A Thorough Reorientation

Our world is a mess. What’s more, it seems to be getting messier by the day. And these aren’t merely just a bunch of small messes. They are bigger and more complicated messes than what it feels like we’ve faced in a very long time. In the midst of all of this, it is easy to give in to the constant pull we feel to anxiety and despair. Peace is absent from the scene. How can we fix this? How can we find peace in a world that seems to have gone crazy? For the next three weeks, that is a question we are tackling together in a new teaching series called, Peace in a World Gone Mad. With some help from the apostle Paul, we are going to be talking about how we can enjoy the peace of God in the midst of circumstances that seem anything but peaceful. If you have been struggling of late with the state of the world, this is a series you won’t want to miss. Thanks for reading and sharing.

A Thorough Reorientation

Have you ever looked up into the night sky and just thought, “Wow!” One thing about living where we do is that there isn’t nearly the amount of light pollution at night that you have when you get closer to the city. I can’t tell you how many times we have been sitting out after the sun goes down around our fire pit and just marveled together at the wonder of the night sky. The other night we looked out after dark and you could clearly see three planets shining in the sky in addition to all the stars. It was pretty spectacular. 

If you range a bit in the nerdier direction like I do, though, when you look up at the night sky, while your first thought might be, “Wow,” your second thought is, “I wonder what constellation that is and what planet that is and where the other planets are and what phase exactly the moon is in and whether there are any nebulae you can see and just where is the International Space Station in all of this beautiful jumble of lights and…” Well, you get the picture. I did take an intro to astronomy class in college, but it was my senior year when I was focused on things other than unnecessary science electives, and so it became the one class I dropped in college. Thankfully, you don’t need a background in astronomy to know what’s what up in the night sky. You just need a starfinder app. 

Now, if your starfinder app runs like mine…and if you use it like I do…every now and then it gets lost. It’ll get stuck on one part of the sky and when you move it to show you somewhere else, it doesn’t know what to do. It doesn’t know where you are. All the quick and sudden movements have left the app disoriented. Thankfully, there’s an easy fix for this. You just give your phone a little shake, and like shaking your head can wake you up a bit when you’re drowsy or disoriented, it gets things reoriented back in the right direction. 

Do you ever feel like the world we are living in has the tendency to leave you a bit disoriented at times like my starfinder app? I mean, just think through the last few years and everything we have lived through. Obviously there’s Covid, whose long shadow has almost entirely receded from hanging over us. We’re just two years past one of the most contentious elections of at least the last century. We’re just two years away from what promises to be another one like it. The increasing polarization between the political right and the political left has rendered the nation more politically unstable than it has been in a generation. We are just a few weeks past yet another mass shooting, this time in a Christian school. Love guns or hate them, our nation’s gun culture combined with a growing slate of mental health issues has us facing a unique set of challenges that only seem to be getting worse by the year. 

Speaking of those mental health challenges, our nation is undergoing a mental health crisis of anxiety and loneliness and despair. We have a whole category of deaths now called deaths of despair. Some of these come by way of suicide, but a whole bunch more of them come by way of people trying to cope with any number of internal wounds and struggles by taking drugs which are increasingly laced with fentanyl which is killing us by the millions each year. And if you think all of this is bad on adults, it’s even worse on our young people. The pressures created by social media are wreaking havoc on our young people. They are constantly being pushed to make unwise choices and question their identities in ways that go all the way down to whether they are a boy or a girl or something else. There is indeed a whole segment of our culture that is utterly sold out to the notion that gender is anything but fixed and immutable and will lash out—sometimes violently—if you suggest to them that you believe any differently. 

And then there are all the international challenges. Totalitarian states across the world are growing more and more belligerent. They are cozying up to each other in new alliances that are dangerous for freedom-loving peoples around the world. China and Russia are actively seeking to reassert themselves as global threats to Taiwan, Ukraine, and a variety of other places in the world. 

In the midst of a storm like this that only seems to be growing by the day, what are we supposed to do? Well, as followers of Jesus, we have an answer to that question: We are to be the church. We are to be a people of hope. We are to be a people who live with the hope of the resurrection of Jesus fresh in our hearts and minds like we talked about just last week. But while that sounds really good in the context of a gathering like this one, the rubber of theory doesn’t always meet the road of reality very well. We struggle with how to do that just like everyone else does. And sometimes we get pulled down into the muck with them. How do we get out of it? I’ll tell you: we reorient our thinking. 

Just like a starfinder app occasionally gets all discombobulated by being swirled about in different directions too quickly, so do we. When this happens, we can’t literally give ourselves a good shaking to get things back in the right place, but on a spiritual level, that is exactly what we need. When the mess of the world around us has us looking every way for help other than the way we should be looking, we need to shake up our spiritual lives so our focus can get put back where it belongs. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. For the next three weeks, in a new series called Peace in a World Gone Mad, and with the guidance of some things the apostle Paul wrote, we are going to take a look at some spiritual practices that can help us do this. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. Let’s talk about how. 

