Monday, February 22, 2016

February 21, 2016 The Seven Deadly Sins: Wrath

I’m pleased to be back this week, after accompanying Tanya on her business trip to Florida.  Last Sunday we had the pleasure of worshipping with First Christian Church in Melbourne, Florida.  I had previously visited that church in the spring of 1988.  Two friends and I were in Florida on spring break and we eventually made our way to Melbourne, where we camped in an orange grove for several nights.  I enjoyed visiting again, almost 38 years later (and enjoyed better accommodations) and was pleased to see the church continuing to thrive. 

Visiting churches while on vacation is a real blessing to me.  We sat on the back row so let me say these to those of you sitting on the back rows today – you are my people!  It’s a great vantage point from which to observe all that goes on.

This morning, we continue our journey through our Lenten series of messages based upon the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth).  Today, we come to the second in the series – wrath.  Our Scripture text for today comes from Romans 12:9-21, which offers an antidote to all of the Seven Deadly Sins, and certainly you will hear the ways in which Paul speaks to the dangers of wrath –

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 
10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.
11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 
13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.
16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.
18 If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
19 Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
20 On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

I offer four points this morning related to the deadly sin of wrath.

1.  Anger is an emotion, but it is also a seed, a seed that once planted, can grow into wrath.
When I was in either late junior high or early high school, an interesting question was posed to our youth group.  A young man had been visiting for several weeks, with interest in one of the young ladies in the group, and he often challenged our adult leaders with his questions.  On this particular occasion he asked, with a level of indignation, how could Jesus have been perfect?  When he cleansed the Temple he demonstrated anger, and anger is a sin, so how can you claim he was perfect?

Our leaders were stumped by his question, so one of them asked that one of us would go in search of our minister’s wife.  I can remember her standing in the doorway of the room looking perplexed by the question, as she also had no answer.  She said she would be back in a few minutes with her husband, our minister.  He was a wise, good man, and a very important role model and example to me.  I was surprised when he didn’t have an answer either.  Though I didn’t accept that the young man was correct, I struggled for a number of years to formulate an answer to his challenging question.  Finally, when I told someone the story some years later, I was given an answer that should have been immediately obvious.  Who ever said anger was a sin a friend of mine asked.  He was exactly right.  Anger is not a sin.  Anger is an emotion, just the same as joy or sadness.  Where, when, and how did we ever come to the conclusion that anger equated sin?  It’s simply not true.  Reading the Bible one will find many, many instances of anger, as it is part and parcel of the human condition. While there are Scriptural warnings about the dangers of anger, such as Ephesians 4:26, where Paul writes in your anger do not sin, it is a mistake to connect anger and sin together; they are not one and the same.  Some lists of the Seven Deadly Sins, in fact, substitute anger for wrath, but this is a false equivalency.  Anger is an emotion, not a sin, but the manner in which anger manifests itself can lead to sin.

The photo on the screen this morning (and at the top of this manuscript) is taken from a sculpture in Venice, Italy, and the inscription is translated as a cruel anger is within me.  That inscription is a good way to describe the sin of wrath.  Wrath is so much more than anger.  Wrath is a type of anger, but is goes much further than the manner in which we typically think of it.  Wrath is anger on steroids.  Anger that is left unchecked can quickly translate into wrath, which does indeed become a cruel anger within us, and is particularly dangerous because it always ratchets up destructive tendencies and feelings.  While anger can allow room for some form of equitable justice for a harm suffered, wrath is not content until is has destroyed the other person.  Wrath is never satisfied to restore a damaged relationship; instead, it seeks to inflict only harm and destruction.

I think all of us have a growing sense of unease about the amount of anger in our society. There is anger about our politics and our political system, about our economy, about the role of government in our lives, there are many contentious social issues, and it seems more and more that we live in a world swallowed up by anger, and it is transforming into something far deeper and more menacing.

Some of that anger based in the way in which we sometimes feel diminished and marginalized, which will lead to anger.  We feel threatened by others and the gains they make and this causes us to feel insecure about what might happen to our freedoms and our liberties, as though one person’s gain must necessarily lead to another person’s loss.  For others, their religious beliefs or political views are rejected by many others and the marginalization that they feel feeds anger, and that anger can grow into something far more troubling.  I think it is a safe assumption that the shooter who killed six people, and wounded several others, yesterday in Kalamazoo, Michigan allowed his anger, his sense of marginalization, and his feeling of marginalization to turn into wrath, a wrath that was tragically turned to innocent bystanders.

