the continued gaze upon impurity is.

The fifth quality that we should focus our minds and heart upon is beauty, “whatever is lovely.”

By “lovely” Paul means those things that put themselves forward by their attractiveness.   “Lovely” includes not only what is morally lovely but that which is aesthetically lovely — “all that is beautiful in creation and in human lives”—from a sunset to a symphony to caring for the poor and powerless — all things beautiful. (Kent Hughes)

New Testament scholar Gordon Fee tells us:

“In common parlance, this word could refer to a Beethoven symphony, as well as to the work of Mother Teresa among the poor of Calcutta; the former is lovely and enjoyable, the latter is admirable as well as moral.”

We shouldn’t be attracted to what is evil and ugly, but we often are.  We shouldn’t be attracted to the Satanic and dark in literature and movies.  Nor should we be attracted to the violent and conflictual.

Once again, the most beautiful thing we can place the eyes of our heart upon is Jesus Christ.  He is “altogether lovely, altogether worthy, altogether wonderful to me.”

Listen to these words from Dane Ortlund, from an article entitled, “Are You Conveying the Loveliness of Christ to Your Kids?”

Have we considered the loveliness of the heart of Christ?  Perhaps beauty is not a category that comes naturally to mind when we think about Christ.  Maybe we think of God and Christ in terms of truth, not beauty.  But the whole reason we care about sound doctrine is for the sake of preserving God’s beauty, just as the whole reason we care about effective focal lenses on a camera is to capture with precision the beauty we photograph.

Let Jesus draw you in through the loveliness of his heart.  This is a heart that upbraids the impenitent with all the harshness that is appropriate, yet embraces the penitent with more openness than we are able to feel. I t is a heart that walks us into the bright meadow of the felt love of God.  It is a heart that drew the despised and forsaken to his feet in self-abandoning hope.  It is a heart of perfect balance and proportion, never overreacting, never excusing, never lashing out.  It is a heart that throbs with desire for the destitute.  It is a heart that floods the suffering with the deep solace of shared solidarity in that suffering.  It is a heart that is gentle and lowly.

So let the heart of Jesus be something that is not only gentle toward you but lovely to you.  If I may put it this way: romance the heart of Jesus.  All I mean is, ponder him through his heart. Allow yourself to be allured.  Why not build in to your life unhurried quiet, where, among other disciplines, you consider the radiance of who he actually is, what animates him, what his deepest delight is?  Why not give your soul room to be reenchanted with Christ time and again?

When you look at the glorious older saints in your church, how do you think they got there?  Sound doctrine, yes.  Resolute obedience, without a doubt.  Suffering without becoming cynical, for sure.  But maybe another reason, maybe the deepest reason, is that they have, over time, been won over in their deepest affections to a gentle Savior.  Perhaps they have simply tasted, over many years, the surprise of a Christ for whom their very sins draw him in rather than push him away.  Maybe they have not only known that Jesus loved them but felt it.

Again, keep your spiritual eyes, your thoughts, on Jesus.  He is truth, he is glorious, he is just, he is pure and he is lovely.

The sixth quality that we should focus our minds and heart upon is the reputable, “whatever is commendable.”

This refers to the kind of conduct that deserves the approval of your peers.  It is used of “expressing what is kind and likely to win people, and avoiding what is likely to give offense,” says Plummer.

We are to think of things and think of things about others that measure up to the highest standards.  We are to think of things that are praiseworthy.

Are we concentrating on the good things we see in others or are we dwelling on their faults and shortcomings?  Do we think about what we admire in the other person, or what we despise?

Again, notice how the content of what we are to be thinking about fits so well with the context of interpersonal conflict.  When we are in conflict with someone, do we think well of them and hold them in high esteem, or do we trash them?

As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, love believes the best about another person, it refuses to believe an evil report about a brother or sister until there is certain evidence to establish it.

The seventh quality that we should focus our minds and heart upon is excellent things, “if there is any excellence.”

By the way, the words “whatever” and “any” in this verse indicates that our minds are to reach out to “whatever” fits these categories, leaving nothing out, “anything” that fits.

The word “excellence” is the Greek word arete.  It means moral virtue of the highest quality.  Arete is a term denoting consummate ‘excellence’ or ‘merit’ within a social context. To the Greek philosophers, it meant “the fulfillment [or completion] of a thing.” 

It speaks of something that is fulfilling its reason for existence.  Land that produces crops is “excellent” because it is fulfilling its purpose.  The tool that works correctly is “excellent” because it is doing what a tool is supposed to do.  A believer demonstrates moral excellence or virtue by living the way He now has the potential to live (possessing everything necessary for life and godliness, His precious and magnificent promises, partaker of His divine nature).

Peter uses it as a quality of God and thus as the first quality that we are to add to our faith (2 Pet. 1:3, 5).  This means that as a new Christian, one of the first things you must do is to stop any behavior that is not in line with God’s moral virtues as revealed in Scripture, such as the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and Paul’s list of the deeds of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21).  To continue doing such things will hinder your growth in godliness. We must focus our minds on moral virtue. (Steve Cole)

But remember, Paul in Ephesians 4:22-24 told us that just putting off behaviors that do not line up with God’s Word and God’s will is not enough.  We must put off old behaviors and put new ones in their place AND we must start a new way of thinking.

The examples that follow Paul’s outline of spiritual transformation in Ephesians 4:25-32 show that the “renewed mind” part means understanding why the putting off of old behavior and the putting on of new behavior is necessary.  We are always helped in changing behavior when we know the “why” behind it.

Finally, the eighth quality that we should focus our hearts and minds upon is praiseworthy things, “if anything is worthy of praise.”

The opposite of this is thinking critical things about others.  Instead of accentuating the positive (the praiseworthy), one accentuates the negative. We often refer to such a person as one who has a critical spirit. 

June Hunt offers this insight:

To look with a “critical eye” is to pay close attention to detail— and this can be most helpful.  But to look with a “critical spirit” means to microscopically focus on faults—and this is only harmful.”  The antidote for a critical spirit is a mindset that looks for that which is worthy of praise.

The Greek word epainos is used sparingly in Scripture, with the basic meaning of “applause.”  It speaks of expressed approval or public recognition.

Adrian Rogers offers this illustration:

I heard of a little boy who went out to see the Grand Canyon, and an old preacher went out to see the Grand Canyon.  The old preacher wrote back to his wife—he said, “Today I’ve seen the handiwork of God.  I’ve seen God as He put colors on His palette, and God as He took His fingers and sculptured a masterpiece.”  And, he went on, in grandiose words, to describe the Grand Canyon.  The little boy wrote back to his mother, and he said, “Guess what, Ma?  Today I spit a mile.”  You can be surrounded by beauty, and not see it.

What do you see in others?  Something to criticize or something to praise?  You might have to look harder, but you will enjoy it more when you find the good and the praiseworthy.

A Beautiful Mind, part 2 (Philippians 4:8-9)

Last week we noted how Paul, in Philippians 4:8-9, emphasizes how vital the mind/heart is in our spiritual formation.  If we think about things that are false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, unlovely, reprehensible, inferior and unworthy, then our feelings, choices and behaviors will move towards those things.  But if we think about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy, then our feelings, choices, behaviors and ultimately our lives will be characterized by these things.

Which do you want?  What destiny do you desire?

Paul says in these two verses…

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

So today we’re going to look at the eight words that form the parameters or grid for our mind, helping us to evaluate what kinds of thoughts we are to allow into our minds for very long.

Understand, we cannot keep dishonorable, unjust, impure, unlovely, reprehensible, inferior and unworthy thoughts from entering into our minds, but we can choice to focus our thoughts on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy.  The more we concentrate on those positive qualities, the less opportunity negative thoughts will have to lodge into our minds.

The first quality that we should focus our minds and heart upon is truth, “whatever is true.”

To focus on “whatever is true” means that we focus on things that line up with reality, with actuality.  True truth has no wiggle room; it is not flexible.  It is fixed on what is real.

As Paul writes to Titus, who was in Crete (the Cretans were notorious liars), “God … cannot lie,” and He made known His truth by “His word” (Titus 1:1-3).

For followers of Christ, truth begins with his divine person as God the Son, the embodiment of truth.  He is all truth (John 14:6), and his gospel is truth —“the word of the truth, the gospel” (Colossians 1:5). 

God’s word, he says, “is truth” (John 17:17).  Everything that is true is from God because all truth is God’s truth.

Therefore, a mind that contemplates what is true not only sees Christ, the Word, and the gospel but also rationally engages his creation, rejecting lies and irrational thinking.

John Armstrong says…

To not love and embrace the truth, to not worship God in Spirit and in truth, invites spiritual destruction (2 Thes. 2:8 ff).  It is not a matter of “a better way,” or “the best way,” it is a matter of the only way.  If you would know God, you must know Him “in truth” and you must worship Him “in truth.”

Tim Challies has written:

Truth is what God thinks; it is what God does; it is what God is; it is what God has revealed of Himself in the Bible. Truth is found in its fullest form in God, for He is truth; He is the very source and origin of all truth.

Of course, our world is full of lies, full of fake news.  It seems more and more difficult to find true truth in the world anymore.  We feel like we cannot trust our news media or anyone else to tell us the truth.  It just seems like no one cares about truth.

Lying is epidemic in our society.  But we need to focus on truth.  The Word of God is the only place where we will consistently get absolute truth, which is why to guard our minds we must spend time concentrating on truth from God’s Word.

We should run everything through the grid of God’s Word.

Satan is a master liar and is consistently attempting to deceive us.  He did that with Eve and Adam, and throughout history. 

Satan is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). He is a deceiver, and he uses sin to deceive those ensnared by it (2 Cor. 11:3Eph. 4:22Heb. 3:13).  Several New Testament passages encourage us not to be deceived.

For instance, in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 Paul says…

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

Satan loves to deceive people into thinking that their sins will carry no serious condemnation.  He gets them to focus on the here and now, where our society now approves of these very things, and they feel justified in continuing to live this way.  But they are ignoring the truth that people who consistently practice these sins “will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  That is truth; that is reality, but Satan deceives them into justifying themselves and not focusing on their destiny.

In Galatians 6 Paul says…

7 Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.

You see, the problem with sowing and reaping is that you don’t reap on the same day you sow.  Reaping doesn’t come for awhile, sometimes a long while.  But here is the reality: you will reap what you sow.  Someday, if you continue to sow to the flesh, you will reap corruption.  If you sow to the Spirit, you will eventually reap eternal life.

Satan again wants you not to focus on the reality of the end result, but the fun of indulging in the flesh right now, and generally not paying for it, not experiencing any negative effects.

