Being a Great Missions-Giving Church, part 1 (Philippians 4:14-16)

Over the last few weeks we’ve been examining Philippians 4:10-13 and how Paul shares the secret of being contented, no matter what the circumstances.  But Paul doesn’t want them to imagine for a moment that he is not thankful for their financial support.

Although totally content even in want and need, Paul begins v. 14 with the word “yet” or “nevertheless” because he doesn’t want the Philippians to think that, after all, Paul really didn’t have any financial needs and that their gift to him was a mistake, or unnecessary.  In fact, he will say that they had done something “good,” something “beautiful.”

Verses 14-19 are a thank-you note from Paul about their recent gift, and in it he shows us several characteristics of a great mission-giving church.  I hope you are part of a mission-supporting church, because we are blessed to be a blessing to others.

Generosity is singularly beautiful and, when remembered, will prompt a genial smile.  This is what the latest example of the storied generosity of the Philippian church prompted in the imprisoned Paul in faraway Rome, as we saw in the last study: “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me” (4:10).  And the apostle’s smile still lingered as he said, “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble” (v. 14).

So here is Paul’s thank-you letter to the Philippians:

14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

One characteristic of commendable missions giving is concern for the other person.  Notice back in v. 10 that Paul had said,

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.

This concern speaks to the emotional and mental attachment they had to Paul, one that was always willing to seek out information about his welfare and then respond in a tangible way to meet his needs.

The word “concern” shows that their giving was from the heart.  It wasn’t a requirement, or a sense of duty, that motivated them, but hearts moved by Paul’s needs.

Remember how Paul says in 2 Corinthians that our giving should not arise out of a grudging sense of compulsion, but rather out of a cheerful heart, one that is truly glad to give, because after all, “God loves a cheerful giver.”

Great giving comes from the heart.  It doesn’t look at the bank account first to see if it is feasible to give, but begins with a desire to give.

But that concern wasn’t still born as just a desire, or as tears and prayers, but turned into tangible aid.  They didn’t just say, “be warmed and be filled” but showed their concern “in deed.”

Someone has said that there are three kinds of givers: the flint, the sponge, and the honeycomb.  To get anything out of the flint, you have to hammer away at it, and what you receive is only chips and sparks.  To get water out of a sponge you must squeeze it; the more pressure you use, the more you receive.  But the honeycomb overflows with its own sweetness.

Which kind of giver are you?  Is your heart attuned to the needs of others, looking for opportunities to give aid?

Paul viewed the Philippians’ generosity as evidence of their partnership or fellowship with him in the gospel ministry.

Recall that Paul began this letter to the Philippian church celebrating their partnership: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:3-5).

The word he used for “partnership” is the word koinonia , from the koinon word group, and means “fellowship” or “partnership” or “active participation.”  And then he drew from the same word group two verses later in 1:7 where he said, “You are all partakers with me of grace.”

Now, notably, here at the end of the letter he dipped into the koinon word group again as he declared, “Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble” (v. 14, italics added) or more exactly, “Yet you did good to become partners in my affliction.”

Note also that in the following sentence Paul said, “no church entered into partnership [or fellowship] with me in giving and receiving, except you only” (v. 15).  Therefore, Paul wanted his readers to understand that giving to support his ministry was taking up fellowship with him as a partner in his present tribulations.

Though the Philippians were not in prison with Paul, they participated in his afflictions by their sympathy and monetary sacrifice.  And as they thus participated in his afflictions, they were doing so amidst the context of their own sufferings in Philippi (cf. 1:29, 30).

Paul is saying to the Philippians: “You did good.  Your gifts reveals your partnership in my ministry.”

A second characteristic of great givers is contentment with what you have.  Of course, that was exemplified by Paul as the receiver of the gift, but it is also necessary in the heart of a giver.  As long as a person is trapped by the need for more, the need to possess for the purpose of security or prestige, they will be unable to freely give.

It is difficult for us to develop a habit of giving when our discontent drives us to spend our money to match what others have or give us a sense of security for the future.

The Macedonians showed that they had a contented spirit because they gave out of their “extreme poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:2).  Listen to this amazing example:

1 We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, 2 for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, 4 begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints–5 and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us.

Despite a “severe test of affliction” and “extreme poverty” they begged to take part in helping out saints who were in the midst of a famine.  As a result, they “overflowed in a wealth of generosity.”

Contentment is the key.  If you are content, you can give out of your poverty, or out of your plenty.  If you are not content, you will be able to do neither.

It’s not the amount of money in the bank account that determines a giver, but rather the amount of love in our hearts (concern) and trust in God’s care (contentment) that determines whether or not we will give.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the guy who went to church with his family.  As they were driving home, he began to complain about everything.  “The music was too loud, the sermon was too long, the announcements were unclear, the building was too cold, and the people were unfriendly…” and on and on he went.  Finally, when his took a breath, his observant son said, “Dad, you’ve got to admit, it wasn’t a bad show for just a dollar.”

Did you realize that only 2.6% of the average household income is given either to the church or other religious organizations?  However, during the Great Depression, 3.2% of the average household income was given to charities.  And although we are 450% richer today after taxes and inflation, than those during the Depression, the percentage of household income given to charities has decreased.

Being rich doesn’t drive giving, concern and contentment do.

Another characteristic of great mission giving is consistency.

