Popular Passage, New Perspective

I’ll try to keep this brief and to the point. Philippians 4:13 is one of the most well known passages in all of scripture: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

It is said by athletes after victories, people dedicating themselves to diets or fasting, even people getting back to the gym or working on resolutions. While those are all fine and well I found myself looking at this passage (and it’s prior two verses) very differently.

As some of you may know I’ve been in a pretty difficult season for the last couple of months for various reasons (which are touched on in two posts prior to this one Trembling… and A Hope That Overwhelms Grief), and I believe that as I am coming out of this season (praise God!), I see these two spectrums more clearly than ever before. Let’s take a brief look:

“I have learned in whatever situation (that) I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” ~ Philippians 4:11b-13 (ESV)

I have come to realize (for myself, and perhaps for you as well), that it takes both ends of the spectrum–lowly and abounding, plenty and hunger, abundance and need–to see this sort of true contentment Paul talks about.

Experiencing both ends of the spectrum have made me realize that in this world there is constant change and fluctuation, and sometimes these changes can be indescribably difficult, but we can echo with Paul that in the midst of these changes there is a True Stability, and that Stability is something so necessary and so ever-present for us. This Stability is the means by which we are strengthened and the reason we can praise God, even in the midst of the most seemingly unbearable situations.

Paul is revealing a truth all of us must realize today: This true stability and abiding presence that we long for–that sustains us in all of these seasons whether good or bad–is Jesus Christ Himself.

In Him and Him alone will you find this contentment “in any and every circumstance” and a “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).

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Trembling, Spread Thin, and the Need for Discipline

As a brief preface before getting into the entry, I just wanted to let you know that this blog post will hit on a number of different topics–most specifically the idea of thinking through a Gospel-lens, how suffering/trials are used for our good, and how we must discipline ourselves to remember this and work towards various goals.

I suppose I could publish them in multiple different posts, but I feel like they are coherent enough to lead into each other, and that seen as a whole they provide a synthesized context to think over and work to implement.

This is something I’ve been mulling around in my head for quite some time and I pray that you will find it useful.

———

“This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” ~ Isaiah 66:2

Not the religious guy who thinks he’s got his life together.

Not the legalist who worships a checklist Christianity (which, let’s be honest, is no Christianity at all).

But he who is humble. He who understands his depravity and unworthiness and yet can rejoice in his worth in Christ!

The one who trembles at the word of God because he understands that it has the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21) and is living and active (and therefore applicable, meaningful, and piercing)(see Hebrews 4:12).

This is humbling to me because if I’m not careful and intentional to remember this truth I will drift into the first category. It’s like the old hymn says: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it.”

A.W. Tozer has a very telling quote on this topic. He says, “You can know the truth and quote it verbatim, but you’re spiritually cross-eyed until it changes how you live.” We must know from the outset that this Gospel deeply affects every part of us. Furthermore, the Gospel provides a proper lens on our lives and circumstances–a sort of proper view of things as they ought to be seen.

Left to myself it is easy for me to become overwhelmed with what’s going on in and around me: jobless and struggling to get hired somewhere, relationship-less (in the context of a girlfriend/future spouse/etc.), prone to constant idolatry and slipping into pointless sins that I know will not satisfy, enslaved to the need to be approved and liked by others, insecurities and deficiencies ever on my mind–likely because I’m comparing myself to others instead of to Jesus.

Not only does the Gospel expose all of these in me, but it also reinforces my identity because of the Gospel. I am not “sinner” but “saint”; not unwanted but adopted; not defeated but victorious. In addition to these truths the Gospel also provides examples I can draw on to instill hope.

In a sense, when things are going poorly in some area (or many areas) of my life I have a tendency to amplify it/them like it’s the most painful and hopeless thing to ever happen.

Enter Paul:

imprisoned, beaten, lashed, stoned and left for dead, shipwrecked, lost at sea, constantly pursued to be killed, hungry/thirsty frequently (see 2 Corinthians 11:23-28) and yet he is the one who proclaims that all these things are happening for a purpose (and even more so, are happening for a good purpose)!

