Scripture readings: Ex.32:1-14 and Ps. 106:1-6, 19-23 (or Isa. 25:1-9 and Ps. 23) Phil.4:1-9, Matt. 22:1-14 Sermon by Josh McDonald from Philippians 4:4-9
Practicing Aggressive Gratitude
In Phil. 4:4-9, Paul urges believers, rather than being anxious, to practice “prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.” Today I want to elaborate on that thought, discussing what we might call “aggressive gratitude.” Sounds like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? We’re not used to putting these two ideas together. Aggressive gratitude takes the familiar emotion of aggression (fighting, conflict, anger) and couples it with gratitude, which Paul associates with giving, receiving and peace.
Paul’s anxiety-producing circumstances
When Paul sent this letter to the church at Philippi, he was under house arrest in Rome (though some commentators think he wrote it while imprisoned in Caesarea). Though chained to a Roman guard, Paul was able to write and even have occasional visitors.
Although this was not the worst type of imprisonment for Paul physically, it was a time of high anxiety as he awaited trial and likely execution. There Paul waited, a soldier attached to him day and night, for something he wasn’t sure of. As they say, “even the certainty of misery is better than the misery of uncertainty.” Paul writes in the middle of the misery of his uncertainty.
Paul urges aggressive gratefulness
He’s writing to the church at Philippi, which he had planted some 15 years earlier, and now longs to see once again. Different from Paul’s usual letters, he isn’t writing correctively. He’s not rebuking them for false theology and sin—this is mostly a letter of encouragement and friendship. He is urging this community to keep going—to keep walking in faith. They are being ridiculed and persecuted by their neighbors, they have trouble within the church—divisions and doctrinal fights. Paul urges them to be aggressively grateful for God’s presence with them in the present and in the future when they enter glory with Christ.
I think Philippians is where we see Paul at his most centered. He writes things like, “to live is Christ, to die is gain;” “whatever happens to me, conduct yourself in a way worthy of the gospel;” “I count all as loss so that I might know Christ.” He is not arguing or rebuking—he is living in the peace that passes understanding and urging the Christians in Philippi to do likewise.
Have you ever been in love? Have you ever been so filled with purpose and strength that everything that used to scare you or anger you just falls away? My opinion is that Paul, despite his stressful circumstances, wrote these words when he was at his most peaceful and centered. He commends the Philippians to this kind of aggressively grateful life: “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice!”
Paul repeats the word rejoice several times in this letter. He commends them to do this rejoicing “in the Lord.” Interesting that he uses that phrase. He does not say, “rejoice because life is so great.” He doesn’t say “rejoice because Oprah says it’s good for your cardio health.” He says “rejoice in the Lord.” Rejoice because your daily reality is shaped by your heavenly reality.
Paul, likely facing prolonged imprisonment or even death, is keeping focused and relatively free of anxiety by rejoicing in realities that can’t be touched by imprisonment or death. He is rejoicing because God is in control—because God will supply all his needs, and even if he dies, life with God in heaven awaits. As so Paul writes, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”
Anxious—there’s that word. As an article in Psychology Today states, “anxiety is one of our modern plagues.” The Huffington Post asked, “Why is anxiety the new norm?” Certainly there is no shortage of things to make us anxious in this hectic world. Yet there is a severe shortage of ways to deal with anxiety. Paul faces anxiety head on and shows us true freedom: “Be anxious for nothing,” he says. In writing this, Paul seems to be quoting Jesus, who in Matthew 6 says, “Do not worry about what you will eat….” Paul picks up on this in Philippians, declaring over and over that God is in control and our true citizenship and home is in heaven, no matter what happens.
Personal illustration: My dog was killed a few weeks ago. The owner of the dog who killed ours wants to keep it, so we had to testify in court. We believe the offending dog is a danger to our kids and the neighborhood, so we testified against it. Right in the middle of that, God had me studying a book written by Paul as he awaits his day in court! There I was, reporting on one of the most violent, anxiety producing things I've ever experienced, and Paul is telling me to be anxious for nothing! It was hard for me. Last week seems to have taken forever as I waited to relive that terrible event. One of the healing, calming things I did during that time was to reflect on our dog's life. We looked at old pictures, talked about old memories and how much we loved her. We tried and tried again to practice thankfulness, as Paul mentions here: “In everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We can practice aggressive gratitude---the transformative grace that can help us celebrate memories---and even rejoice when we feel the pain because it means we've experienced love.
