Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Fruit of the Spirit: Goodness

Micah 6:6-8
The sixth fruit of the Holy Spirit is goodness. Greek philosophers argued more over goodness than anything else. One group of philosophers—the Platonists--“goodness” was truth. Goodness came from right thinking. Another group--the Epicureans--argued that goodness meant having pleasure. It was having an overall sense of well-being and contentment. Being happy was having a good life. A third group--the Stoics—said a good life was doing the right things. Our moral actions made us good or bad.

They all have their points, but the Bible doesn’t agree with any of them. The Bible connects a good life with God. You can’t be good without God.  Honoring God is where goodness starts.

These three Greek views all have one thing in common. If you want to have a good life, then you have to pursue it. They may disagree what “the good” is, but they all agree it is doing one thing, not many. Platonists said if you want to be good, then you have to give yourself over to seeking truth. But you can’t be a part time truth- seeker. You can’t avoid the truth or else you might miss something that is the key to understanding everything else.  Epicureans said you have to go for happiness with everything you’ve got. Stoics can’t do good some of the time—you have to do it all the time. Ecclesiastes 9: 10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” 

Christians don’t pursue knowledge or feelings or actions for their own sake, but for God’s sake. God is our ultimate good.

But what if we only halfway pursue God?  Then we are worse off than the Platonists or the Epicureans or the Stoics. At least they know what they are pursuing.  If we aren’t willing to listen to God and do what He says when He says it, then we are really just doing what we want. We don’t follow God at all.

A lot of people will argue with that. They say, “I don’t want to be a philosopher or a theologian. I just want to live my life and not have to think so deeply about God’s will. Why can’t I just live without getting theological or philosophical?  I’m just an ordinary person living in the real world, trying to cope with tough choices, messed up motivations, and sticky situations.”

Ah, but that’s where we’re wrong! We already are philosophers and theologians. We think about God, and if we don’t, then we think about “the good.” We have to, in order to make choices in everyday life. The question isn’t whether we want to be philosophers and theologians, but whether we want to be good ones or lazy ones. Every choice we make is a philosophical choice. When we choose to go to college instead of working at McDonalds, then we make a philosophical choice about what constitutes a good life. When we go to church instead of watching a football game, then we’ve made a theological statement. When we change the channel, because the show we are watching offends us, then we are making a choice based on Christian principles. The only kind of choices we make are whether we will order our lives according to what we think the good is, or will we drift from one definition of “good” to another without choosing. If we refuse to choose, then we shouldn’t be surprised that our life seems at times desperately pointless and shallow. 

We should seek moral wholeness. The word for that is integrity. Micah the prophet told us,

“He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Goodness isn’t just knowing good, feeling good, or doing good, but it is pursuing God’s good with your whole heart in all situations and at all times. Goodness is following God with integrity.

                Not all of us grew up in the church, of course. But for those who did, let me describe what happens to us as we grow older. For most of us, there came a moment—usually at a youth rally or weekend retreat—when as teenagers we committed our lives to Christ. Maybe you remember such a moment in your lives, when went down in some revival and prayed the sinner’s prayer. At that moment, you dedicated your life to Christ, and declared that you would follow Jesus for the rest of your life. You meant it, too. That Sunday, you got saved and became a believer. 

But then usually by the following Monday, things started getting complicated. You soon find that most of your friends don’t share your commitment. A lot of you high school friends are really Epicureans, but they don’t know it. All they want to do is have fun. Their life is one long pursuit of a good time. Soon you begin to realize that your friends seem to be having more fun than you. Their philosophy starts pulling you in like a tractor beam.  You start to forget that you committed to following Jesus. You start making little compromises. Then you make big ones. You’re still a Christian inside, but you keep quiet about it. You may even start seeing yourself as “God’s secret agent,” hiding out among the sinners so you can secretly convert them to Jesus. But inside when you really think about it God doesn’t bring you any happiness at all.   

Then you go to college, where you believe like a Christian, but party like a pagan. While in college you run up against atheist and agnostic professors. They don’t know it, but they are like the Platonists. They pursue the life of the mind and seem to find happiness being rationalists. You admire them, not because their arguments are necessarily all that good, but because they look as if they have it all together. They have beards, smoke pipes and wear tweed jackets--so they must be smart!  You want to fit in with them, too, so you start to accept their semi-intellectual society with its commitment to doubt and skepticism. Even though you can’t go full atheist, you become something worse—a cynic about everything.

 But you tell yourself, that you’re still Christian, even though God has no real place in your thought life. Between college parties and sophistic conversations, that old youth rally faith seems a little quaint. Even so (you tell yourself) you can still be a Christian inside. But you can’t be happy, either as a cynic or a Christian because you refuse to take a stand one way or the other.

