The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
May 21, 2017
Life is full of stress, but God is full of grace and aches to relieve our stress with His peace! God wants, this scripture says, to give us a peace “which surpasses all understanding”.
Of course, to receive what God wants to give us, we have to do what God tells us. Paul reminds the Philippians two verses after this passage that there is no possibility of having peace without obeying God. He urges them there to “keep on doing” God’s will and then “the God of peace will be with [them].”
So what is God’s peace? And what do I do to receive it?
What is it? It is a settled confidence that – even in the worst of times – panic is uncalled for; and despair, unreasonable. It is a faith-sustained trust that – despite hardship, pain and, yes, stress – God is still in control, watching over all of us, and working in all things, even the bad things, for good. It is a serenity in the depths of my heart that can surmount both my inner turmoil and my threatening circumstances. Living in God’s peace does not mean that I don’t have problems, but rather that my problems don’t have me.
That’s what God’s peace is. So what am I to do to receive it? I am to take three actions: first, to set right the goals of my life; second, to set right the focus of my attention; and third, to set right the placement of my ultimate trust.
First, I need to set right the goals of my life. If I make it my chief aim to attain, say, wealth or prestige, I’m hanging my happiness on a precarious and transitory blessing, one that can easily be lost and won’t last forever anyway. I’m thereby consigning myself to anxiety.
Moreover, while I can work hard and wisely in pursuing such, my obtaining it is as much a product of opportunity and luck as it is of effort and smarts. In the pursuit of such, sometimes the dumbest and laziest come out the best; and the sharpest and most diligent come up short. So much is out of our control. So, if worldly blessings become my obsession, anxiety becomes my possession.
If, however, my prime goals are spiritual ones such as godliness or generosity, I can always attain, if not perfection in the goal, progress toward it – and that process always brings its own serenity of heart.
To receive the gift of peace, I need to set right the goals of my life. Second, I need to set right the focus of my attention. For the preoccupations of my mind determine the emotions of my heart. Do I, as verse four here says, keep resorting to the Lord and rejoicing in Him, or do I concentrate on those things whose enjoyment, like drinking salt water, only intensifies a restless thirst for more and leaves me feeling unsatisfied and discontent? Do I, as verse five says, keep bearing in mind the nearness of the Lord and center my thoughts on His approach, or do I let my mind be pulled in the direction of a thousand wishes and set my soul churning in confused and conflicted agitation? Do I, as verse six says, keep turning my concerns over to God with anticipatory gratitude, or do I allow my fears of painful setbacks to eclipse the sunshine of hope from God’s promises in the Bible?
In line with this, Philippians 4:8, the first verse following this passage, says that we are to focus our thoughts on the highest preoccupations of the mind, Proverbs 23:7 says that as we think so we become, and Isaiah 26:3 says that those whose minds are fixed on God remain in God’s peace.
The location of my mental focus creates the condition of my emotional state. If I think more about my own powers than Christ’s powers for meeting challenges, how much calm confidence can I have? If I attend more to the plans I have devised in my limited wisdom than to those God has devised in His infinite wisdom, how much can I avoid feeling disturbed and disconcerted? If I think more about the size of my obstacles than the size of my God, how much can I stop worrying? As Corrie Ten Boom, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, put it, “If I look at my circumstances, I am distressed; if I look at myself, I am depressed; but, if I look at Jesus, I am at rest.”
When I think first and foremost about God’s character and His rock-solid commitments, when I put thoughts of Him front and center, I relax a bit before my challenges, and I gain a peace that my human capabilities could never justify.
To live in God’s peace and so receive some release from stress, I need to set right the goals of my life and the focus of my attention. Finally, I need to set right where I place my ultimate trust. I need to rely less on my own competency and more on the sufficiency of the Christ through whom, Paul says six verses after this passage, I can do all things.
To lean on my abilities is to depend on a shaky support. To lean on those of a good and great God is to stand secure and serene even in the toughest times.
Before a battle that looked like a sure defeat against an army far larger and better equipped than his own, Israel’s King Jehoshaphat prayed to God, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” Because in looking to himself and his people he saw no hope for victory, Jehoshaphat turned to God in dependence and saw the possibility of a miracle. In response, God replied, “Do not fear or be dismayed…for the battle is not yours but God’s.”
Our battles are always God’s before they are ours.
Therefore, as we face daunting challenges in our individual lives and in our life together as a church, we would do well to remember that God will fight for us and to hope more in His power and wisdom than in our own strength and insight.
So let us luxuriate in the awareness of God’s greatness and goodness, and radiate the peace that comes from relying on Him first and foremost. Then we will have release from most of our stress. Let us pray.