what feeling like a phony taught me: Phil. 4

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Phil. 4. It has been four months since my last post. But even though I read this chapter so many times I could have memorized it, I couldn’t write about it. Why? Because among other provocative things, it says: “do not be anxious about anything.” Not be anxious about anything? Ever?! But what about… what about… what about… well, what about everything?! I told myself that before I could write about Philippians 4, I had to start doing what it says. I had to attack all and any anxiety, big and small, with the secret recipe here provided. But I procrastinated. And procrastinated. So I felt like a phony every time I tried to write. And what’s the point of writing a phony Christian blog? None.

But after a while, as always when we procrastinate something that we know will transform our lives, the pressure built …and built …until it exploded–and boom. I had to capitulate. I started at least trying to do what Paul says to do. As always, when we obey something that feels unnatural, it brought surprising results. Here’s what happened:

A. Paul’s Eight Secrets to Peace

First, we will briefly examine Paul’s eight secrets to peace. Beware. If you’d rather stay stuck in anxiety, fears, self-sufficiency and denial, like I apparently did, go read those other articles. You know. The ones about getting a man and losing a wrinkle. If you want to find supernatural peace–even when you lose a man and the wrinkles bunker down and stay–here’s what to do:

     1. Rejoice

First, Paul asks us to “rejoice in the Lord, always”. He repeats himself: “I say it again: rejoice.” So if we want joy we are to rejoice? Isn’t that a tautology? And what if we don’t feel joyful? The key phrase is that we should rejoice “in the Lord.” Rejoicing in our circumstances doesn’t bring lasting joy, because circumstances fluctuate. And no matter how great some circumstances are, we always have a ground note of despair because of other circumstances. So what does Paul mean when he says to rejoice “in the Lord”?  Well, if we believe in Christ, Jesus comes to live inside us. He forgives us for our sin. And He promises us that He has a good plan for us, even when we can’t see it. So we get to have a dance party with God anytime we want. Sound stupid? Haven’t you ever watched someone dancing to loud music all by themselves, off in their own world, in their room or alone in a dance studio, and felt a mixture of wonder and envy? Of course. We all have. But that’s the kind of rejoicing we are invited to do any time we want–and all those times we don’t want. We rejoice because we believe that God has a good plan and that He loves us. We rejoice because God made us for a loving relationship with Him, and that love buoys us through all, throughout all time.

     2. Be gentle

Paul says to “let your gentleness be evident to all.” Phil. 4:5. But how can our gentleness be “evident” to all if we’re not being gentle? Whoops. So where do we find this gentleness to claim as our own? Again, it comes from Jesus, the strong gentle, who lives inside us when we invite him in as our savior. So if we’re a believer, we just have to figure out how to get out of Christ’s way; we need to let the Jesus in us be evident to all. The only way to do that, I think, is to spend time with Jesus, in humility. And if you’re not a believer yet, then please do ask him to forgive and save you. Now! You’ll never regret it.

     3. Think about the lovely 

Paul also says: “brothers and sisters, 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.” Phil. 4:8. Just reading those words relaxes me. But it also convicts me; whenever I try to do it, I am struck by how little I am actually thinking about the lovely. I think something excellent on “purpose” and discover how different it is from whatever thought was on autoplay in my brain. This verse is a perfect example of how we don’t read the Bible; it reads us. So after I read this verse, and am reminded to think about good things, I admit:  I’ve never really understood how to think about all of these things, because I get so transported focusing on any one of them. But perhaps that’s the point. Once we start to think about “true” things, the lies we tell ourselves or that the devil tells us melt away, and joy floods us. Or if we start to think about “right” things, our confusion melts away. Oh, we realize, of course we can’t do X. God says X is wrong. And once we take X out of the equation, our path becomes a shining bright light before us–leading into joy. We can replace anxious thoughts with lovely ones, always. Because one of the loveliest of thoughts is that God brings good out of bad for those who love Him and are called according to His purposes. Romans 8:28.

     4. Do it

Paul adds that whatever we’ve learned or received from him we are to “put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” Phil. 4:9. It often isn’t until we actually do what God asks of us that his commands make sense. I think it’s because our ability to rationalize sin is just too strong; so when we’re in the middle of not practicing God’s way, our way seems fine. But once we actually obey God, whether it’s by forgiving the unlovely person; by standing up to the bully; by refusing to cover for someone; or by making healthier choices; we find the peace on the other side of the storm, waiting for us, sparkling and exuberant. But we can’t find the peace until we trample the part of us that hates to obey.

