(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on August 5, 2016)
“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 every situation, 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” (Philippians 4:4-7, NIV).
The above passage is a section of a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church he founded in Philippi. Paul, you may know, was a tireless preacher, pastor and church planter in the ancient world. There would be no Christianity if it were not for Paul. That early movement was very tenuous for its first couple hundred years. It was a flickering flame that could have easily been extinguished. Now that might not mean much to you, but it gives me chills.
In this passage from Philippians, in the fourth chapter, Paul is bursting with joy. You can practically feel it oozing off the page: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (v. 4). This passage has been used to encourage readers of the Bible for centuries. Contemporary churches often hear this verse around Thanksgiving, when they join in the celebration of gratitude.
But do you know where Paul was when he wrote this? Do you know his circumstances? Well, I’ll tell you. Paul was in prison. Again. Paul had been condemned to death. Again. He had been shackled and probably beaten. Again. And here he is proclaiming joy, overflowing with so much joy and gratitude that he can’t help but encourage his beloved church in Philippi to join his celebration. Some say that this stint in prison was his last; that he was actually executed after writing this letter. But he didn’t give up the first or second or third time he had been imprisoned, abused and threatened with death. And he hasn’t given up now, even with the sword waiting to take his life.
And here is the consequence: because Paul never gave up, because Paul chose joy and gratitude in this dire hour, the movement spread, hope came to others, and now churches all over the world are feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, clothing the naked, and bringing the Good News of God’s kingdom to the poor. Because Paul chose joy and gratitude, not hatred and despair, my kids—almost 2000 years later—got to laugh and play with their neighbors during VBS a couple of weeks ago. Because when Paul was in prison, he chose to focus on something other than his circumstances. Keep in mind that he did not live in denial. Read the rest of the letter and you’ll quickly see that. But despite the circumstances, he chose to focus on other present truths in his life, things that brought him joy and gratitude.
Here’s the question: What are you choosing to focus on?
When I read the newspaper, when I watch television, when I scroll through my newsfeed online, when I log into Facebook and other social media, I can see exactly what people are choosing to focus on. Terrorism overseas. Police shootings of unarmed black men. Assassinations of police officers risking their lives to protect the public. Massacres in schools and other public places. Instability in foreign countries, at home, and within communities. And then there were the RNC and the DNC. There is political division within parties and between neighbors. Yes. There is a lot of despairing news. And I am not advocating that we live in denial. But there are other truths too. Are there not?
There are amazing marriages. Does your spouse deserve at least as much attention as you give the news? There are terrific children. Do they deserve at least as much of your time as you spend making angry Facebook posts regarding the upcoming election? There are thousands of tiny blessings in our lives to which we are totally blind, taking them for granted. What would it be like to wake up without air conditioning, food in the fridge, a job, an automobile, clean drinking water? You do realize that one or two of those things alone not only put us in the top 10% of the globe’s wealthiest people, but among the wealthiest people in human history, right? Do you have family and friends that you can call at anytime of day or night? Do you have a mobile phone to make that call? Did you wake up on the green side of the grass this morning? How blessed we are!
We live in the safest, freest, wealthiest period of history. But it’s about more than material possessions. All of us have relationships that we wouldn’t trade for all the money in the world. Some of us have life’s companions that stood beside us at an altar and said, “I do” decades ago, and are still standing beside us today, after walking beside us through the toughest struggles you can imagine. Some of us have experienced the grace of recovering from a life-threatening disease. What do you chose to focus on?
When Paul made his choice in that prison cell to write, “Rejoice!” rather than “The world’s going straight to hell!” he probably didn’t know what was riding on that decision. He probably had no idea that the gospel would one day spread over the globe and give hope to billions of people. Or maybe he did. In any event, you have the same choice. As I look at this nation I love and a world filled with God’s children, I wonder if we have any idea what’s riding on it.
What are you focusing on?