After college, you get married, get a job, and start a “real life.” Now the parties and the intellectual bull sessions are over, and now it’s the Stoics’ turn to mess with your mind. It doesn’t matter what you believe or whether you have fun. All that matters is that you take on adult responsibilities. That you “do your duty” to God, country, family, and society. Life becomes about making a living, raising a family, working at your job, and serving your community. Who has time to question what is good or what feeds the Spirit—you are trying to survive. 

We may make a lot of money. People may even admire us, but if we lose our integrity and leave God behind, then what good are we?

When we grow up, we have grown up temptations—temptations to drink too much, cheat on our spouses, to tell lies in business. Every day we have opportunities to break God’s commandments and no one is looking over our shoulders to see whether or not we remain faithful. It’s up to us to monitor ourselves. No one sees what grown-ups do until their sins come crashing in upon us.

Gordon McDonald wrote that where he grew up there was a big oak tree in his yard. One day it just fell down. Inside the tree termites had been slowly eating away its insides, until it just collapsed, even though it looked healthy on the outside. That’s what happens when we let the little compromises in our lives—one day we just fall down. Little compromises eat at our insides, and we lose our integrity. 

“What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses His soul?”  What do we get if we lose our integrity in the process? Are we choosing because it seems the easiest thing to do?  Or are we choosing according to what is most likely to bring us closer to God, what is most according to His Word? If we follow Christ, then here’s what “good” means:

We do justly—that is, what is right. Justice is the will of God. When we take a vow to God, such as a vow of marriage or church membership, then we don’t break that vow. We don’t lie about others, or pass on lies. We do this not to look good, but because we are living under the eyes of God.  

The Statue of Liberty is a good example of integrity. The maker of the Statue of Liberty made sure to finish the top of Liberty’s head, even though when he built it there were no airplanes. There was no way anyone could see the top of the head. Yet the maker of the statue finished the detail on the top. A life of integrity of is like that. It doesn’t matter if anyone else ever sees our life, we want it to be as wholly good as we can make it.

We love mercy—that is, what is helpful to others. We don’t make decisions based on what is good for us, but seek to help others receive mercy. We don’t take advantage of people.

President John Adams lived his life with integrity. During the Revolution, British soldiers opened fire on the crowd, killing six men. Adams, an ardent patriot, defended them in court, even though his cousin Sam helped incite the riot. He showed mercy to his enemies for the sake of justice. 

We walk humbly—that is, we don’t take the credit. We are not saints, but sinners. We can’t take credit for what we have done—we can’t even be good without God. 

Let’s not any of us take too much pride in our own integrity. We aren’t that good. But we have a God who is. 

Sir Isaac Newton received a reward near the end of his life for his scientific accomplishments.  When presented with the award, he responded, “If I have seen farther than other men, it is only because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.”  If we have any integrity, honor or goodness in our life, it isn’t our doing. It came from Jesus Christ, God’s eternal Son, who followed goodness and honor to the nth degree, even to the place of dying for us.  If we have any goodness at all, it comes from Him.  Our job, then is to do for Jesus what He has already done for us, to live lives of dedication to Him, and to do only that one thing alone.

Fruit of the Spirit Gentleness

Isaiah 42: 1-4
This week we continue our study of the “Fruit of the Holy Spirit,” found in Galatians 5: 22-23. They are love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, and self-control. These nine qualities are characteristics of Christ’s personality that the Holy Spirit reproduces in us as we yield ourselves to Him. This week, we discuss the fifth one, which is “kindness” or “gentleness.”

English translations of this quality vary, some say “kindness”, “gentleness” or even “goodness”. But the best translation of this quality I can offer is that it means helping other people thrive. Often, it is simply seen as an aspect of love.  

When God created the world, He wanted all creatures He made to reach their highest potential. He didn’t just make forests, trees, and herds of cattle, but He created animals and plants, and told them to grow up and scatter themselves across the world. He didn’t create vast populations of humans, but he created two and told them to thrive and reproduce. Like a farmer, He planted the seeds of creation and expected it to grow. He would have been pleased with creation if He had built it like a man makes a statue, but He did more than that. He gave it life, and was absolutely delighted to see it grow up before Him. He isn’t just a Great Architect--He’s the Father of a living world. He delights to see His creation grow.

In the same way, God has placed inside each one of us the potential to thrive. He delights to see His children achieving great things In His name. He is absolutely ecstatic with joy when any of us are able to survive hardships, overcome resistance, and do more than we think we can. Like a parent with a child, or a teacher with a student, God’s greatest joy is seeing us do more than we thought we could. 

Jesus didn’t create the church out of nothing, either. He took twelve men of questionable ability, with moral flaws and intellectual limitations. He trained those men and put the Holy Spirit in their hearts. So they could become something no one else believed they ever could. He did not dictate to them exactly what they would be doing, but allowed them to grow into beautiful, powerful, Spirit-filled individuals. The church is the instrument God created on earth to enable human beings to thrive under Him. This thriving can only happen when we surrender our lives to Him. Only in Jesus and under Jesus can we achieve our greatest potential.   