“And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.  Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again” (vv. 15, 16).

Paul taught that it is proper for a man who labors in the gospel to receive his support from the gospel (1 Cor. 9:1-181 Tim. 5:17-18).  But for the sake of avoiding the charge that he was preaching for the money, Paul chose not to receive support from a new church where he was ministering while he was there.  Instead, he supported himself by making tents.  But if the funds came from another church outside the area, he would stop making tents and devote himself full time to the work of the ministry (compare Acts 18:1-112 Cor. 11:7-12).

Paul never seemed to make his needs known, even as prayer requests, but trusted in the sovereign God to provide.  When funds ran low, he would go back to work until God met the need.

Paul mentions in v. 15 that the Philippians had not only recently sent him a gift through Epaphroditus, but that after he had left Philippi (in Acts 16) and traveled to Thessalonica (Acts 17), during that two weeks that he had been ministering there, they had sent gifts more than once.  (Notice Paul says “once and again” at the end of v. 16.)

This kind, beautiful act was something no other church had done.

When Paul left Philippi and traveled ninety-five miles down the Egnatian Way to Thessalonica, the poverty-stricken Philippians repeatedly sent representatives to Thessalonica with gifts to meet his needs.  And when Paul left Macedonia, they remained the only church to support him.

Even when Paul went to wealthy Corinth (from whose proud people Paul would accept no money), it was the Philippians of Macedonia who helped him, as Paul explained to the Corinthians: “And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need” (2 Corinthians 11:9). 

Many Christians are good at receiving.  Paul and his team had planted churches, supporting themselves through tent repairs and these new believers would benefit through all eternity because of Paul’s ministry.  Yet only the church at Philippi stepped up to give so that others could benefit from Paul’s ministry.

The Philippians had started giving early—a good principle—it is important to start now to give and to teach your children to give.

A preacher asked farmer, “If you had 100 cows, would you give 50 of them to the Lord?”

“Yes.”

“If you had 1,000 chickens, would you give 500?”

“Yes.”

“If you had 2 hogs would you give one?”

“Not fair, Preacher, you know I have 2 hogs.”

It is easy to imagine what we would give if we had more money.  But God asks us to start giving now, out of what we have.  And God calls us to be sacrificial in our giving.

As some anonymous person said:

It’s not what you do with the million if fortune should ere be your lot, but what are you doing at present with the dollar and quarter you got.

The Philippians had continued to give whenever they had news of a need from Paul.  They had given to Paul because this new “opportunity” to give had arisen.  Good giving churches, and Christians, scan the horizon looking for opportunities to give.  They are consistent because they are consistently praying for and looking for opportunities to give.

So Paul is telling them how much he treasures their giving.  Given the opportunity, he is confident that the Philippians would have given even more often.

Sure, it is great to send that first gift.  But it is the second and third and the fortieth and the hundredth gifts that are really appreciated.

The first gift is easy…and we get excited about that.  We usually do it because we know where that money is going to come from.  We do it because we have a little extra this month.  But after we’ve given for awhile, the excitement wears off and the money dries up and we’re tempted to write and say we can’t give anymore.

Missionaries face this all the time—individuals, or churches, can’t continue to support them.  It isn’t easy on them…and they are very thankful when people can be faithful and consistent in giving.

Before we move on in our text, let’s just contrast these good-giving practices with some typical excuses to put missions giving on the back burner.

For example…

“That’s their problem”—sometimes we act as if the problems of our Christian brothers and sisters, and churches are the other side of the world, are not our problems and should be of no concern for us.

But good missions-minded churches count others’ pains as their own pains and are concerned about their needs.

We are blessed to be a blessing to others.

Or we might say, “We’ve giving as much as other churches are.”  In other words, let’s not increase our giving.

But the fact that other churches were contributing little to nothing to Paul’s needs did not matter to the Philippians and did not stop them from giving time and time again.  If the Philippians had been giving “like everybody else,” then Paul would have received nothing.

The question is not “What are other churches doing?” but “What is God calling me (or us) to do?”

Someone might object “We pushed missions last year.”  But the Philippians gave more than once, they gave consistently, whenever they discovered an opportunity.  Missions minded churches treat missions as a priority, not a novelty.

Finally, one might say, “That’s part of the budget we get no benefit from.”  Money given to the general budget funds ministries and pays bills so we can stay open and meet each week.  When money goes overseas, we get no direct benefit.

But we shouldn’t focus on seating capacity nearly as much as sending capacity.

In reality, we do benefit from giving our money away to ministries that don’t benefit us.  In fact, we receive greater reward in heaven.

The money we give away is really the only money we really keep.  It is credited to our eternal accounts.

One more thing about this passage.

Do you remember your mother telling you how important it is to write thank you notes to people who give something to you (like for graduation) or who do something for you?

Well, that is what Paul is doing here.  He is thanking them for giving.

John Brug says…

“We know that God loves a cheerful giver, but I believe we also need to stress that God loves a cheerful receiver.  Cheerful receivers make giving and receiving a joy.  It is especially important that the called workers of the church learn to be gracious, cheerful receivers.  This is not necessarily an easy task.  The art of being a gracious, cheerful, thankful receiver may be even more difficult than being a cheerful giver.  If we learn to accept the compliments and the special personal gifts which we receive in a gracious, cheerful manner, we will help make giving and receiving a joy for ourselves and for our people.”

