(Read A Mind for What Matters below or listen to the sermon on YouTube. The sermon begins at 29:52 and listening time is approximately 25:00. In this passage, St. Paul points the way for working through bleak times, times of conflict, and anxiety.)
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 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. 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. (Philippians 4:4-9 NIV)
This is the final sermon in a brief survey of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. We have been focusing on what this letter can teach us about the impact our thinking – our mindfulness, as people like to say nowadays (a term I think Paul would have commandeered) – has on our outlook, moods, and actions.
The instructions to be followed in this short passage are demanding, some might even say impossible. But the promises held out to those who follow them are almost outstanding. The thing for us to remember is that the ability to obey the instructions and gain the promises is dependent upon –we come back to it again – the way we use (or misuse) our minds.
Let’s start with the promises (or, really, the two-part promise). The first part of the promise is (verse 7): Given that we live a certain way, the peace of God will guard our hearts and our minds. Paul is using a word picture he knows will connect with his readers. Philippi was a Roman colony and a garrison city. There were retired Roman soldiers everywhere (including, probably, the church), as well as a large population of soldiers on active duty.
The word “guard” evokes a picture of soldiers guarding the garrison or some other high-value asset. The promise is that God’s peace, like a special forces unit, will guard a person’s heart (the control center, where decisions are made) and mind (the information center where conscious life takes place). When God’s peace guards us we are actively protected from bad decisions and unhealthy thinking.
The phrase “the peace of God” is found only here in the entire Bible. This is not just an inward peace – the kind one gets after a couple of drinks or a sleeping pill. This is the very tranquility of God (G.B. Caird), “the calm serenity that characterizes God’s very nature.” God’s peace is more than the absence of fear. It is the presence of contentment, wholeness, and the certainty of wellbeing. It will guard our hearts and minds when we live a certain way.
But the promise goes even further. While in verse 7 the promise is that God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds, in verse 9, “God himself, the God of peace (of contentment, wholeness, and wellbeing) will be with us.” We will not only have the peace of God guarding us; we will have the God of peace accompanying us.
That’s the promise. But what about those demanding instructions? We’ll look at three of them, given in the context of a pressing, real-time problem. However, we’ll start with verse 1 to prepare us for what is coming.
In verse 1, Paul tells his friends, “This is how you should stand firm in the Lord.” “This” refers back to what he had just written, which was something like this: I want you to imitate me and the people in the church who live like me.
What was it about Paul that the Philippians needed to imitate in order to stand firm? It was his determination to keep “pressing on” (something which he states twice). His eyes are set on the mark and he won’t stop until he reaches it. He will become what God has called him to be and he won’t let anything stop him.
The way to stand firm, paradoxically, is to keep moving … toward Christ. The Christian life is like riding a bicycle. The only way stay upright is to stay in motion. Have you ever tried to balance a bike on two wheels while standing still? It’s not long before you’re not standing at all. So with us. When we stop pursuing Christ, we lose our balance and fall, usually hurting ourselves and the people around us. Want to stand firm? Keep moving.
Now, with that as background, we’re ready to look at the instructions Paul gives. As we do, we need to keep the promises that go with them in mind: the protection of the peace of God and the presence of God of peace. The first instruction, given previously and now repeated, is to rejoice always.
Really, Paul? Rejoice always? You have no idea what you’re asking. Working from home amidst a thousand interruptions. The kids are out of control. Can’t find toilet paper. Didn’t get my economic impact payment from the IRS, which I need to pay the mortgage. Will probably lose my job, which means no insurance. And you want me to rejoice?
To which Paul (from a dank, dark prison cell, where he has been quarantined for a long time, separated from friends and family, and waiting to hear the outcome of his trial, which might be death by beheading) answers, Of course! “Rejoice in the Lord always.” And in case you missed it the first two times I said it, “I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
Many people, hearing this, simply brush it aside as unrealistic and unfeasible. When you’re having marriage problems, when you can’t stomach your boss, when your hopes have been dashed yet again, when you’re sick, and tired, and in debt, how can Paul – how can God – expect you to rejoice? It’s impossible!