We do not impose our will upon others, either. Instead we help them. People become their true selves, becoming all they can be with and for God.

Isaiah describes this quality of Jesus in Isaiah 42: 1-3:

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him;

He will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.”

This little passage offers us two powerful metaphors of what it means to be gentle. The first is “a bruised reed he will not break.”  There are reeds that grow along the Nile that are tough, like bamboo. Egyptians and Israelites used them for a great many things including boat constructions, tent poles, musical instruments, and walking sticks. But if it became mangled or bruised, then it was worthless. You would throw it away and make another. After all, it was just a worthless reed. Reeds are as plentiful as grass. There’s no real value in fixing a broken reed.

I had a friend who was a very successful pastor.  He once told me that his favorite book on being a pastor was The Godfather. He confided in me that the reason he was so successful was that he used people up in the church. He would work with people to build the institution until they were of no more use, and then he would go find someone else. He isn’t the only person in the church who has that kind of attitude to people. It’s all too common among leaders of all kinds that we use people like reeds to build our dreams, then we discard them from our lives. 

But God doesn’t treat people like reeds. He doesn’t throw away people He loves just because they lose their usefulness. 

 “A smoldering flax he will not put out.”  Flax was used for lamp wicks. But if the wick of your lamp wouldn’t light, you didn’t waste your time trying to light it. You throw it in the trash! But Jesus doesn’t throw out broken people. He restores them in gentleness. God sees potential in people where we see only failure.

The reason we are not gentle and kind with others is because we are sinners. Our sin has caused two conditions that cause us to be unkind or cruel. Those two conditions are anger and indifference.

Christians are angry today—angrier now than at any time I can remember. We see our country descending into immorality, Muslim extremists torturing and murdering Christians, and our nation, which we used to think of as a Christian nation losing its religion. We have a right to be angry.

But the real question is this--why isn’t Jesus as angry as we are?  If we had His power, then we’d have fixed everything. Yet Jesus restrains Himself—why? 

God is angry with sin, but He’s also gentle. When it comes to punishment God says, “Not yet.” We don’t assign people to Hell, He does. We are not free to strike out in anger at those who offend us. Instead, we must learn to restrain that anger, as God does, and instead look for ways of reconciling and restoring relationships with those who make us angry.  Jesus makes this clear in Matthew 5: 38-48

"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'  But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also . . .

 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Jesus is telling us something that is against human nature. It’s human nature when we are angry to hurt those who make us angry.  But it is the will of the Holy Spirit, that we treat our enemies with mercy and kindness. So that some of them may be restored and redeemed.

And what about indifference?

Gregory Peck always played the hero in the movies. Only once, in the movie The Boys from Brazil, did he play a villain. Someone asked him what was the difference between playing a hero and a villain in a movie? He said that the only difference was that the villain was someone who wanted to do something that he considered good, but was willing to do anything, including hurting innocent people to do it. The difference between hero and villain was not their goals, but their willingness to treat everything else as disposable.

If Peck was right, then there are a lot of people acting like villains in the church. When we are willing to cast out the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks in our church, or ignore the people who are struggling, because accommodating them would slow us down, then we are not heroes, but we are villains. 

Let me ask you do you see the church as more of an army or a hospital?  It’s a little of both, actually. In an army only the strong survive. The wounded are taken out of the action. But in a hospital, our goal is that all patients survive. 

The modern church in their desire to be bigger and better, often abandons the wounded. Old people don’t contribute to the mission to the church, so we abandon them. Poor people are not as valuable as rich people, so we ignore them. When I was a youth director, I attended seminars telling me how to start a youth group, and was told that it was the popular kids who were the most important. If you got the jocks and the cheerleaders, the rest would follow. But this attitude is so far from the spirit of Christ! God considers every one important!  We can’t be indifferent to those who are struggling, because we want the whole to succeed. Everyone is valuable in the Body of Christ.

What does a gentle person look like?  A gentle person looks like everyone else. It’s his actions that set them apart. 

A gentle husband, doesn’t ignore his wife. He pays attention to her feelings, and encourages her to reach her best potential.

A gentle wife doesn’t nag her husband. She encourages him by honoring and valuing his contributions to their relationship.

A gentle parent doesn’t regard their children as appendages to his or her own ego, but encourages them to be their own person. They are not indifferent to their needs, even their need to figure things out for themselves. When they disobey, they notice and punish when necessary, but they do not punish so hard that they break or abuse them.

A gentle employer gives his employees dignity and honor. He recognizes their contribution. He doesn’t overwork them or underpay them. When they make mistakes, he helps them get better, and doesn’t berate them.