This gift itself may not have been very much, but Paul takes special care to thank them for it.

Learning the Secret, part 4 (Philippians 4:17)

So, we’ve been talking about learning the secret to contentment these last few weeks.

First, to delight in the Lord and in his present provision.  No matter how large or small, rejoice in what he has given you now.

Second, free yourself from an obsession with pleasant circumstances.  Just because you rejoice in your present circumstances doesn’t mean that they have to be on the pleasant side.

Third, remind yourself of the sufficiency that you have in Christ.  He lives in you to strengthen you so that you can be content no matter what the circumstance.

Finally, Paul tells us another step on the road to contentment.

Paul expresses this in Philippians 4:14-17…

14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.

The fourth steps on the road to learning contentment is…

4. Preoccupy yourself with the welfare of others.

Another key to learning contentment is to think about others more than yourself.  Back in chapter 2 Paul had laid out this principle when he said, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Then he identified Timothy as a good example of that disposition when he said

20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

All throughout the epistle to the Philippians Paul has been telling them that their joy, their contentment, their unity and their capacity for gospel ministry depends upon their ability to be others-focused instead of self-focused.

Paul expresses this here in vv. 14-19, which we will examine in more detail in the coming weeks.  I just want you to see here how Paul advocates this others-focused mindset as a way to become more content with life.

In verse 14 Paul expresses again his appreciation for their gift.  In doing so they have “shared in my trouble.”  As one person said, “He had joy in their concern, not in their cash.” And in vv. 14-16 he commends them as being the only church to do so.

Verse 17 is the key.  There Paul says “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.”  His ultimate desire is not to have his needs met, but for the gain that came to the Philippians in giving.

“Whenever you minister to me, you gain,” Paul says.  That is what brought Paul the most joy—not because his needs had been met, but because of the reward they received from giving.  Using an accounting term here (“credit”) he is saying their interest in him actually accrued to their own heavenly bank account.

Paul trying believed what Jesus had said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

D. A. Carson says, “Paul is more delighted with the blessings they will experience…than with the help that has come his way.”

Imagine being in prison and receiving a gift from someone outside—a family member, a good friend, or even a stranger—and being able to focus on how much that gift to you goes to benefit them!  That doesn’t happen naturally.  It only happens through practice.

Paul was genuinely and consistently preoccupied with the welfare of others.  His focus was not on himself.  That is why he flourished in his life.  That kept him from depression, anxiety and bitterness.  That enabled him to have joy, contentment and to be productive for Christ.

This is such a key to learning contentment.  Don’t miss this.

So much of the time when a person is depressed, they need to turn their thoughts away from themselves and the problems they have, and focus on how they can minister to the needs of others.

So much of our discontentment flows out of a preoccupation with my own needs, desires and welfare, especially in comparison to the blessings of others or in view of the difficult circumstances I am now facing.

The Veggie Tales “lesson in thankfulness” tells the story of Madame Blueberry, a very depressed blueberry who resides in a tree house.  She is not content with anything she owns: her dishes are chipped, the knives are too dull, the spoons are too small.  Madame Blueberry sings a mournful ditty about her neighbors, all of whom have more wonderful things than she.

She sings to her butlers, Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato: “I’m so blue, blue, blue, blue.  I’m so blue I don’t know what to do.  My friends all have nice things.  I’ve seen them myself.  In fact, I keep pictures up there on my shelf!”

Framed pictures of her neighbors’ belongings line her shelf.  There are pictures of one neighbor’s Crock-Pot, one neighbor’s flatware, and another neighbor’s ceramic jars with all kinds of sauces.  Although her two-story tree house appears attractive and well furnished, Madame Blueberry is hopelessly dissatisfied.

One day a new megastore called Stuff-Mart moves across the street.  The sign glitters like a beacon of hope to Madame Blueberry.  She has only just see the sign when three “helpful representatives” from Stuff-Mart show up at her door to confirm her suspicions that her stuff is outdated and that she needs some more.

These dapper sales-vegetables tell her about Stuff Mart’s remarkable line of stuff: refrigerators that store extra mashed potatoes, giant air compressors that blow fruit flies off your dresser, and solar turkey choppers.  They sing, “Happiness waits at the Stuff-Mart.  All you need is lots of stuff.”

No wonder she was “so blue she didn’t know what to do.”

How different was Paul’s attitude.  He was able to experience deep joy and contentment because he took his eyes off himself, off others (as far as comparison) and onto Jesus Christ.  Then he could turn his eyes onto others with a heart for their good and their blessing.

So forget about yourself, at least for awhile, and focus on others.

As long as we are preoccupied with ourselves, we will never learn to be content.  So turn your eyes first on Jesus, then upon others.  Seek the good of others and rejoice in their blessings.  You will find your heart growing more and more content.

So get out and help somebody else.  If you are depressed, anxious, discouraged, I guarantee you that if you get up and help someone else, you too will be helped.  If you encourage them, you will be encouraged.

Jesus was like this, when he was on the cross he said several things, struggling to get His breath just to breathe.  But in three of the seven sayings His focus was upon others.

If I had been hanging on the cross, struggling to breathe, I probably wouldn’t have said anything, much less taking care of the needs of others.