Satan is always lying to us.  He is always trying to trick us, presenting a fleshly indulgence with the promise of delightful rewards.  But it is only click bait.  Yes, there is pleasure “for a season,” but the negative consequences will far outweigh any temporary pleasures we enjoyed.

So, sharpen your mind with truth.  Spend time in God’s Word learning, loving and living truth.

You see, the person who traffics in lies will come to the place where he or she cannot perceive the truth anymore.  They will lie without thinking about it because that is just part of their character.

But remember that Jesus said it is the truth that “sets us free” (John 8:32).

Are you focusing on “whatever is true”?

The second quality that we should focus our minds and heart upon is honor, “whatever is honorable.”

The Greek word here is semnos, and speaks of something that is high and inspiring, something highly regarded, highly valued, that which wins respect or commands reverence.  Something dignified.

It is a little difficult for us in American society to grasp this concept.  Our founding fathers believed that everyone was created equal, that anyone could rise above their status.  We do not have king and queen, but an elected president.

It was after Jack Hayford went to England and saw the pomp and dignity of the queen and the high esteem which people gave to her that he wrote the song “Majesty” to declare the kind of honor we should give to Jesus.

Elders should keep their children under control “with all dignity” (1 Tim. 3:4).  All Christians should “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:2).

The opposite would be thinking on things that are low, smutty, cheap, flippant, irreverent and undignified.

You know when someone says, “your thoughts are in the gutter”?  They are saying that your thoughts have descended to the lowest level, not the highest, that you are thinking about smutty things, not honorable.

Believers must not think so much on what is trivial, temporal, mundane, common, and earthly, but rather on what is heavenly, and so worthy of awe, adoration, and praise.

This speaks to the idea that we are to treat life and especially the truth, seriously.  It doesn’t mean that we cannot have fun or enjoy a good joke, but it means that more often we are entertaining serious thoughts, high thoughts, thoughts about God and eternal realities.

Randy Smith, in a sermon writes:

It’s evident when a society turns its back on God.  Many necessary traits of a civilized and orderly democracy go out the window.  One of them is the loss of the concept of honor and respect.  How does that come about?  Take the belief that you evolved which makes life without honor, add it the self-esteem movement that teaches you only to honor yourself, add to that no moral absolutes whereby your end goal will justify your dishonorable means and then throw away divine accountability to honor because you believe you are the final say defining right and wrong.

We need to value honor and think about honorable things.  Think honorably about other people.

Of course, just as God is truth and we should meditate upon His truthfulness, likewise we should meditate on His glory.

“God’s glory refers to the consummate beauty of the totality of His perfections,” says John MacArthur.

And Sam Storms reminds us:

“What is “glory”?… Glory is the beauty of God unveiled!  Glory is the resplendent radiance of His power and His personality.  Glory is all of God that makes God, God, and shows Him to be worthy of our praise and our boasting and our trust and our hope and our confidence and our joy!  Glory is the external elegance of the internal excellencies of God.  Glory is what you see and experience and feel when God goes public with His beauty!”

Meditate much on the glory of God and you will find your heart and your life enriched.

The third quality that we should focus our minds and heart upon often is justice, “whatever is just.”

This is the word dikia, which means to be “right, aligning with laws and standards.”

For Paul, that which is “just” or “right” is defined by the character of God.  But he also used “just” or “right” in the sense of right thought or action (cf. 1:7), and this broad sense was in view here.  The Philippians were to contemplate the things that make for just living — doing the right thing.

Dikia describes whatever is in perfect harmony with God’s eternal, unchanging standards, again as revealed in Scripture. Believers are to think on matters that are consistent with the law of God.

To think on what is right means to think on the holy nature of God, especially as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and to model our behavior after Him.

Let us not mistake this with legalism, however.  Paul is not telling us to have the law forefront in our minds so that we condemn others for not living up to it or we frustrate ourselves with trying to live up to it.

Jesus Christ is the only truly righteous person who ever lived.  He never deviated from the law of God, perfectly obeying it every day in every way.

And it doesn’t mean that all we think about is the fact that someday we are all going to be held accountable for our sins, to live in dread of judgment.

But it also doesn’t mean that we never think about such things.  While we should consider frequently that God’s law is perfect and demands perfect obedience, and that one day we will give account for every thought, motive, word and deed, we also must remind ourselves that our only hope lay in the righteousness of Christ and His willingness to take our death penalty.

We should meditate in wonder that not only did God completely wipe out our sin debt through the cross, but that God also imputed the righteousness of Christ to our account.

To “justify” means “to declare righteous.”  That is what we should often meditate upon, that the just God did not sacrifice His justice, but affirmed it at the cross, and at the same time God’s justice was satisfied with Christ’s sacrifice so that we could be forgiven and would never be condemned.

I love the way John Gerstner puts it:

Only the Christian gospel presents….a way in which justice and mercy kiss each other…  First, Christianity confirms the fact that justice must be satisfied.  Sin must be condemned according to its demerit.  This means eternal doom.  The sinner must be damned because God must be inexorably holy and just.  His all-powerful Being must vindicate His all-holy Being.  Christianity never compromises the ever-blessed purity and excellency of the divine nature.  

Second, Christianity alone finds a way to satisfy infinite justice and provide infinite mercy at the same time.  What no other religion has dreamed of, Jesus Christ has accomplished.  He underwent the infinite wrath of God against sin and lived to bestow His mercy on the damned sinners for whom He died.  The infinite Son of God took upon Himself a human nature in which He underwent the full fury of the divine wrath.  The omnipotent God satisfied His violated holiness by punishing sin completely in His blessed Son, who “became sin” for His people.  The justice of God was vindicated in full in the substitute, His own Son, our Saviour dear.  He survived that awful vengeance and rose victor over the grave by the power of His own divinity.  Now He offers to every sin-sick and “pleasure” – burdened soul an everlasting mercy.  Perfect mercy and perfect justice in the gospel of the crucified.

So yes, have your thoughts line up with God’s law.  Now that we have the Spirit living within us (according to the New Covenant) and Christ living in us, it is quite possible for us to live righteously.

Yes, think often of the judgment seat of Christ and strive for eternal rewards.

Yet, remind yourself often that Christ died for the unjust, for those who were “still sinners.”

Would you agree that so far, with the call to focus our minds on what is true, honorable and just, that Paul is encouraging us primarily to meditate on the Scriptures?

Sure, the word “whatever” in each of these clauses indicates that truth, honor and justice can be found outside the Scriptures too, but the chief way to form our minds around these things is to think about God from the Scriptures.

Someone has said, “The battle is fought at the thought.”  What we think about God is the most important thing about us, said A. W. Tozer.

So fill your mind, your heart with God and with those things that are true, honorable and just.

A Beautiful Mind, part 1 (Philippians 4:8-9)

Paul has been dealing with conflict in Philippians 4, and in the midst of that, worry.  Paul has encouraged them to focus their desires upon Jesus and rejoice in him always.  The only way they can do that is to turn every worry into prayer.

A few years ago I read a book called Extravagant Grace by Barbara Duguid.  In it, she shares the counsel of John Newton with regard to sanctification.  She asks the question: “Is God more glorified when we are victorious over temptation, or when we struggle with it?”  Newton’s suggestion is that God is more glorified in the struggle, because that is when we cry out to him in desperation.  When are victorious, we don’t feel like we need him.

I say that because some people really struggle with anxiety.  It seems to have them trapped and they are mired in it every day.

I want to encourage you that any sin you struggle with creates opportunity for you to cry out in desperation to God, to admit that you need His help.  And that does glorify Him.

That is what Paul is saying here in Philippians 4.  These women need God’s help to resolve the conflict and reconcile the relationship, and if you struggle with worry, then it is an opportunity to turn each and every worry into a prayer admitting that you need God and His help.

That is what will give you peace.

The final two verses in this section talk about what we think about and what we do.

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

These verses apply to every area of life, anything we struggle with, but I think contextually it applies primarily to times of conflict.  It is then that our thinking goes askew.

Now, the human mind is an amazing thing.  A Cray computer has 60,000 miles of writing; our brains have 200,000.  It has 10,000 distinct varieties of neurons, 10-14 billion brain cells, 100 billion interconnecting neurons throughout the body (that would take you 3,171 years to count).

Information travels at different speeds within different types of neurons.  Transmission can be as slow as 0.5 meters per second or as fast as 120 meters per second.  That’s about 268 miles per hour!

Your brain is capable of having more ideas than the number of atoms in the known universe!

Source: Tony Buzan, Head Strong, 2001

It’s still a mystery exactly how the brain works.

Years ago they thought we used about 50% of our brains, then 20-30%; ten years ago 5-20% and now they believe we used about 1% of its capacity.

Going back to Philippians 4: Verse 7 ended with the peace of God guarding what once were very frantically anxious minds.  Now those minds are calm.  But, what God does for us and in us often requires our active participation.

Peace involves the heart and the mind.

Isaiah 26:3, which seems to be talking about Jerusalem, or the people of Jerusalem, says:

You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you.

What occupies our mind either brings peace and harmony, or it brings anxiety and conflict.

Notice how important the mind (or heart) is to the Christian life in these passages:

In Proverbs 4:23 Solomon says, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

The heart is the CPU of each person.  Through the heart pass our thoughts, our affections, our choices.  Thus it is vital that we watch over our hearts.

Proverbs 27:19 says, “As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.”

In Mark 7:20-23 Jesus explains…

20 And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

Thus what our heart focuses on is what we will say and what we will become.

In Romans 12:1-2 Paul says…

1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The activity of the mind is described here as the “renewal of your mind.”  Paul expresses this same thought in Ephesians 2:22-24…

22 to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

By the way, notice the three steps of spiritual transformation mentioned in these three verses: (1) put off the old self; (2) think differently, in a new way; and (3) put on the new self.  It is not enough to stop sinning.  We have to replace our sins with virtues AND we have to adopt a new way of thinking.

We must realize that our thoughts are very powerful, even though they cannot be seen, weighed or measured.  We must “take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

John Bunyan wrote not one, but three books describing his own spiritual journey.  The best known is Pilgrim’s Progress, an allegory about his journey from damnation to glory through the cross.  A work of non-fiction, his spiritual autobiography was called Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners.

Another work of fiction, which is a little less well known, was called The Holy War.  The full title was The Holy War Made by Shaddai upon Diabous, for the Regaining of the Metropolis of the World; or, the Losing and Taking Again of Mansoul.

