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 creativity, anxiety and being born again: John 3

read John 3.   One of my nieces has 50 different bottles of nail polish.  She is artistic; her creativity spills out in painting, drawing and applying make-up.  Meanwhile, I don’t have the patience to even apply nail polish.  So … I go to the nail salon.  One of the advantages of the nail salon is that I get to catch up on fashion magazines.  And there, in the April 2012 issue of Vogue, I discovered two fascinating articles on anxiety.  I wasn’t surprised.  If I read Vogue every day, I’d be anxious, too.  The articles were surprisingly good.  They were both anecdotal.  One discussed her experience of treating anxiety with medication and therapy, and the other with behavioral modification.  The articles, insofar as they summarized the current thinking in our country on how you treat anxiety, lead us to the question of how does the solution Christ provides here in John 3 about being “born again” relate to all this.  Where is the overlap, the common ground, the shared vocabulary?

The first article on anxiety was written by a woman who has been taking a different cocktail of anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications since she was 16, along with talk therapy, to stop herself from committing suicide.  She has an ambivalent relationship to her pills.  She can affirm only that they have kept her alive.  But she asks her therapist the poignant question: is this living? The therapist replies that her question is her depression talking.  But is it?  Or is she expressing an existential angst, that neither her pills nor her talk therapy can get at?

The second article was far more hopeful.  It was written by the novelist Plum Sykes, whose crippling anxiety hit after the onset of a medical condition that made her so dizzy she couldn’t care for her children – let alone sit in a chair.  She took medication for the dizziness, but she found she couldn’t shake the anxiety.  She was frightened to do anything or go anywhere, for fear the dizziness would return.  So she took herself off to an anxiety retreat offered by Charles Linden in the countryside in England, where she was told this:

Anxious people treat non-life-threatening situations as if they’re life-threatening.

Oh, right.

Plum was told that the fight or flight response of anxious people is over-reactive.  It’s as if it’s too finely tuned.  She was told she was a creative person, and that the solution for her would be to throw herself into positive, creative outlets.  She took up knitting.  She was told to accept every invitation.  And she went streaming back into her life, to her husband’s, children’s and friends’ relief.  For her, the solution was to do far more, instead of cutting back.

So there, in this month’s Vogue, were stories of the modern ways to treat depression and anxiety: medication, talk therapy, behavioral modification and creativity.  How does this relate, and compare, to the words of Jesus here in John 3: “I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God.”  John 3:3.  What does it mean to be born again?  Nicodemus, who has come to Jesus “after dark one evening,” presumably because he doesn’t want anyone to see him, is very literal.  When Jesus tells him he has to be born again, Nicodemus asks Jesus the question we all want to know: “what do you mean?”  Nicodemus goes on to ask if an old man can go back into his mother’s womb and be born again.

Jesus explains that to be born again means to be “born of water and the Spirit.”  He says that the “Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life.”  He says: “The wind blows wherever it wants.  Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit.”  John 3:5-8.  Jesus goes on to say that He has “come down from heaven.”  John 3:13.  He is not just a nice man who taught good moral values: He is claiming to be the Son of God, who came to us from heaven.  Jesus is claiming to be God himself.  If this is true, then what He is saying is that in order for us to have a truly spiritual life –  not just a vague sense of mystery when we light a candle or do a kind act – we need to be “born” of the Spirit so we can understand the things of the spirit.    In other words, we humans cannot understand, know or be acquainted with the things of God because we are human.  In a very profound sense, there is no shared vocabulary.  Flesh cannot understand spirit.  We have to have a spiritual rebirth.

How?  Jesus says it’s not something you can explain, anymore than you can know where the wind comes from or where it’s going.  His words suggest that the experience of the new birth – the coming and going of God’s Spirit – is different every time, for every person, just as the wind comes and goes in a different way each time, but that the experience of feeling the “wind” sweep through you is the same.  Blaise Pascal, for instance, had an experience on the night of November 23, 1654 that was so important to him he wrote a description of it on a piece of parchment which he sewed into the lining of his coat, where it was discovered after his death.  He begins with the word: “FIRE.”