But there on the cross Jesus said:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” — Luke 23:34

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” — Luke 23:43

“Woman, behold your Son.” — John 19:26

Jesus offered forgiveness for His torturers, acceptance to a brand new Christian, and took care of his mother, while hanging there on the cross suffocating.

He was thinking of others, probably most of the time while He was hanging on the cross.  He was in excruciating pain, but He thought of others.

In an article entitled “Lay Aside the Weight of Self-Preoccupation,” Jon Bloom suggests these three steps in overcoming of self-focus:

1. Deny yourself by getting your eyes off yourself.  But remember, Christian self-denial is hedonistic because you’re denying yourself of what robs life in order to gain real, lasting life.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24–25)

2. Look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) and all that God promises to be and do for you through him.  Only he will satisfy your soul (Psalm 63:1-3) and only he has the words of eternal life (John 6:68).

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:2)

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

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. (Philippians 4:8)

3. Serve others.  Strike a blow at self-preoccupation by focusing on others’ needs and concerns.   Our Lord’s commands to love one another (John 13:34) and serve one another (John 13:14) have a double-edged benefit for us: they give us the blessing of giving and liberate us from the tyranny of self.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3–4)

Worldly hedonists believe that narcissism [focusing on yourself] is the path to joy.  That is a horrible lie.  Christian  Hedonists know that narcissism is the death of joy, because only God is our “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4Psalm 16:11).

So join me today, for the sake of God’s joy, our joy, and others’ joy, in laying aside the weight of self-preoccupation by denying ourselves lifelessness, looking to Jesus who is our life (John 14:6), and giving life to others by serving them.

Aside from Jesus, we sometimes see this played out in society.

Several years ago, Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon University smacked her first home run in her college career with two runners on base in a playoff game against Central Washington University.  While rounding the bases, she missed first base. As she started back to tag it, she collapsed with a knee injury.  All she could do was crawl back to first, and if her teammates helped her, she would be called out.

Central Washington first baseman Mallory Holtman reportedly asked the umpire if she and her teammates could help Tucholsky.  The umpire said yes, so Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace put their arms under Tucholsky’s legs, and Tucholsky put her arms over their shoulders.  The three rounded the bases, stopping only to let Tucholsky touch each bag with her uninjured leg.

“The only thing I remember is that Mallory asked me which leg was the one that hurt,” Tucholsky said in a story from FOX Sports on MSN.  “I told her it was my right leg and she said, ‘OK, we’re going to drop you down gently and you need to touch it with your left leg.’”  Added Wallace: “We didn’t know that she was a senior or that this was her first home run. That makes the story more touching than it was.

We just wanted to help her.”  Holtman told FOX Sports that she and Wallace weren’t thinking about the playoff spot, and didn’t consider the gesture something special.

They may not remember the heroics they did to help their team win that season, but I doubt they will ever forget helping Sara Tucholsky.  And I’m sure it gives them great joy to reminisce on that act of self-forgetfulness and kindness.

There is a Chinese saying that goes: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.  If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.  If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.  If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

I don’t know about the others, but it is scientifically proven that you receive more joy by helping others than by tending to your own needs.

An article in Time magazine reports:

“Through fMRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex.  Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain, and it’s pleasurable.  Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful” (https://time.com/collection/guide-to-happiness/4070299/secret-to-happiness/# )

It is what psychologists call “the helper’s high.”

Stephen Witmer points out a paradoxical truth that can liberate us for sacrificial service: the less we need others (whether it’s securing their praise or avoiding their censure), the more and better we will serve them.

He takes that from Colossians 3:23-25 and says this in an online article entitled “Love Them More, Need Them Less”:

Colossians 3:23 is the apostle Paul’s intriguing command to Christian slaves: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”  Not for men.  That’s intriguing, because just one verse earlier Paul instructs slaves, “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters” (Colossians 3:22).  Which is it, Paul?  How do these back-to-back commands fit together?

Somehow, even when we’re serving another person (Colossians 3:22), we’re not to be working for them (Colossians 3:23).  So, what does it mean to work for someone?  The context helps us here.  Verse 22 instructs slaves not to be motivated by a desire to please other people, but rather to fear the Lord.  Verses 24–25 remind slaves that their reward for service will come from the Lord, and that punishment for wrongdoing will also come from the Lord:

. . . knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:24–25)

It seems that to work for someone means to serve them in order to secure their praise or avoid their punishment.  Paul says we’re to serve others, but not because we hope for their reward or fear their wrath.  It’s the Lord we’re looking to as we serve them. (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/love-them-more-need-them-less)

We serve others better when we realize that we are really working for our Lord.  We don’t have to be rewarded by them, because ultimately He will reward us.

So we learn content by getting our eyes off of ourselves, our own needs or struggles, and first putting them on Jesus Christ and rejoicing in what He has provided for me today, then by freeing ourselves from an obsession with pleasant circumstances, recognizing the blessing that comes from adversity, then we draw strength from our union with Christ to be content, and finally we focus on others—serving them and rejoicing in the reward they receive from helping us.

I hope you will learn the secret of being content this week.

Learning the Secret, part 3 (Philippians 4:12, 13)

Over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about contentment, which Jeremiah Burroughs defines as

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

Paul has taught them two steps on the path to contentment so far:

First, to delight in the Lord and in his present provision.  No matter how large or small, rejoice in what he has given you now.