Holy War is a military history of our souls, first conquered and enslaved by Diabolus, Satan, then as recaptured by Prince Emmanuel and subsequently defended against continued assaults brought against it by the deposed, infuriated ex-master Diabolus.

The town of Mansoul has five gates: Eye-gate, mouth-gate, nose-gate, ear-gate and feel-gate.  And then we read:

“There was reared up in the midst of this town a most famous and stately palace.  For strength, it might be called a castle; for peasantness, a paradise; for largeness, a place so copious as to contain all he world.  This palace the King Shaddai intended for himself alone, and not another with him…”

Of course, what Bunyan was describing was the human heart, the center of our intellectual, emotional and volitional life.

Alexander Whyte, said of this picture: “Your heart is the best and greatest gift of God to you.  It is the highest, greatest, strongest, and noblest power of your nature.  It forms your whole life, be it what it will.  All evil and all good come from your heart.  Your heart alone has the key of life and death for you” (Bunyan Characters, iii, 40)

In other words, depending on how to tend to our hearts, we will become either good or bad.

You might remember that saying:

Sow a thought, reap an action.

Sow an action, reap a habit.

Sow a habit, reap a character.

Sow a character, reap a destiny.

You see it all begins with the thought, what occupies our minds.

Our thoughts not only reveal who we are (right now), but they predict who we will become.

Here is a basic life principle: If you want to live right, you’ve got to think right.  Rights beliefs lead to right behavior.

And, as Paul said back in Ephesians 4:22-24, unless we change our way of thinking, any changes in behavior will only be temporary.

The scandal of today is a church full of Christians with no Christian minds.

So how do we develop a strong, beautiful Christian mind?  Let’s read again Philippians 4:8-9…

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

The word “finally” merely shows that this is the last of the imperatives about how to resolve conflict that started back with “stand firm” in chapter 4, verse 1.

Some people get excited when the preacher says “finally,” as if that means he is about to finish.  Paul has another topic to get to before he finishes.

Notice that these verses contain a conditional sentence, “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise” and then a command “think about these things.”  Prior to that is a list of things to think upon.

The conditional sentence in the Greek assumes the positive, that even within the pagan culture at Philippi there were some excellent and worthy things one could focus upon.

These two terms, excellent and worthy, are comprehensive qualities that Paul says must characterize a Christian’s thoughts and actions.

The command “think about these things” is a present imperative, emphasizing continual, consistent discipline.  We could put the word “always think about these things” or “continually think about these things.”  This is not to be a momentary, fleeting thought, but a continual focus.

The word for “think” is logizomai, which expresses the idea of careful scrutiny, prolonged concentration.  It is not a passing glance, a fleeting thought, a momentary consideration, but steady, focused concentration.

You know, in our instant society, where our minds are so distracted, we may have lost the ability to do this.  To stay at one task and give it our full attention for even 10 minutes is difficult.

This is why the Bible recommends meditation as a key spiritual habit.  When we meditate, we focus our minds on truth, turning it over and over in our minds, giving it our utmost concentration, until it yields its treasures to us.  But it is in that process of doing so, that our thinking starts to change.

Whatever we choose to focus upon will form our values and choices, shape our habits and character, and determine our destiny.  It’s like the old computer term, remember it—GIGO, garbage in, garbage out?  It meant that if the coding was garbage, the computer couldn’t compute.

Well, our minds function the same way, you put garbage into your mind through the variety of media we have available, and garbage will come out.  But if you think about life the way Paul commands, thinking about things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy, then your character will turn out that way.

Robert Rayburn, in a sermon about this passage, says…

You must take care about what you think about, what you let your mind to dwell on.  You have to take your mind off certain thoughts, certain daydreams, certain images, and place it on purpose on other thoughts, other dreams, and other images.  You must, on purpose, think about certain kinds of things and not think about other kinds of things.  Your heart, like wax, is susceptible to impressions and you need to take care and work hard to ensure that it is receiving the right kind of impressions and is being shaped by the right kind of influences and habits.

This will not be an easy process.  Our world, our lives, are filled with distractions.  And as soon as we try to focus our minds and hearts on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent and worthy, Satan will make sure to bring false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, unlovely, reprehensible, inferior and unworthy thoughts.

Again, Rayburn wisely notes:

And no serious minded Christian can possibly doubt the importance of Paul’s wisdom here.  You remember C.S. Lewis’ comment, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” [Mere Christianity, 124]  Well, in a similar way, no one realizes how inclined his heart and mind is to evil thoughts and to inane and frivolous and useless thoughts until he has tried very hard to fill his thinking up with what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. Let a Christian try to do that and he or she will know immediately why he or she falls so far short of the godliness Christ has summoned his followers to.  The heart, the heart that produces the life, still has a great deal of rottenness in it and still runs in deep ruts of sin..

There is no country so forbidding and so unpleasant as one’s own heart and that is why people spend so little conscious and intentional time there.  They are daily and hourly in their hearts as observers and as participants, but much more rarely are they there as rulers bringing a subject into submission.  Their hearts and minds run on with very little control or direction.  What is there, what happens there, is to them simply a fact, not an effect of conscious effort and decisive management on their part.  The effort, when it is made, so quickly discourages and it becomes immediately obvious that this will be very demanding, difficult, and wearying work.  And so it is given up.

Verse 8 may sound simple enough.  Anyone who has tried to obey Paul’s instructions here knows, however, that there is nothing simple about it.  As John Flavel, the Puritan, put it in his great work on keeping the heart, “This work affords the Christian matter for labor, fear, and trembling to his dying day.” [Works, v, 425]  The great work of the Christian life is to trust, love, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.  But the great technique or method by which that work is done is the application of our will to the thoughts of our hearts.  And that is very hard work.

Paul is here giving us a key clue to our spiritual formation—the intentional, active control over what one chooses to think about.

And we know, intuitively, don’t we, that what we focus our minds on does affect our moods, our choices, and ultimately our lives?  You’ve heard of psychosomatic illnesses, where we get sick because of what we are thinking about or how we are thinking.  Our minds affect our bodies in that way.

John Milton wrote, “A mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n. . . .”  So it is imperative that we control what goes on in our minds.

The control of our minds and what we think about is a key part of our spiritual transformation.

Are you in control of what you think about?  Or is the media?  Your college professors?

Take control of your thinking.

It is worth the time and effort you put into controlling what you are thinking.

Secrets to Worry-Free Living, part 3 (Philippians 4:6-7)

Over the last two weeks we’ve been looking at Paul’s secrets to worry-free living.  First, we focus our attention back upon Jesus and rejoice in Him and all He has done, is doing and will do for us.  Then, we employ a different strategy.  Instead of allowing our minds to be filled with worries, we take each worry and turn it into a prayer.

In 480 B.C. the outmanned army of Sparta’s King Leonidas held off the Persian troops of Xerxes by fighting them one at a time as they came through a narrow mountain pass.  Commenting on this strategy, C.H. Sprugeon said, “Suppose Leonidas and his handful of men had gone out into the wide-open plain and attacked the Persians–why, they would have died at once, even though they might have fought like lions.”  Spurgeon continued by saying that Christians stand in the narrow pass of today.  If they choose to battle every difficulty at once, they’re sure to suffer defeat.  But if they trust God and take their troubles one by one, they will find that their strength is sufficient.

That’s what Jesus meant when he said:

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:34)

Worrying about tomorrow just empties today of its strength.  Turn each worry into a prayer request and lay it before Almighty God.

Here in Philippians 4 Paul says…

6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul mentions three kinds of prayer in verse 6: prayers (proseuche) which is just general communication with our Father; supplication (deesis) which refers to specific requests and finally “thanksgiving.”

Paul adds “thanksgiving” which leads us to conclude that, as there are many forms of prayer, there is a need for us to pray a lot.

But it also reminds us that we need to not only ask, but when God answers we should give thanks.

Pagan prayers are destitute of thanksgiving (cf. Romans 1:21; 2 Timothy 3:2), whereas truly Christian prayer breathes thanksgiving because thankfulness is the posture of grace.  Thus, at the root of our prayers must be thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Christ through the gospel.

In fact, every activity is to be freighted with thanksgiving. “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

All our requests are to be made known to God and adorned with lavish praise to God for the innumerable hues and shapes of his grace.

I think Paul is using these three terms to indicate that supplication is a specific way of making our requests known to God, but we can do it either in a selfish, demanding way, or in a humble, thankful way.

As a parent, which would you prefer?

Now, when we get to the place where are prayers are littered with thanksgivings, it is a sign that we are gaining victory over anxiety.  Why? Because it shows that we believe God is on our side doing good to us.  It shows that we trust His promises and believe He cares for us.

In his first epistle, Peter said: “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).  Why do we cast our anxieties on him?  Because we believe that He cares for us.  And believing that leads to giving thanks.

Pastor Steve Coles notes:

Thanksgiving in a time of trials reflects three things: (1) Remembrance of God’s supply in the past.  You think back over His faithfulness to you up to this point and realize that His mercies have sustained you.  He has been with you in every trial.  He never abandons or forsakes His children, even if we face persecution or death for His sake.

(2) Submission to God’s sovereignty in the present.  To thank God in the midst of a crisis or trial is to say, “Lord, I don’t understand, but I submit to Your sovereign purpose in this situation.  I trust that You know what You’re doing and will work it together for good.”  We are not just to thank God when we feel like it, but also when we don’t feel like it (1 Thess. 5:18).

(3) Trust in God’s sufficiency for the future.  A thankful heart rests upon the all-sufficient God, knowing that even though we don’t see how He is going to do it, He will meet our every need as we cast ourselves on Him. 

I love Jeremiah 32:17, especially when I think about its context.  Jeremiah was shut up in prison.  Nebuchadnezzar was besieging Jerusalem which was about to fall (32:2).  In that situation, the Lord told Jeremiah to do something that everyone would have thought was crazy, to buy a field from his uncle.  Anybody knows you don’t sink your money into real estate when a country is about to fall to a foreign tyrant.  But God wanted to show His people that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (32:15).  Then Jeremiah prays, “Ah Lord God! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and by Your outstretched arm! Nothing is too difficult for You” (32:17).  Jeremiah was trusting in God’s sufficiency for the future.

Now, what happens when we do this?  What happens when we turn our worries into prayer, lay them in Jesus’ hands and trust Him to accomplish good in our behalf?

We experience God’s peace.

7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

This is the result of rejoicing in Jesus and learning the new strategy of praying instead of worrying.  We get to experience God’s peace.

Do you want peace?  I think you do.