Anger is not the same as wrath, but it is a seed, and too often that seed is watered, fertilized, and nurtured until it grows into wrath.

2.  Wrath will eat you alive.
After the early service someone texted me this saying – the rage you feel does more damage to the vessel in which it is stored than to the object on which it is poured.  Wrath wreaks much havoc upon the lives of others, but it does the most damage to the person whom it controls.

Even the word is ugly – wrath.  That’s a word that sounds menacing.  If you are a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and his Lord of the Rings trilogy, you are familiar with the wraiths.  The name of wraith finds its root in wrath.  The wraiths were beings who were distorted by their anger, their hatred, and their wrath.  This is what wrath will do to us; it will distort our nature that reflects the image of God and turn it into something destructive.

I don’t think any of us really know the way in which we are perceived by others, but I would guess that most people see me as a fairly laid back person who operates on an even keel.  I wasn’t always this way.  When I was younger I had a bad temper.  I had a nasty temper.  I remember vividly when I was late in high school getting very upset with a couple of my friends, out of a larger group who were gathered in my family’s yard.  I can still see my friends standing around looking at me as though thinking who is this possessed person?  And possessed is a word that is very applicable to wrath, as we become possessed, we become consumed by this desire to extract revenge, or to cause harm, or hurt another person or persons.

When anger is allowed to run unchecked in our lives it becomes something very different; it becomes wrath. Wrath turns into an all-consuming desire for revenge, to bring about destruction and pain.  Wrath will repudiate the core virtues of Christianity – love, forgiveness, and grace.

A Scripture passage that comes to mind when thinking about wrath is that of Genesis 4:2-7, part of the story of Cain and Abel, which I have quoted often in messages – 2 Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast. Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

I find God’s warning about anger and sin in this passage to be very instructive.  Anger was present in Cain and he watered, fertilized, and nurtured that anger until it grew into wrath.  Sin is a force that is always crouching, always seeking an opportunity to pounce upon us and to bring destruction to our lives.  It will use our anger, twisting it into wrath and seeking to use that wrath as a destructive force in our lives and the lives of others.  Anger will eat us alive.

3.  Be aware of your unresolved grief. 
I started to leave this point out, because I don’t know that it fits in the flow of this message, but I think it is an important point for all of us, because all of us have some element of unresolved grief in our lives.  I am now well into my fourth decade of ministry, and over the course of those years I have observed the one does not have to scratch the surface of anyone’s life very deeply before that grief becomes very apparent.  And, in my experience, everyone – yes, everyone – has some measure of unresolved grief that is at work under the surface of their life.

It is important to understand that grief does not always stem from the loss of a loved one.  There are many sources of grief – a broken relationship, the remnants of being bullied, being treated unjustly the loss of a job, a health issue – anything that is traumatic in our lives leads to grief, and that grief must be addressed.

Many years ago I read an article in Parade magazine.  Does anyone remember Parade?  It came in our Sunday newspaper.  Did you receive it here?  One Sunday there was an interview with a psychologist that has stayed with me, because of something she said.  In talking about the hurts that children suffer, she said that children will say to us, I hurt.  If that hurt is not dealt with, their words I hurt will change from a description of emotion into a predictor of behavior.

Whatever the source of your unresolved grief, learn to deal with it.

4.  There is a time for anger.
Ecclesiastes chapter 3 is one of the most famous passages of Scripture.  It contains the words there is a time for everything, and you know those words from your study of Scripture and from the song popularized by the Byrds.  In verse 7 Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak.  We could add that there is a time for action as well.

Anger is not always a negative or destructive force, but one that God places within us to move us to action.  This is what we call righteous anger, as Jesus demonstrated when he cleansed the Temple, turning over the tables of the moneychangers and driving them from that holy place.  They had turned the holy place of God’s people into a place of crass commerce, cheating others in the name of God.  Jesus was incensed by what was taking place there.  If we fail to become angry at the violence and injustice in the world we have allowed our hearts to become either too calloused or we have allowed ourselves to grow blind to the suffering of others.