He says “I am afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; constantly reminded of the death of Jesus.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)

Why?

That His life (that is, Jesus’ life) might also be declared and made known as great in us (2 Corinthians 4:10)! And “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).

Now I come to terms with a very sobering question I have to ask myself: If God is intentionally at work in these difficulties, who am I to believe that He is absent and inactive in my own? It is for this purpose that we ought to be more wrapped up in the treasures of the Gospel than the pressures in and around us. This is how Paul is able to proclaim in 2 Corinthians 4:18 that we “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

The following quotes really set the tone for where I am going next:

“The only way to dispossess the heart of an old affection is by the expulsive power of a new one.” ~ Thomas Chalmers

 

“[Christians are] a people conquered by a Superior Affection.” ~ David Platt

This is where we must necessarily shift gears for a bit. I touched on it a little bit earlier but I see it absolutely necessary to flesh this out in a little more detail.

Herein lies the concept of discipline.

I mentioned before that if unchecked I will drift into a self-centered mentality and it would be easy to become overwhelmed by my circumstances and slip into a “woe is me” mentality, and with that in mind we must be disciplined and urgent/intentional in our approach to this.

The idea of disciplining ourselves is anything but natural. I mean just be honest.. what went through your mind when I brought up the idea of discipline? Likely not “Yes! I really hoped I would get called out to do things I didn’t really want to do!”

Think about the various examples in our everyday lives (excerpted from a Desiring God blogpost by Jon Bloom found here: http://ow.ly/ngCB0 ):

–Healthy, nutritious food often requires discipline to prepare and eat while junk food is convenient, tasty, and addictive.

–Keeping the body healthy and strong requires frequent deliberate discomfort while it only takes constant comfort (laziness, no change in routine, etc.) to [head in the opposite direction].

–You have to make yourself pick up that nourishing but intellectually challenging book while popping in a DVD is as easy and inviting as coasting downhill.

–You frequently have to force yourself to get to devotions and prayer while sleeping in or catching up on sports or checking Facebook is almost effortless.

–Learning to skillfully play beautiful music requires thousands of hours of tedious practice.

–Excelling in sports requires monotonous drills ad nauseum

–Learning to write well requires writing, writing, writing, and rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting. And usually requires voluminous reading.

–It takes years of schooling just to make certain vocational opportunities possible.

You get the idea. The pattern is this: the greater joys are obtained through struggle, difficulty, and pain, while brief, unsatisfying, and often destructive “joys” are right at our fingertips.

Why is this?

Because God, in His great mercy, is showing us everywhere, in things that are just shadows of heavenly realities, that there is great reward for those who struggle through and persevere (Hebrews 10:32-35). He is reminding us almost everywhere to walk by faith in a promised future and not by sight of immediate gratification (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Paul speaks further into this issue by using the analogy of an athlete. 1 Corinthians 9:25-27 says that “every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”

Paul is saying many things in this passage, but for our sake he is saying that he “exercises self-control.. not aimlessly” (so there’s a purpose and objective to it!) and that he does it for an “imperishable (reward).” This athlete analogy helps us envision someone who has a clear goal in mind and trains and disciplines himself (or herself!) to obtain that goal.

Now that we’ve fleshed out this idea conceptually, let’s make it a little more practical, shall we?

Personally, I tend to say things like “I want to know more about what the Bible says than what John Piper (or Mark Driscoll, or [insert your favorite pastor’s/author’s name here]) says.” … You know what that requires of me? To actually stop reading that blog/book and pick up my Bible.

I say “I want to have wisdom and a breadth of knowledge like Tim Keller has” and yet I neglect to pursue the breadth of sources Keller does (and still I expect somehow to absorb information and perspectives that I’m not even encountering!)

I so often expect (progressive) results from my inactivity and a differing set of affections from implementing no change at all into my routine and time spent.

How foolish!

Now pay attention to this next part because I think this really gets at the heart of this issue.

I believe wholeheartedly that much of this struggle comes because our attention and affections are spread so thin in so many directions.