     5. Empathize

Paul shares another secret to joy: that we renew our “concern” for others. Phil. 4:10. We all hear of bad things happening to other people, whether in foreign lands or even in our own homes, and we discover to our horror that we feel almost nothing on their behalf. We might feel fear, outrage or confusion–on our behalf. But what about actually feeling a deep, godly sorrow for their pain? What about entering into their heartbreak? Aren’t we ashamed of our limitations? Don’t we wonder at our coldness, our numbness, our hardness of heart? Well, as Christians we get to weep a lot more. We start to feel the pain of others as if it’s our own. We get to feel others’ heartbeats almost as loudly as we feel our own. I warn you: it’s embarrassing. When I hear of people helping those in need, the floodgates open. My mascara runs. I make the ugly-cry-mouth. Why? Because I know I should be doing more of it myself. I know it’s good. But we can’t let our inadequacy stop of from starting. We can feel true concern one heartbreak at a time–and we will discover our own heart beating more loudly, in tune to theirs.

     6. Give (cash)

Paul says that our gifts (and yes, here he means financial) are a “fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.” Phil. 4:18. When we give as the Philippians did to help Paul’s mission work, Paul says “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.” Phil. 4:19. We give–and God will meet our real needs.

     7. Contentment through Him 

Paul has the audacity to tell us: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Phil. 4:11-13. I don’t know anyone who could make such a broad claim of contentment. But I know many, including myself, who have learned it in part; to be a Christian is to grow, over time, in miraculous ways. For the Way is a journey of instant perfection in God’s eyes upon salvation, thanks to the cross, and a lifetime of growing to be more like Christ in reality. And to the extent that any of us have learned the secret to contentment in God, if we look back we will discover it’s because God allowed us to go through bad situations. When we trust God to carry us through the hunger and the want, only then do we find how strong God is. The more bad things the enemy throws at us, the sweeter, kinder and more humble we can become–if we let go of our fury and desire for revenge and anger at God and instead– trust in Jesus.

8. the recipe for peace

I saved for last Paul’s secret sauce for the peace “that passes all understanding.” It comes from God’s mouth to our ears. This recipe will save you: time wasted fretting; money spent on therapy; side effects from anxiety meds; and the hassle of finding new friends when you’ve worn out the old ones. Ready? Here it is: “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.” Phil. 4:6-7. See? It is presented as almost a recipe. We are to replace anxiety with: prayer, requests and thanksgiving. It’s relatively easy to do one of these things. But to do all three together? Ahhhhh. Therein lies the secret. As I will discuss in the next paragraph, it requires focus, determination and trust to keep on keeping on. Because our enemy, the devil, is a crafty, wily beast, who throws anxious thoughts at us all day long. He doesn’t play fair. But he’s a liar. And God’s truth and His strength provide an antidote for our every fear, if we let Him be more convincing than our fears.

B. My Secret

So there you have it. Eight secrets to joy, peace, contentment and the kind of abundant living we all aspire to. So what took me so long? What takes all of us so long? Why do we procrastinate meeting our every anxiety with concerted prayer, supplication and thanksgiving? Well, mainly, because it feels like work. We have to start catching ourselves every single time we feel anxious about anything, big or small, and remind ourselves to pray, to ask, and to do so with thanksgiving. It takes time and focus.

But frankly, I don’t think the real problem is the “work”, because the work is all God’s. The problem is that praying with thanksgiving takes time away from the anxiety. And anxiety– like all negative thinking– is addictive. Part of the allure of mind bombs is that they give us the illusion of control. Anxiety feeds our pride.

But here’s the good news. The anxious thoughts come at all of us all day long- what about this- that’s not right- that won’t work- you just messed up–you always mess up-no one likes you– the list is endless. But we can proactively and consistently meet each stupid thought with an offensive attack of prayer and supplication with thanksgiving: “God, help me in this. Thank you that I have a child, a job, etc. Please fix this.” The anxious thoughts may keep coming. Our enemy is relentless. Our own flesh is strong. But God will do miracles, ones we didn’t expect, when we start turning over every single anxiety to him.

For instance, since I started (all over again; this isn’t new) battling my every concern with prayer, requests and thanksgiving (in part so I could write this), I discovered that I was in complete denial about something that was very wrong, that I was allowing to happen, and that was making me miserable. God has a way of peeling away our denial and showing us truth. He is a God of truth. My discovery supported my theory that when we’re anxious it is hardly ever because of the thing we’re anxious about; there is something so bad, and so deep, that we do our best not to think about it.

Now, of course, I am anxious about how to handle the issue God showed me I needed to confront. But why? God asks us to turn to Him in trust with every issue–including the real ones! We can keep meeting our fears with prayer, supplications and thanksgiving. For when God reveals truth to us, He will give us the strength and wisdom to handle the situation. The battle is His. We just have to keep remembering that.

