Last week we confronted the uncomfortable reality that we are often not fine in this life. This week we start to explore a solution. How can we keep the hard emotions that so often bring us down at bay before they have a chance to do their dirty work? We learn the secret from something Paul wrote when he was in some pretty dark times himself. Check this out with me.
I am a man of habits. It’s just part of my personality. I operate best in conditions that are customary and repetitive. Maybe you’re the same, maybe you’re different, but that’s simply my personality type. And when it comes to personality types, there’s no one type that’s particularly right or particularly wrong. At least…that’s what I keep telling myself. No, each personality type comes with advantages and disadvantages. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. For me, when something is a habit, I’m dependable. Now, I’m sometimes forgetful, but once something is locked into a habit, you can count on my doing it. On the other hand, I can be boring; especially if you have the kind of personality that prefers a bit more variety.
Whether you have a habit-forming personality or not, though, you do probably have a set of habits that control much of your life. Or, to put that another way, much of what you do on a regular basis you do because those are the things you do. They are your habits. And to a large extent, they exert more control over you than you might imagine. You may imagine yourself to be free to do whatever you want because of how strong your will is, but your best intentions are powerless before a well-ingrained habit.
Speaking of that, have you ever tried to break or set a habit? Not so easy a feat on either side. Trying to break a habit can feel a bit like trying to change the direction of a river. On the other hand, trying to set a habit usually requires breaking an existing habit meaning you have to do twice as much work. And, if you manage to break a habit but don’t have a replacement habit ready to go, you’re probably not going to succeed in breaking it after all. In other words, breaking and setting habits are really two sides of the same coin.
My question for us this morning is this: What kind of habits do you have? And I’m not talking about physical habits. I mean, I hope you have the habit of brushing your teeth before you leave the house in the mornings, but that’s mostly just a social convenience until your dentist fixes you with a gigantic bill from all the deferred maintenance. Think with me for a second about what kind of social and psychological habits you have. When something good happens, what is the first thing you do? Do you sit on it? Tell someone else? Start looking for the catch? What else? On the other side of things, when something bad happens, what is the first thing you do? Do you find the positives in the mess? Do you lean into the people around you for support? Do you fall to fear and worry? I know that different situations will provoke different reactions in you, but most of us have a set of behavioral norms that extend to our reactions to the circumstances we are facing. If we are going to try and deal with the fact that we’re often not fine in this life, getting ahold of these habits are an essential ingredient to our success.
This morning we are in the second part of our new series, I’m Fine. All this month we are talking about the fact that although many of us will say, “I’m fine,” when asked how we’re doing, we’re not really. And that’s where we started our conversation last week. With the help of one of the sons of Kohath, a family of worship leaders for the ancient Israelites, we faced up to the fact that it’s okay to be not okay. That’s simply how life goes sometimes. Life gets hard and anxiety and depression are waiting in the wings to take control of our narrative. Nonetheless, these don’t have to define our lives. There is another way. With the psalmist we saw that when anxiety comes, if we will turn our attention heavenward, we will find the strength we need to move forward. When anxiety comes, focus on the Father.
But, as we said last week, knowing how to deal with the hard emotions when they are with us is important, but it would be even better if we could prevent them from happening in the first place. That’s what I want to talk about with you this morning. So, how do we do it? It always helps to learn from someone who’s already managed the feat. Well, the apostle Paul fits that particular bill about as well as we could hope for. Paul experienced danger and hardship over the course of his ministry again and again. He had every reason to be completely overcome by anxiety and fear. Depression should have been his constant companion. And yet, in writings we have from what by every expectation should have been one of the darkest times in his life, his tone exuded joy more fully and richly than it did in anything else he wrote.
We find this in his letter to the church in Philippi. Philippians is one of Paul’s prison epistles—a letter he wrote from prison. Specifically, he was in prison in Rome. He was under house arrest, chained to Roman guards, and was probably dictating the letter to a young man named Epaphroditus. Furthermore, after a lifetime of run-ins with the Roman government that didn’t tend to fall in his favor, Paul didn’t expect to survive this season. There’s a reason he wrote in 1:21: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” He was ready to go either way. And while we can marvel at his faith here, I want to be sure you don’t miss his attitude. Here he was literally contemplating his death, and there’s just this joyfulness emanating from every word he wrote. Can you imagine the look on the faces of his pagan guards as they heard him say these things?
