This week we continued in our new series, Simplicity: Finding Contentment in a Busy Life, by talking about how we can stand firm in the storms of life. Rough times come in all different shapes and sizes, but we all face them. And when times are rough, life feels complex and contentment far away. But, if we will do three really simple things, we will have what we need to stand firm. Keep reading to find out what these are.
I have a bit of a tempestuous relationship with water. Let me explain. I like water. I like to be in the water. I like to swim. When we go to the beach, I could spend hours out floating and waiting to catch a wave with a boogie board. But sometimes I think the water is out to get me. And if you knew my story, you could be forgiven for thinking I’m right for at least the first several years of my life. Two experiences should make my point for me.
When I was in third grade, my family went to Disney World for the first time. That was a few years ago, so the only parks open were Magic Kingdom, MGM Studios, as it was called then, and Epcot. There was also a water park: Blizzard Beach. One of our days there was dedicated to the water park. Now, like any water park in the world, this one had a wave pool. But, because it was Disney, they did it Disney-style, by which I mean bigger than everyone else did it. Being newbies to the whole Disney scene, though, we didn’t know this. Now, I was a small third grader, so when we descended into the waves, my dad had me up on his shoulders. We made it to about mid-thigh in the water when the real waves began coming our way. In most parks—you know this—the waves will take what is normally knee-high water and bump it up to about belly-height. Not in a Disney water park. The first wave came in about shoulder-high and 90 mph. It knocked my dad clean off his feet and sent me tumbling several feet behind him. We were both okay, but we didn’t spend much time in the wave pool after that.
Those were manmade waves, though. Surely natural waves would be friendlier. Right? My first trip to the actual beach was when I was in eighth grade. After spending the week at camp at Chowan College out on the coast, our youth group stopped by a house owned by some friends of my parents in Kitty Hawk. The water was frigid compared to my comfort level, but we had a blast playing in the waves. At least, we had a blast until I got blindsided by a huge wave that rolled me most of the way to shore and even managed to strip off the rubber band I was wearing on my wrist. I switched to building sandcastles after that.
Doesn’t it feel like life sometimes does that to us? We’re riding along, minding our own business, and then BOOM! Something hits us so hard we feel like we’re tumbling end-over-end, not really sure anymore which way is up. When that happens, nothing seems quite as simple as it did before. Questions well up in our hearts, demanding answers, but for which there aren’t any easy ones. If we’re not careful, one of the results of this can be a growing cynicism and pessimism about life that can leave us unsettled and discontent. This is no way to live the life we long to have.
Fortunately, we are in just the second week of a brand-new teaching series focused on giving us all some wisdom to help us navigate through times like that without getting sucked permanently into these quagmires of life. The series is called Simplicity: Finding Contentment in a Busy Life. And though sometimes our busyness comes from the sheer weight of activity we’re facing in a given season—or perhaps that we have taken on ourselves because we don’t have the confidence to say, “No”—sometimes our busyness comes because we are living in the midst of one of life’s storms and in a storm, life is always busy. Either way, a life that is complex and discontent is not a life any of us want to try and live for long. The good news is that we have a God who wants for us to have an abundant life, not a busy one, and He has given us wisdom through His word to point us in that direction. He has shared with us through Paul and others the secret to being content.
We started out last week with a bit of foundation building. We talked about how to combat the worry that can creep into our lives when we least expect it and leave us paralyzed. Worry, we said, is the result of feeling like we need control over something, not having it, and not having any way to get it. Worry is simply the substitute we use for the control we lack. The more we worry, the more our need for control is revealed…as well as the fact that our real god is not the one revealed in the pages of Scripture. You see, worry is a symptom of paganism; the same paganism that people have always turned to when they weren’t worshiping the One True God. In other words, people who aren’t actively worshiping the Christian God tend to fall to worry more often and more easily than those who are because they are worshiping something else on which they cannot rely for help in navigating the channels of life successfully. Everything depends on them and that is a heavy load to bear.
What Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount, however, is the perfect antidote to this. The God who really does exist and who is worthy of our worship is a God who not only knows our needs, who not only has more than sufficient resources at His disposal to meet them, but loves us and is eagerly willing to meet them, whatever they are. The thing we have to do is keep our eyes up and our hands open to receive from Him. Or, as Jesus Himself put it, if we “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, all these things will be provided for [us].” When we stop trying to do it all on our own and trust Him to do what only He can do, He’ll take care of us. Or, as we said then, when your life is centered in Christ, you find all you need.