God seeks to redeem anger, as he is always working to bring about redemption.  Instead of allowing anger to become wrath and become destructive, God’s aim is to turn our anger into a positive force in order to work against the injustice and suffering.  God seeks to redeem that anger which plagues the world.  The prophets of the Old Testament often burned with anger as they sought to bring about the end of injustice.  The prophet Nathan, for example, in bringing to light David’s sin with Bathsheba (II Samuel 12:1-14), burned with righteous anger about David’s abuse of power, which had led to the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband.  In one of the Bible’s most dramatic scenes, Nathan says to David, you are the man!  Nathan was unafraid to challenge the king and to reveal David’s murderous treachery. To make such a stunning pronouncement required Nathan to summon all of the righteous anger he could muster.

Tanya and I went to see the movie Risen yesterday.  People often ask me my opinion of faith-based movies.  I don’t see them all, but I did enjoy Risen.  The movie was well done and contained some scenes that were very moving.  If you like movies, and if you have contemplated seeing this movie, I recommend it to you.  We went to the new theater off of Blankenbaker Drive in Louisville.  If you have not been to that theater, it is different from others in the seating.  This theater has recliners, and I’m not talking about recliners like the raggedy old one that used to sit in our den, and that required a hard pull on the lever to allow it to lean back.  These are large, leather, electric, and very comfortable recliners.  You push a button and it will stretch out until it is completely flat.  I’m tempted to go back to the theater and pay for a ticket, find an empty theater, and take a nap in one.  Although they are very comfortable, there is something very strange about looking around at a theater full of people, with their 15 gallon buckets of popcorn, 10 gallon Cokes, and bushel boxes of Milk Duds, all leaning back in those recliners.  I couldn’t help but think, is this what we’ve become?  But at the same time I also thought, I really like this!  It is as if the world is conspiring against us, but not to make us hard-hearted or calloused towards humanity; it is as if we are being lulled to sleep, made indifferent, or apathetic about the blight of so many of our brothers and sisters.  It’s not that we don’t care; it’s that we don’t see or notice the sufferings of others because we have been lulled to sleep in our own very comfortable cocoon of existence.

It is time to wake up from our slumber, to allow the struggles of others to call to us through any indifference and apathy that might have set in upon us.  There is a time for anger – righteous anger – and a time to allow that anger to move us to action, just as it did Jesus.

Do not allow your anger to consume you and to turn into wrath.  Instead, allow that anger to move you outward, and into the lives of those brothers and sisters who need you to minister to them in the name of Christ!

Monday, February 08, 2016

February 7, 2016 The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride

As we prepare to journey through Lent I will offer a series of messages on the Seven Deadly Sins.  Lent lends itself to the more introspective of sermon topics, and the Seven Deadly Sins certainly fall into that category.  We need to be more contemplative, which is difficult in this loud and busy world.  There’s not much contemplation going on in our society today, certainly, on Super Bowl Sunday.

The Seven Deadly Sins are comprised of the following – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.  Until now I have never preached on this list of sins, and if memory serves me correctly, I have only preached on two of these sins in all my years of ministry – pride and anger, with some mentions of greed here and there.

The Seven Deadly Sins are not quite found in a Biblical List.  I say not quite because the Book of Proverbs comes close.  In Proverbs 6:16-19 we read that there are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him:  haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers.

The most well known Biblical reference to pride, the sin we will study this week, is probably that of Proverbs 16:18 – pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.  This characteristic of pride is evident in many parts of Scripture, beginning in the story of the fall in the Garden of Eden, where the serpent plays upon the pride of the man and woman (Genesis 3:1-7).  It continues in the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9) and the pride of humanity in reaching toward the heavens, and is also found in many of the stories that reference the scribes and Pharisees, whose sense of pride caused them to look upon others with disdain.  This is most notably found in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14), which is our text for the day –

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable:
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.
12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

1.  The Sin of Pride Is A Distortion of Love.
From the time we are young we are inculcated with the message of pride – take pride in your efforts, take pride in your appearance, be proud of yourself, and we are proud of you.  Some people have heard the frustrated question can’t you take more pride in yourself? 