A gentle employee doesn’t idly gripe about his boss, either. Instead he helps this boss do the best job he can, and realizes that he is a human being who deserves his respect.
A gentle competitor works hard to win, but he also realizes that life isn’t one big game. It’s people that are important. He is a gracious loser and a generous winner, recognizing the humanity of his opponents. We compete in business or politics, but we can still be friends. He doesn’t get polarized by competitions, but values cooperation. Don’t let your rivalry over politics or religion dictate the way you treat others, but follow the path of Christ who prayed even for the soldiers who crucified Him. Pray that God will give us that same spirit of gentleness to others. 

The Fruit of the Spirit: Patience

Colossians 3: 12-14
We are continuing a series on the Fruit of the Holy Spirit from Galatians 5: 22-23. These are characteristics of Jesus that the Holy Spirit wants to reproduce, and the fourth of these fruits is patience, or in the King James Version longsuffering. 

I was surprised to discover that patience didn’t mean what I thought. Patience in English means being able to wait. If we are caught in a traffic jam, stand in a line at the DMV, or wait in a ticket line, then we have to be patient. But in Greek the word means patience with people-- especially irritable and obnoxious people.  

Patience with people is more difficult than we care to admit. I would rather spend all day at the DMV than spend one hour in the company of some people I know. But Jesus wasn’t that way. He had no problem spending time with all kinds of people. He not only sought out the company of friends, but he also spent time with enemies. Jesus dined with the very scribes and Pharisees who were sought to kill Him. He wanted to be with them. Jesus had infinite patience even with those who hated Him.  

My wife once led a women’s group. Some of the women complained that if a certain woman kept coming they would leave. This woman had done nothing wrong, she just irritated them. Putting up with her demanded a lot of patience from the rest of the group, and they were no longer willing to give it. 

What they were doing was wrong. Instead of welcoming this woman with all her needs, they wanted to get rid of her. These women weren’t unusually bad, either; they had just run out of patience. In their view, the group would be happier without her. By uniting against her and casting her out, they thought the group would be more peaceful and less irritating. Going on worldly wisdom they might have been correct, but I doubt it. Once we start ridding ourselves of anyone who might irritate us or disagree with us, then we eventually wind up being alone.

Patience with others is not a suggestion, but a command from Christ. We are to imitate Christ in all things, which means we are also to imitate Him in his patience. We expect God to be patient at all times with us, so why should we also be patient with those who irritate us? The only reason you and I are here worshipping God instead of being blasted for our sins is because of God’s forgiving patience. God expects us to show the same patience to others that He shows to us.

One example of impatience is found in Genesis 37 in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph’s ten older brothers became irritated with him. The reasons why does not matter. Certainly they were jealous of him. It didn’t help that Joseph was sharing dreams which seemed to indicate that God liked Joseph more than the rest, or that their father Jacob clearly showed favoritism to him. It may also have been that Joseph, who was only seventeen at the time, might have been behaving as a snitch and a smart-alack. Joseph may have just been a nerdy little brother—but again, this doesn’t matter. It never matters why someone is being picked on, because it’s still not the kid’s fault. His older brothers were bullying him. Bullies and abusers often blame the victim’s behavior for their cruelty, but this is nonsense. The real reason is that they lack patience with anyone who they don’t like, and treat their victims as subhuman. Joseph’s brothers threw him in a pit and sold him into slavery. There is no excuse for that. They probably laughed that they had gotten rid of their nerdy little brother. But they were being cruel and wrong. 

What makes us cast out the outcast? We do it because of our sinful nature. We do it with a desire to rid ourselves of people who irritate us for any reason. It doesn’t occur to us that we are being selfish. We are born with self-serving nature, which seeks our own comfort in every situation. Our duty as Christians, however, is to rise above selfishness. To follow Jesus is not to act like humans, but to be something more than human. We love the way He loved, and to show patience like His patience. We are told to put up with people who otherwise would bother us, to endure abuse instead of returning abuse, and to forgive things when it is easier to hold grudges. We do it for Christ’s sake, not for ours.

In Colossians, 3: 12-13, Paul tells us there are two kinds of people who need our patience. Those who irritate us, and those who hurt us.

“Therefore, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another”

Is there someone so irritating to you that you find them hard to bear? Of course there is! Chances are that someone finds you irritating, too. What kind of person do we find irritating?

Strangers irritate us. There’s an old saying that says “birds of a feather flock together.” If we are near people who are not like us, then we get uncomfortable. If we could, we’d all stay inside our comfort zone forever, hanging out with our kind of people and keeping away from strangers. This desire probably starts in adolescent peer pressure, but it doesn’t stop when we get older. Remember, Joseph’s brothers were at least middle aged men when they sold their little brother into slavery. Old and young, rich or poor, black or white—we are all guilty of pushing away the stranger.

People who believe differently irritate us. During this election year you’ll be seeing lots of angry, hateful postings on Facebook denouncing the opposite party.  It’s as if people can’t imagine others having different opinions from their own. In every conflict, people use the other side as convenient scapegoats for our own anger. We even take joy in it.