My born again experience, also, happened on a particular evening.  I loved my freshman year in college, but when the honeymoon period ended, I found myself constantly restless.  I knew enough to know it wasn’t another boyfriend I needed but God – but I didn’t believe in HIm.  Every time I read the Bible, it didn’t make sense.  Like, why did Samson set foxes’ tails on fire?  What was that about?  One day I read in the gospel of Luke that if you ask God for something in His will, He will give it to you.  “Huh,” I thought.  “Well, God would WANT me to have faith in Him, so if I ask Him for faith, He WILL give it to me. ”  So I asked for faith.  Every day after that, I began to read a tiny bit of the Bible each night  – just one or two sentences.  And I was taking English 101, which was all the literature written several centuries ago, and so steeped in the Bible.  A month later, I was reading something in the Bible, I don’t even remember what, and I realized I actually believed what I was reading.  I started to cry – which I now know were tears of repentance, because we weep when we meet a holy God.  And then a supernatural peace – something I had never experienced before – swept through me.  That peace, I know now, is “the peace that passes all understanding.”  I have had many experiences of God since then.  And there were many ah ha moments leading up to that moment.  In a certain sense, you could say my whole life had been a journey leading straight to the feet of Jesus.

As Jesus said, we don’t know where the wind comes from or where it goes, but we hear the sound of it.  It comes and goes differently for us all, but when you hear the sound of God moving through you, the way the wind moves through the trees, you know it. It’s not like anything you have felt before – because it’s of the Spirit.  It’s a gift from heaven.  John 3:27.   As John the Baptist puts it at the end of this chapter: “We are of the earth, and we speak of earthly things, but he has come from heaven… He speaks God’s words… And anyone who believes in God’s son has eternal life.”  John 3:31-36.

And here is where we return to Vogue and the issue of creativity and anxiety.    The “eternal life” that Jesus Christ offers to each of us is a life of the Spirit.  It is a life of God’s peace – and peace is freedom from anxiety.  It is a life of God’s joy – and joy unleashes creativity.  It is a life of God’s love – and to live is to be loved.  If, as Plum Sykes was told, anxiety comes from treating non-life threatening situations as if they are life-threatening, to live for Christ is to know that nothing on this earth is life-threatening anymore.  To live for Christ is to know, in a deep intimate way, the One who died to give us life.  To be born again, allows all that God is – His joy, peace and love – to be born in us.

In other words, while the flesh cannot understand God’s Spirit, we are made to long for that Spirit.  The shared vocabulary between our world and God’s is one of desire.  It is a vocabulary of hope – hope for more than this life, more than our own flawed selves, more than our relationships seem to be able to offer us.  God’s love “weans’ us from dependencies on people, places and things other than Him, things that can never give us all that we want from them.  Because we do want all.  We long for the infinite.  That’s what it is to be human.

Being born again doesn’t make our problems disappear overnight.  It is a process.  We are all on a journey, and we all have different make-ups and different backgrounds.  God meets us in our weaknesses, and gives us His strength, but it takes time to trust Him. We may still have to pop pills to keep suicidal thoughts at bay.  We may still go on “anxiety retreats” to visit kind counselors who hold our hands after traumatic experiences and remind us to find new outlets for our creativity.  We will still be fully human, with all the downs and ups, temptations and abstinences, failures and triumphs that that involves.  But our true life will be found in Christ Jesus.

I can’t really explain it more than that – we all need to experience Christ for ourselves,.  I can promise this, from my own experience, Jesus changes everything.  He is real.  He is alive.  When my children tell me God is not real, I say, calmly, that I know He is – and I do know, because I know Him.  He comes inside of us, and begins to transform us – not by making us “better”, but by filling us with Himself.  As John puts it in this chapter:  “he must increase, and I must decrease.”  And that is my prayer: that Jesus increases, and I, Caroline, decrease.  For to answer the poignant cry of the woman who wrote the article on Vogue who has to take pills to stay alive: “is this life?”  When you know Christ, you can say: yes.  This is life.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on April 4, 2012