We’re going to start this morning in Paul’s letter to the believers in an ancient city called Philippi. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to Philippians 4 with me. Philippi was a wealthy, fairly prominent city in the ancient world. It was a common retirement home for former Roman soldiers. As often happened in ancient cities with this kind of a cultural recipe characterizing them, Philippi was home to a lot of different religious activities that brought with it all sorts of different things that didn’t accord very well with the Christian worldview of the young church Paul had planted there. In a world where everyone expects a high degree of tolerance for all manner of different religious and non-religious worldviews, the group that says they’re all wrong doesn’t tend to fare very well. Well, the heart of the Gospel they believed and proclaimed was that all these other groups were wrong…and they didn’t fare very well. Cultural scrutiny quickly became persecution, and the young church in Philippi suffered through a lot of it. Yet in spite of their sufferings, they were doggedly pursuing the path of Christ. Paul, who was in the midst of his own set of rough circumstances, wrote to encourage them to bear up under it faithfully just like he was. 

Look at this with me starting in 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.” These poor believers were living in circumstances that seemed to suggest the reasonableness of just about anything but rejoicing. They were struggling under a heavy weight of persecution and were considered a pariah by their entire community. How are you supposed to rejoice in a situation like that? You’re not. Paul didn’t tell them to rejoice in their circumstances. Their circumstances were awful. They were to rejoice in the Lord. 

We serve a God who is good in spite of our circumstances. He is the God who loved us so much that He sent His only Son to die in our place so that we can have eternal life. If that is not a cause of rejoicing, I’m not sure what is. When everything is blowing up around us, it is incredibly tempting to give our attention to the chaos. Our eyes are drawn to it almost against our will. If we do that, though, our vision will quickly be overwhelmed by how many awful things are happening around us. Paul’s first and last counsel in this passage is to reorient our sights on what is most true. And the most true thing in the world is that God is good and worthy of our worship. No matter what else happens, we know that Jesus rose from the grave and because of that we have eternal life that will last far longer than the troubles surrounding us. That is a cause of rejoicing. So, we should. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. 

Paul tells them to let their graciousness or gentleness or reasonableness (depending on your translation) be known to all. What does this mean? The Greek word Paul uses here describes a person who has an attitude of kindness in a situation that would normally evoke a response of ugliness. You’ve been in a situation like this before. Perhaps someone cut you off in traffic. Letting your graciousness be known to all then might involve not telling them they’re now number one in your book…but with the other finger. It could mean not giving them a good, hard, angry stare down. It probably means not cutting them back off in response. Maybe you’ve been around a person who was mean to you mostly just out of spite. Perhaps you have even experienced a bit of genuine persecution. Putting these two verses together, Paul is telling these folks living in a world that was insane with sin to focus their attention on God and to respond to the circumstances they were facing from out of His character, not their own. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. 

Jumping ahead just a bit to v. 8, Paul actually comes back to this point to give them a bit more counsel on how to pursue it. This reorientation of their perspective was not going to be able to happen as long as their primary sources of input were reinforcing the ugliness around them. They needed to find input sources that allowed them to give their attention to things far higher and nobler than their culture could produce. Look at this now in v. 8: “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. Do what you have learned and received and heard from me, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” 

Do you see how Paul is saying the same thing here  as he was back in vv. 4-5 but in a slightly different and more direct way? If we are going to rejoice in the Lord always, it will be when we reorient our perspective on who God is rather than what our circumstances are. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. Here Paul tells us how. We are to give over our thinking to things that are true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable and morally excellent and praiseworthy. In other words, we give it to things that reflect God’s character, not the state of our circumstances. 

Think with me for just a second about your primary sources of cultural input. Do you primarily draw from television? What kind of television? What kind of shows do you tune into most frequently? Does all of that content fit with this list from Paul? Or maybe you’re a news junkie like I am? What is your primary source for news? How politically one-sided is that news source’s perspective? Do you seek to get a balanced range of viewpoints, or does everything you engage with come from just one side? Is it a news source committed to presenting facts or entertaining you with a variety of opinions geared toward an echo-chamber like effect where you only hear what you want to hear and so become more convinced over time of how right you are and how wrong the other side is? Or is your primary draw from social media or YouTube? Which social media service is your primary source of news and information? Then, of course, there are books, movies, magazines, newspapers (if you still actually read one of those), friends, family, and the local gossip mill. 

Once you’ve identified your primary sources of information, it’s time to ask another question: How reflective of God’s character are those sources? Are they focusing your thinking in the direction of what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, morally excellent, and praiseworthy? Or are they filling your head with garbage and feeding into the fear or anxiety or anger you are prone to feeling because of your circumstances? If you are feeling a host of negative things on a regular basis and your primary sources of information are not terribly reflective of God’s character, it just may be that you need to reorient yourself around the kind of things that are going to point you in the direction of God’s kingdom and His righteousness. I believe it was Jesus who said that giving our first and best attention to those two things is the secret to having all manner of good things added to our lives. When the world is a mess, reorient on God.