There are four things Paul says about this peace in verse 7.  First, it is the peace “of God.”  It is the peace that He possesses and then shares with us.  Secondly, it “surpasses all understanding.”  Like other aspects of God’s nature, our understanding is finite and limited.  We can understand it to some extent, but it “surpasses ALL understanding.”  And finally, this peace “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  Fourth, this peace is found and experienced only “in Christ Jesus.”

First, this is the peace “of God.”

Our God is at peace.  He is not pacing the floors of heaven, wringing his hands, biting his nails, wondering how things got so out of control or how things will turn out.

That completely calm, unflappable peace will “guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

Spurgeon said:

“What is God’s peace?  The unruffled serenity of the infinitely-happy God, the eternal composure of the absolutely well-contented God.

Now, you understand there is “peace with God” and there is “the peace of God.”  “Peace with God” is a matter of our justification and reconciliation with Him.  Because we put our trust in Jesus and proclaimed our loyalty to Him, we are now no longer enemies but friends.

Then there is the “peace of God.”  This is the peace, the calmness and serenity of mind that God gives to us so that we can be at peace just as He is.

Jesus told his disciples just before he died…

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

They had never seen Jesus troubled and worried.  He wasn’t rattled by contests of the mind with the religious teachers.  He didn’t start to fret when he was arrested and tried.  Even on the cross, Jesus didn’t worry about His followers or His life.

He gives His peace, not the kind the world gives.

A New York Times article in 2003 claimed:

Of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history. 

You see, the world’s peace doesn’t last long.  It is soon interrupted with conflict.

Also, the world’s peace isn’t very deep.

The Old Testament concept of shalom refers to a wholistic health, harmony with God, the world and others.  It is not merely the absence of conflict, but the presence of deep harmony.  It restores us to the Edenic condition before the curse so that in every way we experience harmony.

The second thing we see about this peace is that it “surpasses all understanding.”

This kind of peace cannot be duplicated by man.  Until we have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we won’t experience or understand this peace.  Even as believers, our understanding is limited because we are finite.

But what this is saying is that God’s peace is unlimited.  There may be a zillion things to worry about…God’s peace can cover it all…and then some.  Or a lot.

It isn’t that it is senseless and therefore impossible to understand, but that it is beyond our ability to understand and to explain, but it can be experienced.

Bob Deffinbaugh comments:

Paul is telling us something very important about the relationship between prayer, peace, and our mental and emotional energies.  Worry consumes both mental and emotional energy (our heart and mind).  Worry seeks to solve the problem we are dealing with by attempting to understand it, to figure it out.  Very often, worry is consumed with theoretical and hypothetical possibilities that will never come to pass—wasted energy.

In prayer, we turn those things over to God which are bigger than we are, which are beyond our comprehension (see Romans 8:26-27).  God, who is vastly greater than us, takes our concerns and gives us peace in return.  This peace transcends our mental powers and our emotions.  What we cannot do in and of ourselves, God does, in answer to our prayers.  I should add that God does not promise that He will give us a full understanding of those matters we bring to Him in prayer; He only promises to give us peace.

This is especially comforting in those tragic situations in which we just cannot understand “why?” it happened.  When we cannot possibly explain the “why?” we can have a peace that is also unexplainable.

Finally, that peace will “guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”

That verb is a military term.  It was used of the protection of a garrison, or a prisoner.  In fact, at that very moment Paul was chained to a Roman soldier, guarded day and night.  Unlike military guards, who might go to sleep or be too weak to ward off an enemy, God’s peace will keep every worry, every fear, every anxiety away.

This peace guards our “hearts” (our affections) and our “minds” (our thoughts), by reminding us of the promises and power of Jesus Christ.

These are the very two areas that are most affected by worry.  It infects our thoughts and our emotions.  But if we pray, then God’s peace floods into our thoughts and emotions, giving us a sense of calmness even when everything around us is falling apart.

Gerald Hawthorne comments:

“Together these words refer to the entire inner being of the Christian, his emotions, affections, thoughts and moral choices.  This inner part of a person, then, so vulnerable to attack by the enemy, is that which God’s peace is set, like battle-ready soldiers, to protect.”

Greg Herrick notes:

Paul uses a military metaphor in describing God’s peace, which is almost personified…The Philippians living in a garrison town, would be familiar with the sight of the Roman sentry, maintaining his watch.  Likewise, comments the apostle, God’s peace will garrison and protect you hearts and your minds.

Bunyan’s use of this picture in the appointment and patrol of Mr. God’s-Peace in the town of Mansoul should be read in conjunction with this verse.’  Nothing was to be found but harmony, happiness, joy and health’ so long as Mr. God’s-Peace maintained his office.  But when Prince Emmanuel was grieved away from the town , he laid down his commission and departed also.  It is a salutary reminder that we enjoy God’s gift  in Christ Jesus, i.e., by our obedience to him and submission to his authority.

And that is our final point: as with all of God’s gifts, they come to us “in Christ Jesus.”

This is one of Paul’s favorite phrases, “in Christ” and “in him.”  The expressions “in Christ,” “in the Lord,” and “in him” occur 164 times in the letters of Paul alone, and are indispensable to an understanding of the New Testament, says John Stott.  To be “in Christ” does not mean to be inside Christ, as tools are in a box or our clothes in a closet, but to be organically united to Christ, as a limb is in the body or a branch is in the tree.  It is this personal relationship with Christ that is the distinctive mark of his authentic followers.

And this is the only way that we get to experience this peace.  It comes by being “in Christ.”  We are baptized into Christ by the Holy Spirit at the moment we believe and “in Christ” we gain all things good, all spiritual blessings.

So it is only possible for believers to experience this peace.  In fact, one must experience “peace with God” before it is possible to experience “the peace of God.”

If you want victory over worry and you want to have the steady enjoyment of God’s peace, then here is Paul’s prescription: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  Don’t miss the words “in everything.” In everything . . . let your requests be made known to God.”  Pray about everything.  Stay in a mindset of prayer all day.  Don’t just pray in crises.  Pray about everything.

Prayer is the choice we make instead of worrying.  Every time our minds race to worry and anxiety, we can turn those very worries into requests to God, and then thank Him for caring for us and taking care of us in the very best way possible.

Then we will experience His peace.

Don’t carry burdens you were never intended to carry.  You have an alternative.  There is a better strategy.  And that is unloading your burdens onto Jesus Christ.

We are reminded in Psalm 94:19

When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.

For every care there is a consolation.  For every problem there is peace.  But we cannot get there except through prayer.  Tell him what bothers you, and thank Him for His care and all His resources.

In the made for TV film, Bonhoeffer: Agent of Grace, there is a scene late in the movie when Bonhoeffer was in prison and he hears through the concrete wall the weeping of a prisoner in another cell.  Knowing that this prisoner would soon be executed, Bonhoeffer placed his hands on the wall and prayed: “Lord, it’s dark in me; in you is day.  I am alone, but you will stay.  I am afraid; you never cease.  I am at war; in you is peace.”  Slowly, we see a pair of hands reach up and touch the opposite wall.

As dawn breaks, a single rifle shot shatters the morning calm.  But the guard who had heard and watched Bonhoeffer the night before said: “I thought you might like to know.  The boy from the next cell—he was very calm.  It surprised everyone.  He was executed this morning.”

Secrets to Worry-Free Living, part 2 (Philippians 4:6)

Last week we began looking at what Paul said about dealing with worry in Philippians 4.  We went back in the context to verse 4 and said that the first step in focusing upon God, or redirecting our desires back to God.  That is what Paul meant when he said, “rejoice in the Lord always.”

Let me remind you that if anyone had cause to worry it was Paul.  He was imprisoned.  He was opposed.  He was concerned about what was going on in the churches, particularly at Philippi.  In 2 Corinthians 11, as Paul was arguing against the so-called “super apostles” who seemed to have what we today would call the “prosperity gospel,” Paul contends that all his sufferings (and the list there is long) was superseded by one thing:

28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

Paul admits to being anxious about “all the churches.”  We can’t avoid becoming anxious about someone or something, but we can refocus upon God and rejoice in Him; then, as Paul says in Philippians 4:6-7

6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

So the second secret for worry-free living is to learn a new strategy.

Paul’s command in verse 6 is “do not be anxious about anything…” or, because it is in the present tense, it is likely Paul is stressing, “stop being anxious about anything.”  You’ve been anxious, but learn a new strategy in dealing with your anxieties.

Kent Hughes reminds us…

Indeed, as residents of Philippi they had more things to worry about than we do — poverty, hunger, ostracism, interlopers, agents provocateurs , heretics, and a very Roman “city hall.”

We may not have as many causes to worry, but we still do.  Paul says, “If you’ve started to worry…” it is time to change your strategy.

The Greek word here is merimnao, which has the idea of something that is divided, and therefore falling apart.  It describes a mind that is distracted and divided, pulling in different directions.  Martin Lloyd-Jones called it “stewing without doing.”

The Anglo-Saxon word from which we get our word “worry” means “to choke,” to put a stranglehold on our thinking.  In other words, it consumes us.

Thoughts of worry are not the problem, because through prayer we can return to trust, but continual worry consumes us.

Some people claim that they cannot learn to meditate on Scripture.  Or that it is too much work.  But in reality, worry is just negative meditation—it is going over and over the same information (whether real or not), looking at it from every angle.

Phil Moser has a helpful diagram with three concentric circles.  The middle (and smallest) one is the circle of control and includes the elements over which you are able to exercise control and have been given responsibility.  Notice that it is the smallest circle because there is really very little in this life that you and I can actually control.

He says…

For instance, I can’t control the traffic on my way to work, but I can control my response to that traffic.  I can’t control the world’s economy, but I can control my spending and be fiscally responsible.  I can’t control the outcome of my children’s choices, but I am able to control the instruction and discipline I give to them while they are under my authority.   God has intentionally made my circle of responsibility the smallest.  His Word gives precepts and commands so that I would know what my responsibilities are and obey him accordingly.  As I walk in the Spirit, and not in the flesh, I am able to do everything that is within this circle (Gal. 5:16, Phil. 4:13).

The next circle is the circle of concern.

The middle circle contains the areas that touch my life, but over which I exercise limited control.  A friend or a family member who is living a dangerous life style would fall into this category.  Hopefully, through the years, my compassion and loyalty have won me the opportunity to speak to him about my concerns.  Certainly, I have influence as a friend.  Still, I have to remember, I do not ultimately control his choices or the outcome of those choices.  He alone is responsible.  He, too, has a circle of control.

Then there is the circle he labels “consumed.”