 People moving at a different pace irritate us. Fast people make fun of those who move slow, and visa-versa.

People who make us jealous irritate us. Why do we get mad at people who have what we don’t?  It’s not the fault of rich people that we are poor, or beautiful people that we aren’t, or smart people that we are average, or talented people that we have no talent. Avoiding people who have what we don’t doesn’t help us become richer, smarter, handsomer, or talented. In fact, it is more likely to create the opposite effect.

People with different interests irritate us. People will ostracize those who follow a different football team, who like school or don’t like school, who wear different clothing, or even who have different accents. It’s not just children who do this, but grown people do it too.

People we consider immoral irritate us. I have often heard Christians complain that they are forced to work with people on the job who are immoral, as if their immorality somehow rubs off on them.  Consider how Jesus looked at the companionship of immoral people. He sought out their companionship.  Jesus had the patience to spend time with sinners so He could save them. The Pharisees who condemned Jesus were the ones who believed that Christians and non-Christians should avoid each other. Jesus believed that He should be patient with the sinner, in order to show them the love of God. 

The rest of this verse goes like this, “If one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”

The second category of people who need our patience are those hurt us. It’s hard not to bully others, but it’s even harder to forgive those who bully us. When you think you’ve been mistreated, what should you do about it?  First of all, we should forgive, as Christ has forgiven.

When other hurt us, we should complain. Even so, we should also recognize that the abuse others pile on us comes from the same sinful nature which exists within ourselves. Just because we are abused doesn’t mean we aren’t abusers, too.

Learn to forgive. Do not break up relationships over small mistreatments. Stand up to bullying, but don’t be so sensitive that minor slights are seen as major insults. We all sin against each other. Patience is not perfect in anyone until Jesus comes. If our abusers have fallen short in this, so have we.

There is no shortcut to developing patience. We must seek it constantly. God doesn’t give us patience all at once, but in little increments. When we get irritated, we should stop immediately and pray for patience. In time we will find that were are having to ask less, because we are being patient automatically. The Holy Spirit is giving patience before we even ask. The only way to develop patience is to live with irritating people until we learn to practice patience.

Love is the antidote to impatience. Colossians 3: 14 says, “Above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” The more we love, the more patient we become.  In 1 Corinthians 13 when Paul lists the characteristics of love, and the first one is patience.

Patience is required to be part of a church. The first church that existed, the community of the twelve disciples, could not have existed without patience.

Imagine what life must have been like, traveling with Jesus’ twelve disciples! Peter was a loudmouth.  James and John were called the “Sons of Thunder.” Matthew was an educated old man, collaborated with Romans as a tax collector. Simon Zealotes hated everything about the Romans and anyone who worked with them. Thomas didn’t trust anyone. Judas was a thief and a liar. Nathaniel hated everyone who came from Nazareth! How would these men ever have enough patience to work together? It would have been impossible, except that Jesus was there with them, patiently loving them all!

God wants us to have churches like the one He Himself organized. Churches where people don’t look alike, think alike, feel alike or act alike. The Body of Christ is an improbable collection of unrelated people who nevertheless have one single thing in common—Jesus Christ. 

The only way to have peace in the church is to let Jesus be in the center of it!  Only in the presence of Christ, and through the power of the Holy Spirit can we learn to be patient with one another. 

The Fruit of the Spirit: Peace

Matthew 6: 25-34

The Fruit of the Spirit are characteristics of Jesus that should be present in our own lives through the work of the Spirit. The third of these fruits is peace.

Peace--what a big, beautiful word! In Hebrew it is shalom, which means a quality of life that includes wholeness of body and soul. It is not just peace between people, but peace of mind as well. It is living with a central calm of heart in the midst of trouble. 

Jesus possessed this center—in fact, He was the “Prince of Peace.” He had peace of mind in the middle of jeering crowds and raging enemies. When the crowd pressed around him, He had peace. While fasting for forty days and nights, hungry and thirsty in the hot desert sun, Jesus had peace. He possessed this quality of peace even in the midst of His most trying days. His peace wasn’t tied to outer circumstances, but came from inside. That’s the quality the Spirit replicates inside of those who follow Him.

Peace of mind isn’t fake. We don’t just act non-anxious. We are actually non-anxious. It is the ability to look at tomorrow and not worry, to look at others without wanting what they have, and to look at our past failures and really be okay with them. We can have this peace not because we know the future, but because we now hold the future. We can look at the past and know it is really gone and forgotten. We turn our back on our problems, because we know that God has our backs.

The struggle for inner peace is a battle I know all too well. In my late forties I underwent a burn-out episode. At the time, I thought it was because I was working too hard. I pastored a larger church, was helping to raise teenagers, and getting my doctorate.  Now I realize that my burnout was not from working too hard—it was from worrying too hard. Worry was killing me. Even though God was in my life and I was hard at work for Him, I grew tired and frustrated, because there were too many things on my mind.  I didn’t know what would happen with my children or my work, or what would happen to me in the future, so I worried. I could not let go of these things. In truth, I didn’t want to let go.