I think as a generation (speaking as a Millennial, at least, I can’t speak on this issue for everyone else) we are content with being OK at a lot of different things, and not exceptional at a few things. We want to know a lot of different technologies, facts, songs, play a bunch of different things (sports, video games) or be a part of a hundred different university clubs, but we don’t often identify those two or three things we truly want to flourish in.

I would challenge you in this: Identify those things for you personally.

I believe everyone has those deep desires and longings and I would encourage you to spend some time (undistracted! imagine that!) identifying what those are for you; then discipline yourself to make progress on them.

Once you have narrowed your focus, I think it’s incredibly important to remember one key principle: it is a process. Usain Bolt didn’t just wake up one morning, walk into a sprinting competition, and break world records or win olympic gold. Tim Keller didn’t walk out of a nursery quoting Sociologists and providing ministry-shaping ideas on urban contextualization. They identifies what they wanted to pursue and they worked towards it (incrementally).

One man I know has memorized entire books of the Bible. I took some time to ask him how he did it and what the process was like and you know what he said?

“I started with a verse.”

Take the time to really think hard about what thing (or few things) you want to flourish and excel in–perhaps what you want to be defined by–and take the first step.

You cannot expect to be a master theologian overnight.

You cannot expect to climb half-dome or Everest if you haven’t even taken a hike in the hills in your city.

Figure out where you want to be, what it’ll take to get there, and just start taking a step, then a second, then a third, and sooner or later you’ll be amazed at the progress that is being made. But it takes that intentionality and discipline to follow through to even work towards that progress.

You don’t get there overnight, but you can ask yourself “what can I do today to enable me to be able to do tomorrow what I wasn’t able to do yesterday?”

Even with this perspective change in mind, there will still be barriers to this discipline. For me, I know I often come into contact with the fear of not doing well at something. I find it hard to pick up running again because my asthma acts up–because I’m not in cardio-shape, and therefore my asthma picks up; see the dilemma? Or I find it hard to get back into rock climbing because I know how good I used to be, and it’s a blow to my pride to not be as good as I know I used to be, and therefore have to appear like a beginner again.

Essentially, I have a fear of failing and a fear of not living up to expectations (even when the expectations being placed on me are my own).

The Gospel helps remind me that because of Christ’s death on the cross and victory over the grave I know that my failures and struggles will ultimately help shape my future successes and that though I may stumble and fall, I am not defeated, and that I can continue with strength that comes from the Lord (see Philippians 4:13).

So I feel like I’m a little scattered with all this, but I hope you see the concepts really merging together. There’s a lot I wanted to say, and I’m sure a lot of it didn’t come together as ideally as I intended, but I hope that in each area something stuck out at you and stuck with you.

My hope is that this post in some way triggers some thoughts and actions for you to begin assessing and implementing to work towards this concept of “disciplining yourself” as Paul said above.

And ultimately you MUST remember this: there is grace.

We can rejoice and operate in freedom because these strivings and our ability to attain goals do not define us. Christ has accomplished it all for us because He knew we would fall short. He knew we’d mess up, get distracted, and run to other things we know do not ultimately satisfy. And guess what? He STILL chose to die for you.

Christ STILL calls you “brother” and “sister” and accomplished for you adoption into the family of God. This should free us to strive all the more–not to earn what we cannot earn, but because our place is secure in Him and this instills in us a new set of hopes and desires to love and follow Jesus and make much of God with our lives!

Oh, to Know Jesus!

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (Philippians 3:8).

One thing is for sure: Christianity is not for stoics. The Bible is the most wild, romantic book ever written. The New Testament is no cool, reasoned analysis of Jesus’s system of thought. It is a passionate book written by people who were ravished by Jesus, who felt and said ardent things like Philippians 3:8.

You know what the world calls statements like Paul’s? Religious extremism. Fanaticism. You “count everything as loss”? Sounds dangerous. Have you thought about seeing a therapist?