Second, free yourself from an obsession with pleasant circumstances.  Just because you rejoice in your present circumstances doesn’t mean that they have to be on the pleasant side.

Paul says in our passage today

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.

We weren’t quite finished with the second point last week.

Contentment is not based on what is going on outside of me, but the focus I have inside me.

Unless we learn the secret of contentment we will remain a slave to our circumstances.

H. A. Ironside tells the story of how one Christian asked another Christian friend how he was getting along.  He answered, “Of, fairly well, under the circumstances.”  Ironside responded, “I am sorry you are under the circumstances.  The Lord would have us living above all circumstances where he can satisfy our hearts and meet our every need for time and eternity.”

That is the key—to live above the circumstances and focus our joy in Christ and Christ alone.  The gifts He gives us—spiritual blessings—are ours now and will never be taken away from us.

Even at its best this world cannot satisfy, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us over and over again.

A man once went to a minister for counseling. He was in the midst of a financial collapse. “I’ve lost everything,” he bemoaned.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve lost your faith.’

“No,” the man corrected him, “I haven’t lost my faith.”

“Well, then I’m sad to hear that you’ve lost your character.”

“I didn’t say that,” he corrected. “I still have my character.”

“I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost your salvation.”

“That’s not what I said,” the man objected. “I haven’t lost my salvation.”

“You have your faith, your character, your salvation. Seems to me,” the minister observed, “that you’ve lost none of the things that really matter.”

We haven’t either.  You and I could pray like the Puritan.  He sat down to a meal of bread and water.  He bowed his head and declared, “All this and Jesus too!”

Can we honestly say?

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.

Contentment is learned.

Doug McKnight could say those words.  At the age of thirty-two he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Over the next sixteen years it would cost him his career, his mobility, and eventually his life.  Because of MS, he couldn’t feed himself or walk; he battled depression and fear.  But through it all, Doug never lost his sense of gratitude. Evidence of this was seen in his prayer list.

Friends in his congregation asked him to compile a list of requests so they could intercede for him.  His response included eighteen blessings for which to be grateful and six concerns for which to be prayerful.  His blessings outweighed his needs by three times.  Doug McKnight had learned to be content.

So had the leper on the island of Tobago.  A short-term missionary met her on a mission trip.  On the final day, he was leading worship in a leper colony.  He asked if anyone had a favorite song.  When he did, a woman turned around, and he saw the most disfigured face he’d ever seen.  She had no ears and no nose.  Her lips were gone.  But she raised a fingerless hand and asked, “Could we sing ‘Count Your Many Blessings’?”

The missionary started the song but couldn’t finish.  Someone later commented, “I suppose you’ll never be able to sing the song again.”  He answered, “No, I’ll sing it again.  Just never the same way.”

Those who can be content when they are “brought now,” when they experience “hunger” and “need” are a great testimony to us that we can learn to be content as well.

Such contentment is learned.  It isn’t natural.  We’re not born with it.  It is not a gift.  It is a skill that must be learned.

We have to learn that even at its best this world cannot satisfy us.  No one knew this better than John Bunyan, who was imprisoned for 12 of the first 13 years of his married life for preaching the gospel.  Listen to what John Bunyan said, “If we don’t have quiet in our minds, outward comfort will do no more for us than a golden slipper on a gouty foot.”

If you want to learn the secret of contentment, you must rise above your desire that outward circumstances bring joy, for it never delivers on its promise.

The billionaire J. D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money it would take to make him happy.  His answer: “Just a little more.”

Discontent says, “Never enough.”  Contentment says, “I have all I need in Jesus, everything else is just the cherry on top.”

We need to express our contentment especially in four essential areas.

First, we need to be content where we are.  We don’t need to have “destinitis,” thinking that “If I only could move there I would be happy.”  Acts 17:26 tells us that God determines when and where we live.

Second, we need to become content in what we do.  Instead of comparing ourselves to what others do and either the salary or the skills they have, we need to be content in the job or mission God has given us.  We can be content in any career IF we remember that the ultimate purpose of our life is to become like Jesus and make His glory known.

Third, we must express contentment in what we have, rather than being greedy for more.  Ecclesiastes tells us to just enjoy the simple things.  Don’t wear yourself out grasping for more.

Fourth, be content with who we’re with.  Instead of wishing you were married to someone else who is better looking or better behaved; instead of focusing on your spouse’s weaknesses, thank God for the spouse God has given to you.

Paul’s balanced sentence, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound” means that Paul knew how to share in Christ’s humiliation and how to share in his glorious riches (v. 12; cf. 4:19).  

In this life Paul had been repeatedly beaten to within an inch of his life, but he had also been caught up to the third heaven (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24, 25; 12:1-6).  Paul also came to gladly boast, as he says, “of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10).

Having stated the larger principle, Paul elaborated on the extremes of his contentment: “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (v. 12b.).  On the downside “hunger” and “need” echo the extremes of the hardship lists from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

  • “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. . . . We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13)
  • “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.  For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12)
  • “. . . but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger. . . .” (2 Corinthians 6:4, 5)
  • “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27)

Paul had learned to experience contentment in the extremes of deprivation from hunger to homelessness to being in rags to beatings to labor and exhaustion to intense humiliation.