That’s the case with many of us. We don’t give God our worries, because we want to be in control.  We want to keep our futures in our own hands. I wanted my children to be secure and I thought it was my job to make them secure. I worried about retirement. I worried about what others were saying about me. I worried if I would ever accomplish what I thought I should. All these worries I added to the real stress of my daily life. I was approaching a breakdown both physically and mentally.
It was about that time, that a friend gave me a book titled, The Anxiety Cure by Christian psychologist name Dr. Archibald Hart. It gave a medical explanation for what I was feeling at the time.

The problem, he said, was due to adrenalin.  Adrenalin is the substance our body releases when we are faced with an immediate threat. Adrenalin enables us for a time to think faster, run faster, keep going longer, withstand pain, and go beyond our strength. It’s like a double-shot of expresso right into our brains. Fear produces adrenalin, but so does any strong emotion or excitement. Adrenalin is produced in times when we need to go beyond our natural abilities.

This is great stuff at those moments when we need it. For example, when we need to sprint for a forty-yard touchdown, outrun an angry bear, or finish a race. But adrenalin is not free. It always exacts a price. Physically, when adrenalin wears off, we become tired and worn out. Mentally, it breaks down other brain chemicals such as serotonin which keep us calm and peaceful. Too much adrenalin, and we burn out and break down.

  Worry is fear over something we cannot control.  It causes a constant release of adrenalin into our system.  Our hearts beat faster; our palms get sweaty; and our blood pressure goes sky high.  Our mind races. We can’t sleep. We either eat too much or too little. Soon we become tired and weary all the time. We lose all peace of mind and body.

Worried people are tired pretty much all the time. Even when we accomplish little, we feel exhausted. We may not even know why we feel that way. It’s not our work that is tiring us. It is our worry.  We can’t seem to rest because we are carrying a hundred-pound load of worry wherever we go.

Jesus, addresses our worry in this passage, and explains how we can have peace. 

He begins, “Do not be anxious over tomorrow” The word for “anxious” comes from a root word that means to analyze of make plans. We should all make plans for the future, but that’s not what he means. The word means to continually make plans—to make them, question, them, and remake them. We constantly think about what we ought to be doing, questioning our actions and criticizing our own choices. Once we have made our plans, our minds won’t let go. Have we done enough for our kids?  Have we done enough for retirement?  Are we secure enough, or do we need one more layer of security. To lock the door before we go to bed is good sense. To lay awake at night wondering whether we’ve forgotten to lock them, or toss and turn about whether the locks are strong enough is worry. To wash our hand is sensible. To be a germ phobic is worry. To save for retirement is sensible.  To lay awake worrying about the future is worry.

Jesus says not to worry about what you will eat, where you will sleep, or what you will put on. Of course these are legitimate concerns, but they are not our concerns!  They are God’s concerns, not yours. Once you have done what you can, don’t keep thinking about it. 

We can’t squelch our emotions, but we can focus our thoughts elsewhere. Our emotions will eventually follow our attention. When we worry about past mistakes, future situations, or people outside of our control, we produce unnecessary adrenalin which, if we continue to produce it, will destroy us. 

Now the Bible never tells us not to worry without giving us reason. Jesus gives us three reasons for having peace of mind.

First, we can have peace of mind because God is our provider, not ourselves. Consider the lilies, (Jesus says) consider the birds. These creatures seem happy even though they have no conscious knowledge of tomorrow at all.  If they can be happy simply relying on God, why can’t we? God takes care of them. In spite of possessing brains capable of planning for the future, we are really no better off than grass and bugs. We can only plan for things that we know and can control. God must keep all the rest.

For example, imagine a woman who sees a counselor because she is worried about her grown daughter who is living an immoral life. She worries that her daughter will get in trouble. She prays for her and warns her, but so far it hasn’t worked. She thinks that she needs to offer more to help. Maybe she isn’t praying hard enough, or that she needs to warn her one more time. But there is nothing she can do. Her daughter is not in her hands any more.  But this woman is being robbed of peace—not by her daughter’s behavior, but by the mistaken notion that there is something more she can or should do.

We often say, “Put your worries in God’s hands.” But this is wrong, because we don’t need to put our worries in God’s hands. They are already there. We can only take them out and put them in our own. As soon as something is not in our control it is in God’s. Our job is not to put someone in God’s hands, but to go out and mind the things that God has put in ours today, and quit trying to take on what He keeps in His.

Second, Jesus tells us to “Seek the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.”  What exactly is the “kingdom of God?” God’s kingdom is wherever God is in control. It means to pay attention to the things God expects of you at this moment. Ask yourself what God wants from you right now?  Pay attention to your relationship to God right now, and leave the rest for Him. 

