Adapted excerpt from a sermon preached at LifeAC Riverstone on 29/07/2018.
This week during a chapel service at college I heard news that a fellow student who had recently graduated was organising a funeral for his wife who had suddenly died.
Philippians 4:4 tells us: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” How is he supposed to obey this command?
Just over a week ago our daughter Kairi was diagnosed with hip dysplasia. It’s not a particularly rare disorder, about 3 in 1000 infants have it. Many of you know she also has talipes a.k.a. club foot. She needs plaster casts and a harness to correct her issues. She’s having a surgery to lengthen her Achilles tendon tomorrow. The first night after she was placed in her harness she cried unlike I’ve heard her cry before.
Philippians 4:6 says “Do not be anxious about anything”. Are Merryn and I ungodly if we feel some anxiety because of all this?
I read the story of a man in a book recently. His name is Shaun. His wife Wendy describes him as a man who charged through life at 1000%. A collector of Bear Grylls-style ‘near-death experiences’. He was a commercial builder turned ordained minister and skilled evangelist. On New Year’s Day in 1999 he woke up with chicken pox. Most viruses hit hard then move on. Shaun’s immune system was significantly damaged by the virus and he now lives with Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome or CFIDS. He is too tired to work at the Church he used too. Too tired to sit on the sideline of his kids’ soccer games. Too tired to walk downstairs for dinner.
Philippians 4:13 informs us that “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” What does “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” mean for Shaun?
And what does it mean for us when we talk to people like Shaun? Now, I’m sure none of us are silly enough to say to a bed-ridden man that he would have the physical strength to run and jump if only he tried to do it through Christ. But I do think it’s very possible for us to wield verses like this in pastorally damaging ways if we don’t understand them properly.
So here’s my hope for us. That we would heed the call to rejoice, and the call to not be anxious, and the call to rely on the strength-giver. And at the same time, that we would know how to speak the truth in love to those for whom these commands seem so unliveable. That we would be better at loving and healing those who are struggling to find joy in all of life.Here’s my hope for us. That we would heed the call to rejoice, and the call to not be anxious, and the call to rely on the strength-giver. And at the same time, that we would know how to speak the truth in love to those for whom these commands seem so unliveable.
Three Dangerous Verses
I think these are some of the most misused verses in our Bible. And to get them right we need to understand both the sort of command they are, and what it is they are actually commanding.
Not all commands come with the same force. If you tell your kids to clean their room it comes with a different force than when you command them to not accept lifts from strangers (or perhaps you wish your kids took cleaning their room as seriously as stranger danger…). “Do not murder” is a different sort of command to “do not be anxious”. And the fact that the verse offers us an alternative kind of action—that is, rather than being anxious, you should pray—leads us to say that the verse might be reasonably read as something like, if you’re anxious or when you’re anxious, bring your requests to God.
So firstly, not all commands come with the same force.
But secondly and probably more importantly, we have to interpret this in the light of the rest of what the Bible says about rejoicing and anxiety and contentment.
Let’s stick with anxiety for now. I was talking to someone in our church last week about anxiety and depression. They told me about their own struggles. They told me about how it affected people close to them. Clinical depression and anxiety is a disease with physical/chemical causes. I can attest that it has brought enormous difficulty to some people very dear to me. If we have a shallow understanding of the illness or of what the Bible says about joy and anxiety it’s possible for us to say very unhelpful things to people.If we have a shallow understanding of the illness or what the Bible says about joy and anxiety it’s possible for us to say very unhelpful things to people.
Being anxious isn’t always a negative thing in the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians (12:25) it says that we should care for one another and it’s the same word as that used in Philippians 4:6. We should be anxious about our Christian brothers and sisters; we should be concerned for them. In fact, in the very letter of Philippians Paul uses this same word in a positive way. Phil 2:20: “I have no-one else like Timothy, who takes a genuine interest in your welfare.” We could translate it, “…who is genuinely anxious about your welfare.” The point is, the Bible tells us it is right to be anxious about some things. In fact, I would say, as one of my lecturers recently wrote: “anxiety is a good, God-given gift because in our sin-scarred world sometimes anxiety is a right emotion.”
Understanding that our relationship with God doesn’t depend on our performance is one of the most important truths for all of us but especially for sufferers of anxiety. We don’t move in and out of a relationship with God based on our obedience. We are adopted children in God’s family. That is a very precious truth! If we don’t start there, then Philippians 4 is just more rules that none of us can keep. But with that truth in place—when you stand in the place of grace—you can start to rightly see how sin affects your lack of rejoicing or your anxiety or your lack of reliance.
For most of us, our anxiety isn’t this big persistent beast that needs medical treatment. Instead, it is at times a self-inflicted and unnecessary worry about the world, and the biblical solution is to turn our sighs into prayers. When worry approaches, avoid being anxious by turning your sighs into prayers.