This all just begs the question: How did he manage this? Because whatever he’s doing, it seems like if we do the same, we could keep the twin terrors of anxiety and depression at bay in our own lives a whole lot more effectively than perhaps we are right now. Well, near the end of the letter, when doling out some closing, practical advice, Paul lets us in on his secret. Listen to this from Philippians 4:4 and following: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your graciousness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever it is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence—dwell on these things. Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Is your mind blown yet? Maybe not, I’ll admit. But this is pretty important stuff. What we find Paul doing here is offering us a series of actions we can take to put ourselves in the same place he was when facing our own hard seasons. For the rest of our time together this morning, let’s walk through what we see here.
If we are going to keep hard emotions at bay, the first thing Paul says is that we should rejoice in the Lord always. Rejoice in the Lord always? Really? I mean, sure, there are plenty of times we naturally rejoice in the Lord, but there are plenty of times in which rejoicing in the Lord seems as far from a reasonable response to the situation we are in as it could possibly be. What gives? Well, Paul means exactly what he says here. And keep in mind his circumstances: He was dictating these words to someone while he was chained to a guard under house arrest awaiting what he fully expected to be his execution. Let me add some more to that. When Paul actually visited Philippi to plant the church, he was arrested for driving a fortune-telling demon out of a slave girl who was making her owner a lot of money. Paul’s response to this wildly unjust (not to mention illegal for a Roman citizen as Paul was) arrest? To spend the night singing and praising God at the top of his lungs. Rejoice in the Lord always.
Our first reaction to hard news may not be celebration, but that’s simply because we don’t have the right habits in place. Like Paul, we need to develop the habit of celebration in all things. What does that mean? It means that in every situation we are facing we actively seek out something worth celebrating—something we want more of—and give that our first and best attention. This isn’t automatic. It is a developable and practiced skill. But when we do it, this will accomplish a number of important things in our lives. Notably for our particular emphasis this morning, celebration can drive away anxiety. Why? Because if we are focused on celebrating our circumstances, we won’t be worried about them. Our focus here isn’t on the elements of our situation over which we don’t have control, but rather on the elements we want to see more of in the future. Granted, in some situations there may not be many of these, but if we’ll give them our focus, anxiety won’t be able to get a foothold.
Next, Paul points us in the direction of developing a habit of graciousness. What is this? Being gracious is all about giving the people around us the benefit of the doubt. That can be hard to do, can’t it? This is especially true when you’ve been burned a time or three. Go through very many instances of betrayal or failure and you won’t give people the benefit of the doubt so much as you’ll begin to be doubtful of their benefit. You’ll begin assuming the worst about people and situations. Do you know what happens when you do that? You start to get depressed. Your anxiety level begins to rise. Paul said, though, to let your graciousness be known to all. That means developing this as a habit, a reputation.
Okay, so, what does this look like? It looks like assuming the best in all of your circumstances. It means finding whatever is the most generous possible explanation for the situation you are in or the way the people around you have behaved toward you and behaving as if that were true. And here’s the really important part of that: whether or not it actually is true doesn’t matter. We behave as if that’s the case. Now, this isn’t simply a blind embrace of naiveté. We are fully aware that we could be wrong. Giving the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean being unwise, it means being gracious. When someone has betrayed or burned us, giving the benefit of the doubt means that we offer them forgiveness because perhaps they had a reason that seemed to justify their hurtful actions or else that they weren’t taught any better or something else that explains it. Doing that, however, doesn’t preclude us from refusing to extend trust without safeguards the next time. By being gracious with them, though, we have refused to live at the mercy of our circumstances. Instead, we are dictating the terms of our engagement. Anxiety and depression have no access to our hearts when we do that.
With celebration and graciousness as our companions, the next thing Paul says becomes much, much easier. We refuse to worry. About anything. And just so we’re clear, that means anything. If there is a thing, we don’t worry about it. And if it’s not a thing, there’s nothing to worry about anyway. See how that works? Worry is a substitute for faith. It is an idolatrous attempt to grab control over a situation instead of entrusting it to God in which we feel we don’t have control. We falsely believe that by worry we are taking up the reins of our life in order to steer it where we want to go. Far from directing the wagon, though, when we worry, we are clinging for dear life to a team of horses running wildly toward a cliff with no real prospect of stopping them. Worry is a habit, though, and if we are going to break a bad habit, we’ve got to have a good habit to put in its place.