On the upside “plenty” and “abundance” echo the apostle’s experience of those times that were the good times by comparison.  While we know much about his deprivations from the hardship lists, we know little about his experiences of abundance, but we can imagine what they were.

For example, in Philippi when the church was born, likely there were feasts in the home of his first convert, Lydia, a prosperous seller of purple, and perhaps also in the home of his other notable convert, the Philippian jailer.  Certainly there were times in Ephesus and Corinth when the sun shined brightly over the pleasures of friends and feasting amidst the beauty of God’s creation and especially the beauty of his people as they honored Paul for bringing them the gospel.  And during these times also Paul was content.

What is remarkable, of course, is that Paul knew the secret of being content in either extreme—whether hunger or a sumptuous Mediterranean repast.  Indeed, it may be more of an accomplishment to be content with plenty. As John Calvin explained:

He who knows how to use present abundance soberly and temperately with thanksgiving, prepared to part with everything whenever it may please the Lord, giving also a share to his brother according to his ability, and is also not puffed up, that man has learned to excel and to abound. This is an excellent and rare virtue, and much greater than the endurance of poverty.

Paul had come to know the secret of contentment over a period of time. His learning was part of his spiritual growth and sanctification. The question for us is, have we learned the secret?

Finally, Paul comes to a third step on the road to contentment:

3.  Remind yourself of the sufficiency that is yours in Christ.

As you seek to reach a level of contentment that is independent of your circumstances, whenever you feel like it is beyond your reach, then remind yourself that Christ will provide the necessary strength in the midst of your battle.

How was Paul able to be content in all circumstances?

Because Jesus Christ enabled him.

13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Now, I have to say from the start—this verse has been ripped out of its context many times by athletes and students and anyone else who has tried to do something beyond their own strength or apart from their own preparation.

How many times has a student who didn’t prepare ask Jesus Christ to help him or her make a good grade?  After all, doesn’t it say “all things,” meaning anything I ask God’s help for I will get it?

“All things” is placed first for emphasis.  “ALL THINGS I can do…” Paul says.

But the “all things” is defined by the context as all kinds of circumstances, the heights and depths that Paul has just listed.  It means that I can be content whether I am “brought low,” with “hunger” and “need.”  Or whether I am “abounding” with “plenty” and “abundance.”

Thus what Paul says is that in whatever circumstances I find myself, in whatever extremes—whether experiencing abundance with the wealthy or fellowshipping with the poor or struggling to proclaim the gospel to people who don’t want to hear or enduring the wrath of the establishment or bringing peace to the church or languishing in prison—I can be content and “can do all things through him who strengthens me” (v. 13). 

By extension it has a secondary application to being able to live according to the will of God in daily life, no matter what the obstacles, NOT to become a millionaire or win the Super Bowl.

Paul is confident that he will be divinely strengthened to do anything and everything that God calls him to do.  Not only could Paul be content and confident in every circumstance, he could also be sure that he would be equipped with divine power to deal with it.

Paul says much the same thing in Colossians 1:28, 29 where he reveals that it is Christ who sustains his active ministry: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

Paul toils and struggles, straining with all his might, but it is the energy and power of Christ that strengthens him!

A better translation than “through Christ” is “in Christ.”  In other words, because of my union with Christ through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, His power works through me.

Although Paul says “I can do” he is not depending upon his own willpower and mighty efforts, but Christ working through him.

Christ is the one who continually empowers and strengthens the believer for all kinds of challenges.  He energizes him or her and enables them to be content in all kinds of circumstances.

Whatever comes Paul’s way, he has the strength to meet it.  If he is brought low, he is a man in Christ; if he abounds, he is a man in Christ.  In any and every circumstance he is a man in Christ.  As a man in Christ he can do all things.  As a man in Christ he is content regardless of the situation.

John MacArthur said, “Contentment comes to believers who rely on the sustaining grace of Christ, infused into believers when they have no strength of their own.”

That’s actually a good place to be—no strength of our own, because then we can draw from the strength of Christ.

Jeremiah Burroughs said, “A Christian finds satisfaction in every circumstance by getting strength from another, by going out of himself to Jesus Christ, by his faith acting upon Christ, and bringing the strength of Jesus Christ into his own soul, he is thereby enabled to bear whatever God lays on him, by the strength that he finds from Jesus Christ.… There is strength in Christ not only to sanctify and save us, but strength to support us under all our burdens and afflictions, and Christ expects that when we are under any burden, we should act our faith upon him to draw virtue and strength from him. (The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 63)

If you want to be like Paul, having sweet contentment in any circumstance, there is hope.  But it’s not in you.  It comes from Jesus Christ.

Too often we forget about all the spiritual power and riches we have in Jesus Christ.

A few years ago in West Palm Beach a 71-year-old woman died in utter squalor.  She had been living in the seediest part of town.  She was known in that part of town as a beggar.  She would rummage through the Salvation Army bins trying to find something to wear, begging for food behind the restaurants.  At age 71 she died of malnutrition.

When officials got into her apartment they found two keys to safety deposit boxes in her name in Florida.  They went in and found in one of the boxes $200,00.00 in cash and several hundred thousand in certificates, deposits and bonds, etc.  In the other box was $600,000.00 dollars.  She was a millionaire living as a pauper.