Again, Phil Moser explains…

Being concerned is only one step away from being consumed. I go to sleep thinking about the situation and wake up with it on my mind.  It distracts me from the important conversations around me. It interrupts my relationship with God, and it intrudes upon my relationships with others.  This is the circle of worry.  I can’t seem to get my mind off the matter at hand.  When I am in this circle, it feels like I should be able to come up with a solution if I only worry for a little longer.  That is anxiety’s lie.  Without realizing it, I have drifted from being concerned to being consumed.

The three circles clarify an inherent danger when we move from the inner circle to the outer.  The outer circle does not touch the inner.  Which means, when I am worrying about a matter, I cannot fulfill my God-given responsibilities.  My time and energies are wasted in the consumed circle and I have nothing left to spend on the areas that I am responsible for.  This is why unchecked anxiety often leads to other sins.  We’ve depleted the resources that God had given us to fulfill our responsibilities today because we were worrying about tomorrow.  Jesus made this case in his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mat. 6:34).

I’m glad for that teaching, because it shows that I can be concerned for someone, I just have to be careful not to manipulate, but rather to pray and trust God to work.

Jesus gave many important lessons about worry and anxiety in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:25-34.  He caps it off with this statement in v. 34…

“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

Three times Jesus forbade worry: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious [worry] about your life” (v. 25) — “So do not be anxious [worry]” (v. 31) — “Therefore do not be anxious [worry] about tomorrow” (v. 34).  And Paul cuts to the chase, “Stop worrying about anything!”

Good concern energizes us to pray and help where we can; but bad worry empties us of the strength we need to fulfill our responsibilities today.

Paul is saying to the Philippians, “You have to learn a new strategy in dealing with your concerns and not get consumed by worries.”

Now, worry is a frame of mind and trying to control it is like trying to keep a dozen beachballs under water—they just keep popping up.  Or, it’s like saying to someone: “Don’t think about the white elephant.”

There is really only one way to defeat anxiety and worry…and that is prayer.  Since worry is negative meditation, replace worry with prayer—voicing your requests to God.

Prayer reshapes the direction of our thinking, helping us overcome our anxieties and replacing that with a belief that God is in control and working for our good.

Paul says…

6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

The best way to have no worries is to pray about everything.  Let God know everything.

You see, worry focuses on our problems; praying focuses our minds on God’s promises.  Praying allows us to rejoice in God and the good He has done, is doing and will do in our behalf.

Ok, so get out your to-do list and make two columns.  Now, under the “things to worry about” column, put the word “NOTHING.”  But under “things to pray about” column put “EVERYTHING.”

That’s the concept Paul is saying: “Be anxious in nothing, in everything pray.”

Someone has said, “Why worry when you can pray?”

The problem is that the attitude of many is, “Why pray when you can worry?”

Paul uses several words for prayer in this verse.  The first one he uses is proseuche, which is the most general word for prayer, a word that simply reflect the idea of asking, which is later picked up by the words “your request.”

It is the simplest word Paul could choose, but it points out that our prayers need to be real, not just pointless banterings or mindless wanderings, but coming to God just like we would any other benefactor and asking what we want as if He were right in front of us.

McGee quoted Fenelon, a mystic who lived in the Middle Ages, who encouraged praying as follows:

“Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one’s heart, its pleasures and its pains, to a dear friend. Tell Him your troubles, that He may comfort you; tell Him your joys, that He may sober them; tell Him your longings, that He may purify them; tell Him your dislikes, that He may help you to conquer them; talk to Him of your temptations, that He may shield you from them; show Him the wounds of your heart, that He may heal them; lay bare your indifference to good, your depraved tastes for evil, your instability. Tell Him how self-love makes you unjust to others, how vanity tempts you to be insincere, how pride disguises you to yourself as to others.”

Someone has put this into a memo form:

Memo: To Do Today

From: God

To: A Christian

Today, I will be handling all your problems.  Please remember that I do not need your help.  If the devil happens to deliver a situation that you cannot handle, DO NOT attempt to resolve it.  Just kindly place it in the SFJTD (something for Jesus to do) box.  It will be addressed in my time, not yours.

Once the matter is placed into the box DO NOT hold on to it or remove it.  Holding on or removal will only delay the resolution to your problem.  If it is a situation that you think you are capable of handling, please consult me in prayer before you do anything to be sure that it is the proper way of handling it.

Because I do not sleep nor do I slumber, there is no need for you to loose any sleep.  Rest, my child.  If you need to contact me, I’m only a prayer away.

God.

That’s all we need to do.  Instead of worrying about things, even if they are crashing around us, we need to put them in God’s hands.

While the Greek word proseuche is a general word that can mean all of the ways that we communicate with God, “supplication” (deesis) directly asks God to do something.

The word supplication implies a dependent spirit.  It shows that we realize that we need God’s help.  It implies humility on our prayer, realizing that we are “poor and needy” (Psalm 86:1).

Helen Roseveare, a missionary to the Belgian Congo for many years, tells this story of the amazing ability for God to hear our prayers and answer them.

One night, in Central Africa, I had worked hard to help a mother in the labor ward; but in spite of all that we could do, she died leaving us with a tiny, premature baby and a crying, two-year-old daughter.  We would have difficulty keeping the baby alive.  We had no incubator.  We had no electricity to run an incubator, and no special feeding facilities.  Although we lived on the equator, nights were often chilly with treacherous drafts. 

A student-midwife went for the box we had for such babies and for the cotton wool that the baby would be wrapped in.  Another went to stoke up the fire and fill a hot water bottle.  She came back shortly, in distress, to tell me that in filling the bottle, it had burst.  Rubber perishes easily in tropical climates. “…and it is our last hot water bottle!” she exclaimed.  As in the West, it is no good crying over spilled milk; so, in Central Africa it might be considered no good crying over a burst water bottle.  They do not grow on trees, and there are no drugstores down forest pathways.  All right,” I said, “Put the baby as near the fire as you safely can; sleep between the baby and the door to keep it free from drafts. Your job is to keep the baby warm.” 

The following noon, as I did most days, I went to have prayers with many of the orphanage children who chose to gather with me.  I gave the youngsters various suggestions of things to pray about and told them about the tiny baby.  I explained our problem about keeping the baby warm enough, mentioning the hot water bottle.  The baby could so easily die if it got chilled.  I also told them about the two-year-old sister, crying because her mother had died.

During the prayer time, one ten-year-old girl, Ruth, prayed with the usual blunt consciousness of our African children.  “Please, God,” she prayed, “send us a water bottle.  It’ll be no good tomorrow, God, the baby’ll be dead; so, please send it this afternoon.”  While I gasped inwardly at the audacity of the prayer, she added by way of corollary, ” …And while You are about it, would You please send a dolly for the little girl so she’ll know You really love her?”  As often with children’s prayers, I was put on the spot.  Could I honestly say, “Amen?”  I just did not believe that God could do this.  Oh, yes, I know that He can do everything: The Bible says so, but there are limits, aren’t there?  The only way God could answer this particular prayer would be by sending a parcel from the homeland.  I had been in Africa for almost four years at that time, and I had never, ever received a parcel from home.  Anyway, if anyone did send a parcel, who would put in a hot water bottle?  I lived on the equator! 

Halfway through the afternoon, while I was teaching in the nurses’ training school, a message was sent that there was a car at my front door.  By the time that I reached home, the car had gone, but there, on the veranda, was a large twenty-two pound parcel!  I felt tears pricking my eyes.  I could not open the parcel alone; so, I sent for the orphanage children.  Together we pulled off the string, carefully undoing each knot.  We folded the paper, taking care not to tear it unduly.  Excitement was mounting.  Some thirty or forty pairs of eyes were focused on the large cardboard box.

From the top, I lifted out brightly colored, knitted jerseys.  Eyes sparkled as I gave them out.  Then, there were the knitted bandages for the leprosy patients, and the children began to look a little bored.  Next, came a box of mixed raisins and sultanas – – that would make a nice batch of buns for the weekend.  As I put my hand in again, I felt the…could it really be?  I grasped it, and pulled it out.  Yes, “A brand-new rubber, hot water bottle!” I cried.  I had not asked God to send it; I had not truly believed that He could.  

Ruth was in the front row of the children.  She rushed forward, crying out, “If God has sent the bottle, He must have sent the dolly, too!”  Rummaging down to the bottom of the box, she pulled out the small, beautifully dressed dolly.  Her eyes shone: She had never doubted!  Looking up at me, she asked, “Can I go over with you, Mummy, and give this dolly to that little girl, so she’ll know that Jesus really loves her?” 

That parcel had been on the way for five whole months, packed up by my former Sunday School class, whose leader had heard and obeyed God’s prompting to send a hot water bottle, even to the equator.  One of the girls had put in a dolly for an African child — five months earlier in answer to the believing prayer of a ten-year-old to bring it “That afternoon!”  

God knows what we need.  He just wants us to ask so that we will realize what an amazing God He is!

Then Paul adds “thanksgiving” which leads us to conclude that, as there are many forms of prayer, there is a need for us to pray a lot.

Secrets to Worry-Free Living, part 1 (Philippians 4:4)

Would you say, or admit, that you are a worrier?  Do worries and anxieties creep into your mind occasionally, or regularly?  Does the song Hakuna Matata irritate you?

I think some people struggle with worry and anxiety a lot, while all of us feel it from time to time, and possibly more and more these days.

If anybody had an excuse to worry it was Paul.  He was in prison, unsure whether he would be released or executed.  He wrote letters to churches that were going through problems.  He had opponents who loved to disparage his ministry.  His beloved friends back in Philippi were fighting.

Again, Paul wasn’t lounging under a palm on the Isle of Capri sipping a cool drink, dictating, “Don’t worry, be happy!”  No detachment here.  Paul’s whole existence was on the bubble; danger was everywhere.  Few things were going right for him, humanly speaking. 

Paul had more cares and concerns than most of us and we wouldn’t blame him for worrying.  But he says this in Philippians 4:6-7

6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

There seems a lot to be anxious about these days—from politics to pandemics, our children, our checkbook and we could each name a dozen more.

The word “anxious” here means “to be pulled in different directions.”  Our faith and hope pull is in one direction and our fears pull us in the opposite direction.  No wonder we are frazzled!

The Most Reverend R.C. Trench, who was at one time the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, had a morbid fear of becoming paralyzed.  One evening at a party, the lady he sat next to at dinner heard him muttering mournfully to himself, “It’s happened at last…total insensibility of the right limb.”  “Your Grace,” said the lady, “it may comfort you to learn that it is my leg you are pinching!”

