In earlier times an army would poison their own wells so that an invading army couldn’t use them. This turned into a metaphor for biasing the mind against something. We can poison our own mind if we’re not careful. We allow the lies of the world, the flesh, and the Devil to turn us against God. Sometimes without even realizing it. This is essentially what the Devil did to Eve in the Garden. Satan poisoned the well of her because she allowed him to fill it with lies. The result was that eventually she didn’t trust God. It was acid to her faith. Such a condition is still a threat to believers today, so Paul provides the antidote in Philippians 4:8. He begins with words of friendliness, “Finally, brothers” and then proceeds to give an eight-part prescription for maintaining spiritual mental health. Looking to the end of the verse we see the dominant imperative verb. This is the answer to how we get there. He says, “think”. This is a goal and an activity. It comprises the reward, and ultimately the cultivation of a useful mind.
With Christmas just behind us I am reminded of my paternal responsibility as official merchandise assembler. I’m no engineer, so inevitably I yield to the instructions in the package. Which is not to say I begin by reading the instructions in the package. As believers we understand the Word of God contains some clear instructions. It reveals step-by-step procedures organized by the impeccable mind of a holy God. They are perfect and complete. They contain his sovereign will wrapped in loving and gracious guidance. His expectations never call us to something impossible, pressure us beyond what we can bear, or put in a place where we must compromise. His goal is never to frustrate, humiliate, provoke, or deprive us. We rejoice in the fact that God himself will even give us the desire to obey, and then assist us to succeed. Think about that. God gives us only beneficial instruction, generates the desire to obey, expedites the eventual success, and then rewards us for our faithfulness. The Word of God may contain some tough instructions, but they come with equally serious help.
A beautiful doxology is wedged discreetly into the narrative of the birth of Christ. Doxologies are usually made up of two parts, an ascription of praise to God for what he has done, and an affirmation about God for who he is. The angelic doxology follows the pattern of the ones that separate the major sections of Psalms (41:13; 72:19; 89:52; 106:48), captured by Luke in 2:14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The glory of God rests with him in the highest heaven. A glimpse of it burst through the dark night sky and terrified the shepherds. In it, unfathomable glory is mingled with the promise of peace. Inhabitants of the orbiting object of wrath have been given a window of opportunity to repent. True atonement is limited to those with whom God is pleased. However the global influence and benefit of gospel peace is irrefutable. The incarnation was completely necessary as the foundation for redemptive history. Humanity linked Messiah to man, and deity linked Messiah to God. The humanity of Jesus Christ relates him to us intimately. The deity of Jesus Christ reconciles us to him ultimately.
We all know the Bible does not condone laziness, offering little comfort to those suffering the consequences of inaction. The word sluggard only appears in the book of Proverbs, and in all 15 references, depicts the dire consequences of inaction. This person is fond of sleep (6:9, 26:14), not fond of hard work (20:4, 21:25), and refuses to plan for his own future and that of his family (21:5). Thankfully peace and faith in God is not the same as sloth. In fact, we work hard at prayer even if it means less than ideal amounts of sleep, a commitment to the work, and the knowledge that good plans can never be laid without seeking the Lord. This last one is important. We are called to plan, but not as a substitute for prayer. We plan in concert with prayer. This was Joshua’s historic error (Joshua 9:14). Paul says don’t be anxious (Philippians 4:6-7) then replaced it with a complementary call to prayer. In reality the burden of anxiety is always there, stemming from a care for people (Philippians 2:20). It is always present. The difference is the anxiety is not visibly affecting you or discouraging others. Faith in God drowns out the relentless drone of life’s troubles.
Paul uses the conjunction “but” to make a sharp turn in Philippians 4:6. He couldn’t be more clear that anxiety was not an acceptable response for anything – not one thing. So what do we do? The answer is pray. This is the great contrast. Christians disposed to action rejoice that trusting God is not spiritual paralysis. It is not “let go and let God” because the cure for anxiety is never inaction. In fact the Bible teaches the opposite. We are, in everything, to actively engage our minds and our wills. We face off against what scares us by bringing it to the Lord. The most vivid example is Jesus in the garden of gethsemane. This was the most stressful moment of his life, but he is not anxious. Instead he prays. When he got up to prepare his disciples for the advancing mob, he was the picture of calm. He was at peace. His thinking and actions were protected and guided by God and thus remained in perfect step with the will of the Father. This is proof that God does not reward inaction, but will give grace to help in time of need when we pray (Hebrews 4:16).
Update: I just read this blog post from John Piper and it provides a helpful addition to what I wrote above.