That’s anxiety. We’ll cover rejoicing and contentment more quickly. We are also told here to rejoice. We have more reason to rejoice than anyone in the world because of all the incredible blessings we receive in Jesus. In a way, it’s weird that Paul has to tell us to rejoice. But he does.In fact he says it twice. Now, rejoicing can appear in strange ways. Rejoicing isn’t just being loud and cheering. We can rejoice silently as we appreciate the beauty of the Blue Mountains. We can rejoice in a resolute way at a grave side, still grieving fully and properly, but grieving with hope when we know the person has gone to be with the Lord. We need to not confuse rejoicing with having a bubbly personality. Paul also cares about the source of our rejoicing. He’s not saying rejoice about anything, “just make sure you’re celebrating something as often as you can”. No. Rejoice in the Lord. Let that indestructible joy of Christ affect you always.Let the indestructible joy of Christ affect you always.
I Can Do All Things
Lastly, Paul tells us he has the secret to contentment. That’s a big claim. Who in our world, if you offered them the secret of contentment would say “nah, not interested”? Paul says this contentment can endure good and bad circumstances. Despite the ups and downs in life. The wins and losses. The happy news and the sad news. Despite the waves of circumstance we have an anchored source of joy that cannot be dislodged. Paul’s secret of contentment is knowing Christ’s power. Christ gives him the strength to sing while he’s imprisoned. Christ gives him the strength to preach again after he’s been brutally whipped as punishment. Christ gives him the strength to keep planting churches even after he almost dies on the ship during his journey. Christ gives him the strength to do all that Christ has called him to do.
Now, we make the mistake of pulling this verse out of its context, and we think it’s a promise akin to a genie in a bottle. I want to start a successful business—I can do everything through him! I want to lose weight—I can do everything through him! I want to pilot a jumbo jet, tomorrow—I can do everything through him! Let me be clear: Christ and his Spirit empower us to do things we could not do without his strengthening. We should pray confidently, though not demandingly, that he will give us gifting, ability, strength and power to do God’s will. But when Paul says “everything” in v 13, he means exactly what he was talking about in the sentence beforehand. Whether I’m poor or I’m rich, hungry or well fed, in everything Christ sustains me so that my state of mind can be one of contentment and trust.
A better alternative
As I finish, there’s one last thing I want to do for the sake of those of us who find these commands particularly hard. This short video helps us see the kind of things we can say which are unhelpful for people who want to be joyful but find it hard. And it gives us a better alternative.
May we never be people who steal the garment from those suffering the cold of anxiety or sing songs to those with heavy hearts. Instead, let’s be people who think, listen, and pray with those who find these passages the hardest.
Brothers and sisters, I exhort you to rejoice always, because Christ has secured you eternal life. Amidst the anguish and mourning of great loss the Christian is able to cling to Jesus and his promises and perhaps in time even to rejoice that those who die in the Lord are now enjoying an even closer experience of Jesus.
Brothers and sisters do not be unnecessarily anxious, because God cares for you and he hears your prayers. Merryn and I can live out a right and positive anxiety for our daughter that leads us to care for her as best we can. And we can also turn those anxieties into prayers. On that difficult first night as Kairi cried in her uncomfortable harness I prayed with her. I remember exactly what I said because it was a very short prayer. “Father I pray Kairi will grow to know and love you. Help her to adjust to this harness. Help mummy and daddy to adjust too.”
And finally, brothers and sisters, find your contentment in the knowledge that Christ will sustain us for however many years he has ordained we will live, and he will strengthen us to do precisely the good works he has prepared us to do. I mentioned Shaun, his life completely changed by chronic fatigue. His wife Wendy writes about their marriage:
“Sometimes the thread gets very thin. I can understand how people leave. There have been desperate times when leaving has been the only way ahead that I can see. But each time, Jesus brings us through the darkness. By the grace of God we are still together. […] God has provided light in the darkness in the form of wise counsel, dear friends to weep and pray with, the loving provision for our needs, the provision of repentance, forgiveness and compassion when the well is dry, […] God has given us the determination and resolve to start again—again and again. And he has given us the unshakeable Scriptures, which remind us of God’s presence, God’s promises and God’s power, even when we don’t feel those things.”
Whether in poverty or wealth—we could add sickness and health—Paul knew Christ would provide the strength he needed. That’s a promise for you too.Whether in poverty or wealth—we could add sickness and health—Paul knew Christ would provide the strength he needed. That’s a promise for you too.
Father, help us understand your commands so we will live more godly lives. Help us obey the command to rejoice and to not be anxious and help us rely on you as our strength-giver. Forgive us for times we may have spoken these words in unhelpful and insensitive ways. Help us to love those who find rejoicing hard so that we as a whole church might find a truer, deeper joy in Christ. Ray Galea’s From Here to Eternity.
 This section draws heavily from Paul Grimmond’s recent article Don’t Be Anxious About Anything! Is That All God’s Got To Say? Paul’s article is excellent, and I’m very grateful for him having written it.