How to Do What Can’t Be Done (Philippians 4)

Some of the things that need to be done to make our relationships healthy are things we cannot do. But they are things we could do if we learned how to live “in the Lord.” The New Testament uses that phrase over 40 times. We can learn to reason in the Lord, agree in the Lord, be persuaded in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, and much more. In this sermon, we explore what it means to live in the Lord and how we can begin to do it.

Approx. 24 minutes. (Text below.)

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!

Years ago, when I was with a group of Lockwood guys on a remote lake in Northern Ontario, I heard about a lake a few miles away that had some fast fishing for pike. Getting there would mean a trek through the wilderness, a mile long canoe ride, and then one more hike to the lake. I asked my boatmate if he was up for an adventure, and he was.

So, the next morning, we beached our boat at the trailhead, took our rods, tackle, and a small can of mixed gas, and headed into the wilds. The trail, which had been blazed in the past, was badly overgrown. The blazes were faded and some were probably missing. Staying on the path was a challenge.

Fortunately, a babbling brook ran just north of the trail all the way to the lake, which, if I remember correctly, had the name Syko or perhaps sicko (but I think the locals pronounced it psycho). That should have been our first clue that this might not be a good idea. The storm clouds should have been our second, and the swarming mosquitos should have been our third.

More than once we found we had wandered off the trail and into dense thickets and brush. (The only thing thicker than the thickets were the black flies and mosquitos.) When we suspected that we had gone astray, we would reorient ourselves by finding the brook. If we just kept that brook to our left (or north) we would eventually arrive at our destination. The brook was our reference point, our true north. Several times the path – or what we took for the path – led away from the brook, and sometimes we found ourselves out of hearing range of those singing waters. Then we would come back to the brook, get our bearings, and begin heading in the right direction again.

Today, we begin our annual family month emphasis. Navigating family life can be like a wildnerness trek. Our family of origin is the trailhead. Some of us then find a family of choice (we get married). Some travel on to a family swarming with children, but those children eventually head off on their own paths. Spouses die, and we may end up finishing our journey alone. It it confusing and many people get lost. It can feel like we are pushing through brush and thickets as we make our way to Psycho.

Every phase of family life (family of origin, marriage, kids, bereavement, and singleness) has its thickets and swarms and storms. The Bible offers a trail guide, but when people see where that trail leads, they often think, “I can’t do that.” “Wives submit to your own husbands.” “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved.” “Children, obey your parents in everything.” “Fathers, don’t embitter your children.” (Seriously? When they’re fourteen, any sentence with the word “don’t” or with more than 10 words can embitter them.)

Anyway, it’s not like wives decide on their wedding day that they are going to be unsupportive and antagonistic. Husbands don’t resolve to adopt a harsh and unloving relational style. It’s not kids’ goal in life to disobey their parents and, contrary to what they think, it’s not their parents’ goal to make their lives miserable. But on this crazy, sin-tangled path through family life, all those things happen.

As an example, consider Paul’s command in Ephesians 5:22, which he repeats in Colossians 3:18 and Peter addresses in 1 Peter 3:5. “Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord.” It is risky to use this particular example because of all the baggage that comes with it. Some people stop listening the moment this verse is mentioned. And you can’t blame them. If I thought it meant what they think it means, I might stop listening too. But it illustrates the difficulty some people have in using the Bible as a guide to family life.

Imagine a woman whose church-going husband is a bully. He is mean. He is controlling. He hit her once and though he hasn’t done it again, she is afraid of him. She reads Paul’s exhortation, “Wives submit to your own husbands as to the Lord,” and she thinks, “I can’t do that.” And she’s right; she can’t.

So, instead of submitting, she sets herself against him. She starts doing things behind his back and sometimes even disrespects him to his face. The one thing she knows is that submitting to him as to the Lord is impossible and she cannot do the impossible.

But here’s the thing: what is impossible for her now would be possible were her position relative to Christ to change. If both her and her husband’s position relative to Christ were to change, they would be shocked at what was possible for them. Christ makes all the difference. We must learn to orient ourselves to him as we approach every relationship, just as I oriented myself to the singing brook that was my true north.

Nearly all of the instructions I mentioned earlier – wives submitting to husbands, husbands sacrificially loving wives, children obeying parents, parents never embittering their children – are only possible “in the Lord.” Marriages that are failing outside the Lord can flourish in the Lord. Children who cannot obey outside the Lord are able to honor their parents in the Lord. We do what cannot be done not by trying harder but by repositioning ourselves in the Lord.