As we hear so much about the ways in which we should be proud, what then, is wrong with pride?  Nothing, in some ways.  There is a healthy form of pride, which is appreciating the talents and accomplishments of others. 

Perhaps pride is the wrong word to use in those circumstances; it would be more accurate to use the word love. There is nothing wrong in taking pleasure in something that is good, and an achievement of a family member or friend is something that is good.  It is love we are really expressing when we talk about the pride we have in our children, and when we urge them to have pride in the things they do, because that is a form of a health self-love. In this sense, the words pride and love become interchangeable, and in a Biblical sense the two are woven together at the baptism of Jesus, when God pronounces You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased (Luke 3:23).

The sin of pride is not that of being pleased with life’s accomplishments and milestones.  The sin of pride – like the other deadly sins – is a twisting of things that are, by nature, good things, but when they are twisted and corrupted they become twisted and corrupting in the one in whom they take root.  This is often the manner in which sin works – it allows us to believe that something is good for us when, it fact, it is quite damaging to us.  The sin in the Garden, for instance, is such an example.  The serpent doesn’t exactly lie to Eve as much as he twisted the truth.  He told her, you surely will not die, which was technically true, although the actions in the Garden unleashed spiritual death upon humanity.

In this sense, the Seven Deadly Sins become opposites of good impulses and the goodness that is within us.  A professor of mine once asked our class to make a list of positive qualities.  We named quite a few and he wrote them all on the board.  After completing the list he explained how there is a shadow side to every good characteristic.  A good work ethic, for instance, is a positive quality, but it can be twisted to its shadow side, which is to become a workaholic.  To be a workaholic means to have an unhealthy preoccupation with work that allows us to avoid something in our lives or causes us to be driven to distraction, as being a workaholic is never really about work.  In the same way, pride – the pleasure we feel in the accomplishment or achievement of a loved one becomes something else when it is twisted into an unhealthy self-love and sense of superiority over others.

2.  The Sin of Pride Is A Magnification of the Self Above Others.
The story is told of two ducks and a frog who lived happily together in a farm pond. The best of friends, the three would amuse themselves and play together in their waterhole. When the hot summer days came, however, the pond began to dry up, and soon it was evident they would have to move. This was no problem for the ducks, who could easily fly to another pond. But the frog was stuck. So it was decided that they would put a stick in the bill of each duck that the frog could hang onto with his mouth as they flew to another pond. The plan worked well – so well, in fact, that as they were flying along a farmer looked up in admiration and mused, "Well, isn't that a clever idea! I wonder who thought of it?" The frog opened his mouth and said, "I did..." 

Pride is, at its core, a sense of competition, as it is not content in what we have, but in having more than someone else (I am particularly indebted to C. S. Lewis on this point).  Greed may drive us to accumulate more, but drives us with a desire to have more than someone else, and to glory in our ability to have more than another.  It’s not having more that is what matters; what matters is having more than someone else.  It’s not accomplishment per se, but being more accomplished than someone else, and it always, in some way, makes sure that others know they have been bested.  It’s summed up well in the words of a wise salesman who told a customer let me show you something several of your neighbors said you couldn't afford.

This is particularly dangerous when it comes to spirituality.  There are few characteristics as distasteful as pride in the realm of spirituality and faith.  The Pharisee in our passage this morning is very unlikeable, isn’t he? He’s unlikeable because of the insufferable self-righteousness that pours out of him.  This is often on display, unfortunately. One of the presidential candidates actually said recently, I’m a great Christian!  Do you really have to call attention to that fact, if it is indeed a fact?  Shouldn’t it be obvious whether or not a person is a great Christian?

The Pharisee is proud of his accomplishment of fasting twice a week and tithing.  Those are not bad qualities, are they?  I tried fasting some years ago.  I wasn’t very good at it.  Ironically, fasting when far too slow for me.  But I think it can be a very good spiritual quality, as tithing can be as well.