When Paul says don’t be anxious for anything (Philippians 4:6), he is not saying we shouldn’t care about anything. Concern is a virtue, especially if it is for someone else. God cares deeply for each of us. In John 14:1–4 we have a sacred promise that the believer has a place prepared in the mansion of a loving heavenly father. Jesus says this should remove being troubled for any reason. Our heavenly father is pictured as being in possession of a large home with plenty of room for everyone. Proper care and concern is a divine attribute. The comforting reality is that we can walk upon a fallen world, filled with crooked and perverse people knowing that God is watching over us and caring for us. Godly people show concern too. Earlier in Philippians Timothy is commended for his genuine concern (same word in 2:20 and 4:6). Paul is showing us that anxiety can have a positive or a negative connotation. So it is only the negative anxiety, manifest in worry, faithlessness, fear, and the pursuit of substitutes, that the Apostle is forbidding. The other kind of anxiety, like a parent for a child, is part of being created in the image of God.
For many people, worry fills a void that comes from not being in control. There is an innate awareness that we are not sovereign and that someone else is ultimately calling the shots. Even an atheist has to yield his life to fate, or karma, or luck. The obedient Christian will take Paul’s command in Philippians 4:6 at face value and drop the habit of worry. The basis for such a change is that we replace it with faith in God. But it’s not that easy. We were created by God to think, and the more we think about what is going on around us, the more we are tempted to worry. But that is no longer an option if we are to remain obedient. Removing worry creates a vacuum. This has the potential to drive us to a thousand feeble substitutes to fill the void, unintentionally modeling the unbelievers strategy (Matthew 6:31-32). The only real solution is prayer. Through that act alone the human mind is insulated from fear to the degree we replace worry with trust in the form of active prayer. With practice and divine assistance, the new habit of prayer can be an instinctive reaction to calamity.
Jesus has already answered the questions that came to mind when we heard about the shooting today in Sandy Hook, CT. We can troll the internet for human wisdom and commentary, or we can simply look to God. He is merciful in that he doesn’t leave us guessing. He never let’s us think that something horrible – even as horrible as this – somehow slipped by him. I’m referring to the exchange between Jesus and those who were trying to find a category for bloody violence both planned and apparently random. Luke 13:1-5 would qualify as the divine response to the horrible events of this morning, and countless other crimes throughout history. It’s not the answer most of us would expect. It doesn’t initially satisfy our thirst for revenge and justice. It may even seem cold. Jesus doesn’t rage against the aggressors because they will receive just punishment for their deeds. He sympathizes with the living by calling them to a time of reflection in light of tragedy. We need to be careful about how we think about these things. Providentially our Sunday text (Philippians 4:6-7) provides the biblical antidote to the sadness and confusion that is burying so many people around the world tonight.
So much has been written since 2008 about bankruptcy, quantitative easing, and now the fiscal cliff. A common refrain is “bailout”. They say banks were too big to fail because the whole economy would suffer a systemic meltdown. Therefore it is argued that the managers of the banks knew this and acted accordingly. They assumed a virtually unlimited source of funding existed to make them whole, and took on virtually unlimited risk. You could ask: How different would the banks have acted if there were no promise to make them whole? The better question is: How different should believers act because they know God will make them whole? Do our actions indicate our faith in a rescue package from God? Life is a breath, and though painful at times, both it and the momentary trials pass swiftly (2 Corinthians 4:17). The ultimate bailout for every persecuted, slandered, short-changed, and misunderstood Christian comes with the Lord at his return. All wrongs are made right when the believer stands in the presence of the Lord fully vindicated. Anything lost is returned. Anything destroyed is replaced a hundred fold and eternally superior. This should be a stimulus to sanctified risk taking.
To truly know God is to never be angry with God. We don’t need the power of the Holy Spirit to respond to God in a Godly way because he never does anything to us that leaves us with the upper hand. He never wrongs us. In Philippians 4:5 Paul is instructing us to respond to something, or someone, in a Godly way. It is most evident in a context where we wouldn’t normally need to. That context only exists between Christians and other sinful human beings (Christian or otherwise). Spiritual gentleness, moderation, reasonableness, etc. is not really an internal heart issue. It’s not just an attitude between us and God like love, faith, peace, or joy. Since I am never short changed by God, this verse can’t apply to our relationship. We are never gentle with God. This is intra-human by design. This demands interaction with sinful humans if it’s going to surface. The pressure of being wronged will squeeze it out of us. To make matters more interesting, it implies that I will do things to others that will cause them to be gentle to me despite what I deserve. The command is humbling on every side.