The storms of life can take many different forms though, and not all of them seem so bad at first brush. As a matter of fact, there are four categories of situations that can lead to a rise in discontentment in our lives. They are all storms of a kind. Some of you have experienced some of these. Some of you have experienced all of these. There are seasons of physical threats. For us, we can think of these more in terms of battles with illness of one kind or another. For our brothers and sisters around the world, these are more often literal threats of physical harm for their commitment to Christ. There is the storm of doctrinal impurity. I say this to our boys all the time: When we believe things that are wrong, we are going to do things that are wrong. We are going to live in ways that don’t ultimately lead to life. Even small errors in doctrine can eventually become wide gaps between us and God.
Another storm that can lead to a life of discontentment is personal achievement. Now, at first hearing, that one may not seem to fit. I mean, shouldn’t we be content when we have a high level of personal achievement? Perhaps, but when achievement becomes our goal—or even our god—we become increasingly dissatisfied with the achievements we have as we keep looking forward toward the achievements we don’t yet have. And sometimes our storms of discontentment are purely the result of sin. When we have let sin of some kind draw on our lives, all of life will begin to lose its luster. Nothing is quite as good as it was before.
All of these are different forms that life’s storms can take. The question we really want answered, though, is how we can stand firm in them? How do we stand firm and not get knocked off our feet? And when we have been tossed around a bit, how do we stand back up again? This is something the apostle Paul can speak to rather personally. Toward the end of his letter to the believers in Philippi, Paul called his readers to stand firm in the Lord. Listen to this: “So then, my dearly loved and longed for brothers and sisters, my joy and crown, in this manner stand firm in the Lord, dear friends.”
Now, before I say anything else, can you hear Paul’s passion for these folks? Paul loved the church in Philippi. They held a special place in his heart that, frankly, none of the rest of churches he planted did. He wanted for them to get this right. Desperately. Listen: Paul’s passion for the Philippian believers doesn’t even begin to compare with God’s passion for you. He wants you to get this right. Desperately. He made sure that these words from an otherwise obscure Jew written nearly 2,000 years ago were preserved down through the centuries so that you could hear them and learn from them just like the Philippian believers did. In other words, pay attention to what’s coming next. This is powerful stuff that God wants you to hear.
Now to what Paul actually said: He didn’t simply tell us to “stand firm in the Lord,” did he? He said we should stand firm in the Lord in this manner. That just begs a rather obvious question: In what manner? Well, kind of like a “therefore,” this is an indication that we need to look back a bit before we can go forward. And when we look back a bit, we discover that Paul knew each of these different kinds of life storms personally.
As we talked about last week, Paul was writing this letter while chained to a Roman guard or two, under house arrest, and awaiting what he surely knew—in spite of his expressed confidence to the contrary in this very letter—would be his trial and execution at the Emperor’s command. And lest house arrest seem like it was somehow cushy; it wasn’t. In the first chapter of the letter, Paul openly ponders on whether it would be better to go ahead and face death now and go on to be with Christ, or to remain in the world for the sake of doing more teaching and preaching for the advancement of the Gospel. In his second letter to the Corinthian believers, he details some of the physical sufferings he had endured for Christ. It’s a pretty discouraging list. Physical threats were an all-too-real thing for Paul. And yet he stood firm.
At the beginning of chapter 3, Paul warns the Philippian believers to watch out for teachers of false doctrines. He says, “Watch out for the dogs, watch out for the evil workers, watch out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, the ones who worship by the Spirit of God, boast in Christ Jesus, and do not put confidence in the flesh.” One of the major early controversies of the church was whether or not an interested Gentile follower of Jesus had to become a Jew before being accepted to the club. For men, this meant getting circumcised. As an adult. With no anesthesia of any kind. You can perhaps imagine how that idea could keep conversions low. Whether or not a believer had to be circumcised, then, was a big deal. At the heart of this controversy was not circumcision, though, but whether or not following Jesus was about rule-keeping or grace. Was it something that could be attained by effort, or received only as a gift? The answer to that question had much to do with how the faith was going to be advanced and lived. Did we really have to trust God entirely, or were we enough on our own? That’s a bigger storm than it sounds. But Paul stood firm.