But what the Pharisee did wrong was to make those practices legalistic.  Legalism takes something that is good and twists it into something far different, just as pride does.  Legalism drives one to do something good, but for the wrong reasons.  Legalism is faithfully following a practice but either forgetting or ignoring the meaning of the practice.  For the Pharisee, he practiced good things – fasting and tithing – but for the wrong reasons.  It was a competition to him.  I’m doing this better than others, and because I am, I’m better than others. Legalism is dangerous because it has its basis in pride.  Legalism allows us to construct a system of measures that are competitive – fast a certain number of days a year, give a certain amount of money, read a particular number of chapters of the Bible each day, go to a particular number of church functions each week – and if we are able to meet those standards more uniformly than others, then we can claim to be better people.  The problem, however, is that when we devise the standards we usually do so in a way that is more accommodating to ourselves than to others, allowing for our own level of spiritual superiority to be easier to attain.

There is a difference between thinking we have done something well and thinking I am a really great person because of what I have done.  Pride in spirituality, like what we see in the Pharisee, causes one to believe they are better than others because of what they have done and that God not only approves of them, but sees them as being better than everyone else. 

3.  Pride Is Seldom Seen In Ourselves.
The other evening I took an online test to see where I scored on the list of the seven sins.  There were two where I scored higher than the others, indicating I was more susceptible to them.  The two were pride and gluttony.  I don’t think I’m particularly gluttonous, but when it comes to sharing my chocolate, perhaps I am!  I was surprised that pride was that high on my test, but that is the nature of pride; we just don’t see it in ourselves.

In some ways we can feel sorry for the Pharisee, as we can see his pride but he cannot.  It’s embarrassing, isn’t it, when someone exudes an insufferable pride and they cannot see it, but everyone else can.

Pride is very easy to recognize in others but rarely or ever recognized within ourselves.  We will admit to many things, but rarely will one admit to being prideful, and rarely will anyone see that pride has taken root in their heart.  C. S. Lewis warns that as soon as we begin to feel good about our spirituality and our faith we should take that as a warning that pride has taken root and started to grow within us, and I think he is exactly correct. 

This is why Jesus says Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:3-5).

4.  Pride separates us from God.
This is very ironic, actually, as so much spiritual pride believes it brings one closer to God, but it doesn’t, because at its deepest level, pride sees no need for God

Pride separates.  Some vices will bring people together.  If one is a glutton, they are happy to be a glutton with others, for instance.  But pride always places a line of division between people.  Pride and division, in fact, always go hand in hand.

Pride drives a wedge of division especially between humanity and God.  It was pride in the Garden and pride at the Tower of Babel.  Pride leads to a sense of self-sufficiency when it comes to our relationship with God, in the thinking that we do not need God’s mercy and grace, as we can earn salvation on our own merits.

Benjamin Franklin settled on thirteen virtues that ought to be manifest in our lives, including Silence (Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation) Frugality (Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; that is, waste nothing) Industry (Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions) Tranquility (Be not disturbed at trifles or at accidents common or unavoidable).

He kept a notebook with a page for each virtue, lining a column in which to record "defects." Choosing a different virtue to work on each week, he daily noted every mistake, starting over every 13 weeks in order to cycle through the list four times a year. For many decades Franklin carried his little book with him, striving for a clean thirteen-week cycle.

As he made progress, he found himself struggling with yet another defect. There is perhaps no one of natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it. Struggle with it. Stifle it. Mortify it as much as one pleases. It is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself…even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.
(Phillip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace, Zondervan, 1997, p. 35)

This is why Jesus calls us to humility.  In Matthew 5:3, 5 – part of the Beatitudes – Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven and blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.  To be poor in spirit and meek is to demonstrate humility, which is sorely needed in today’s world.  How can we nurture a sense of humility in a world that often celebrates the demonstration of pride?

By staying tuned to Jesus.  By emulating his humility.  By turning away from pride.

Monday, February 01, 2016

January 31, 2016 Philippians: In Search of Contentment

I woke up early Monday morning, looked at the alarm clock, and was relieved to know it wasn’t time to get up.  But then I noticed that our house was very cold (my family believes I keep the thermostat far too low in the winter and too high in the summer, and since I pay the electric and gas bills I tell them if they would like to offer a contribution we can talk about an adjustment).  It only took a moment to realize something was definitely wrong. In the quiet of the morning I could hear a strange noise through the vent system of the furnace trying to start but then turning off.  It took only a few moments to realize that our heat was out.  My first thought should have been one of gratitude that it wasn’t as cold as it had been the previous week, but it wasn’t; my mind quickly became occupied with all the adjustments to my day to see that the furnace could be fixed.  It took a day and a half for the heat to be repaired and it was cold the next night in the house and that circumstance shaped my thinking throughout that entire time.

