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

the secret: 1 Corinthians 2

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read 1 Corinthians 2.  What keeps us amateur tennis players coming back is that sometimes we have our Wimbledon moments.  We hit the ball straight, hard and true, the way Hemingway wanted to use words.  We sense we were made to hit the ball like that.  We know that if we could just live in the zone, we could set sail for the tour.

So on Wednesday I drove out to Queens full of hope.  I was heading for the tennis courts where they once held the U.S. Open.  I’d never played with my partner before, and she was good.  If she was hopeful I’d be a help to her, however, her every hope was dashed in the first set.  I hit every ball in the net. If it wasn’t in the net, it was out.  It went from embarrassing to shameful.  I argued with myself.  I berated myself.  I pleaded with myself.  I told myself I was an idiot.  I told myself I was wonderful.  Nothing worked.  My poor partner went from looks of empathy to avoiding my eye.  She was embarrassed for me.  So was I.  I was dragging us both down.  We lost the first set 5-7, and the only reason we got 5 games was because she dashed around on the baseline and hit every shot I missed.  I knew what I had to do.  It was clear.  My only option was to finish this match with as much dignity as I could muster and quit tennis forever.

All of a sudden, out of nowhere, about three games into the second set, I suddenly started to SEE the ball.  The ball literally moved into slow motion.  It got bigger.  It felt so different to see it that I discovered I’d been closing my eyes at the moment of impact before.  That enormous, slow moving ball gave me time to adjust my body to where the ball actually was.  When the opponent served the ball at my body, I had time to scoot myself out of the way and get a good swing in. I started slamming every ball low and hard over the net. It whizzed down the enemy’s alley.  It threaded between them.  It fell at their feet.  It lobbed over their heads.  We won point after point.  We won game after game.   We won the set. Everyone was stunned, including my partner.  “Nice shot,” they kept saying, wondering what had happened to the loser player of set one.  I wondered, too.  We ultimately lost in the third set, but I didn’t care.  I’d redeemed myself.

“If only there was a way to bottle that,” my boyfriend texted me.

I can’t bottle it on the tennis court.  But Jesus bottled it for us in real life.  Ready?  Lean in, and Paul will whisper the secret.

Paul uses a backwards kind of argument here to try to propel us forward.  He says he won’t use lofty words.  He won’t be clever or persuasive.  He comes in weakness.  He comes timid and trembling.  And somehow by not being clever, he is the cleverest of all because he propels us away from himself, away from human logic and toward God logic.

Paul is using the language of the zone.  Before I got in the zone on Wednesday, I literally couldn’t see the tennis ball.  I came to the end of myself.  That, I think, is the key.  Once I was in the zone, I could see it perfectly.  Time changed.  Space changed.  I was present in my body.  I was present on the court. That’s the life of the Spirit.  We come to the end of ourselves, and that’s where we find the Lord.  God’s Spirit in us enables us to see ourselves and others as we actually are, without any of our usual distortions.

That’s why Paul talks here about how you have to have the Spirit to understand the language of the Spirit.  God’s deep secrets must be revealed to us.  Only God’s Spirit knows God’s thoughts, so God gives us His Spirit so we can know His thoughts.  Since people who don’t have the Spirit only have a “physical life,” Paul says they can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit.  It “sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it.”  But once we have the mind of Christ, we can understand these things.  1 Corinthians 2.

So what thing is Paul talking about?  Here’s the secret message in the bottle:  every day we wake up and think we have to rely on ourselves.  And every day that fails to work for us, the same as it did every other day.  The only thing that works was that God was crucified for us.

That’s what Paul here calls “the secret”.  He says it’s the “mystery of God”.   He says it was previously hidden and now is revealed.  The thing that no eye could see, no ear could hear, and no mind could imagine has actually happened.  It’s so secretive and mysterious no human could have invented it: God was crucified for us.  This is the truth that God now “reveals” to us by His Spirit:  “for his Spirit searches out everything and shows us God’s deep secrets.”  Because God lived the perfect life we can’t live, and suffered the punishment in hell we deserve, we can go to heaven.  When we believe in Jesus we receive “God’s Spirit (not the world’s spirit), so we can know the wonderful things God has freely given us.”

Hold it.  If God’s truths can only be revealed, how do we make the transition? How do we move from thinking it sounds foolish to say God had to die for us on the cross to moving to the place where we have the mind of Christ?  How do we get into the zone if we’re outside the zone?

The same as I did on Wednesday.  By coming to the end of ourselves.  Here’s where the cross provides the answer to everything, including the cross.  Jesus died for us because we need Him.  He died because we are weak, fearful and timid.  I know you’re not.  But I am.  And for anyone who senses that underneath it all, they might be, too, there’s good news.  Hold onto your weakness. Hold onto your fears.  Hold onto your trembling.  Cling to the moments of shame.   Remember when everyone averted their eyes from you because they were embarrassed for you.  Remember when you averted your eyes from yourself.

Those are the beautiful times.  Those are the moments of our glory.  They’re the times when we see the truth.  They enable us to stop looking for answers in empty places and instead cry out for help to the living God who created us to be in a relationship with Him.  That’s where our darkness of selfishness and self-centeredness gets transfigured by God’s light.

When we abandon the life of relying on self, we become recreated from the inside out by the advent of the Holy Spirit.  Being in a relationship with the one who made us moves us from being clumsy Frankensteins into becoming the most graceful creatures we’ve ever imagined.  We let go of being hard, harsh, sharp and angry.  Instead, we let God make us gentle. We let go of relying on shifting shadows and receive the strength, poise and grace of God.

That’s God’s wisdom.  It seems foolish until we let go of thinking we know it all and are willing to come to Him like little children.  Human wisdom is easily forgettable.  But God’s secret plan once revealed can never be forgotten.  To get into the zone, we have only to ask, seek and look.  We step into our weakness with gentle humility.  Relying on ourselves backfires.  The harder we try, the more we discover all our flaws, weaknesses and failings.  We project our failings onto other people like mad and hate them for it.  We find we’re weak, plain, timid and trembling and there, when we think all is lost, God fills us with Himself.  It’s what we always wanted but didn’t even think possible.

People love to say God’s ways are mysterious.  Paul says they’re not.  He says the mystery has been revealed.  The bottle was cracked open on the cross, so God can heal our cracks.  The cross makes plain for us the Way.  It moved God’s Spirit from blowing across the face of the earth, to being able to blow inside of us.  If we cry out for Him, His Spirit blows the fresh exciting peaceful winds of His love into our hearts.  He is the wind.  We need only open our sails.  And sometimes we can’t even do that.  If we ask, His Spirit will unfurl our every sail and enable our ships to sail home at last.

posted by Caroline Coleman on June 28, 2013 in a Chapter a Day