Yes, absolutely. It is impossible … for some people, but not for us – if our minds are undergoing a process of renewal. If our thinking hasn’t changed since we became a follower of Jesus; if we are still haunted by the same fears; if the same kinds of thoughts run through our minds all day that run through the minds of people who don’t belong to Jesus, rejoicing will be unrealistic and unfeasible.
But, if we are being “renewed in the spirit of [our] minds” (Ephesians 4:23); if we are being changed (transformed) by the renewing of [our] minds (Romans 12:2), then rejoicing will not only be possible, it will be occurring. This is what we’ve seen throughout this letter. How we think determines how we feel and how we act. Our minds are critical to our success in the Christian life. Some things that not only seem impossible but are impossible – rejoicing when we are deeply troubled, for example – become possible as our minds are renewed.
We need to appreciate how humans think. There are, of course, different parts of the brain – that amazing instrument the mind uses – which perform different functions in the collection and storage of information. When the mind uses that information, it does so (in large part) by storying. Humans use stories to categorize and contextualize information – information that would be practically useless without the God-given ability to make stories. Storying is an essential part of what it means to be human. When God “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life …” (Genesis 2:7), he became a living storyteller.
The way we process marriage problems and bad bosses and recurring disappointments is through stories. That means if we categorize and contextualize information – including marriage problems and bad bosses – using the wrong stories, we will go wrong. Rejoicing will be simply impossible.
Here’s an illustration. A jet crash-lands on an island in the South Pacific. The survivors scramble off the plane and wade ashore. And then someone shouts, “There are blankets, clothing, and food in the cargo hold!” As soon as the significance of that dawns on people, everyone tries to get to get to the provisions first, afraid of not getting their share. People are stuffing bread and pretzels and meat in their shirts and trying to get ashore without their fellow castaways knowing they have provisions. Everyone is afraid of starving.
Disgusted by the riot on the beach, a husband and wife decide to explore the island. What they find just over the first hill surprises them: there are cows and chickens everywhere – must have been brought by a shipwrecked vessel a decade ago or more. There are fruit trees and pineapples – the valley is filled with them. There are even cases of dried food rations that must have been left behind when those first castaways were rescued.
Instead of trying to stuff a chicken and a pineapple into their shirts, they return to the beach shouting the good news to everyone and sharing the things they’ve brought back. Why the difference? The one group is telling themselves a story of deprivation and hunger while the other is telling themselves a story of provision and plenty.
Now, one of the things to notice is that the panic the people on the beach felt was real even though the story they told themselves was false. That’s how the stories we tell ourselves work. They affect the way we act and feel and think. But it is even more than that: the stories are the way we think, at least in large part.
During the Covid-19 crisis, the story many people are telling themselves is one of calamity, loss, and death. How do you think that will affect the way they feel and act? You already know: feelings of anxiety, sleeplessness, anger, accompanied by panic buying, hoarding, and arguments.
But when we came to Christ, our story got written into his story, which is not one of calamity, loss, and death but of love, and courage, and glory. That doesn’t mean we won’t have troubles – just read the laundry list of St. Paul’s hardships in 2 Corinthians 12 – but it does mean that whatever is happening in our part of the story is being written into a bigger, better, story. It’s the best story ever, by the best author ever, with the best ending ever.
When we not only know that in the abstract but story that in our thinking, we will be able to rejoice during Covid-19, during marriage problems, and crummy jobs, with pain-filled bodies. I am not saying it is automatic; it’s not. I am saying it will happen as we are renewed in our minds.
So the instruction to rejoice always – seemingly impossible on the surface of it – is entirely doable when our minds are being renewed. The next instruction (verse 5) is to “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
Before we talk about how to do that, we need to think about what it means. The word translated “gentleness” by the NIV is not the word usually translated that way. A prominent Greek lexicon claims this word is almost untranslatable. People have tried with words like “gentleness,” “moderation,” “magnanimity,” but the ground this word covers is just too big for any one English word. In other places in Scripture it occurs alongside words like, “peaceable” (Titus 3:2), “open to reason,” and “rich in mercy” (James 3:17). It is a word that is used to describe Jesus by both Paul and by Jesus himself.