Christianity isn’t a guilt-driven faith—He isn’t standing over us with a clipboard, giving us marks for whether or not we’ve tried hard enough. He’s not interested in our performance. Any inadequacy in your service to God is more than made up for in God’s adequacy. He wants you to pay more attention to Him than the job at hand.

My dad taught me at an early age to work with wood--to hammer, saw, and sand. I always thought I was helping him when he was building furniture.  I probably did a lot to slow down his projects with my mistakes! When I got older, I realized that Dad didn’t need me there—he invited me to work with him, because he wanted me beside him. It was something we shared together.

God does the same.  He’s not with us to judge us. He’s there because He wants our presence.   Seeking the Kingdom is seeking His presence. Peace comes as the result of spending time with the Prince of Peace.

Third, Jesus tells us to focus on the here and now, “Do not worry about tomorrow.  Today has enough problems.” If we pay attention to today, then we won’t be worrying over tomorrow.

Our anxiety for tomorrow can keeps us from accomplishing anything today. Suppose you want to get in shape, so you take up walking, but can only walk to the corner.  If you look at how little you’re able to do, then you can become frustrated and say, I’ll never walk a mile!” Instead of celebrating what you’ve done today, you complain about what you can’t do. But you are still better off than yesterday, when you could not walk at all. Celebrate what God has done through you today, and rejoice in your accomplishments. That’s all you need for now. But our anxious sense of inadequacy wants to rob us of peace by making us look at what others can do, instead of what we can do. We lose our peace when we look at what we had in the past, or the unfulfilled goals of the future. We look backwards to the past, forward to the future, or sideways at others, instead of looking up in thankfulness and trust to He who gave us today.

To find the Kingdom, we must not look in the past or in the future. We must look to the now. Peace of mind today is the greatest gift you can give yourself, and the surest path to Him. 

Fruit of the Spirit: Joy

Philippians 4: 5-10

The Fruit of the Spirit, which Paul lists in Galatians 5: 22-23, are characteristics that were found in Jesus that the Holy Spirit wants to develop in us. The second of the Fruits of the Spirit is joy. 

When I was growing up, I was very suspicious, and a little resentful of people who told me that I ought to be joyful all the time. That was because I had swallowed a couple of wrong ideas about what joy was, and where it came from. 

My first misconception about joy was that joy is just a feeling. We confuse it with having fun. We think of joy like the froth on a beer. We don’t have to be joyful, joyfulness just appears when things are going our way. 

Well, a lot of times things are not going our way. If that’s what joyfulness is, then I didn’t have it. Many times things were not going my way. Life isn’t fun all the time, so how can you be joyful all the time. 

But Jesus was joyful, even when things were not fun. Look at Hebrew 12: 2 “Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (NKJV)

The Cross was not fun. Jesus despised it, both the shame and the pain of it. Yet He still had joy. Joy has to be something deeper than fun. It can’t be just a reaction to our temporal circumstances. 

The second misconception about joy was that joy was faking happiness. We all know people who seem to be stuck with a permanent, phony smile on their faces. They smile when they are sad, just as if they were happy. (Psychologists call this an affect disturbance and see it as a symptom of denial).  People do this because they think they are supposed to smile. They have confused joy in the heart with a look on their faces, and have been told that if they have the look on their faces, that eventually they will have joy in their hearts. They pretend everything’s all right when it isn’t.

 That’s not joyfulness-that’s denial. If I break my leg I don’t have to say, “It doesn’t hurt, I’m all right.” If I pretend that I don’t have any pain, I’m not being brave, I’m lying. My leg is still broken. I would be better off telling people I hurt, and maybe then they’ll take me to the hospital!

But joy isn’t a fake and it isn’t a feeling, either. Joy is a virtue we cultivate until it comes naturally in us. It is learning to not to get trapped in depressive thoughts, defeatist attitudes, and obsession with all the evil in life, but learning to focus our attention on what is good, positive and the virtuous. It is a holistic approach to life that involves our hearts, minds, and actions.

It involves our minds, because it means we understand the true nature of God and the universe. 

Paul says in verse 6, “Do not be anxious over anything.” Anxiety is worry, which is the anticipation that bad things are going to happen. Joy comes from trust that good things are going to happen. You can’t have anxiety and joy at the same time. 

Paul doesn’t just tell us not to be worried. He gives our mind a reason for not worrying.  He says “The Lord is near.”  We can be joyful because our loving Father God is with us, right beside us. The more we believe that, then the more potential joy there is in our lives. Without some knowledge of God’s presence, joy is just an illusion.

We can enjoy a roller coaster, because we know it is safe. It we don’t think it is, we wouldn’t get on it. We enjoy flying because we are confident it will land. If we weren’t we’d be frightened the whole trip. We can enjoy an adventure movie, because we know the hero is going to survive.  Otherwise, we’d probably hate it. We can enjoy life because we know that God is with us, no matter what. If our faith wavers in this, then we hate life. The first sign of wavering faith is that we lose our joy. If we want to restore our joy, then we need to check our faith. 