Thus, instead of worrying, we pray. And I know that’s about as expected a thing as you could have possibly imagined I would say this morning, but stay with me. Paul here is not talking about offering some sanitized prayer that doesn’t really get to the heart of our fear, but which we feel like we’re supposed to do because then at least we can say we tried. This is prayer in the context of celebration and a spirit of graciousness. But even when we can’t manage that much, the kind of praying that staves off worry is praying that’s honest about how we’re really feeling. Sometimes that kind of praying will be neat and tidy, but more often it will be pretty rough. When we’re desperate for help, crying out to God, our prayers aren’t going to be very pretty. But then we saw that last week. The prayer of one of the sons of Kohath we saw in Psalm 42 was a whirlwind of emotions. That’s okay. It was directed at God and from the heart. It was rooted in a relationship with Him.
There’s one more thing about this praying Paul commands to replace worry. It is rooted in thanksgiving. Remember what he said? Make your requests to God through prayer and petition with thanksgiving. In a way, this brings us full circle. We started with celebration and we are back to gratitude. Here’s why gratitude is so powerful: You don’t worry about things for which you are grateful. Right? Gratitude and depression don’t go together. Too often we go through life either taking things for granted or being ungrateful for them. This creates a negative climate which forms fertile ground for all kinds of ugly emotions. Developing the habit of gratitude stops this from happening.
Ultimately, though, if we want to keep away the hard emotions and thoughts and fears that keep us feeling not fine, we’ve got to not let the seeds of those weeds into our hearts and minds in the first place. Jesus Himself was the one who made the point that when ugly stuff comes out of us that’s only because it was in us in the first place. Nothing comes out of our hearts that isn’t already there. This is why Paul says to give our attention to things that are true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable and morally excellent. If you’re letting garbage in all the time by the media you consume, you shouldn’t be at all surprised when garbage starts coming out of you. This will often happen at times and in ways you least expect, and which are never convenient in the moment. When we fill our minds and hearts with the good, the true, and the beautiful, those are the seeds that will gradually grow and bloom in us. But, like everything else we’ve talked about, this is about the habits we set. The media you consume is a habit you are in.
And this just brings to the key point in all of this: our habits. To a very great extent, the way we react to the situations and circumstances we are facing is rooted in a set of habits we have in place in our lives. They are likely habits developed over many years and which we probably don’t even realize we have. But they are there all the same and they are controlling our lives in more ways than we’d care to know. If we are going to make a change and keep some of these habitual hard emotions at bay before they have a chance to take root, then we’ve got to set about doing the hard work of changing our habits. Sometimes, this may require us to confront hard things in our past that caused those habits to be put in place. Instead of complaining about our circumstances, we intentionally celebrate them. Rather than cynicism, we choose graciousness. Worry we replace with prayer. We no longer take things for granted, but are determinedly thankful for them, whatever they are. And we replace the junk we so often allow to fill our hearts and minds with things that are more reflective of the character of God. In short, we develop habits of righteousness. When life has us in turmoil, peace can be found in developing habits of righteousness.
That’s what Paul promises here. Did you catch that in v. 7? When we do these things, “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Think about that for a minute. Peace that surpasses all understanding. That means if you practice these things, you can experience a peace that completely defies the circumstances you are facing. By every rational measure, your situation should leave you in an absolute tailspin of anxiety and depression, but there you’ll be, standing firm and even smiling as you gratefully give God the glory for the good things in your life. It won’t make any sense to anybody looking from the outside in, and, frankly, it may not even make much sense to you. But it’ll come all the same. You have the peace of God that only makes sense from within the framework of His kingdom; that only is obtainable when you’ve got these habits of righteousness in place. Peace can be found in developing habits of righteousness.
And that is exactly what you can begin to do with this. Take some time this week and evaluate the kinds of habits you have in place in your life. When hard or unexpected things happen, take stock of your first reaction. Is it fear? Irritation? Frustration? Depression? Self-hatred? Or do you turn to gratitude or celebration or joyfulness or graciousness? If one from that former set, then it’s time to start making some changes. They will only ever lead you down a slippery slope of emotion that will leave you feeling not fine a whole lot more often than otherwise. Peace can be found in developing habits of righteousness. You pick the habit. Pick one from the list we’ve talked through this morning, or find another commended to you in the Scriptures, but one by one start this good work and the changes will gradually begin to show. It won’t be quick—you’re changing the course of a river, remember? But if you’ll stick with it, it will come. Peace can be found in developing habits of righteousness.