Take the wife with the church-going husband who is a bully. When she has not positioned herself in the Lord, the best she can do is act on religious platitudes or conform to legalistic traditions. The difference between submitting “in the Lord” and “in religion” is the difference between joy and grief, freedom and compulsion, compliance to rules or reverence for God. In the Lord, submission does not mean being run over or mistreated; it is a beautiful and loving thing, which is not just for wives but husbands too. Outside the Lord, submission is often an ugly and fearful thing.

Learning to do life “in the Lord” – not only to submit but also to work in the Lord, hope in the Lord, boast in the Lord, love in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord – is transformative. An entire family that learns to live “in the Lord” can impact the world for generations.

Some families don’t live in the Lord but in the money. For them, everything happens in relation to money. Life does not have spiritual depth for them; it has economic depth. They do not dwell in the shadow of the Almighty but in the shadow of the almighty dollar. They orient their lives to the cost ratio. It is their true north. They relate to each other and to the world from that position.

Some people don’t live in the Lord but in the party. They orient their lives to politics. They dwell in the shadow of FOX News or MSNBC. They relate to others and to the world from that position. When it comes to particular issues – abortion, gender transitioning, immigration – they figure out where their party is and go from there.

But it is “in the Lord” that a Christian’s relationships are defined and moderated, as Larry Perkins put it. In other words, the relationship to the Lord frames and regulates every other relationship: family, friends, work, and the people we meet. (Larry Perkins, Emeritus Professor of of Biblical Studies at Northwest Baptist Seminary.)

Too many of us are lost in the secular wilderness and are using the wrong reference point to orient ourselves. Without Christ as our reference point, we are liable to end up deep in the woods, which is precisely what has happened to the church in our day.

The phrase “in the Lord” is used 48 times in the New Testament letters, all but once by Paul. It is possible, for example, to do our work (Romans 16:12) “in the Lord.” We can approach opportunities “in the Lord” (2 Cor. 2:12). We can learn to reason things out “in the Lord” (Romans 14:14). We encounter difficulties “in the Lord” (Eph. 4:1). We hope for future events “in the Lord” (Phil. 2:19). We work out our disagreements (Phil. 4:2) “in the Lord.” (Think of what that could mean for a family.) We steadfastly endure adversity “in the Lord” (1 Thess. 3:8). I could go on and on, but the point is that we can learn to do life – that is what discipleship to Jesus is about – “in the Lord.”

Think of how it would be to relate to an opportunity “in the Lord” instead of relating to it “in the money.” Imagine you retire at age 50 and are wondering if God might be calling you into ministry. You talk to me about it, and I recommend you enter the Pastoral Leadership Insitute. If you approach that opportunity “in the money,” the first thing you’ll do is look at expenses – how much it will cost? Then you’ll consider how much revenue a church ministry might generate – how much will you make? But if you relate to the same opportunity “in the Lord,” you will postpone the cost analysis until after you have tried to discern the Lord’s will. You will consider whether entering PLI will honor Jesus Christ and provide opportunity to use the gifts he’s supplied.

In the little letter to the Philippians, the phrase “in the Lord” occurs 9 times. The analogous “in Christ” appears 10 more times. Paul had learned to define and moderate all his relationships through his relationship to the Lord and he wanted the Philippians to do that too. The Philippinas had made Jesus their reverence point – they confessed him Lord. Paul wanted them to make him their reference point as well.

Look at chapter 4, where Paul talks about standing firm in the Lord, working through a disagreement in the Lord, and (twice) rejoicing in the Lord. Will take the last, which receives special emphasis in Philippians, first. Rejoicing is an integral part of the Christian life and a key element in Christian witness. It is so important that Paul commands the Philippians to rejoice repeatedly.

Yet in chapter 1 we learned that the Philippians were being persecuted because of Jesus. In chapter 2, we got our first hint that there was conflict inside the church. In chapter 4, we find out that two leaders in the church are at odds with each other. How can Paul expect the church to rejoice with all this negative stuff going on? Can we be expected to rejoice with all the stuff that is going on in our lives?

But Paul doesn’t just expect them to rejoice; he commands them to rejoice. And he models rejoicing for them. He invites them to rejoice with him in chapter 2. He tells them, “I rejoice greatly” in chapter 4. Writing from a cell after years of being imprisoned without a trial, and now at last facing a judge who might issue a death sentence, Paul rejoices greatly.

How? Because he oriented himself not by his life in prison but his life in Christ. We can learn to do that too.

In 4:2, Paul pleads with two church leaders, Euoida and Syntyche, to work out their differences in the Lord (literally, “to think the same in the Lord”). A couple of years ago, we had serious differences in our church over our Covid response. In-person or online services? Masks required or optional? Apply for a PPP loan or not? We had people leave Lockwood because they thought we went back to in-person services to soon. We had people come for the same reason. We had people leave because we didn’t require constant masking. We had people leave because we had a mask-required service. Other people came. We had people leave because we applied for the PPP loan, even though the decision was provisional, based on congregational approval.

Why weren’t we able to come to agreement? Looking back, I think it was because we were orienting ourselves by other reference points than the Lord. We were abiding in the crisis but not in Christ. What seemed impossible – that we would agree with each other – would have been possible had we worked through this “in the Lord.” I consider that to have been a leadership failure on my part (but it has helped me learn to rejoice always).

In 4:1, Paul writes, “Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!” Standing firm is something that we and our families desperately need. Otherwise, the winds of change will blow us off our course. The siren call of culture will draw our children away. We must stand firm, but we can only do that “in the Lord.”

But how? Paul says, “…stand firm in the Lord in this way.” In what way? How do we do this – or do anything – “in the Lord?” The chapter division here, which is not original, is unfortunate. This verse belongs with the previous section, where Paul talked about his own life in the Lord.

If we read chapter 4:1 (“stand firm in the Lord in this way”) in light of Paul’s personal story in chapter 3, we’ll see how to stand firm in the Lord: by going all out. Paul stood firm by constantly moving forward. He “pressed on,” verse 12; he “strained toward what [was] ahead,” verse 13. He pursued, verse 14, the life God had for him. “This,” he says, “is how you stand firm in the Lord, dear friends.” You stand firm by moving forward.

Whether we have been Christians for 4 months or 40 years, we cannot stand firm by standing still. It is like standing up on a bicycle. If you try to stand on a bike while remaining stationary, you’ll quickly waver from side to side, and it won’t be long before you fall down. The only way to stand on a bike is to keep moving. Stand still, and you won’t stand at all. It is the same with Christ. The Christian life is dynamic. It is in motion. To be a Christian is to follow Christ, and that implies change and movement.

If you are a Christ-follower, but you are still where you were a year ago, the only logical explanation is that you have fallen down. The “in the Lord” way to stand firm is to keep moving.

Paul had learned how to do life “in the Lord.” Can we do that? Is there anything that can help us, in our situations with our families, live an “in the Lord” kind of life? We’ll see several things over the course of the month. This morning I want to mention one.

Developing a Proverbs 3:5-6 practice can be a great help. There are three parts to it. First, we trust the Lord with all our heart. This is more than affirming a belief in God or even confessing that Jesus is Lord. This is more than an assent of the mind; it is a motion of the heart. We intentionally, determinedly entrust our day and our activities to God. This is similar to presenting your body to God as a living sacrifice. We choose to do it; we choose to trust.

Second, we refuse to rely on your own understanding. It’s not that we shouldn’t have an understanding of how things are; it’s that we shouldn’t take for granted that our understanding is correct. It has been constructed from things we picked up from parents, friends, TV, movies, news media, and even random, eavesdropped conversations. It does not merit unquestioning allegiance.

The only way to get over an unhealthy reliance on your own understanding is to get God’s understanding, and that comes from a thoughtful reading and careful study of the Scriptures. If you don’t have a regular time for reading or listening to Scripture and thinking about it, you need to start one. It amounts to a daily reorientation to Christ, our true north.

Third, start a practice of acknowledging God in all your ways. Recognize his authority over you, his love for you, and his Spirit in you. This involves praying without ceasing as you relate to others, make decisions, and go through life. It has been called “practicing the presence of God” and is very close to what Jesus meant by abiding in him.

It would be helpful to get a Proverbs 3:5-6 partner – someone to encourage you, help you, and check on you to see if you are keeping up with all three things: Trusting the Lord, refusing to rely on your own understanding, and acknowledging/recognizing the Lord in your daily activities and relationships.


About salooper57

Husband, father, pastor, follower. I am a disciple of Jesus, learning how to do life from him. I read, write, walk, play a little guitar, enjoy my family.
This entry was posted in Bible, Church, Encouragement, Marriage and Family, relationships, Sermons, Spiritual life and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.