I hope you don’t live that way.  You don’t have to.  But you need to look to Christ living in you, and live by the power He gives so that you can flourish as a Christian.

Learning the Secret, part 2 (Philippians 4:11-12)

Steve Cole introduces his sermon on Philippians 4:10-13 with these words:

An airline pilot was flying over the Tennessee mountains and pointed out a lake to his copilot. “See that little lake?” he said.  “When I was a kid I used to sit in a rowboat down there, fishing.  Every time a plane would fly overhead, I’d look up and wish I was flying it.  Now I look down and wish I was in a rowboat, fishing.”

Contentment can be an elusive pursuit.  We go after what we think will make us happy only to find that it didn’t work; in fact, we were happier before we started the quest.  It’s like the story of two teardrops floating down the river of life.  One teardrop said to the other, “Who are you?”  “I’m a teardrop from a girl who loved a man and lost him.  Who are you?”  “I’m a teardrop from the girl who got him.”

Our discontent drives consumer debt, a high divorce rate, rioting, drug and alcohol abuse, the hook-up culture, changing sexual identity or preferences and many other societal ills.

Paul says in our passage today

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.

Last week we quoted Jeremiah Burrough’s definition of contentment:

“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 a state of life in which you are propped up by artificial protections.  It is not a security which assures that you will not be buffeted by ups and downs.  Contentment is that inner sense of self-sufficiency which says, “No matter what comes along, I have the capacity to meet it head-on because I have Jesus Christ.  Whether it be joy or sorrow, sickness or health, plenty or want, I will continue on.  I have all the resources I need in Christ.  I will carry on with an internal fullness of life.”

Last week we noted first that Paul delighted in the Lord because of the present provision of his need through the Philippians’ gift.  He acknowledged to himself and to them that this was God’s provision.

The second step in the path of contentment is:

2. Free yourself from your obsession with pleasant circumstances.

Maybe “obsession” is a little bit strong, but the typical American Christian at least struggles with being consumed about having things go their way in life.  We want things to go our way…in the worst way.  But you have to free yourself from this kind of obsession and learn to live above your circumstances.

Some people do live as if their life was all about having an abundance of possessions or having everything work out positively in their life.

Kent Hughes reminds us of Zacchaeus:

WHEN ZACCHAEUS, the miserly little kingpin of the Jericho tax franchise, strode off to his home for a lengthy conversation with Jesus, no one anticipated the change that would be announced from his own lips for all to hear: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.  And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).

For starters, he gave away 50 percent of everything he had to the poor. And from the remaining half of his fortune, he pledged to make restitution at four times the amount of what he had extorted.  In effect, Zacchaeus lived out Jesus’ command that had earlier caused the rich young ruler to depart from Jesus: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).

Tiny Zacchaeus had become huge!  The compulsive drive to make money and keep it was gone.  He went to Jesus mastered by the passion to get; he left mastered by the passion to give.  He went in as the littlest man in Jericho; he left as the biggest man in town.

Something wonderful had happened inside that house with Jesus.  And Jesus made it forever clear for all to hear: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (19:9).  Zacchaeus had been regenerated—saved!  And the immediate evidence of his new heart was his desire to give. His newfound generosity was prima facie evidence of his salvation.

Jesus told several parables about money as well.  In one of His parables he warned about those who thought their lives consisted of an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15).

At the beginning of verse 11 Paul makes a disclaimer about his situation.  He said, “Not that I speak from want…”  He wants to make it clear to the Philippians that although he is glad that they have sent a gift as evidence of their renewed concern for him, he is not saying this from a position of discontented want, as if he lacked something essential.

The reason he can say that is “because I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”

Just reading Paul’s words exhibits a glorious freedom not to be controlled by the things of this world, but to be focused on things above and on Jesus Christ.

Notice Paul did NOT say, “not that I speak from want, because I’ve gotten everything I want.”

Certainly their gift had met a need, but even if the gift had never come Paul would still say, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am.”

Paul’s present condition—not lacking anything—flows out of his learning to rise above all circumstance and by content regardless of what those circumstances are.

Now notice that Paul said, “I have learned to be content.”  Contentment doesn’t come naturally, arising accidentally; nor does it come magically, in a special moment.

Gerald Hawthorne notes:

“It [the aorist tense of the Greek verb emathon, translated “learned”] implies that Paul’s whole experience, especially as a Christian, up to the present has been a sort of schooling from which he has not failed to master its lessons.”

Learning to be content is a lifelong process, something we learn each and every day as we walk with Jesus Christ.  It doesn’t come suddenly, in a flash, but over a lifetime of learning.

Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t experience contentment until we are very old.  But we will be learning more and more to be content throughout our lives.  That is why we need to start young.  It is so important to teach our children to be content.

Contentment is contrary to human nature since the Fall.  Just think about it: Adam and Eve had the perfect environment, and they were not content in it. They had perfect health, a perfect marriage, a perfect garden, and daily fellowship with God Himself, yet they soon believed the lie that God had not provided everything they needed for their present and future happiness.

If Adam and Eve were not content in the Garden of Eden, what hope is there for us, apart from the spiritual insight that comes from God? May we, with Paul, be able to say, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”

Contentment begins by learning the purpose of our existence.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks the question, “What is the chief end of man?” and the answer is, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Certainly, God is the greatest joy that meets the need of every human heart.

