We can find joy and peace in troubled times when we remember that God hears our prayers and shift our focus to the positive things that God is doing in our lives.
Has 2020 been a year of anxiety for you or a year of prayer? Has it been a year of panic or a year for praise?
For me, it has been a bit of both. It is normal for us to become anxious during difficult times, even the apostle Paul, who wrote this morning’s epistle lesson calling the Philippians to prayer and a positive faith, says that he was trembling with fear as he began his work in Corinth.
Saint Paul wrote this letter while he was in prison awaiting trial. It had been a rough year for him and when he wrote he didn’t know if he would be released or executed. It was a time when it would be easy for him to wallow in anxiety. But here, in Philippians, as he’s thanking the people for their generous gifts that helped support his needs, Paul says that even in difficult times we can have joy when we remember that God hears our prayers and focus on the positive things that God is doing in our lives. The result is that a year of anxiety becomes a year of prayer, a year of God’s providence, and even year of praise.
Paul begins by telling his readers not to worry. Instead, they are to pray. He says that whatever it is that you think you may need, take it to God. As you ask for what you need, thank him for his previous blessings and for the privilege of bringing your requests to him. Jesus did this when he publicly thanked God for listening to him just before he raised Lazarus.
Do you need wisdom? Saint James writes
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.James 1:5
Do you need protection? Psalm 50 verse 15 quotes God as saying,
“Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you and you will glorify me.”Psalm 50:15
Are you anxious about what you’re going to eat or what you’re going to drink or what you are going to wear? Such worries are common right now with the unemployment caused by the shutdowns. Certain kinds of jobs no longer exist. Some may be gone forever. Jesus encourages us to bring such needs to God saying,
“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’… for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.Matthew 6:30-32
God is willing to worry about our needs for us, although “worry” is not the right word to use, is it? God doesn’t worry. He knows the end from the beginning. He knows where to find whatever he needs to help us and he’s able to create whatever can’t be found. There is no problem that is bigger than God. There is no need he cannot provide. He is the source of all help and the giver of all good things.
With God taking care of us, what is left for us to worry about?
Nothing really. So, Paul encourages his readers to refocus. Instead of worrying about their needs, he wants them to think about the positive blessings that are there for them. Things that they have already received. Things that are still to come. Things for which they can give thanks. Things which they can wait for in hope. He says,
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.Philippians 4:8.
So, the secret to contentment in all circumstances that Paul is sharing with us is to focus on the good and godly things.
We could, for example, give thanks for judges who apply the law fairly, for skilled work well done, for music that give us joy, or for a delightful sunset, or beautiful fall foliage.
Since God is behind every good work and every good gift, when we begin to focus on the good things that are happening and the good gifts that we have received, we will begin to see what God is doing in our lives. God is the source of all good. And God redeems and transforms the evil in the world so that it works for his purpose and for our good. Even the challenges we are facing now, and which are causing so much anxiety, can lead us back to God and to what God is doing in our lives as we bring our needs to him in prayer. Isn’t that better than a spiral of worry and depression?
Once we see what God is doing, it, also, will open us to praise and thanksgiving. We can thank him for the things he’s doing for us and for the things that he’s doing for others. We can add today’s meals, personal growth, and friends or strangers who have aided us to our daily thanksgiving.
When we see what God is doing, it, also, gives us an opportunity to take part in what he does. Each of us has gifts and abilities that God has given. Some of those gifts are physical and some are spiritual. Some of are abilities we have developed through extended practice, others are abilities given by the power of his Spirit that we may simply use.
There are many who mimic what Paul says in a very secular manner. They prattle on about the power of positive thinking. But that’s not what we’re discussing here. Paul is discussing the power of a positive faith. That’s rather different. It depends upon God in his goodness rather than upon us and our mindset. To my mind, God is far more worthy of my hope and trust than mere habits of thought.
So, as we apply what Paul says to our daily lives we should look first to our relationship with God. For example, some folks worry that their sins have offended God to such an extent that he would never help them. We can point such people to the stories of how Jesus treated such great sinners. Paul, himself, was such a man. He had sinned most greatly when he thought he was doing God a great service by persecuting the church. Yet Christ appeared to him and called him to repentance, as a result we have a living example of the greatness of God’s mercy. Think about that mercy rather than your sins and call upon God for your salvation.
Other people worry that they haven’t done enough to deserve a place in the kingdom to come. Like the “sheep” at Christ’s right hand they say “when did I ever do anything to help you?” Such people should turn their focus back to God and his declaration that they are righteous in his eyes because of the work of Christ.
All of us, should turn away from ourselves and our limitations and focus instead on the good and true things that God has said and done. Practice focusing on such things as the resurrection of Jesus Christ and his ascension into heaven where he reigns over all things for our sake.
Likewise, we receive and give thanks for the gifts of Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and God’s Word which give us comfort and hope. We can find comfort and joy from the knowledge that he is our shepherd who walks us through danger and saves us from death that we may continue forever in his presence.
We can praise God for such things every day; just as we do when we gather on Sunday morning to sing the songs of praise embedded in the liturgy and the hymns that recount and praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for their work on our behalf.
We can also apply these principles to other things in our daily lives. Seek God’s help early and often. When the going gets tough, the tough get praying! Focus on the godly people and the good things in the world, so that you live by faith rather than by worry and fear. Fear, uncertainty, and doubt, the manipulator’s favorite tools, vanish in the face of faith and hope and love. When we focus on the love and character of God, when we rely upon his promises, we are enabled to act in true freedom, constrained only by our love for others and by the work and purposes of our loving God. So, don’t worry, pray. Don’t grumble, give thanks. Focus on what is good and right and true that you may see the work of God in your lives and enjoy his peace. Amen.