This “gentleness” (for lack of a better word) is displayed whenever a person doesn’t push to get his way because it is his way. It evident when a person doesn’t stand on her rights but, to help someone else, is willing to forego what she could rightfully claim for herself.
Karen and I were talking to our neighbor a couple of days ago (while practicing social distancing!), and she was telling us about all the meanness and raging self-importance one finds right now on social media. That is the opposite of gentleness. We can blame the Covid-19 crisis – the unemployment, forced quarantine, and the stress – for our lack of gentleness, but it didn’t create it. It only brought out what was there all along.
There is a way not only to act gently but to be gentle but it (once again) requires us to undergo the process of being renewed in our minds. We are not going to act like Jesus until we start thinking like Jesus, and we will never think like him unless we are being renewed in our minds. And that means we need to be renewed in the stories we tell ourselves. We need to think in God’s story.
The belligerent people on social media are thinking in stories – stories of disrespect, misuse, irrecoverable loss. It’s just not God’s story. Whenever our story diverges from God’s story, we start believing we must be in control and, usually, that we need to be the hero. But when our story runs with God’s story, we know he is in control and Jesus is the hero. And he is not far off somewhere. He is near.
That’s why Paul adds in verse 5: “The Lord is near.” When that’s what we think, when we story the Lord’s nearness in our thoughts – his protection, his love for us, his determination to make everything right – then we won’t need to be in control and we won’t get angry when things don’t go our way. We can be gentle and forego our rights, confidant that the Lord will make things right.
This is what Paul wants Euodia and Syntyche, his friends from Philippi, to think and do. These women (verse 2), who had fought for the gospel at Paul’s side, were now fighting with each other. They were not living in gentleness. When they stopped pressing on toward Christ, they started fighting with each other. Without a doubt, they were each telling themselves a story but it was the wrong story, one in which Jesus was not near.
The next instruction seems the most impossible of all: “Do not be anxious about anything.” How often I have violated that command! I bet you have too. The word translated “be anxious” here is comprised of two roots, the first means “part” or “section” and the second has to do with “memory” or “stored thoughts”. Worry sections off our minds and – here is the thing – it shuts out God. It removes him from our story.
The way to deal with worry is to bring God back into our story or, better yet, bring ourselves into his story. His story is about love and restoration, about power and patience, and above all, about Jesus. It’s the story of Jesus, who did not stand on his rights but gave them up and suffered and died for us. And he was able to do that because he knew he was in God’s story, knew that God would raise him to life and to his throne.
How do I bring myself into God’s story? To begin with, we pray. In Greek, verse 6 has this kind of rhythm: “In nothing worry, but in everything pray…” Whereas worry sections us off – social distances us – from God, prayer connects us to him.
In prayer, we re-story our lives with God at the center of the story, which is where he really is. We re-story our lives with Jesus, who is ever so near, as the hero. Instead of demanding he do something, we make known our needs to him and expect him to do something – because we know what story we’re in! Instead of worrying about ourselves we present ourselves to be part of God’s story.
But we’ll never accomplish this while we are filling our minds with the anger, fear, and greed that characterize society at large. No, we must– Paul tells us – think about what is true, what is noble, what is right, what is pure, what is lovely, what is admirable – about things that are excellent or praiseworthy.
You’re more likely to find those things in the Bible than on social media, which means that if you are spending more time on social media than the Bible you are at risk for resentment, pettiness, and worry. There are, of course, other things that worthy of our thinking and meet many of the criteria Paul lays out. There are also things that feed our anger, nurture our fears, and inspire our greed. We are responsible for what we let into our minds.
One final thing: the renewal of our minds doesn’t happen as we sit in our La-Z-Boy thinking. In fact, it’s impossible to continue thinking rightly unless we’re acting accordingly. So Paul adds, “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice” (Philippians 4:9). Our well-intentioned thoughts will fade into oblivion, like Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat, unless we act on them. To pray right, to think right, and to act right is the key to experiencing the peace of God and living with the God of peace.
 Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin: Word Biblical Commentary: Philippians. ©Thomas Nelson, 2003. p. 246