Living God’s Values
Philippians 4: 4-19
People come and see me because they feel their lives are not working for them. Try as they will, they look at themselves and their lives and conclude that they are not who they want to be, or that they have not been able to make their lives happen as they hoped. All their efforts to produce the outcomes they want fall short. We live in a world that guarantees us nothing but uncertainty. So when Paul writes in our text, “Do not be anxious about anything,” he describes a common human condition.
Now that anxiety can have two slightly different perspectives. Clinical research points out that most women are fearful of isolation and deprivation, the anxiety of being alone and disconnected from caring others, consequently afraid of never having what they need. This is a fear of being unlovable. No one cares enough to be there for me. Men, on the other hand, are afraid of failure; that their efforts will not produce what they want or need. This is a fear of being inadequate. These are products of the Fall, impacted by the guilt and shame accompanying sin; sin understood as falling short. We all struggle with anxiety and work hard to find peace. Galatians 5: 1 highlights our dilemma: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Plagued by too many anxious moments, we wonder why we are not experiencing the freedom Christ promises.
The primary truth set forth in Philippians 4 is that the Lord is near, a reality that should cause us to continually rejoice. The text suggests that evidence of experiencing God as near is a gentleness in approaching life that no anxious person can demonstrate. When we know that our God is near to us, invested in our lives, we rest in the assurance that we are never isolated and alone, or that our choices and efforts will fail to produce good outcomes. These verses repeat the promise that we can have the peace of God, which transcends all understanding; that the God of peace will be with us. From verse 6 on Paul tells us how to work with God in such a way that anxiety is replaced by peace. Philippians 4 instructs us on how to let Christ’s peace rule, every day – with every challenge we face.
We, first, trust God for the outcomes (4-7)
Paul acknowledges that we will get anxious, often. When anxious about anything, he calls us to pray about everything. In other words, there is nothing we face, about which we get anxious, that is beyond God’s ability to handle.
I love what God said to Moses when Moses was complaining about the overwhelming burden of leading and caring for Israel. Moses asked God: “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?…If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now – if I have found favor in your eyes – and do not let me face my own ruin.” To which the Lord replied: “Is the Lord’s arm to short?” When anxious about anything, pray to the God whose arm is never too short.
Why don’t we do this? Why do we choose not to turn to him in our anxious moments? In my experience I think it is because we do not believe God is near to us. If we honestly look at how we tend to handle stressful challenges, we must conclude that too often we operate on the assumption that it is all up to us. We have to make it happen. We want so very much to have good outcomes and we do everything we can think of to make sure they happen.
Even when we struggle to believe God is near, Paul calls us to act as if he is; to pray about every concern we have. When anxious about anything, pray about everything. What happens when we pray? We ask God to be at work regarding the concern that makes us anxious. We do so thankfully. In doing so we remind ourselves that God is near, with us, Emmanuel. The message of Christmas is that God came to us in Jesus Christ. The message of Easter is that nothing, not even our own sin, can prevent him from being with us. The message of his ascension is that the Father and the Son live in us by the Holy Spirit (John 14: 23 “we will come to him and make our home with him.”). Our prayer can go like this: “Lord, you do not seem near to me today. I feel like I cannot connect with you. But, Lord, I know you are with me, that you care. Here is my concern. This is what I am asking you to do.” It is a son or daughter coming to his or her loving father, who Malachi 3 tells us, treasures us.
When we do so, the text tells us, we experience the peace of God. The text says Christ’s peace will guard our hearts and minds. The word for guard here has the intent of there being a garrison around us. It is a picture of a citadel under attack, which God garrisons by his power. I am reminded of the story in 2 Kings 6. Elisha and his servant are trapped in a town by a large army of enemies. The servant is frightened by the size of the army coming against them. Elisha, seemingly exasperated by his servant’s lack of faith, tells him that those who are with them are more than those against them. He asks God to open his servant’s eyes to the spiritual reality of their situation. The servant sees the hills surrounding the enemy filled with horses and chariots of fire. God strikes the enemy army blind and Elisha and his servant are delivered. In the end, the threat of this enemy never arises again. This is a peace that transcends human understanding. No human can give us this peace, only God.
