Ok, I know the odds. I have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning (especially in South Florida) than to have a terrorist attack me. But here’s the difference. I can see the lightning coming. I can even get out of its way. But some crazed guy (and it usually is a guy) with a knife or a bomb or a gun, that’s a lot harder to see coming. So yes I know, I’m more likely to get killed in an accident on 95 than by a killer from ISIS, but the whole thing still rattles me a bit. I guess that’s why call it terrorism. That’s what they want to inspire, terror.
And if that doesn’t rattle your cage, take your pick. You have mosquitoes carrying Zika. You have the rising tide of climate change that make South Florida one of the most threatened places on the planet. You have a Presidential election that hardly anyone seems happy about.
But even so, let’s be honest. No one is bombing homes or cities like in Syria. Unlike Venezuela, no one is dying because they can’t get basic medications. You and I still live in the richest nation in the world, a place more stable, peaceful, and well provided for than pretty much anywhere else. Yet, in the world, no one gets more anxious than Americans. We are No. 1. Roughly one in five Americans suffer from serious anxiety, and over a lifetime one in 3 will.
Why is that? More importantly, how do you not become part of that statistic? How do you live at peace in a seriously anxious time? How do you live content when so many are filled with such discontent? In these words from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, God shows the way. Let’s hear what God has to say.
In a nation where so many get caught up in anxiety and fear, how do you not get caught up? How do you find peace and keep it, even if your life may seem to be going off the rails? In these words from the Apostle Paul, God shows the way. Peace happens when you stop focusing on happiness, and instead rest in joy. And how does that joy and peace come? It comes as you ponder truth, as you give thanks, as you rejoice in what cannot change.
How can a nation with such wealth, so many cool gadgets, so much diversion and entertainment be so unhappy and anxious? It’s because so many believe that happiness is what they need instead of realizing that joy trumps happiness every time. Now don’t misunderstand me. Nothing is wrong with happiness. But happiness has a problem. It doesn’t last.
The Greeks had a lot of wisdom in the words that they created. And when it came to the word they used for happiness, and the word they used for joy, you can see their wisdom at work. Their word for happiness, Makarios, they used to describe the rich’s freedom from normal cares and concerns or the luck of someone winning the lottery. In other words, they connected happiness to circumstances, and circumstances come and go. But the word they used for joy, chairo, they described as the good mood of the soul, as a fullness of being, in other words, something not affected by circumstance. If circumstances can take away joy, what can? The Greeks knew that. It’s why they made the opposite of joy not sadness, but fear.
And that’s why Paul almost immediately moves to focus on peace. Paul knows that joy and peace always go together, and that fear and anxiety stand as their greatest enemies.
In our culture, we think of peace often as an absence of something, of worry or stress. But in the Bible peace always describes a fullness; a fullness so complete that it simply leaves no room for fear and anxiety to exist. Instead, you become filled with joy and peace, a peace so great that it can even defy rational understanding.
When my family lived in New Orleans, my parents became close friends with the DeZwaan family, a family that seemed so perfect they could have been candidates for a Crest commercial. But no family, not even the perfect looking ones are immune to awful things. The DeZwaans moved up to Baton Rouge, and the parents, Ken and Marjorie bought a weekend home on the lake. One Sunday evening as they were finishing up there, Ken and Marjorie, asked their son, Gary to take his sisters and their friend in his new car to the church youth meeting. They would follow behind a few minutes later. And as Ken and Marjorie headed down the highway, they saw an accident. Ken pulled over to see if he could help. Then they both realized. They knew the car. It was Gary’s car, the one they had just given him as a high school graduation present. A car driven by a drunk driver had crossed the highway median and hit Gary’s car head on. No one in Gary’s car survived. In one awful moment, Ken and Marjorie lost all three of their children. In her shock and grief, Marjorie cried out. “Oh, Jesus, help me.” And instantly in the midst of that horrific scene, she felt a peace she could not understand. That peace carried Ken and Marjorie to the hospital rooms of the men who had killed their children so they could offer them their forgiveness. It led them on the day when my father showed up for the funeral of their children (3 caskets lined up in the front of the church), for Ken and Marjorie, to ask about one of his, my brother Jes, who was going through serious health issues. And to this day, that peace has carried them, and led them to tell the story of God’s faithfulness in the midst of their tragedy again and again. Now how does that peace happen, peace that literally defies understanding?
It happens when you rigorously ponder the truth, the deepest realities of life. What do I mean? I mean what Paul means when he says that whatever is true and pure and honorable, think on those things. Now that sentence can seem somewhat generic unless you know what those words mean to Paul. The words he uses here, he uses in other places to describe his core beliefs about God, about God’s love and grace, God’s purpose for the world. In other words, Paul is telling the Philippians, when worry and fears hit, ponder the deepest truths of life. Now why does Paul advise them to do that? He knows. The more you ponder what is most deeply and profoundly true, the more that truth will free you from worry and fear.