Okay, but there’s still so much to cause us grief when the world around us is leaning into the brokenness of sin rather than away from it. What are we supposed to do then? Paul plants the answer to this right in the middle of this passage like a present wrapped up in a bow. Look with me now at v. 6: “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.” 

Now, I suspect many of you have heard this before. This is often treated like bumper sticker theology at its finest. Yet this is a promise from the Holy Spirit that Paul gives us here. And it is a powerful promise. Look at what he says. Don’t worry about anything. Don’t be anxious about anything. Don’t try to grab hold of control you don’t—and can’t—really have in order to pretend you have it all together when just the opposite is true. That’s all worry is. It is pretending to have control in a situation over which you don’t have any control because you’re not willing to trust the One who actually does have everything well in hand. We do that all the time because we trust more in ourselves than we do in God. The bigger the mess of the world around us, the more we lean into it. We can see ourselves and have some sense of what we can do. With God we have to have faith. It is a thoroughly justified faith in light of His long track record of faithfulness, but it is faith all the same, and that’s hard. So we worry. Paul says don’t do that. Ever. About anything. When the world is a mess, reorient on God.

How? Pray. Pray? What’s that supposed to do? For starters, prayer connects us with the God who actually does have control of things. The more we pray, the less we’ll worry. We’ll worry less, because as we pray—if indeed we are really praying and not just throwing random thoughts in the air because we don’t really believe anyone is listening, or, worse, praying to a god who doesn’t actually exist and can’t answer us—God reveals more of Himself and His character and His power to us. The greater a vision and understanding we have of that, the less our general incapability will bother us. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. 

To understand how this works just a bit better, look closely at exactly what Paul tells us to do. He tells us we are to present our requests to God. Now, think with me here for just a second. If you make a request of someone else, what does that imply about you? It implies that you don’t have whatever it is. If you had it, you wouldn’t need to ask for it. Our making requests of God carries with it the implicit acknowledgement that we can’t handle whatever it is we are praying about on our own. Listen: as long as we wrongly think we can handle the mess swirling about around us, we’re going to keep trying and failing to hold it all together. It is when we reorient our focus on God that we will finally put ourselves in a position of being able to receive the help and hope He already wants to give us. 

In this way, prayer isn’t going to be a magic bullet, but it will set us on the path toward finding what we are really seeking from the One who is able to give it to us. And His willingness to give is something important to remember, and something Paul doesn’t overlook here. He doesn’t merely tell us to present our requests to God. He tells us to do it “with thanksgiving.” What does that mean? Well, we’re grateful to someone when they have done something for us. Okay, but how do we make requests with thanksgiving as if God had already done what we asked of Him? Isn’t that a little arrogant on our part? It could be, and depending on what we have asked it could be devastatingly arrogant. But if our hearts are in the right place, what this could more truly reflect is our faith that God is for us and is going to provide us the help we need when we seek Him for it. In this way, our trust in Him allows us to be grateful before we have received anything from Him. Grateful people tend not to be focused on or worried about the hard things going on around them. Instead, they’re focused on finding the good they can celebrate and share. That’s quite a perspective shift, and one that will set us back on the right track when we’ve left it. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. 

When we pray, we see God. And when we see God, we have our vision of our circumstances reoriented around Him and His limitless power instead of us and our limited capacity. When life has left us disoriented because it has us spinning around so much from all the chaos, this kind of a reorientation can really make a difference. When life is a mess, reorient on God. 

There’s one more thing I want to make sure you don’t miss this morning. I haven’t given this too much attention just yet, but did you catch what Paul said would be the result of adjusting our thinking and turning to prayer when the world feels especially messy? Look at it again. In v. 5 he said we should show everyone how gracious we are because “the Lord is near.” In v. 9 he said the Philippian believers should follow his own example of faithfulness carefully “and the God of peace will be with you.” Then in v. 7 he said that when we turn to prayer like we were just talking about “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” 

Do you see it? When the world is going crazy, the one thing we feel like we are missing more than anything else is peace. Yet does this mean peace is gone? Is it something we simply can’t have? Not at all. Peace hasn’t gone anywhere. We have simply gotten our perspective turned all inside out. We need to be reoriented. And once we are, the result is going to be peace. It will be a peace that from the outside looking in doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. The world thinks of peace in a fairly narrow set of terms, and when our circumstances are chaotic, peace is not something we have. Not so with the peace Paul promises. This peace is not merely the absence of conflict, but the confident assurance that our circumstances will ultimately play out for the good because of our trust in God’s ability to work out His good plans through our lives no matter what the current shape of our situation happens to be. And when we get ourselves reoriented on God, this peace is what we will experience. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. 

Friends, the world is a mess. It always has been since Adam and Eve took a bite of that fruit. It always will be until our Lord finally returns to claim His kingdom and to reorient the whole place around the kingdom of God. And though we may be able to shut out much of the mess on most occasions, sometimes it will land right in our laps in a way we simply can’t ignore. The world will try to disorient us and steal our peace. This is how we fight that. We reorient our focus back on God and we pray with gratitude in our hearts. When the world is a mess, reorient on God. You will find a path forward in that. 

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