But the world is full of such talk when it comes to romantic love. We expect lovers’ language to be obsessive and imbalanced. Listen to the way the poet John Keats speaks to his beloved Fanny Brawne:

You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist: and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often “to reason against the reasons of my Love.” I can do that no more — the pain would be too great — My Love is selfish — I cannot breathe without you.

Keats’s overwhelming passion gave him a profound insight (in the same letter):

I have been astonished that men could die martyrs for their religion — I have shuddered at it — I shudder no more. I could be martyred for my religion.
 Love is my religion and I could die for that. I could die for you.

Paul is no fundamentalist extremist driven by fear or anger to force his creed on others. He’s a man in love. Keats idolized Fanny. Paul worshiped his Lord.

Christians are people in love with Jesus. He’s not our worldview; he’s our Bridegroom. We pour over the Word and pray to commune with our Beloved. Theology is only worth studying to help us know him! Preaching, teaching and evangelism is not our vocation or obligation but a longing that others know him too. “For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).

Here’s a passionate prayer written within Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ that I find relevant.

Eternal Father… we must thank you because you have made us taste and see the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son. Oh, to know him! Father, we long to know him. Banish from our minds low thoughts of Christ. Saturate our souls with the Spirit of Christ and all his greatness. Enlarge our capacities to be satisfied in all that you are for us in him. Where flesh and blood are impotent, reveal to us the Christ, and rivet our attention and our affections on the truth and beauty of your all-glorious Son.

Amen! Oh, to know Jesus so well and love him so much that we count all else as loss in comparison!

This post is adapted from Jon Bloom’s post on Desiring God’s blog here: http://ow.ly/dztdW

That I May Know Him

(7) But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. (8) Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ (9) and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—(10) that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, (11) that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7-11)

This verse brings me great joy and great confidence. I’m not sure if any other set of verses in the Bible provides much more confidence than this one does for me. The power in which Paul proclaims these truths in these verses is astounding, and the sheer Gospel-centrality of them is enough to bring me to my knees before a Holy God. But not only is He a Holy God, He’s MY God. And Ephesians 1 says that God has chosen me, and all those who profess faith in Him, for adoption as sons. We, an evil (Genesis 6:5), wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), idolatrous (Romans 1:22-25), lying (Romans 3:4), adulterous (James 4:4, Matthew 5:28), greedy (Matthew 23:25) people are brought near to God, through Jesus (Hebrews 4:14-16), and proclaimed clean (1 John 1:7), righteous (Romans 3:22), holy (Hebrews 10:10), blameless (Ephesians 1:4), and empowered by God Himself (1 John 4:15).

Romans 3:10-12 says that no one is righteous, and yet Christ died to reconcile us to God (Ephesians 2:16, Colossians 1:20).

Do you feel the weight of this? It’s not that we were so lovable that Christ came and cuddled with us because we were so cute. Christ came to reconcile us, despite us, and this should lead us to deep gratitude and worship.

Paul says above in verse 8 that every gain he had (which, by the way, was a lot) he counted as nothing for the sake of knowing Christ. He even says later in the verse that he considers it rubbish when compared to Christ! Matt Chandler paints this picture well. He talks about how we so eagerly go after the next big thing–that new TV, the new car, the next iPhone–and how all of the things we spend so much time pursuing ends up being “stuff of future garage sales, dumps, and storage units.”

Let us have a unity of focus like Paul does in this passage in Ephesians. Verses 8-10 show the heart of it when it illustrates why he counts all things as loss compared to Christ: “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him… that I may Him and the power of His resurrection.”

At the end of the day we want Christ. Our pursuit is Christ. Our longing is for Christ. And our passions in life should all center back on glorifying, and making much of, Christ. David Platt says that Christians are a people “conquered by a superior affection” and for me, I pray that those words may be said about me. I want to be consumed in the making much of God.

May we all feel the weight of this, and may this be just what we needed to hear tonight. This Gospel is more than any of us deserve, and better than anything we can ever attain, but the glorious truth is that it is freely offered to us. May we praise God with everything within us and have this be the foundation of everything we do. I want to live to make much of God and I pray that you will join me in this.