It wasn’t the end of the world certainly, but it did occupy my mind quite a bit, and being inconvenienced in such a way brought me to thinking about how easily we are influenced by what takes place around us, by our circumstances.  It doesn’t take much to bring us to a state of discontent.  One change in our morning or day can completely alter our sense of contentment about life.

This morning we conclude our series of messages from the book of Philippians, and as we do we come to one of the most powerful passages in this powerful book.

As we have journeyed through the book of Philippians, each week I have called attention to the circumstances in which Paul found himself.  He was in chains, a prisoner of the Roman Empire, and about to be executed.  And yet, in spite of his circumstances, the Scripture text for this week reveals to us a person who exudes contentment.  How could this be?  Shouldn’t Paul have been angry about his circumstances?  Shouldn’t he have been bitter about the miscarriage of justice that, instead of freeing him, had condemned him to death?  Perhaps Paul could have justified such feelings, but he did not give in to them.

Philippians 4:8-13 –

Finally, 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.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.
11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
12 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.
13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

In spite of greater affluence, greater opportunity, better medical care, education, and mounds of technology to bring far greater convenience to our lives, I’m not sure we have found any greater sense of contentment. 

Am I wrong?  Are you content?  If so, how did you arrive at such a state?  If not, what do you think makes contentment so elusive?

Considering the state of the world one could be forgiven for believing there is no way to experience any sense of contentment when so much suffering, violence, and other tragedies fill our world.  And I’m not talking about the struggle with depression that is so overwhelming to many people.  That is a very real, very devastating disease and those who struggle with depression will very quickly tell you that it is next to impossible to find any sense of contentment in the midst of that struggle.

Where would we be willing to go to find contentment?  What would we be willing to do to find contentment?  What would we be willing to pay to find contentment?  What would you be wiling to give to find contentment, especially on the level that was present in the life of Paul?

As I thought about this message I wondered a good deal about the difference between happiness and contentment.  Happiness and contentment are not the same; happiness, to me, contains more of an emotional component, while contentment speaks to our basic sense of well-being in our lives.  Contentment is the bedrock sense of who we are and the way in which we view life and our place in this world.

Contentment rests upon a number of factors, but I want to concentrate on just a few of them this morning and do so through the lens of Paul’s sense of contentment, which obviously came from his faith.

1.  Let Faith Change How You Think About Yourself.
Over the course of my ministry I have come to understand that some people need extra encouragement at particular points in their lives.  There is one person who requires a great deal of my time, in terms of offering encouragement.  In fact, it has become a part of my daily routine to offer this person encouragement.  I encourage this person by telling them that they are a beloved child of God and that they are able to fulfill the call of God on their life, and many other words of encouragement.  And then I turn away from the mirror and try and live the words that I spoke to myself.

Most of us probably believe that our contentment has far more to do with external circumstances, but our contentment is not based so much upon what is happening around us but within us, and a great deal of that contentment is based upon the way we view ourselves, and a great deal of that view is derived from others.  It is a very special and secure person who does not draw their sense of self from others.  I find Paul to be a very interesting person, and one of the reasons is that he didn’t seem to worry what others thought about him, and I don’t mean that in a way that intimates that he was insensitive.  I just believe that Paul had a very strong sense of who he was, and I believe that came because of his faith.

In verse 8, when he says, 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, Paul is reminding us of the power of the mind and how it can help us to see our circumstances and our lives as blessing or struggle.  It begins with what we think and how we think.  If we have a tape of negativity and defeatism running through our minds, telling us that we are not as worthy as others, that our life is lesser than the lives others are leading, that we can never overcome our circumstances, it will be next to impossible to find any sense of contentment.  But, if we follow the example of Paul and erase the tape in our mind that is running nothing but negativity and replace it with a positive message, things become different.  If we think about the fact that we are a child of God and therefore a person with as much worth and value as anyone else, and if we believe, like Paul, that I can do all this through him who gives me strength (verse 13), we won’t feel overwhelmed and defeated by our circumstances.