If we have faith in God, then we need to also have faith in what He created. He has placed in this universe all we need to survive, and all we need to enjoy. We don’t have to seek joy outside of God’s will, we can find plenty in what He has provided. 

Whenever we participate in the fun that God provided, we are engaging in a form of praise to him, whether we are hearing a good joke, looking at scenery, or eating tasty food. He made all this possible. God will never allow this universe to be without enjoyment. He provides good things, even when life is not going our way, there is still plenty of good to see. Life is a joke on death, just when he thinks he has finally destroyed us, we get to join God in heaven. Our fate, our destiny as Christians is eternal joy, of which God gives us abundant tastes in this life. 

Joy involves our hearts as, too. Emotional joy originates in the Spirit of God. Jesus describes the spirit as a spring of living water, which comes up out of our insides. That inner spring of joy is available to all who trust in Him. Jesus has placed the joy of the Lord inside you, so that you can draw upon it in your times of greatest trouble and darkest grief.

There is joy even in times of pain. We see this in laughter heard at a funeral. We see this in prisoners joking and laughing in jail. We see this in the smiles of nurses and hospice workers. Even in the darkest days of our lives, there is still joy!

Despair happens when we let negative emotions completely smother our joy. Sadness is the elephant in the room. When we lose someone close to us, get sick, or go through a divorce or bankruptcy, our grief and depression is so great that for a time we can see nothing else. This happens to all of us. At times, depression is so strong that we think there is nothing to rejoice about. When this happens, joy is not missing in our lives--it’s just been hidden.

We shouldn’t assume that the only way to get joy in our lives is to get rid of all pain. Joy is like drilling for oil in the ocean. We don’t have to move the ocean. We just have to build a rig on top and push aside enough water and rock to get to the oil and pump it out. When our heart has been broken, we don’t have to remove all the pain to have joy. We just have to set aside enough of the pain to find the happiness that God put in the universe beneath the pain. We have to give ourselves permission to set aside our hurts and find the joy of the Lord.

That’s what worship is. We come to church, because we have learned to set aside this world for a short time, so we can remember the source of joy in Christ. Praising God and thanking Him opens up a channel of joy that we can draw on when everything else seems hopeless. It’s our oil rig, sinking down below the surface of life to touch the reservoir of joy beneath.

Don’t wait until the pain goes away to experience joy. Give yourself permission to set aside your grief for a few moments of joy. Make new friends, join a group, try something new and wholesome. Joy is still there. God has placed it in the universe. You will find it when you look.

Joy is also an action. Paul says in verse 5, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!”  This is a command. Go out and rejoice in God!  Just to make sure we heard it, he says it twice!  He would not have commanded us to rejoice if it were not possible to obey. 

You don’t have to do anything to be miserable and depressed. Depression is easy. You just sit at home and mope. But to rejoice, we must do something. Happiness brings more happiness. 

Rejoicing is not simply a reaction to a feeling—it is also a means of accessing the joy within. We must seek it, find it, and let it out.

All the words in the Old Testament translated “praise” and “joy” that they are action verbs, describing bodily actions. They tell us to jump up and down, to brighten the face, to lift the hands, sing, dance, and lift the chin. Our minds cannot concentrate on something unless our body is involved. We can’t sit back and hope joy comes to us. We have to seek joy. People who are friendly, have more friends. People who act joyfully really do enjoy life more, are more successful, and are able to accomplish more. We don’t deny our problems--we just act upon the joys we have. 

Paul tells us in verse 8, “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.”  We cannot think upon honor if we are not willing to act honorably; we cannot think on justice without acting justly; we cannot think on purity without acting purely; we cannot think on what is commendable without commending people; we cannot think on excellence without applauding excellence; we cannot think on loveliness without celebrating it; we cannot think something worthy of praise without praising it. Whatever we think on needs to be acted upon with our bodies, faces, and our actions.

This isn’t what faking is. It is a recognition that real joy doesn’t come from circumstances, but from the recognition that the Lord is near.

In The Little Flowers of St. Francis, St. Francis was asked, “How is the joy of God made perfect?”

He answered, “When you are happy, the joy of God is not perfect in your life. When you are warm and well fed, the joy of God is not yet perfect. When all men speak well of you, the joy of God is not perfected. But when you come to a castle on a cold, rainy night, seeking food and shelter, but the lord of the castle turns you from his door and beats you and you are forced to spend the night in the rain, hungry and hurting in the cold; yet you can sing praise to God, then the joy of God is perfect in you.”

We don’t learn joy from success and good treatment. We learn it from Christ, even when happiness has fled. We have to look for it to find it. Anyone can rejoice in the midst of happiness. It takes a Christ-centered heart to find happiness in the midst of sorrow, sadness and defeat. That’s when we really show the fruit of the Spirit, and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.