Oops!  Anxiety can cause us to do some foolish things.

Are you a worry wart?

For several years a woman had been having trouble getting to sleep at night because she feared burglars.  One night her husband heard a noise in the house, so he went downstairs to investigate.  When he got there, he did find a burglar.  “Good evening,” said the man of the house. “I am pleased to see you.  Come upstairs and meet my wife.  She has been waiting 10 years to meet you.”  (William Marshall, Eternity Shut in a Span).

A recent study showed that kids ages 7-12 have an average of 7.6 worries a day.

I’m sure you’re thinking:  I wish that was all I had!

An organization known as the Pennsylvania Worry Group discovered that 15% of the population spend half their waking hours worrying.

So worry is clearly a problem, and there are many problems with worry.

Over 100 diseases have been directly attributed to worry!  Not only does it affect us physically, it has emotional and behavioral effects as well.  It lends to…

  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Difficulty with making decisions
  • A lack of self-confidence
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Panic attacks

People who are persistently anxious shorten their lives by 12-23% according to one study.

That’s why Proverbs 12:25 says, “An anxious heart weighs a man down…”  Anxiety weighs us down and wears us out.

But Proverbs 14:30 encourages us, “A heart at peace gives life to the body.”  What a difference!

Ian Maclaren reminds us:

What does your anxiety do?  It does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, but it does empty today of its strength.  It does not make you escape the evil; it makes you unfit to cope with it when it comes.  God gives us the power to bear all the sorrow of His making, but He does not guarantee to give us strength to bear the burdens of our own making such as worry induces. 

Anxiety exists in many forms, from mild anxiety to a frantic panic.  Some people express anxiety by being jumpy, like some say, “She’s as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”  Others express their anxieties by being moody and sullen.

Can you identify with those expressions?

So let’s get back to our definition:  Worry is a troubled state of mind wherein we are thinking about negative things that might happen.  Worry is primarily a function of our imagination, focusing on how things might be, or how we wish them to be.

Fear deals in actualities; worry in potentialities.

A University of Michigan study found that 50% of the things we worry about never materialize; 30% are issues of the past we cannot change; 10% are petty issues and only 10% is left for legitimate issues.

A bassoon player came up to his conductor, Arturo Toscanini, and nervously said that he could not reach the high E flat.  Toscanini just smiled and replied, “Don’t worry.  There is no E flat in the music tonight.”

You see, many of our worries are just like that—unfounded and unnecessary.

Maybe you’ve seen the cartoon where the husband says to his wife, “99% of what you worry about never happens!”  To which she responds, “See, it works!”

Actually, worry doesn’t accomplish anything.  You can do a lot of work and movement in a rocking chair and never get anywhere.

So a majority of things we worry about never materialize, while another major portion of our worries we have no control over.

Why is worry such a serious issue from God’s viewpoint?

Because worry is an act of distrust in God.  Worry assumes responsibility that is His and God never intended us to take it.  Worry is the act of wresting some personal control over things we cannot control.

We worry because we don’t believe that God cares enough to pay attention to our needs or isn’t powerful enough to control our life circumstances.

As Oswald Chambers put it, “Worry is an indication that we think God cannot look after us.”

That’s why it’s a more serious issue than we might imagine. 

Jesus says in Matthew 6:30 that people who worry have “little faith” and in verse 32 Jesus says…

For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

A little rhyme, I believe attributed to Elizabeth Cheney and goes like this:

Said the robin to the sparrow, “I’d really like to know, why these anxious human being rush about and worry so.”  Said the sparrow to the robin, “I’m sure that you’ll agree that they have no heavenly Father such as cares for you and me.”

Worry gives us the illusion, though we would never say it aloud, that we have no heavenly Father.  We are living as practical atheists.

So what are the secrets to worry-free living?

First, get your focus back upon God.

This is actually from verse 4.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

We don’t rejoice in how life is going, we rejoice in the Lord.  And that is not only part of the context, but verse 4 expresses the attitude that should predominate our hearts—one that crowds out worry.

It is difficult, really impossible, to rejoice in the Lord and worry about our circumstances at the same time.

Anxiety focuses on the events that are/can be/or should be happening.  As long as we’re focused on our circumstances—real or imagined—we will feel anxious, feeling the lack of or need for control.

Worry robs us of joy by keeping our focus on ourselves and our circumstances.  Not everything about ourselves and our circumstances is good, so it is impossible to continually rejoice in them.  But we can “rejoice in the Lord always.”

When we rejoice “in the Lord” we are focusing on Someone that never changes, is always in control, always loves us, guarantees our good.  Worry forgets this.

Remember how Paul and Silas did this?  From a dark, dank prison cell, after being severely beaten and not knowing what tomorrow held, instead of fretting and complaining, they intentionally chose to fill their thoughts and mouths with songs praising God.  “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God…”

Or take Psalm 73.  Asaph was sickened by the fact that the wicked lived happy, healthy, wealthy, care-free lives while he was being beaten and battered (figuratively speaking) by life.  He said he almost gave up the faith, because it didn’t pay off.  But then he went to the sanctuary, got his focus on God and understood what a difference there would be in eternity.  Eternity would be tragic for the wicked, while he would enter into glory.

So near the end of Psalm 73 Asaph proclaims:

25 Whom have I in heaven but you?  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

When God became Asaph’s treasure and pleasure, the strength of his heart and all he desired, it didn’t matter if “flesh and heart” may fail.  Life could fall apart, but he had God.

Psalm 37 is another passage that directly contrasts rejoicing in God with fretting over circumstances.  Listen to Psalm 37:1-7…

1 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers! 2 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb. 3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. 4 Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart. 5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act. 6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. 7 Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!

That contrast is communicated in just these two phrases: “fret not yourself because of evildoers” and “delight yourself in the LORD.”  Find your delight in God and it eliminates worries.

Habakkuk 3 reinforces this same antithesis between anxiety and joy.  In vv. 16-19 we read…

16 I hear, and my body trembles; my lips quiver at the sound; rottenness enters into my bones; my legs tremble beneath me. Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble to come upon people who invade us. 17 Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.

All his circumstances were bad.  All his prospects for the future were terrible.  But Habakkuk chooses to focus on the Lord.  Let me read verse 18 again: “yet [and that’s a big yet] I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.”

Here’s the point: You can choose joy or anxiety.  The key is where you place your focus. If you discipline your heart to rejoice in the Lord instead of fretting about the circumstances, you will be filled with joy instead of anxiety.

By the way, it is interesting that Paul brackets these verses about anxiety with the relational conflict between Euodia and Syntyche in vv. 2-3 and Paul’s teaching about contentment with regard to finances.  Relational friction and financial downturns are probably the chief sources of anxiety in our lives.

So, as the song goes, “Don’t worry, be happy.”  But don’t be happy in your life’s circumstances, which always change; rather be happy in God, who never changes.

You see, we can (it is actually possible) to “always” rejoice in the Lord.  Marshall Segal writes:

Oh, that always — all at once so awe-inspiring, and so haunting.  Awe-inspiring because that means always must be possible.  What news!  In Christ, we never have to be without genuine happiness.  And yet also so haunting because of how often we lose our sense of joy — the joy that God, throughout the Scriptures, commands of his people.

Paul’s joy was rooted in Christ and the hope that he had in Him.

Segal goes on to say

To have more joy in suffering than in peace and comfort, we have to want Jesus more than anything else, including peace and comfort.

Paul didn’t choose joy in Christ because he couldn’t find joy anywhere else. He had tasted and enjoyed the glory of success and popularity — the Hebrew of Hebrews, the Pharisee of Pharisees, the most zealous, the most blameless, the most recognized (Philippians 3:5–6). When he chose to follow Jesus, he surrendered the kind of life others would die for — and he surrendered that life for more happiness, not less.

After listing all that he had earned and accomplished, he says,

Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7–8)

When Paul found the treasure hidden in the fields of Scripture, his pearl of great price, all the other pearls had suddenly faded in color. He quickly sold them all to have just one. His love for worldly success and attention withered and fell away to make way for a new, more vibrant love. He wrote, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Philippians 1:23).

In the end, we do not forfeit happiness to have Christ. Whatever we trade away (and we do trade away real joys to follow Christ), we receive back a hundredfold now, “and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:30). Joy in Christ is far better than any other pleasure, achievement, or prize. We are fools to ever prefer what we enjoyed before him.

As a Christian you can possess that joy.  You can fight against fretting by rejoicing more in Jesus Christ—all He is, all He has done and will do for you—than in the loss or gain of anything else.

John Piper says about these verses,

When we have little and have lost much, Christ comes and reveals himself as more valuable than what we have lost.  And when we have much and are overflowing in abundance, Christ comes and he shows that he is far superior to everything we have.

So rejoice in Jesus.  Rejoice in who He is, rejoice in all that you have because you are in Christ and you have every spiritual blessing in Him.  We have his great and magnificent promises which give us everything we need for life and godliness.

We have everything in Christ.  He is our righteousness, our redemption, our wisdom, our sanctification.  Everything we need we have in Him.

So rejoice in Jesus Christ.  That can never be taken away from you, those treasures that Jesus Christ has and has given you because we are in Him.  So rejoice in Jesus Christ.  He is worth more than anything that you have or could ever have.

Resolving Conflict, part 4 (Philippians 4:6-8)

Over last four weeks, as we’ve been looking at the opening section of Philippians 4, we’ve noticed that Paul is trying to help two women (and possibly others) to resolve whatever was dividing them and be reconciled.

As we looked at this passage we found seven principles so far about resolving conflict.  First, conflict has to be addressed, not ignored.  Paul does this by naming names and getting it out into the open so it could be resolved.

Second, Paul treats both the women, as well as everyone else, with high value.  He respects them as people, even though they had problems.  He placed a high value on the person and the relationship, something that we have to remind ourselves to do.

Thirdly, whether we are the offender or the victim, it is our responsibility to take the initiative to pursue reconciliation.  We can’t hide behind the fact that the other person “did it to me” and wait for them to come forward and confess.  Nor can we hope the other person didn’t notice.  Either way we must take the first step.

Fourth, we have to seek common ground with the other person.  As Christians, we have a great advantage.  Since both of us are “in Christ” and can have “the mind of Christ” we have a great opportunity to lay aside our own ideas to entertain the ideas of the person we disagree with.  Because we are both “in Christ” as believers, it makes it possible for us to “agree in the Lord.”  Notice that Paul used the word “Lord” to re-emphasize their submission to Him even in the midst of interpersonal conflict.