2.  Let Faith Change How We Think About Others
In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says Do not judge, or you too will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you us, it will be measured to you.  I think Jesus’ warning not to judge is applicable for several other reasons as well, and one of those reasons is because no matter how much we think we know people, no matter how much we think we know their circumstances, no mater how much we think we know their motivations, no matter how much we think we know their problems, and no matter how much we think we know their blessings, we really don’t know. We think we know people, but we don’t. 

The person we believe is living a life full of blessing and abundance?  Maybe they are not.  The person we believe to have it made, living a life that seems incredibly charmed?  Maybe they are not.  That person we think needs to pull their life together and just get their act together?  We don’t know what’s going on.  The person who sometimes acts in ways we don’t understand?  We don’t know what they’ve experienced in life.  The person who struggles with relationships and we think they simply need to get serious and grow up?  We don’t know what has happened in their lives to make them very guarded when it comes to other people.

One of the most common criticisms leveled at Jesus was his willingness to associate with “questionable” people.  The truth is, we’re all questionable people in some way.  You can argue that point with me if you like, but I’m not changing my opinion, because I’ve worked with people for far too long.  And I don’t mean that in a negative, condemning way.  We are all people who struggle with problems and issues and none of us are any different from any other in that respect.

And Paul faced the same criticism as Jesus, because while many – including Peter and some of the other disciples – were resistant to all these strange, unfamiliar Gentile people coming into the church, Paul was welcoming them with open arms.  They were different, but underneath the surface differences we’re not really all that different.  Paul took his example from Jesus and would not allow his mind to be shaped by the culture in which he lived in terms of how he viewed people, and neither should we.

3.  Let Faith Change How We Think of Our Circumstances.
We are profoundly shaped by our circumstances.  Tanya’s grandmother was, we might say, thrifty.  She was a child of the Great Depression, and it was impossible to live through such a time without being shaped by the great need of the time.  To the end of her life she would not throw anything away.  When her bread became moldy she picked the mold off the bread.  I couldn’t imagine doing so, but I didn’t live through a time such as the Depression, but that experience had a profound affect upon her.

When I was on sabbatical last year I learned some interesting lessons.  One lesson that I discovered was a change in our circumstances doesn’t guarantee a change in who we are and how content we feel about life.  Many of us long for the time when we reach retirement, anticipating the time when we get to do what we want, when we want.  If we could just escape the drudgery of work, we would much more content about life.  I anticipated very much the idea of three months to do what I wanted.  And while I enjoyed the time, and enjoyed the break from the pressures of trying to keep up with so many responsibilities, I quickly found that a change in my circumstances did not automatically bring about a change in my sense of contentment.  Contentment, I realized, was a result not of my external circumstances, but my internal thinking processes.

Our circumstances, however, can teach us many lessons, and one of those lessons is that while we spend a lot of energy in life in an effort to reduce difficult circumstances and in an effort to make ourselves comfortable, we must remember that if we never experience discomfort and difficulty, we will never have an adequate understanding of what life is like for billions of people in this world, and we will never develop a sense of empathy, understanding, and compassion.

What would it be like, for instance, to live in the war zone that is Syria, which is less of a nation than it is a war zone with the appearance of national borders, and where millions of people have found it necessary to pick up what few things they can carry, to pay someone to give them a life jacket that will more likely cost them their life than to save it, to load their families into a small rubber raft for a journey across the Mediterranean Sea, with no promise of surviving the journey and if you do you find you must walk across Europe in hopes of finding a home in which the government will not take the valuables and cash you managed to bring with you?

What would it be like to wake each day and wonder how you will feed your family?  What would it be like to wake each day with the knowledge that you must send your child on a walk of many miles to carry back to your home a little bit of clean water.  What would it be like to wake each day in a land where you could be persecuted even to the point of death just because of claiming faith?  What would it be like to live in the southern portion of our hemisphere, where parents face the agonizing choice of sending their children, alone, on the terrifying journey to this country in order to escape the violence of the drug trafficking in their homelands?

I would never diminish anyone’s difficult circumstances, but when we experience times of difficulty, rather than being drawn into ourselves we should pray that God would use those times to open our hearts to the sufferings of others, to give us compassion and empathy as we answer the call to minister to others.  When we do this, we can truly say that we can do all this through him who gives me strength!