Later on, in this same chapter, Paul was talking about how fruitless it is to think that our effort could make us right with Jesus. As evidence, he begins to cite some of his own achievements. He essentially says, “If these guys think their good works, their resume, can make them right with God, I’ve got an even stronger argument.” Paul had reached the absolute pinnacles of cultural achievement among the Jews. His resume was longer and more impressive than those of any of his critics. Rather than accomplishing anything worthwhile in his life, this could have easily kept him from ever connecting with Jesus—a kind of quiet storm that drowns you before you realize what is happening. But it didn’t. He stood firm.
The final storm is simply the storm of sinful distraction. Just a few verses before Paul told them to stand firm, he warned them “that many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction; their god is their stomach; their glory is in their shame. They are focused on earthly things.” Whenever we set out down the path of life, there will be sin, just waiting to entice us off course. You know that. I know that. We’ve all experienced it in intensely personal ways. It’s simply a fact of life on this side of Christ’s return.
So, we have each of these different types of life storms—and there are surely others, but these four categories cover most of what we will experience. Each one is different, but their end results are all variations on the same theme: a life of complexity and discontentment. In addition to his descriptions of these storms, we also have Paul’s call to stand firm in them. When you read a bit deeper into Paul’s talk of these storms, he offers example after example of how he stood firm in the face of his own experience with them. The language is high and noble. It is courageous and humble. It is holy and righteous. And by the time Paul calls us to stand firm “in this manner,” we’re left wondering: How on earth are we supposed to do that? We’re not you, Paul! It’s great for you, super apostle that you are, to talk about standing firm in the face of all the various storms we face, but what does this look like for the rest of us?
We don’t have to wait long for the answer. Paul goes on to set before us three things in particular we can do in order to stand firm in the face of life’s storms. And what’s cool here is that these are all really practical things. These aren’t grand, but abstract ideas that we don’t know what to do with. These are things we can begin putting into practice right now—today even. So, look at these with me. We’ll start at Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”
So, what is this? It is worship. Worship, as a matter of definition, is composed of three parts. We recognize, celebrate, and participate in the character of the object of our worship. Worshiping the Lord means that we recognize, celebrate, and participate in His character. This is exactly what Paul is calling us to here. Rejoicing in the Lord is recognizing and celebrating who He is. The idea of rejoicing in the Lord is that we allow our fellowship with Him to well up in us a spirit of deep and abiding joyfulness. That joyfulness comes when we recognize who He is, and out of that recognition flows our celebration. Don’t forget the next thing Paul said, though. He commands us to let our graciousness be known to everyone. What’s that? Out of context it could be anything. In context, when we rejoice in the Lord in all circumstances—no matter what shape a particular storm might take—His character begins to show through us. And what is His character if not gracious? So again, we recognize, celebrate, and participate in the character of God, that is, we worship. Worship sets our lives in a bigger context than merely ourselves. It brings us up above the chaos of the clouds so that we can see our personal storm in the context of the greater whole. That doesn’t make the storm any less intense on the ground, but it does remind us that it doesn’t need to define our lives—or move us from our post in Him.
If worship brings us above the chaos of the storm, the next thing Paul says gives us strength within it. Listen to these words that some of you may know well. Verse 6 now: “Don’t worry (there’s that idea again) about anything…” What does “anything” mean? Anything. If there is a thing, don’t worry about it. Don’t substitute anxiety for control you don’t have because God’s got you, remember? There is literally not a single situation in our lives that is worth worrying about. If you think there is, you are wrong. So, don’t worry. That’s a command. From the Lord through Paul. “…but in everything [and what does “everything” mean? Everything.], through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
If you are in a ship in a storm, where’s the best place to be? At the helm, right? Why? Because you can grab the wheel and take control of your fate. You can steer your way out of it. In a stormy season, we want to be in control. But, more often than not—whether we are willing to admit it or not—we are not in control. Illnesses come and we can’t do a thing about it. We can certainly have a role in influencing the beliefs of the people within our circle of influence, but we can’t make anybody believe anything. Achievement may make us feel like we are in the driver’s seat, but those can be gone in a flash. And we just never know when the temptation to sin is going to rear its ugly head.
In life’s storms, try as we might to grab it, we are just not in control. But worry is silly. Worry is silly because we don’t know the big picture. We don’t know the best way to navigate our way out of it. Listen, if you and I are on a ship together and a storm blows up suddenly, you don’t want me at the helm…or anywhere else other than out of the way because I don’t know the first thing about boating. I would be more likely to do harm than anything good. The same goes for our lives. So, we turn our worry into prayer. We call on the God who specializes in stilling storms. There’s plenty of evidence of that in the Scriptures. With grateful hearts, we put ourselves in His hands.
