Before reading on grab your Bible and read Philippians 4.
How do we rejoice when our hearts are full of worry? The Philippian Christians knew what it was to worry. They were believers in an increasingly hostile land. Their mentor Paul, the apostle who brought them the gospel, was in jail, and he might never get out. And yet Paul told them to rejoice always and to never worry. Seriously? Rejoice always? This from the guy who is in jail. This from the guy who is going to die very shortly. This to the church that is experiencing trials and tribulations. Rejoice always?!?
When you throw out a theological bomb like that, you better be prepared to provide a robust answer to objections, and you better be prepared to explain how asking people to rejoice when they are suffering is even a reasonable request much less a logical one. Really, it sounds almost cruel.
What is Paul’s hope for a worried heart? How can Paul ask them to rejoice always? In Philippians 4 Paul delineates three truths that are essential for the Christian life.
In verse 5 he tells us to think like Jesus is coming back, because he is. For Paul this is the hallmark of his theology of suffering. We have seen this in every chapter of Philippians. If you asked Paul when he was saved, you’d get a complicated answer. Paul was convinced that his salvation was secured at the cross, decades before, when Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. Paul, however, was also convinced that he was saved on the Damascus road, where he met the real Jesus for the first time and believed in him. But Paul was sure that his salvation would not be complete, would not be fully realized or really real until Jesus accomplishes what his resurrection promised, actual eternal life for all those who are in Christ. And for Paul that will only happen when Jesus returns. That is what the coming of Jesus represents: the Lord is at hand! And when believers are certain that their rescue is at hand, it frees their hearts from worry. Christians can rejoice through anything, if they know that their rescuer is right around the corner.
Not only should we think like Jesus is coming back, because he is; Paul tells us in verses 6 and 7 that we should also pray like we have a heavenly father who cares about us, because we do. The subject of prayer and worry is tricky business. Many Christians experience what it is like to not have their prayers answered. Many Christians have wondered why God seemed so silent from heaven at seemingly the most important of times. If we read widely in Paul’s writings on prayer, we see that Paul is convinced of three things. First, he is convinced that prayer really does change the world. Paul is clear; there are things that God will not do if we do not pray and ask him to do them. There are also things that God only does because we pray, and sometimes only because we pray with regularity and fervency. That is a mind-blowing reality. Isn’t God unchanging? Doesn’t God know all things in advance? We don’t know the mind of God, so we will likely never know what God is doing in every situation, but Paul’s admonishment is clear. If you are anxious, pray!
Second, when it comes to prayer Paul is convinced that prayer changes us, and as we grow closer to God and the knowledge of him and deeper in the gospel, our prayers change to be more in line with his heart and his mission.
Third, Paul is convinced that God answers prayers like a loving heavenly father and not like a genie. Many times, instead of answering the prayers that we pray, God answers the prayers that we would have prayed if we knew what God knows and loved what God loves. This means that sometimes our prayers are not answered because we have not asked consistently enough yet. It also means that sometimes our prayers are not answered because we are asking for the wrong things, and God is working to change our wants and thus change our prayers. But finally, it means that sometimes our prayers are not answered, because even though our hearts were right and we prayed ‘enough,’ God is not granting that prayer, because he, as an all-knowing, all-powerful, heavenly father, knows better. And he isn’t giving us what we prayed for. Rather he is giving us what he wants for us. So when we feel anxious, we must pray our hearts out, but our rest and our hope are not in that we “prayed enough.” What saves us from anxiousness and worry is resting in the knowledge that we are praying to an all-powerful, all-knowing heavenly father, who has promised us a rescue in the return of his Son.
After encouraging us to pray like we have a heavenly father who loves us, Paul tells us in verses 8 and 9 to protect our minds by dwelling on godliness, because God wants you to have peace. Here, Paul is clear. There is a direct correlation between what we dwell on and our anxiety level. When we train our minds (“practice these things”) to think on the gospel and God’s mission in the world—to think about what is honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, then the “God of peace” is with us, and we have peace and not worry. And, of course, Christ is all of these things. He is the epitome of honor, justness, purity, loveliness, commendation, excellence, and praiseworthiness. Dwell on Jesus and have the peace of God. Jesus was God’s peace brought to earth to reconcile all men unto himself.
- How would you feel if, while you were suffering through a major life-changing crisis (cancer diagnosis, loss of a spouse, etc.), one of your Christian friends said to you, “You should rejoice and not worry”?
- Everything in this passage is related to the central fact that “the Lord is at hand.” Write down how the return of Jesus shapes the way we:
- Rejoice in the Lord always.
- Display reasonable gentleness to all people.
- Pray about our anxieties.
Finish by meditating on Man of Sorrows
“Man Of Sorrows”
Man of sorrows Lamb of God
By His own betrayed
The sin of man and wrath of God
Has been on Jesus laid
Silent as He stood accused
Beaten mocked and scorned
Bowing to the Father’s will
He took a crown of thorns
Oh that rugged cross
Where Your love poured out over me
Now my soul cries out
Praise and honor unto Thee
Sent of heaven God’s own Son
To purchase and redeem
And reconcile the very ones
Who nailed Him to that tree
Now my debt is paid
It is paid in full
By the precious blood
That my Jesus spilled
Now the curse of sin
Has no hold on me
Whom the Son sets free
Oh is free indeed
See the stone is rolled away
Behold the empty tomb
Hallelujah God be praised
He’s risen from the grave
One of the great treasures of my ministry was the time I spent serving alongside Ed Gravely. For close to 4 years we wrote small group curriculum for Christ Community Church. This blog series is adapted from my archive of curriculum we wrote concurrently with the pulpit ministry of CCC. If any writing in these posts is pleasant to read I’m sure Ed deserves the credit.
Other posts in this series: