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

As Christians, we can often be guilty of thinking that just because we know what the Bible says, we are doing what the Bible says.  But this is not the case.  Often, we hear something in a sermon or a worship song and nod our heads and say “That is so true,” without stopping to ask ourselves the question “Am I actually living out that truth?”

Case in point:  I once knew a sweet Christian woman who had a decorative pillow on her couch with Isaiah 26:3 stitched on it in the old King James: “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee.”  It’s a beautiful verse, and it was a beautiful pillow.  The problem was that she was one of the biggest worriers I have ever known.  The verse says that if people trust God and keep their minds fixed on Him, He will give them perfect peace.  But this woman was a bundle of anxiety; there was nothing like perfect peace on display in her life.  Knowing what the Bible said didn’t result in experiencing what the Bible claimed.

I think the same thing often happens with the above passage from Philippians chapter 4.  It’s a well-known passage that makes some wonderful claims about the kind of life that is available to us in Christ.  But how many of us are living it and experiencing it?  In this season of fires on our doorstep, COVID in our community, and hurricanes and the Taliban in the headlines, I thought it would be good to slow down and look at these statements one at a time.

Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!  Two observations:

First, the Bible tells us to rejoice, which must mean it is within our power to do.  Rejoicing isn’t something that happens to us when circumstances are good, it’s something we choose.  We are in control of where we focus our thoughts.

Second, we rejoice in the Lord.  Some Christians seem to think they have to find a way to rejoice in whatever life sends their way.  How do I rejoice when the Dixie fire is burning all the beauty around me?  How do I rejoice when a loved one gets COVID?  The answer?  You don’t!  Some circumstances are just plain terrible, and it would be strange to say we rejoice in them.  We aren’t told to rejoice in the circumstances of life, we are told to rejoice in Jesus.  When life is hard, what is there to celebrate?  Jesus!  The Son of God died on the cross for me and defeated death for me.  He knows the real me and loves me anyway.  He is the Good Shepherd who walks with me through everything I face.  He is always the best thing about my life, and always worth celebrating.

Let your gentleness be evident to all.  In a passage about the joy of the Lord and the peace of God, at first this statement seems out of place.  What does it have to do with the rest of the passage?  I think the answer can be found as we talk with the people of our community or spend time on social media:  fearful, stressed-out people are grouchy!  They give themselves permission to be harsh and unkind, and they are always looking for someone to blame for the problems of the world.  Who is to blame for the forest fires?  Who is to blame for the COVID mess?  Who is to blame for Afghanistan?  And when we identify these people, how can we cleverly blast them on Facebook so our angry friends can agree with us?  As usual, the Word of God calls us to be radically different from the world around us.  Those who have learned the secret of rejoicing in the Lord aren’t on a perpetual witch-hunt.  Their gentleness is on full display for the world to see.

The Lord is near.  He really is.  He is near to us in the sense that He lives in us by His Spirit, so our joy and peace don’t have to be beamed in from the other side of the galaxy, they well up like a spring within us.  And He is near in the sense that He is coming soon, which gives a new perspective to everything we face in the here and now.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  This may be the most well-known verse in this passage.  The Bible says “Stop worrying and pray!”  We know it says this, and we agree when someone reminds us that it says this.  But are we doing it?  When anxiety begins to fill your heart, do you retreat to a quiet place and bring your concerns before God?  I know I am often slow to remember to pray, and as a result I spend way too long in the fruitless spiral of worry.  As I result I miss out on this promise:

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  I grew up hearing people in church talk about the “peace that passeth understanding.”  Most Christians know that the Bible promises us that we can have a peace that doesn’t come from our circumstances, and that often makes no sense in light of our circumstances.  Many of us know and love the old hymn “It is well with my soul.”  No matter what we are going through, we can say “It is well.”  In every circumstance, God is able to give us His peace when we pray and entrust our worries to Him.  

I will confess that in recent days I have not consistently experienced this peace.  I get distracted by headlines.  I get frustrated as good things are continually stripped away and plans are constantly thwarted.  I want to get better at returning to Jesus throughout the week and throughout the day.  I want to live with the joy of the Lord and the peace that passes understanding.  I don’t think these are just nice ideas to be stitched on pillows; I believe they are promises of God that we can experience increasingly as we walk with Him.  Will you join me in rejoicing in the Lord this week, and bringing our needs before God with hearts that really do trust Him?

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