Fifth, we saw the importance of recruiting outside help to guide us in negotiating conflict and pursuing reconciliation.  Paul asked others to get involved because he knew that the conflict had grown to the point that it was affecting others in the congregation and just not getting anywhere.

Sixth, and this is the goal, we have to get back to the ministry of the gospel, working side by side.  These women had done so before, but right now they were letting their personal rights and feelings get in the way of what was of utmost importance—sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with unbelievers.

The seventh principle we see here is that we must maintain a positive attitude.  We must continue to “rejoice in the Lord.”  When you have an issue with someone, when they have hurt you, take your minds off of them and focus upon Jesus Christ.  Feast upon Him and find your joy in Him.

Spurgeon says…

People who are very happy, especially those who are very happy in the Lord, are not apt either to give offense or to take offense. 

Then, eighth, practice gentleness.  This word meant to not press our rights.  Usually we get angry at someone because they are violating our rights—our right to privacy, to quiet, to punctuality, to a pay raise, to unburnt toast.

Whenever we get angry, we need to ask ourselves, “What did I expect to happen?”  Then I can query whether my expectations were selfish.

Today we’re going to look at two more principles, found in vv. 6-8.

6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Did you see them?  The two principles in these verses are (1) refuse to worry and (2) control your thinking.

So the eighth principle for defusing conflict is “don’t worry about it.”  Don’t fret.

When you have gotten into an argument, or someone has hurt you, betrayed you, it is so easy to play that event over and over in your mind.  As you do, you might imagine how you should have responded to them (usually in aggressiveness and anger) or you might be anxious about what they might be doing or saying to further undermine you or hurt you.  You might imagine that they are infecting everyone else with “their side of the story.”

I had this happen to me.  While walking and praying, all of a sudden my mind would be bombarded by thoughts of an event which had happened months before, when I had been fired by a jealous senior pastor. 

I was tempted to replay that event and those conversations in my mind, imagining how I would come back with a choice retort, or how I should have defended myself.

But I would quickly catch myself, and remind myself that I had forgiven that person.  I had chosen to forgive this man and I would then consciously refuse to keep thinking about those things.

Conflict does cause anxieties.

That is why Paul says “do not be anxious about anything.”  Now, this command extends beyond interpersonal conflict into every area of life, but this week I want to focus on how worry and interpersonal conflict often go together.

You see, worry can be both a cause and a result of conflict.  Insecurities can cause conflict, especially among women.  It causes on to be on edge and very sensitive, thus increasing the likelihood of conflict.

But if we are rejoicing in the Lord, staying focused on Him and receiving His gifts to us, we will feel less anxious and insecure.

On the other hand, worry and anxiety are also a result of conflict.  We worry about whether we are going to be able to mend the relationship.  We worry over what they might be thinking or saying about us behind our backs.

Ray Ortlund speaks to this issue in a blog post entitled “And a Time to Turn Away.”

Where once there was trust, with joy, honesty and spontaneity, now there might be aloofness, guardedness, even resentment.  To make matters worse, attempts at reconciliation can be ignored or even refused.  That is when, it seems to me, it is time to turn away.  Turning away is not our first response, of course.  But it must be a valid, if undesirable, option.  After all, we can’t force people to be open, to talk, to reconsider.  Until the Holy Spirit changes hearts — I have reluctantly concluded that there really is a time to turn away.  Yes, it is a defeat for the gospel.  But what else can one do?  All that’s left is trusting the Lord, referring the matter to the judgment seat of Christ, who alone sees all things perfectly… Sometimes all one can do is not make a situation worse.  That’s hard.  But the Lord can do amazing things with brokenhearted people who have nothing left but a longing for His glory in this messy world.

If we’ve attempted to resolve a problem through gentleness, by being willing to yield our rights, we might be worried about being trampled over, or wondering, “Who’s going to look after me (and my rights)?”

Well again, if we are rejoicing in the Lord, then we will be receiving from Him all we need.

Paul is encouraging Euodia and Synteche to relax and give all their concerns to God.  Gaining that peace from God would help them relax, be willing to surrender their personal rights, and be reconciled.

Experiencing God’s peace will enable us then to extend peace to the person we are quarreling with.

Now, we will dive deeper into these verses about worry and peace next week.  I just wanted to connect it to the conflict between Euodia and Synteche and help us to see how it is connected to conflict resolution.

Instead of worrying, relax.  Let God’s peace guide you to make peace with one another.  As both of you “settle down,” you can resolve the issue more quickly and reconcile the relationship.

By the way, I think it is important to distinguish the issue from the relationship.  We talked about this a couple of weeks ago, that we fight because we value an issue (or a right) more than the relationship.

So when we fight, to become friends again, we must do two things: (1) resolve the issue, and (2) reconcile the relationship.

We resolve the issue by defining it, discussing our attempts at solving it, finding some common ground, and then accepting a resolution that is mutually agreeable.

But if, in the process of disagreeing, we say or do something that wounds the other person, we have to go a step beyond merely resolving the issue, we have to ask for and grant forgiveness.

If we have hurt someone, reconciliation involves one of two actions, or both.  That is, we must confront the other person with their sin, and then grant them forgiveness.  Or, we must examine our own hearts and ask for forgiveness when we know we have hurt them.

We mentioned a couple of weeks ago how, it doesn’t really matter who is the perpetrator and who is the victim, BOTH sides are responsible to initiate reconciliation.  That comes from Matthew 5:21-26 and 18:15-18.

Jay Adams has said:

Jesus won’t allow the unreconciled condition to continue among believers.  In Matthew 5, if another considers you to have wronged him, Jesus says that you must go.   In Matthew 18, He says that if the other person has done something wrong to you, you must go.  There is never a time when you can sit and wait for your brother to come to you.  Jesus doesn’t allow for that.  He gives no opportunity for that.   It is always your obligation to go.

So if you are aware, if the Holy Spirit makes you aware, that you have wounded someone, or the sting of being wounded is smarting, either way you need to take the first step and go to that person to start the process of reconciliation.

Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas have written a book called The 5 Languages of Apology: How to Experience Healing in All Your Relationships.  I think what they say is instructive.  Of course, they are saying that one or two of these is your own personal language of apology, but I think all five of them are necessary to make a whole reconciliation.

His five languages are:

  • Expressing regret.  This is expressing how sorry we are that we hurt them.  You might say something like, “I’m sorry that I forgot to call to tell you I would be late.”
  • Second is accepting responsibility.  This is where you say, “I was wrong.”  In what you said or what you did, you admit that you were at fault.
  • The third language is requesting forgiveness.  You need to ask, “Will you forgive me?”  It’s not enough just to say, “I’m sorry.”  An interpersonal transaction has to take place where the other person makes the decision to forgive.
  • Fourth is genuinely repenting.  Here you say, “I’ll try not to do that again.”  You make an about-face with regard to your behavior or your language and encourage that person that you intend to change.
  • Finally, is making restitution.  Ask, “How can I make it up to you?  What can I do to make it right?”

As you can see, these are practical ways to break down the interaction that needs to take place in order to restore the relationship.

Conversation can resolve the issue, but it takes confrontation and confession to reconcile the relationship.

Now let me also say that forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing.  Forgiveness can lead to reconciliation, but it doesn’t guarantee it.  You see, it takes two to reconcile.  One must ask forgiveness and the other grant it.

So, if someone hurts you, forgive them, whether or not they ask for it.  You cannot cancel their sin.  Only God can do that, and He will only do that if they repent.  But what you can do is to set aside your own anger, bitterness and resentment towards them.

That is often the first step towards reconciliation, that you have already forgiven them in your heart and you are waiting for them to ask forgiveness so reconciliation can be accomplished.

The reason this distinction is important is that we can get stuck in a cycle of bitterness and resentment that is never healthy and often leaves a person in a spiritual rut.  It is important to forgive others for what they have done.

But it is also important to distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation because in some cases you do need to forgive, but you should not be reconciled.  A person who is in an abusive relationship can and should forgive, but it may be unwise to be reconciled.

The ninth principle that Paul mentions in this passage is to control your thinking.

It is so important to control our thinking both in the midst of a conflict and in the aftermath of a conflict.

In the midst of a conflict we may not be thinking, just reacting, and in the aftermath of a conflict we may be thinking too much, but the wrong things.

8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

“Think about these things,” Paul says.  Concentrate on this.

More than likely, when we are fighting with someone, we are playing lightly with the truth.  We believe things about our opponent that aren’t true, sometimes fed by the gossip of others.  We also believe things about ourselves that aren’t true.

Are your thoughts about your mate honorable when you are having a conflict.  More than likely they are not if you are calling them names or making claims about their character or motives.

Alex Kendrick, producer and actor in Facing the Giants, Fireproof, Courageous . . . and author of The Love Dare, spoke recently on the FamilyLife “Love Like You Mean It” Cruise and shared this story.

He had been feeling unloved by his wife because she hadn’t been adequately meeting his love language.  Kendrick says…

“Four months ago, I’m studying and getting ready to do our ramp up and do our next movie and stuff—as I’m with the Lord, and I remember I’m in His Word—and it was like He just kick-boxed me in the head: ‘Alex, you are running your wife down in your mind. She is not your enemy. The enemy wants to distract you, deceive you, and divide you. Your wife and you are one unit. Both of you are sinners, and both of you are in need of My grace.”

Feeling the Lord leading him to remember that his wife, Christina, is God’s gift to him and designed by God to have strengths which he lacked . . . Kendrick began to make a list of whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute—about Christina!

He knew that list was what he should dwell on about Christina. He said, “The list for her—the positive list—was very long. Guys—don’t run your spouse down, in your mind. . . If you are in Christ, what do you do? Follow Philippians 4:8. Your spouse is a sinner, but they are not your enemy.”

Hopefully she will be thinking the same things about you.  As both of you do, it will be a lot easier to resolve your conflicts and reconcile your relationship.

Resolving Conflict, part 3 (Revelation 4:4-5)

Over the last two weeks we have been looking at Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4 where he is helping two women in the church at Philippi to resolve their conflict and be reconciled.  That is found in Philippians 4:1-9…

1 Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. 2 I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

We all know that relationships can fall apart, either through neglect or through conflict.  Even in churches people can get on one another’s nerves and start bickering.

As we looked at this passage we found five principles so far about resolving conflict.  First, conflict has to be addressed, not ignored.  Paul does this by naming names and getting it out into the open so it could be resolved.

Second, Paul treats both the women, as well as everyone else, with high value.  He respects them as people, even though they had problems.  He placed a high value on the person and the relationship, something that we have to remind ourselves to do.