Have you ever been in a place where you were starting to feel a bit like things were getting out of your control and suddenly someone came along who knew exactly what to do and took over? How did that make you feel? Relieved perhaps? Suddenly more confident? Ready to face the world again without all the anxiety? Listen to what Paul says will happen when we turn our worry into prayer: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” When we turn worry to prayer and trust, when we anchor ourselves to Him instead of trying to go it alone, we will experience the peace of God that just doesn’t make any sense. We will have a calmness of spirit, a kind of quiet joy, a deep-seated contentment, that from the outside looking in is wildly illogical. All the world knows to do in the storms of life is to frantically grab for control until we find something that seems solid. When it sees someone calmly riding it out—even as things appear to be getting worse—it doesn’t have a category for explaining that. That’s something different.
Okay, but how do we do that? Remember what I said earlier? We keep our eyes up and our hands open. We give our attention to the things that really deserve it. Or, as Paul spells it out for us in the last couple of verses I want to look at with you this morning, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.” Ships can navigate stormy seas near the shore not by looking into the wind and the waves, but by fixing their attention on what is solid: The light from the lighthouse. That is what gives them a firm and true point of reference. As long as they keep that in view and act accordingly, they’ll be able to hold fast and not get dashed against the rocks. In the same way, when we are in the midst of one of life’s storms, no matter how strong it may seem, if we will keep our gaze fixed on the things that are true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable and morally excellent and praiseworthy, we’ll have the context, the point of reference we need to stand firm in the gale.
Paul makes this explicit in the last verse here: “Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me…” Now, that sounds kind of arrogant, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we be doing what we have learned, received, heard, and seen in Christ? Paul wasn’t being arrogant. He wrote the book on humility earlier in this very letter. He had just showed them the ways his own life was conspicuously pointing in the direction of Jesus and so he felt confident to call them to follow him in that direction. May the same also be said of us, right? If you are following Jesus and are in a position to be influencing others, you need to be doing the same. It may be that you are the most fixed reference point they are going to have to weather life’s storms until they grow more into their faith. So, yes, follow Jesus first. No dispute there. But follow Paul in being the kind of Jesus follower who can consciously hold out your life as an example to others. Refusing to do that isn’t a mark of humility. It may very well be a mark of cowardice.
In any event, when we get this right, look at what will happen: “…and the God of peace will be with you.” It’s not simply that the peace of God will be with us, but the God from whom that peace comes will Himself be with us. The one who knows what to do, how to do it, and where to go, will be with you, guiding your ship through the storm. He’s big enough the storms don’t even phase Him. They aren’t storms to Him at all. I don’t know about you, but that sounds to me like the way to go. If we want to stand firm in life’s storms, we’ve got to be anchored to Jesus. If you want to stand firm in life’s storms, you’ve got to be anchored to Jesus. He is the solid rock that will provide for you the kind of foundation you need to weather whatever it is life throws your way.
Anchor yourself through worship. Recognize, celebrate, and participate in who He is. Let these three shape your own character to reflect His humble graciousness in all of your dealings. Anchor yourself through prayer. Quit trying to grab control that was never yours to have in the first place and you can’t get anyway. Turn your life entirely and gratefully over to the one who is in control and let His peace wash over you, carrying your burdens with it as it flows. Anchor yourself through righteousness. Fix your gaze on the things that are good and true and beautiful and resist the deadweight of sin that will only drag you down. Do these things and the God of peace will be with you. Isn’t that amazing? If you want to stand firm in life’s storms, you’ve got to be anchored to Jesus.
So then, let’s just ask the question: Are you anchored to Jesus? Are you regularly worshiping Him? Do you turn first to worry or prayer when something unexpected crashes into you? Is your gaze fixed on what is worthy of its focus? If you want to stand firm in life’s storms, you’ve got to be anchored to Jesus. What you need to do is shore up the areas where you are weak. That’s going to take some careful introspection and work. But imagine reaching that place where life’s storms simply don’t faze you anymore. Imagine reaching the place where your confidence in Christ is so strong that you just take everything in stride and keep moving forward toward the kingdom. Isn’t that where you want to be? I do too. If you want to stand firm in life’s storms, you’ve got to be anchored to Jesus. Let’s get to it.