In addition to revealing situations we’re in denial about, the harder we try to be anxious about “nothing,” the more we will discover how often we have anxious thoughts. As my pastor Tim Keller puts it: “If you think you’re good, it’s because you aren’t trying very hard.” If we try to counter every single anxiety with prayer, supplication and thanksgiving, we discover that we have to pray all day long.

Wait. What? Pray all day long? But that’s… that’s…

Oh.

That’s good. That’s humbling. That’s dependent. And perhaps, discovering our dependence is the key to contentment. What if we weren’t made to go it alone? So maybe discovering the embarrassing depths of our need, in itself, brings God’s peace. Because the more we seek God, the more we find Him. He is a God of peace. He reconciled us to himself on the cross. It’s not a sin to have an anxious thought attack us. The sin is to believe it, to sit with it, to nurse it, and act on it. Instead, we have to treat God’s word with humility. That means that we have to believe what God says about us, more than we believe what our anxious thoughts say.

When we seek God, constantly, all day, out of utter need, we discover that the peace that passes all understanding will keep our hearts and minds in the supernatural way that nothing else can. The peace flows in when we least expect it. Because it doesn’t come from us, but from the one who loves u, and wants only for us to listen to him, instead of to lies.

xo Caroline

with a shout out to my husband for the (second) anniversary flowers above

on being ordinary: Philippians 3

Philippians 3. The other night I drove over the Brooklyn bridge, heading for Manhattan. I was tired. It was late. I reached the bridge and on my left saw a watertower of many colors rise up out of the darkness. I stared at it far longer than was safe. It was luminous. Its sides were glowing jewels: rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires. It was such a realistic watertower shape I had to keep looking to make sure it was really art.

I’d stumbled on a sculpture by Tom Fruin made of salvaged plexiglass and steel. It’s illuminated by the sun during the day and Arduino-controlled light sequences by night. It’s 20 x 10 x 10 feet. And it’s called: Watertower.

Like many people in New York City, I’d once lived in an apartment that overlooked a water tower. Even though I can’t draw, I regularly tried to sketch it with pencil and Cray Pas. Its lines made me want to make art of it. There’s something about beauty that makes us want to reproduce it. We want, somehow, to merge with it. So to see that iconic NYC structure appear as art when I least expected it moved me. It made me admire the artist who’d imagined it and brought it to life. It made me wonder what I was doing with my art. It inspired and yet flattened me.

Paul says Christian should shine like bright stars out of the darkness. Phil. 2: 15 (NLT). That passage, too, has always inspired and yet flattened me.

Who am I to shine like a star? Christians are called such because we’ve recognized our inner darkness and begged to unite with Christ. We’re not people of light. We’re people called out of the darkness into the light. We’re just people, as Paul puts it here in stark language, who count religion and empty rule-following as “garbage” compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Jesus Christ. Phil. 3:7-11. We’ve given up on trying to prove ourselves through obeying rules and instead cling to the cross as our only hope. We know that our “god” is our “appetites”, as Paul puts it. We know we need the cross. Jesus is the light of the world. Not us. We just want to know Him.

Whenever I read this chapter, I feel something stirring in my heart, a catch in my throat. “Yes,” I think. “yes. I want to know Christ. I want to really know Him. I do want to experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead.” It’s the kind of resolution you make when you read the Word; when you raise your arms in worship; when you pray. I want to merge with beauty. I do.

But how quickly we forget.

Luckily, Paul goes on to put our longings in context. He adds that he hasn’t “achieved” these things or “already reached perfection.” Instead, he “presses on.” He says he doesn’t cling to past failures but rather focuses on his progress: “Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race.”

We can do that. We can press on. Right? We can hold on to our progress. Can’t we?

Yes. But to get there we first have to go through a painful death. In order to let go of our “religion”—all those good deeds we think we did, even though we did them for very mixed motives, and there were plenty of other deeds that weren’t so very good—we lose a grandiosity. We lose something we think of as vital to our sense of self-worth. When we give up clinging to religion–to our deeds and achievements– we discover that we feel ordinary.

Ordinary doesn’t feel very good.

It crushes me to discover just how ordinary I am. I feel powerless. And I don’t like feeling powerless. And yet, there in our ordinariness lies our extraordinariness. It’s only in our weakness that we find truth. For when our grandiosity is crushed, we find that we are willing to rely completely on our God. And in uniting with the one who is the source of all goodness, we find our true calling.We become, despite ourselves, the colorful, multi-faceted, watertowers of light, shining out of dark places when we least expect it.

posted by Caroline Coleman on March 19, 2016