When doubts assail us, when we cannot guarantee the outcome we need, Paul calls us to thankful prayer to the God who delivers; who delivers us and delivers what is needed. Such prayer trusts God for the outcomes. We cannot guarantee the outcomes. That is way above our pay grade, but not above God’s. To release our anxious concerns to God in thankful prayer is to tell him we trust that he will do what he thinks best. We trust that whatever outcome he brings, will be in our best interest.
Such trust comes down to believing that God is not only powerful, but that he is good. Psalm 62: 11, 12: One thing the Lord has spoken. Two things I know. That you, O Lord, are powerful, and that you, O Lord, are loving. Jeremiah 32: 38-41: They will be my people and I will be their God. I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them. I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me. I will rejoice in doing them good and will assuredly plant them in this land with all my heart and soul. The God who is near is the God who can always guarantee good outcomes for us. It may not be exactly what we think it should be, or in the timing we want, but it will always be in our long-term best interest in God’s perfect timing.
An uncertain future makes us anxious. In this troubled world the only certainty we have is Jesus, and this is the Jesus who said: In this world you will have trouble, but take heart. I have overcome the world. Anxiety can lead us to rash choices as we attempt to guarantee good outcomes. Psalm 37 reminds us: Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;…Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. Rather, we trust the Lord who goes on to promise: If the Lord delight in a man’s way, he will make his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the Lord upholds him with his hand. It all comes down to recognizing it is God’s responsibility to guarantee good outcomes. Our job is to release our anxious concerns to him and trust him.
Second, we focus on the truth and do the next right action (8, 9)
If God’s part is to guarantee the outcomes we can’t, what is our part? For what are we responsible? The text goes on to clarify this. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.
There are two crucial actions we can take.
The first is to think rightly. What we focus on is important. Our focus can be a help or a hindrance. This is because what we focus on we intensify. I often work with couples in affair recovery. A key step in recovery has to do with the healing of the betrayed partner. Without discounting the hurt and suffering the betrayed spouse feels, I point out that if all he or she focuses on is the suffering, the pain will stay intense. I encourage the suffering spouse to rather focus on their strengths and abilities to heal, regardless of what the betrayer does or fails to do. When the focus shifts from past hurts to future possibilities, healing takes place. What we focus on we intensify.
Paul admonishes us to think about such things. What things are we to focus on and intensify? We are to focus on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. We are not to focus on what is false, ignoble, wrong, impure, ugly, reprehensible, shoddy, or condemning, and we live in a world that bombards us with all of these anti-virtues. To think rightly is to focus on God’s truth, his noble calling for us, what he considers pure and lovely, and what he considers worthy of praise. When distilled down what Paul wants us to intently focus on is God’s values. My work convinces me that in the deepest part of our being we embrace these values. To be created in God’s image involves sharing his values. When we are at our very best, we operate out of the values that God has written on the tablet of our hearts. Values that more than anything else tells us how much God values us (as seen in Ephesians 1). Anxiety can cause us to act against those values, and that is just about the most self-destructive action we can take.
When we activate God’s values by focusing on them, we will make God-honoring, good choices that are in our long-term best interest and the interest of those we love. My experience tells me that, when a person is in touch with his deepest values, he cannot make a wrong choice. The logic is simple. When people feel better about themselves, they make better choices. When we feel bad about ourselves, we tend to make less than good choices. So the first crucial action we take, after releasing our anxious concerns to the God who guarantees good outcomes, is to think about such things.
Paul goes on to identify the next crucial step we can take. We, first, trust God for the outcomes. We, second, we focus on God’s truths. We turn off the toxic tapes this world gave us, and play God’s tapes. From this good, highly valued place, we then do the next right thing. Paul goes on and commands us: Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. Put it into practice. We can do this. We may not be able to guarantee the outcomes, but we can choose to do what we know is right. What is right refers to the apostolic teaching that Paul references. For us, it is God’s truth written down in our Bibles. These right choices are within our pay grade.
