4Rejoice in the LORD always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5Let your gentleness be evident to all. The LORD is near.
6Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8Finally, 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.
9Whatever 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.
Abraham Lincoln once famously said that ‘most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.’ Without wanting in any way to trivialize the reality of life’s difficulties – especially tragedies and mental illness - I believe that for most of us the outcome as to whether we live with joy or misery is based not on factors over which we have little control, but on decisions we ourselves make as to how we choose to think about them and deal with them.
One of the most famous books to come out of the last quarter of the 20th Century was a book by the American Psychiatrist Scott Peck. Its title was The Road Less Traveled. It begins with one confronting statement: “Life is difficult.” And Scott Peck says that we will never get on top of this fact until we accept it as one of the great truths of life. But then he goes on to say that when we do accept it, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters, because it’s only then that we actually grow mentally and spiritually.
Our biggest problem is that most of us try to avoid the pain of confronting life’s difficulties; and this is the primary basis of all human mental illness. Carl Jung, one of the fathers of modern psychology, talked about this: ‘Neurosis’ he said, is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.’ The problem is that the substitute – what we end up living with - ultimately turns out to be more painful than the suffering it was designed to avoid.
I’ve been in the ministry now for more than half a century, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s this: we will never overcome those things that make us miserable until we face them. Until we learn to stop blaming circumstances or other people for our unhappiness, we’ll continue to live with unhappiness.
Many of us live with a vague sense of unease that’s always there beneath the surface and sometimes turns into full-blown anxiety or debilitating depression. The most obvious outcome of this is that we live joyless lives. For Christians, that is a double bogey because Joy is supposed to be one of the characteristics of faith in God.
Why is this so, and what can we do about it? Well, when I was quite new to faith, a wise old man from Indonesia gave me the answer and some of the best advice I’ve ever received. He taught me that victorious living is all about the way we choose to think. He told me to read Philippians chapter 4 every morning and evening until those verses became my way of thinking.
In Philippians chapter 4, The Apostle Paul says: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!’ It’s interesting to note that when he wrote these words he was actually in prison. But Paul had learned something about life that most of us have never really considered; and that is that the real secret of joy comes from within us, not from the environment outside of us.
The joy that the Bible speaks of is not a comfortable, trouble free life, but rather a state of inner peace and contentment that can be ours if we choose to make it so. I say this because most of us are convinced that joy will only come to us if something outside of us changes for the better. But life constantly teaches us that it doesn’t.
One of my favourite verses of Scripture is Psalm 34 verse 5 which says: ‘Look to him [the Lord] and be radiant.’ The secret of radiant joy is in that ‘looking to him’. It’s like if you want to get a suntan, you don’t have to take special courses or buy expensive equipment; You just make up your mind to expose yourself to the rays of the Sun.
And if you want joy, you must choose to take your mind off the things that make you miserable and live your life conscious of God’s abiding goodness in the blessings all around you. That’s what the Apostle Paul meant when he said: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, and’(just in case we didn’t get it first time) ‘again I say rejoice.’
The greatest enemy of joy is anxiety. To a certain extent anxiety is natural. It causes us to avoid danger. Sometimes, though, anxiety is pathological because it bears little relation to reality. This type of anxiety often has its origin in traumas of early childhood. This is particularly true of people who were unloved or abused in early life.
But for most of us anxiety is what one famous writer called ‘an unhealthy and destructive mental habit.’ It’s something we have learned to do. It’s become a way of thinking. And when something becomes a way of thinking the only way to overcome it is by positive action. Waiting for things to change is futile because they never do. We have to do something.
The Apostle Paul knew what that something is. He says: ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.’Once again, he was talking about making a conscious choice to deal with the tough things of life not with fear and self-pity, but with faith through prayer and thanksgiving; talking things over with God as you would with your best friend - and we all know how much relief that brings. And that, essentially, is what prayer is. We may choose to do it in the traditional, formal way of kneeling in the quietness of our room or we may do as we take long solitary walks. It doesn’t matter. Just do it.
But note this: the Bible specifically says: ‘by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving’. One of the most powerful truths of the spiritual life is the transforming energy of thanksgiving. Prayer with thanksgiving makes us drag our eyes off our problems for long enough to look around and see all the things that we have going for us. There’s no greater faith lift than this.
This wonderfully wise advice for life from the Apostle Paul finishes with these words: ‘Finally, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…think about such things.’
The way we think determines the way we are. 70 years an American clergyman wrote a book that introduced a new term into our vocabulary. His name was Norman Vincent Peale, and his book was The Power of Positive Thinking. What he called ‘positive thinking’ was really just another way of saying ‘faith’.
Peale rightly identified our biggest problem as our lack of discipline in the way we think. Our tendency is to think negatively, and to see only problems. He also clearly identified the solution. He called it positive thinking - a deliberate choice to make ourselves take control of our way of thinking. And to constantly renew our way of thinking with those great Biblical truths like: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ and ‘If God is for us who can be against us.’
It’s what the Bible means when it talks about: ‘Being transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ And, of course, it’s also what Paul means when he says: ‘Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…think about such things.’
What I’ve been saying this morning reminds me of an old legend about three men each carrying two sacks, one tied in front of his neck and the other tied on his back. When the first man was asked what was in his sacks, he said: ‘In the sack on my back are all the good things I’ve received. In the front sack are all the bad things that have happened to me. Every now and then I stop, open the front sack, take the things out, examine them, and think about them.’
The second man said: ‘In the front sack are all the good things I've received. I like to see them, so quite often I take them out to show them off to people. The sack in the back is where I keep all the bad things. They slow me down, but you know, for some reason I can't drop them.’
But the third man said: ‘The sack in front is where I keep all the blessings I've experienced, and all the good things other people have done for me. The weight isn't a problem. The sack is like sails of a ship. It keeps me going forward. The sack on my back, though, is empty. There's nothing in it because I cut a big hole in its bottom. That’s where I put all the bad things that I think about myself or hear about others. They go in one end and out the other. I’m not going to carry any weight I don’t need to.’
My question to you is what are you carrying in your sacks? The only person who has power over your happiness – or lack thereof – is you. You, and the way you choose to think.
‘Put this into practice,’ says the Apostle Paul, ‘And the God of peace will be with you.