Ironically many self-help books advise the opposite. They don’t encourage you to ponder the deep questions of life. Instead they often advise techniques to avoid those questions or at least to find ways to quiet them. And that makes sense. After all, if the only answers to the deep questions of life are that life has no purpose, that no being exists who can bring order out of chaos or good out of evil, that death is simply the end, no more and no less, well that doesn’t do much to foster peace or hope. Those books actually a void facing the implications of those beliefs, but the Bible tells you when worry and fears hit, that’s when you need to see the implications of what you believe more than ever. Why? The truth that Christianity proclaims says. Life does have purpose. God does have a plan, one that can bring good out of the worst evil. Nothing will defeat God’s love ever, not even death. And when you ponder those truths, reflect on them, gain comfort from them, it fills you with a peace and confidence that can withstand anything.
And how do you best ponder those truths? You do it by practicing thanksgiving. I used to think that Paul when he said to make supplication with thanksgiving. He meant that, before you ask God for something, remember all the things you already have to be grateful for. That sort of thanking gives you crucial perspective. But Paul was going further than that. Paul was saying that when you ask God for an answer, go ahead and thank God for the answer even before you know what the answer is. Now why would you thank God even before you’ve have any answer to your prayer? You do so, so that you can remember whatever God’s answer will be, it will be the answer that you would have chosen if you knew what God knew.
And if you doubt that, look at the cross. On the day that the Romans killed Jesus, do you think his disciples saw anything good happening? No, they left in despair. They thought that God had left the building, when in reality on that cross, in that awful place, God was doing the greatest act of goodness and love ever. Now if God can do that in the utter evil of the cross, do you think God is going to be stymied by any situation in your life?
Over a decade ago, I had a dream of where I wanted my next church to be. I dreamed of serving this church for years. And guess what, my dream church wasn’t in Hollywood. It was in Pittsburgh. And I came close to getting it. I was in the semi-finals so to speak. But after my last interview, I knew it. They didn’t even need to send me a letter. I was not going to Pittsburgh. And it bummed me out. But I look back now, and I wonder. What was I thinking? I would have been miserable in Pittsburgh. If nothing else, it’s one of the cloudiest places on the planet, and I love the sun. God knew. You don’t need to be in Pittsburgh. You need to be in Hollywood, and thank God, God’s answers were wiser than my prayers.
If God really cares about you, wants the best for you, and can even work that best out for you, than thanking God even as you ask makes perfect sense. And the more you thank like that, the more you open yourself to a peace and contentment that nothing can shake. Why? Because it is a peace and contentment rooted in the only thing that cannot change ever.
In Paul’s day, the philosophers struggled to understand what truly would bring contentment, real peace. And most of them had come to the same conclusion. People failed to be content because they looked for the source of contentment in things not ultimately under their control. So say, they found contentment in family, but family can change. Divorces, death, divisions wreck families every day. And the same could be said of success or wealth or popularity. So what was their solution? They said. Don’t look to outward things, which you can’t control or depend upon. Those things will change. Look inside to your virtues, your character, which you can control. There you have something that can remain unchangeable. But Paul and later the great Christian thinker, Augustine, saw how weak that argument was. They said. “Don’t kid yourself. Your virtue isn’t under your control. How come you find yourselves driven to do things that you know are wrong, that in your heart of hearts you don’t really want to do. Yet you do it. You can hardly control your virtues better than your family or success or anything else.
In the end, only one reality in the universe does not change.. And what is that? God, and not simply God, but God’s love; God’s unbreakable desire for your good; for your well-being; for your fulfillment and joy. In that and only in that will you find the peace and joy you seek, because only in that do you find what will never change.
How can you know that? You can know that because you know Jesus. A God who loves you no matter what, that’s a nice concept, a comforting one. But concepts don’t transform your heart. But when you see that concept lived out in flesh and blood, God dying for you in flesh and blood, well, that will transform you.
When God in Jesus went to that cross, do you think he had peace? That he had joy? No. He lost his peace in that dark and despairing place. He cried out. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? He had no joy. The brutality and pain of those hours emptied him of joy. But he willingly gave up his peace so that you might know a peace that passes understanding He forsook his joy to open the way to joy for you now and forever. And God did all that willingly, freely, out of love for you. At any moment, Jesus could have walked away, could have ended the agony. But Jesus stayed on that cross, because even there, utterly alone and beset by evil at its worst, God’s love for you did not change. And if God’s love did not break under that, then it will never break. Death won’t break it. Your failings won’t break it. Your doubts won’t break it. And the more you realize that unchangeable truth, the more joy will fill you and with it peace, a peace that pushes away fear, a peace that passes all understanding.