My husband, Rick, is a gifted teacher ad loves to preach. This was a message he preached a couple weeks ago that I thought y’all would enjoy reading – it is a little longer than my usual posts but definitely worth it:
Every generation of Christians has thought it was living during the last days. As we look at the news and hear about another virus or natural disaster or terrorist attack or ISIS incursion or North Korea rocket test or simply watch the political system in America, it is hard not to believe this generation will be the one. It seems, in some ways, that things keep going from bad to worse. As I travel and get to talk with a wide variety of people, one emotion comes up more commonly than any other – fear. People are afraid. They are afraid of terrorist attacks. They are afraid their religious freedoms are being taken. They are afraid that their security or comfort or well-being is threatened by the direction this country and this world are heading.
I expect that sort of response from people who do not know Jesus. When the people and systems you put your faith in are shifting sand, current events will shake you. But I find it surprising how many followers of Jesus live in fear. Maybe you find yourself feeling fearful in light of all the things that are happening around you.
But I can’t help asking: In light of all that is going on in the world, what should our response as believers in Jesus be? What attitude should we have in a world of suffering and uncertainty?
As we read the New Testament, we see Jesus and the people of his day living under Roman occupation. They had freedom to practice their faith, but they also knew the oppression of a hostile government ruling over them. The hope people had that Jesus would be a messianic deliverer and throw off the yoke of Roman rule came to a crescendo on Palm Sunday when he entered Jerusalem. But when the revolution did not materialize, the people were quick to shout, “Crucify him!” just a few days later.
In the book of Acts we see the fledgling church taking its baby steps. First there is opposition from the Jewish leaders who beat and warn Peter and John to stop teaching about Jesus more than once and the persecution that breaks out after Stephen is stoned to death. As the gospel spreads opposition grows. Throughout the book of Acts we see Paul preaching and opposed until he is arrested and eventually taken to Rome.
In 2 Corinthians 11, beginning in verse 24, Paul details the abuse and opposition he received as an apostle of Jesus Christ. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 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; 26 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; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? 30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me,33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands.
But despite all this, Paul does not fear, he rejoices. He rejoices that in his weakness God’s strength is made perfect. He knows that even when the circumstances in his life are bigger than he is, God is bigger than his circumstances. Paul began 2 Corinthians praising God for the comfort He gives us in our suffering so we can comfort others. And he finishes in chapter 13 telling the Corinthians to “rejoice” (13:11). Joy, despite circumstances, was a normal part of Paul’s Christian life.
You know, we often speak of counting the cost when we want to follow Jesus and most of the time we mean we look at all the things we give up to follow him. But I think Paul would tell us that we have it backwards. When we count the cost of following Jesus, we look at all we lose if we don’t. As Jesus said, we could gain the whole world and forfeit our souls or we can lose our self, die to our self, and find a life that is full of meaning and purpose and deep intimacy with Jesus.
In the book of Philippians, Paul writes from prison yet speaks of joy or rejoicing twelve times (“joy” is used five times and “rejoice” seven). Related to his attitude in 2 Corinthians 11, I believe he gives us at least two compelling reasons we can have joy even in the midst of difficult circumstances:
- In Philippians 1:20 To live is Christ, to die is gain. Paul knows that death is not the worst thing that can happen to him. He lives his life for Jesus. He seeks after him with all he is. So if he lives, he’ll keep doing that and if he dies it’s even better because he will see Jesus face-to-face.
- In Philippians 3 he builds on this idea. He lists all of his amazing accomplishments as a Pharisee and pursuer of God before he knew Jesus. He writes that all those accomplishments compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus. He considers it all garbage.
For some of us, reading those words makes us uncomfortable. We are accomplished people. Or we have things in our lives we value. When we are able to see Jesus as our life’s greatest treasure (to use Pastor John Piper’s language), then we can truly have joy in all circumstances, even suffering, because in the end we know everything will draw us closer to Jesus if we will be open to God.
James agreed with Paul writing that we should, “Count it all joy” when we face trials (James 1:2) because God is working through the trials to develop our character. It is in life’s challenges we grow the most, not in the easy times.
And in 2 Corinthians 8 Paul wrote, “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.” Despite their severe test of affliction and their poverty, they had an abundance of fear and it welled up in anxiety…NO! They had an abundance of JOY and t overflowed in a wealth of generosity!
I believe when we look at the pages of Scripture, especially the New Testament, we see time and again that we should be joyful no matter life’s circumstances. Joy should be the attitude that we as Jesus’ disciples display even when we face trials and afflictions.
I believe that joy is best defined as, “a sense of pervasive well-being” (I am in debt to Webster and Dallas Willard for this). It is the sense that no matter what happens in this world, by faith in Jesus Christ I am a citizen of his kingdom and because I am connected to Jesus in every situation, I am ok. Things are going to turn out well.