Thirdly, whether we are the offender or the victim, it is our responsibility to take the initiative to pursue reconciliation.  We can’t hide behind the fact that the other person “did it to me” and wait for them to come forward and confess.  Nor can we hope the other person didn’t notice.  Either way we must take the first step.

Fourth, we have to seek common ground with the other person.  As Christians, we have a great advantage.  Since both of us are “in Christ” and can have “the mind of Christ” we have a great opportunity to lay aside our own ideas to entertain the ideas of the person we disagree with.  Because we are both “in Christ” as believers, it makes it possible for us to “agree in the Lord.”  Notice that Paul used the word “Lord” to re-emphasize their submission to Him even in the midst of interpersonal conflict.

Fifth, we saw the importance of recruiting outside help to guide us in negotiating conflict and pursuing reconciliation.  Paul asked others to get involved because he knew that the conflict had grown to the point that it was affecting others in the congregation and just not getting anywhere.

Sixth, and this is the goal, we have to get back to the ministry of the gospel, working side by side.  These women had done so before, but right now they were letting their personal rights and feelings get in the way of what was of utmost importance—sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with unbelievers.

Sadly, it is often conflicts in churches that drive people away from Jesus Christ.

Today we want to look at some more principles for resolving conflicts in verses 4 and 5.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  The Lord is at hand;

The seventh principle we see here is that we must maintain a positive attitude.  We must continue to “rejoice in the Lord.”

I don’t know about you, but when I’m fighting with someone, it is hard for me to rejoice.  I naturally want to gripe and complain, or just feel grumpy.

Paul emphasizes how important this command is by repeating it twice: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  There is possibly no other attitude that has greater capacity to alter our lives and our relationships than this one.

Gordon Fee hits the nail on the head when he writes, “Joy…lies at the heart of the Christian experience of the gospel; it is the fruit of the Spirit in any truly Christian life, serving as primary evidence of the Spirit’s presence” (The Epistle to the Philippians, 81).  He goes onto say that, “Unmitigated, untrammeled joy is . . . the distinctive mark of the believer in Christ Jesus” (ibid., 404).

The great British expositor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, wrote that, “Nothing was more characteristic of the first Christians than this element of joy” (Life of Peace, 143).  Elsewhere he said, “The greatest need of the hour is a revived and joyful church” (Spiritual Depression, 5).

And perhaps the great Puritan Richard Baxter said it best when he said, “Delighting in God, and in his word and ways, is the flower and life of true religion” (The Cure of Melancholy, 257).

Rejoicing in the Lord is both curative to relationships and it maintains healthy relationships.

“Rejoicing is the Lord” is an action.  It involves our hearts and minds and voices.  It means to speak aloud our joy in the Lord, our delight in Him.

You know the difference between joy and happiness.  Happiness is dependent upon what happens, on whether circumstances turn out by my favor.  That is unlikely to happen when you are fighting.  You will naturally identify those statements and actions that are not in your favor, and complain.

Joy doesn’t depend upon changing circumstances, but upon unchanging realities—the love and grace and presence of God through Christ to us.

Joy then depends upon staying focused on Jesus Christ, not on ourselves and our situation.

The fact that Paul is commanding it shows that it is not dependent upon our circumstances.  We can rejoice always, even if we are not happy.  We keep our eyes on Christ and rejoice in Him, in all He has done and all He is.

And Paul is not innovating here. There are numerous other places in Scripture where God’s people are commanded to rejoice.

  • Psalm 33:1 – “Sing for joy in the LORD, O you righteous ones.”
  • Psalm 37:4 – “Delight yourself in the LORD…”
  • Psalm 97:12 – “Be glad in the LORD, you righteous ones, and give thanks to His holy name.”
  • In Matthew 5:12, the Lord Jesus Himself commands us to “Rejoice and be glad” when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
  • And in a very similar fashion, the Apostle Peter commands the churches under his care, “…to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing.” (1 Pet 4:13).

I love the comment Spurgeon makes on this:

“Do you not think that this [repetition] was intended also to impress upon them the importance of the duty? ‘Again I say, Rejoice.’ Some of you will go and say, ‘I do not think that it matters much whether I am happy or not, I shall get to heaven, however gloomy I am, if I am sincere.’ ‘No,’ says Paul, ‘that kind of talk will not do; I cannot have you speak like that. Come, I must have you rejoice, I do really conceive it to be a Christian’s bounden duty, and so, ‘Again, I say, Rejoice!’”

I love what John MacArthur says about this. He says, “Christian joy is not an emotion on top of an emotion.  It is not a feeling on top of a feeling.  It is a feeling on top of a fact.  It is an emotional response to what I know to be true about my God.”  That’s so helpful.  Joy is not an emotion driven by a flurry of emotions.  That would be emotionalism.  But joy is indeed an emotion; it is an emotion on top of a fact—an emotion experienced in response to the truth of God beheld by the eyes of faith.

Joy is the affection that is produced in the soul when one finds delight, pleasure, or satisfaction in God Himself or the truth about Him, and then responds in gladness.

Spurgeon takes us home with these words:

“Come, brothers and sisters, I am inviting you now to no distasteful duty when, in the name of my Master, I say to you, as Paul said to the Philippians under the teaching of the Holy Spirit, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice!’”

It is that joy which celebrates the gospel that changes our attitudes towards one another.

Karl Barth, in a brief survey of the commands to rejoice in the book of Philippians, noted that we meet the command first in 2:18 where Paul tells the Philippians that they “should be glad and rejoice” with him, and then again in 3:1: “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.”  And, lastly, here in 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”

From the force of these three commands, Barth concludes that “‘joy’ in Philippians is a defiant ‘Nevertheless!’” — nevertheless “Rejoice.”  Paul’s unqualified “Rejoice” certainly does defy the thankless, complaining nature of humanity and human custom through all of history.

Also, remember that Paul wasn’t writing while he lounged in a Roman bath or sipped espresso in Café Roma.  We must never forget that Paul delivered his defiant command to rejoice whatever the circumstances when it was unsure whether he would live or die and while he was confined to helplessly watching his competitors and enemies make advances among the churches of Rome and Philippi.  As if to answer any question from those who might ask incredulously, “Should we really rejoice during afflictions?” he stated twice, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Get it?

Paul’s imprisonment, Ephaproditus’ illness, opposition of the “enemies of the cross” and now internal fighting, all could make this command seem absurd.

Paul was not urging us to be unrealistic.  He was not saying that we should never feel sad.  Even Jesus wept (John 11:35).  However, he was advocating focusing on the blessings we have in Christ, and being grateful for these regardless of how sad we may feel at any particular time.  He had set a good example by singing when he was in prison in Philippi (Acts 16:25).

Note also that the apostle’s words allow for no loopholes — “always” permits no exceptions regardless of how humiliating or painful things might be. Similarly, the readers are commanded to find their joy “in the Lord” rather than in their circumstances.  As such, Christian “joy is a basic and constant orientation of the Christian life, the fruit and evidence of a relationship with the Lord” (Bockmuehl). 

It comes from what the Lord has done in the past, from what he is doing now, and from the hope of what he will do in the future.

Nehemiah tells us that “the joy of the Lord is our strength” (Neh. 8:10).  Rejoicing in God gives us strength to do what we could never do in the flesh.

So, when you are fighting with someone, take your mind off of them and what they have said or done, and what they might be saying (to others) now, and focus on Jesus Christ.  Verbally thank him and bless Him for all that He has done for you.  Remind yourself of all the benefits you have in Christ.

Spurgeon says…

People who are very happy, especially those who are very happy in the Lord, are not apt either to give offense or to take offense. 

Such a vital attitude.

Then, eighth, practice gentleness.

Whenever you have your next interaction with the person you are fighting with, practice gentleness in the way you deal with them.

Paul mentions that this attitude and way of behaving should be “known to everyone,” believer and unbeliever alike.

But what does Paul mean?

The ESV translates this “reasonableness.”  It is a word that means “willingness to yield.”  The forbearing person does not insist on his or her own rights or privileges.  This person not only looks for common ground, but is willing to yield to the other person.

We live in a day that emphasizes our personal rights to do or get whatever we want.  The most common reason we get angry with someone is that they violated our rights—to privacy, or quiet, or punctuality, or a tasty meal every night, or coming home on time.

Being “gentle” means holding these rights loosely, with the willingness to keep on rejoicing in the Lord even when those rights are violated.

Having this attitude would help us in any conflict.  It reminds us of the “soft” and “pleasant” words mentioned in Proverbs.

Aristotle contrasted this word with the concept of akribodikaois, “strict justice.”  “For him it meant a generous treatment of others which, wile demanding equity, does not insist upon the letter of the law.  Willing to admit limitations, it is prepared to make allowances so that justice does not injure.  It is a quality, therefore, that keeps one from insisting on his full right…or from making a rigid and obstinate stand for what is justly due him” (Hawthorne, Philippians, p. ___).

To be gentle means to admit when you’re wrong and not to rub it in when you are right.

In fact, to be gentle means to be willing to lay down your right to be right, even when you are right.  As someone has said: “He who stays flexible won’t be bent out of shape.”

Gentleness holds these rights loosely, not because they are wrong to expect, but because we can trust God to make things right.

You see, being gentle is as strong an act of trust in God as “not being anxious about anything” in verse 6.

We can surrender our rights because “the Lord is near.”  This statement could mean “nearby” or “about to come.”  It was a reference to Paul’s expectation, as ours, that the Rapture could occur at any moment.

With that in mind, we know that He will take care of us and right every wrong.

Jesus was the extreme example of gentleness (2 Cor. 10:1) and humility (Phil. 2:6-8).  He showed it to the woman caught in adultery.

He was totally righteous and didn’t deserve to be treated as He was, and who, as Lord, had every right to expect total loyalty and love from His creation, yet in 1 Peter 2 we read…

22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.

Jesus was cruelly treated and crucified, but he did not assert His rights.  He did not call down 10,000 angels.  On the cross He asked His Father to forgive His persecutors.

And He could do this because he “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

We don’t have to get what we deserve here and now.  We can lay aside our rights because we trust that eventually justice will be served.

Now, when I’ve turned over my rights to God and I stop being demanding and pushy, two temptations surface: one is the tendency to grumble (which we’ve already addressed in v. 4) and the other is to get worried.

What is the other person thinking about us?  What are they doing that might bring harm to me?  What are they telling others?  We have all these anxieties, especially when we are at war with someone.

But again, Paul encourages us to trust in God.  Rejoice in Him and trust in Him.  I guarantee you that if you do these things, you will thrive in life and you will be able to repair relationships.