Not every heart seeks after Him, but He can meet the deepest needs of any human who turns to Him.  That is why Paul great desire was to “know Christ.”

Contentment also learns to distinguish between needs and wants.  There are few things in life that are really necessary.  In fact, God identified just two: food and clothing, and says in 1 Timothy 6:8 “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

Paul goes on to warn:

9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

This is the danger of confusing wants for needs.

God has promised to provide for our needs; however, He has not assured us that we will get all our wants.  We have a tendency to spend our resources on wants and then worry about our needs. Jesus warned about such concern in Matthew 6:

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Learning to be content is learning to trust God for your needs.

George Muller proved the sovereign faithfulness of God in the matter of finances.  He lived in 19th century Bristol, England, where he founded an orphanage.  He and his wife had taken literally Jesus’ command to give away all their possessions (Luke 14:33), so they had no personal resources.

Also, he was firmly committed to the principle of not making his financial needs known to anyone, except to God in prayer.  He was extremely careful not even to give hints about his own needs or the needs of the orphanage.  The children never knew about any financial difficulties, nor did they ever lack good food, clothes, or warmth.

But there were times when Muller’s faith was tried, when the Lord took them down to the wire before supplying the need.  On February 8, 1842, they had enough food in all the orphan houses for that day’s meals, but no money to buy the usual stock of bread or milk for the following morning, and two houses needed coal.  Muller noted in his journal that if God did not send help before nine the next morning, His name would be dishonored.

The next morning Muller walked to the orphanage early to see how God would meet their need, only to discover that the need had already been met.  A Christian businessman had walked about a half mile past the orphanages toward his place of work when the thought occurred to him that Muller’s children might be in need.  He decided not to retrace his steps then, but to drop off something that evening.  But he couldn’t go any further and felt constrained to go back.  He gave a gift that met their need for the next two days (George Muller: Delighted in God! by Roger Steer [Harold Shaw Publishers], pp. 115-116).  Muller knew many instances like that where God tried his faith.

In his journals, Müller recorded miracle-after-miracle of God’s provision and answered prayer:

One morning, all the plates and cups and bowls on the table were empty.  There was no food in the larder and no money to buy food.  The children were standing, waiting for their morning meal, when Müller said, “Children, you know we must be in time for school.”  Then lifting up his hands he prayed, “Dear Father, we thank Thee for what Thou art going to give us to eat.”

There was a knock at the door.  The baker stood there, and said, “Mr. Müller, I couldn’t sleep last night.  Somehow I felt you didn’t have bread for breakfast, and the Lord wanted me to send you some.  So I got up at 2 a.m. and baked some fresh bread, and have brought it.”

Mr. Müller thanked the baker, and no sooner had he left, when there was a second knock at the door.  It was the milkman.  He announced that his milk cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage, and he would like to give the children his cans of fresh milk so he could empty his wagon and repair it.

If you are walking with God and you find yourself in a desperate situation, you can know that you are not there by chance.  The sovereign God has put you there for your training in faith, that you might share His holiness.  It may be a small crisis or a major, life-threatening crisis.  Submit to and trust the Sovereign God and you will know the contentment that comes from Him.

Every Christian needs to learn to be content.  When Paul urged his readers to “rejoice in the Lord always” (v. 4), he was preaching what he practiced (vv. 5-8).  The apostle’s contentment and joy—even in prison—indicate his spiritual maturity, and it challenges us all.

Paul goes on to explain in verse 12, using a series of opposites to illustrate the variety of circumstances, using both ends of the spectrum when it comes to our physical needs.

On the one end he speaks of “brought low…hunger…need.”

On the other end of the spectrum he mentions “abound…plenty…abundance.”

Paul is reminding the Philippians that he was not talking in the abstract, but he had actually lived through these fluctuations of life.

About being “brought low” Adam Clarke comments:

“See here the state to which God permitted his chief apostle to be reduced! And see how powerfully the grace of Christ supported him under the whole!  How few of those who are called Christian ministers or Christian men have learned this important lesson!  When want or affliction comes, their complaints are loud and frequent; and they are soon at the end of their patience.”

And regarding “abounding,” Charles Spurgeon makes this statement:

“There are a great many men that know a little how to be abased, that do not know at all how to abound.  When they are put down into the pit with Joseph, they look up and see the starry promise, and they hope for an escape.  But when they are put on the top of a pinnacle, their heads grow dizzy, and they are ready to fall.”

Most of us would have to admit that we are only happy when most circumstances fall on the side of abundance and prosperity, when our circumstances line up with our desires…that’s when there is a spring in our step.

But I’m afraid few of us would declare that we are most happy when we are “brought low” and suffer “hunger” and “need.”

The reality is, we have made an idol out of comfort and convenience.  When our comfort is disrupted, complaining begins, shoving contentment out the door of our hearts.

But Paul is saying, “It really doesn’t matter what is taking place in my life…I can be at either end of the spectrum…things can go my way or not…in ANY and EVERY kind of circumstance I have learned to be content.”

Every time we go to Haiti I come away amazed that these people, who know so little of the world’s riches, are rich spiritually.  They are content and happy in what God has given them.

Do none of them complain?  I doubt it.  But it just shows that contentment has nothing to do with “having” things, as long as we “have” Jesus.  It depends not upon our external circumstances, but our inner heart disposition.

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.”