There is a cause and effect relationship at work here. We operate from our God-give core value, that place where we are overwhelmed by the love of God. What we, then, choose will be what Jesus would do. And the God of peace will be with us. It is a peace that comes from knowing our God will bring about good outcomes. It is the peace we feel when we see that we are acting in line with God’s values and purposes. We know he will do his part, and we see ourselves doing our part. There is no reason in heaven or on earth that those good outcomes will not come to pass. There certainly is no bottle neck on God’s end, and there is none on ours. We know that, if we do the next right action, it will all work out. Such confidence in God and in our choices removes all stress and anxiety. The peace of God guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, because we know the God of peace is with. We rejoice to know he is near.
Third, we trust our Lord to give us all we need to consistently accomplish his purposes.
At this point God removes the anxiety we have that we will not be equal to the challenges we face. Verse 13 affirms that our God will give us the strength we need to successfully take that next right step. I can do everything through who gives me strength. Paul affirms this truth after describing all the varied situations he found himself as he faithfully went about his ministry. At times he experienced plenty and at times he experienced want. No matter how adverse his circumstances, he learned to be content, trusting the God who is near. When we feel inadequate to the challenges we face, when we know we do not have in ourselves the ability to go forward, we will find God’s strength as near to us as he is, and he lives in us by his Spirit.
We get anxious because we have responsibilities and commitments from which we cannot walk away, and yet we are unsure we can meet them. We struggle with feeling inadequate. The God who gave Paul strength is the God Paul prays to for us in 2 Thessalonians 1: 11, 12: We constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by faith. We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. Will the purposes we strive to accomplish succeed? Will we be equal to the responsibilities we carry? Will we be faithful to the people we love? The God who is near to us is the God who gives us the strength we need and by whose power every good purpose of ours will be fulfilled! 2 Thessalonians 1 tells us that in all of this our job is to act in faith. Will we have the faith to act? We will once we rejoice in the truth that God is near. Once we are content to trust him for the outcomes; once we know we can lean on him for the strength; we can in faith and confidently take the next right step. God will do his part. We will do ours. Good outcomes will come to pass.
There is one final truth that completes the partnership we have with God. It is his job to guarantee the outcomes and give us the strength we need. Our job is to act in faith and do the next right thing. What happens, though, when we look at the next right thing we want to do, and we do not have what we need to take that step? Often there are resources we need, gaps we cannot bridge. We know we have to get these to reach the goals we have, the outcomes we seek. We know that if we do not get help, these outcomes will not happen. The fear we face is the fear of being isolated and the haunting question comes will the person we need be there for us? Paul addresses this lack when in verse 19 he confidently declares: And my God will meet all of your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. When we need him, in whatever way we need him he will be there for us. The God, who gives us the strength we lack, will is also be the God who supplies what we can’t. He is the God of the gaps. Psalm 34: 8-10 tells us: Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord will lack no good thing.
Our strength comes from his power. Our needs are met out of his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. He can meet whatever need we have, supply whatever we lack because he never runs out of glorious riches. Can the God who made the universe come up empty handed?
It all comes down to this. We can act in faith and take the right steps confident in good outcomes. We may have to acknowledge our fears, the anxiety we feel. Rather than giving in to the pressure to make it happen ourselves, we pray thankfully to the God who is near. We trust him to do his job; to guarantee good outcomes, to give us the strength we need, to meet the needs we can’t. Thankfully resting in who he is and what he promises he will take care of, we do our job. We focus on thinking rightly and activating our God-given values. We act obediently because we know the right thing to do. Jesus Christ overarching purpose was to come near to us, so that we can come near to him. So rejoice in the Lord, always, again I will say it, rejoice. The Lord is near. His peace will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. The God of peace will be with us.