Sometimes it seems like the country I live in is sliding more and more deeply away from God and into a moral abyss? I don’t like it, but I also don’t fret because I know the words of Philippians 3 are true: 17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
As followers of Jesus Christ, things are better than we can possibly imagine because we live in the kingdom of God. It is a truth now in part that one day will be fully known. It is reason we can truly have joy despite all that is going on around us.
In Philippians 4, Paul having challenged us that Jesus is our greatest treasure and that we should imitate him in striving to know him more, writes: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 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 encourages us that we should rejoice – we should have joy – always. It is so important he repeats it. Then he tells us to be reasonable – which describes a person who is yielding his rights and is therefore gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant or as one has described it exhibits a “sweet reasonableness” or an ability to extend to others the kindly consideration one would wish to receive themselves. This person is not spineless but selfless. And the reason he/she can be is that the Lord is near. Is the Lord’s nearness a reference to his return or is it the fact that he is always present with us? Both are true and both are motivations to living a gentle, reasonable life. I prefer the second because Paul goes on to say that the Lord’s nearness is our motivation to not be anxious but instead to pray about everything – with thankfulness! And when we do he says God’s peace will be ours and will guard our hearts and minds.
How can we live joyful lives despite life’s circumstances? How do we reorient our minds so that we have a pervasive sense of well-being even when the world tells us we should be afraid or depressed or despairing?
- Engage God’s Word deeply.
Paul says in Philippians 4:8, 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. God’s Word doesn’t contain every honorable, just, pure, love, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy thing we can think about, but it has an awful lot of them and when we saturate our minds with it, we learn to recognize the thoughts and ideas that fit into these categories.
We have to do more than merely reading God’s Word for information. We also need to meditate on it – to ponder it; to ruminate on it. Memorization can help in this. But simply slowing down and asking a question like, “Lord, what in my life needs to hear this verse today?”
Engaging in God’s Word also means we obey it. Paul says in Philippians 4:9, 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. In John 8:31-32, Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, 32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Abiding is more than simply reading. It is also obeying. It is remaining in God’s Word by putting it into practice.
- Take time for personal reflection.
We are a busy people. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that the busier we are, the more spiritual we are. I want to tell you this morning that nothing could be further from the truth. The people I know who have the deepest, most intimate relationship with Jesus are those who have healthy rhythms in their lives that allow them to slow down and engage God in His Word deeply and who regularly take time to reflect on their own
Rather than simply rushing through life hurly burly, they slow down and ask God for wisdom as to why they seem to lose their temper so often…they want to know what is the real issue…they ask God for insight into where the Holy Spirit might have been nudging them to act or to stop and they ignored it. They pause to wait on the Lord and to examine their lives in relation to His word.
Often when I talk with people who are struggling with fear and anxiety and who have a hard time being joyful in all circumstances, I discover that there is an area of sin and disobedience or unbelief in the person’s life. If we struggle to maintain the joy of our salvation, one question we should ask is, “Lord, is there an area of sin or disobedience in my life?” Is there something in my life that is out of kilter with God’s Spirit? If there is we need to confess, repent and change our
- Pray all the time!
Prayer is one of those areas no one ever thinks they do enough of. Paul encouraged us to pray without ceasing. To most of us that seems impossible, but for some we discover it is possible to keep an ongoing conversation with God throughout the day. It takes practice and we need to regularly remind ourselves to be aware and attentive to what is going on in and around us, but it can be done. When we regularly take time reflect on our lives and to notice times and situations where God is present, we’ll begin to recognize them as they happen and can step right into prayer.
We can set reminders on our phones or put post it notes with Scripture or other phrases to remind us to turn our hearts to God throughout the day. It won’t seem natural at first, but like any practice, if we keep doing it…eventually it will become a habit.
- Spend time with God’s joyful people.
Ecclesiastes 4 tells us that two are better than one and we often apply that to marriage. But the original imagery was one of battle. If one falls, the other can help him up. One alone is cold at night, but two can keep warm. If one is attacked, he is overwhelmed, but two can defend themselves.
So it is with joy. If we isolate ourselves or surround ourselves with unbelievers or unjoyous people, they will bring us down. But when we spend time with believers who joyfully love and follow the Lord, we will be encouraged to do the same. When we worship together, study God’s Word together, spend time together in small groups and in true fellowship, we can encourage one another; we can spur one another on; we can speak truth to each other; we can identify and challenge unhealthy patterns and ideas. We need what I call “spiritual friends” – people who we can be completely honest with and who love us and will walk through life with us. One author has said that if we are making significant progress in the transformational journey of the Christian life we have at least one spiritual friend who supports that journey. “If you do not, you are not. It’s that simple.”
- Be thankful.
Thankfulness is a great way to maintain humility and to remind ourselves of how much God has done for us. It is a beautiful way to take our eyes off ourselves and to put them on God. It allows us to cultivate a joyful heart as we see just how blessed we are and how involved in our lives God really is.
Perhaps if we had this mindset and learned to live more joyfully people of our day and age would write about us something like this from the Epistle to Diogenes:
“They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. They are poor, yet make many rich; they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.”
Let me finish with a simple prayer from Romans 15:13: 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.