As Paul goes on to say, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Here I need to share some historical context. In Paul’s day, religion and morality were two separate things. Religion had to do with keeping the gods happy. You did religion so your crops would grow and you would win wars. The gods were distant and unpredictable.
Morality—your way of being in the world—was taught by the philosophers in that society. Someone like Oprah or Dr. Phil would come along and tell you how to conduct yourself in a way that was most peaceful and happy for you and everybody. There was essentially no connection to the gods in this.
Our world today is not so different. We have all these tricks and gimmicks to reduce anxiety or to make ourselves into better people, but it’s all about believing and looking into yourself. But this strategy doesn’t seem to be working—we need stronger medicine.
Paul sees no disconnect between our life with God and our daily living. He urges us to lift the details of our daily life to God in prayer. Often we don’t understand what is happening in our lives, but by putting our trust in God, we receive a peace that truly does pass understanding—a peace that is from far beyond our world where ultimate peace is never found.
Guarding your heart
Yes, the peace of God guards our hearts in Christ Jesus. Paul is asserting that when we stay in prayer with aggressive thanksgiving, our hearts and minds will be guarded. The Greek word Paul used for guard is the same one used for a military battalion. The image is of a big, scary, spear-wielding group of soldiers guarding your peace. Paul probably looked at the brute of a soldier to who he was chained and thought “yeah, that’s it!”
So the peace of God is our guard. He surrounds us like a military guard protecting a city so that there can be peace within. Thus Paul is urging them to realize that they have a heavenly connection, and to plug in to that. Rejoice, pray, be aggressively grateful, enjoy the privileges of your heavenly citizenship—even in the harshness of daily reality.
As you do, God’s peace will guard your heart.
Guarding your mind
Paul then turns to the part of our lives we always have the power to change: our minds. In 2 Corinthians 10 he wrote that we are to “take every thought captive” for God’s glory. Paul knows how squirrelly and scattered our minds can be—how quickly we get focused on the negative, how quickly we forget that God is the one with the final word. To the believers in Philippi, Paul writes this:
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.
The church in Philippi was being persecuted. Their first instinct might have been to turn in on themselves believing that anything outside the church is evil and cursed. But Paul calls them to reach beyond their fears and anxieties, not to be of the world, but to continue to be in the world—reaching out to the world with a mind tempered by God’s peace.
Sadly, many Christians in our world, which is increasingly hostile to faith, turn inward. They make their own music, movies, books, clothing. Yes, these things can sometimes helpfully feed our spirits, but sometimes it goes too far—sometimes it becomes what Dwight Moody warned of: being too heavenly-minded to be of any earthly good.
In contrast, Paul shows us that because the entire world is God’s world, we can enjoy it the way it was meant to be enjoyed. We know that romance, money, work—none of these things viewed in a worldly way—can fill the void in us. That void can only be filled by Christ. Through him—our minds and hearts centered on him—we can enjoy these gifts with no anxiety attached.
“Set your mind on things above,” wrote Paul. See the beauty and goodness around you as the promise that a loving, creative, hilarious God rules over it all! Yes, right now we live “between the times,” where life can feel like a sort of prison.
Part of the background that Paul refers to throughout this letter is that the people in Philippi are dual citizens. They are citizens of Philippi where they reside, yet they also are citizens of Rome because Philippi was a Roman colony. Paul reminds them that, in like manner, they are citizens of earth and of heaven. He shows them that the church of which they are a part is a colony of God’s kingdom, and they should live out their privileges as citizens of heaven.
Here are three truths I pray you will take with you from this sermon:
- Remember your citizenship. As Christians, we are part of a colony of heaven in this world—we have a dual citizenship. Through aggressive gratitude, which involves setting our hearts and minds on things above, we can enjoy God’s peace even here; even now you are a citizen of God’s kingdom here in this world. Don’t forget that God is in charge.
- Guard your mind and heart. Set your mind on things above through the power of prayer and aggressive gratitude. The more you set your mind on those things that are true, noble and praiseworthy, the more you will experience God’s peace in your heart.
- Practice gentleness. As Paul wrote, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.” The Greek word he used for gentleness carries the idea of forbearance, reasonableness, not retaliating when revenge is your natural reaction. Such gentleness in the face of trouble and threat is a key part of our witness to Christ. It means not bombing people with gospel tracts at the mall, not screaming at everyone that they’re going to hell. Instead, we display the gentleness, kindness, and freedom of a heart that is guarded by the peace of God. May it be so for us all. Amen.