July 12, 1998
Division and disharmony within the church open the gate for the real enemy to slip in undetected. To present a united front rather than insist on our personal agendas, we must recognize that we are in the Lord and submit to His instruction. Alistair Begg explains that when we trust that God is in control, we can lovingly take the initiative in reconciliation, rejoice in the Lord in all circumstances, and prayerfully rest in His peace and provision.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn to Philippians chapter 4, where we continue our studies in this “epistle of joy,” as it is often referred to—Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi. Philippians 4:2:
“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Father, we pray again—as we always do, because we mean it—Spirit of God, be our teacher, we pray, so that far beyond the voice of a mere man we might hear you speak to us by your Word right in the very core of our lives. Because otherwise, this is such a futile exercise—using up all of this time to listen to the mere meanderings of the human mind, some dull monologue. Only you, O God, make the difference, and to you alone we look, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Now, many of you will recall that the beginnings of the church at Philippi were down by the riverside, as it is recorded for us by Luke in Acts chapter 16. Paul and his companions, in responding to the word of God, had gone into Macedonia and had made their way into Philippi. Upon reaching Philippi they were to discover that there was no synagogue there, but they went down by the river, and there they found a group of women who were involved in praying together. One of those women, Lydia by name, who was a worshipper of God, found that in that encounter with the apostles her eyes were opened to the truth, and she moved from being somebody who was devoutly interested in God to becoming a lady who actually knew God and was transformed by the power of the Spirit of God and made a member of God’s family. That is the kind of transformation that is taking place with regularity here at Parkside Church as men and women who are worshippers of God and actually quite interested in God are finding that their eyes are opened to the truth of God and they’re being converted, born again, becoming members of God’s family. It’s very exciting, and it’s something that only God is able to do. He chooses to do it in the same way: by means of his Spirit and through the power of his truth.
Now, Lydia is the only lady mentioned there, and there were other women present. And it is at least possible—although we would not want to be dogmatic in any way—that these two individuals who are mentioned in Philippians 4:2 were part of the original group in that fledging church down by the river; that they were, perhaps, part of the founding membership of the local church in Philippi. If so, then a disagreement between them, such as is confronted here, would have all the potential for drawing others into their argument and causing serious disunity within the body of Christ.
Whether that is true of them or not, what we do know to be true is that these women were Christians. Their names were written in the book of life, along with Clement and the other fellow workers, we’re told there in verse 3. The New Testament speaks of Christians in all kinds of ways, and one of the things that it says is true of a Christian is that they have their names entered into God’s book of eternal record, and that those whose names appear in that book will one day be welcomed into heaven, and those whose names do not appear in that book will never go to heaven. And, of course, it is God who enters the names, and it is God who by his Spirit draws men and women to himself, thereby making it possible for their names to be entered. So these women were Christian women, and they were committed women. They were committed to the gospel—we’re told that in verse 3—and they were committed to others along with them in the gospel. They had “contended” at the side of Paul, he says, “in the cause of … gospel, along with Clement and the rest of [the] fellow workers.”
So, in other words, as you put the pieces together, you recognize that these ladies were Christian ladies, they were committed Christian ladies, and they were happy to be in the company of others who were equally committed. That, however, did not stop them from arguing with one another. And their disagreement, the nature of which is not disclosed, was sufficiently striking for Paul to mention them by name. The implications of their argument with one another were such that they had reached well beyond Philippi and had reached the ears of Paul, who, of course, was writing to them from Rome.
The cause of their dispute isn’t mentioned. If it had been important, it would be there for us. We don’t know whether it was doctrinal or ethical or ecclesiastical or personal. We do know, however, that the real concern—and the reason for Paul mentioning it—is not the issue itself, but it is the impact that their disagreement was having. It is very, very difficult to fight without the fight being known. If you disagree with your spouse, your children will find out, no matter how well you try and conceal it. They’re too bright to miss it. If you have a family gathering at your home and somebody gets ticked about something and gets at war with the brother-in-law, there is no possible way to conceal it; it eventually comes out. And if one is not careful, then it can spread, like ripples going out from the arrival of a stone in a stream that is calm or in a pond. And that is exactly what had happened with these ladies. And the situation was grave enough for Paul to want to address it.
I had been thinking along these lines and studying along these lines, and when I awakened in the early hours of this morning, a thought occurred to me as I was lying staring at the ceiling. And it was this thought: that when a church takes the Bible seriously, as we seek to, and when a church is concerned to do what Paul exhorts the fellowship in Philippi to do in 4:1—namely, to “stand firm in the Lord” in light of the enemies of the cross that may come at it from without—it occurred to me, as I was lying in my bed this morning, that that church faces, perhaps, a unique danger. And, of course, I was applying this to myself and to ourselves. And the unique danger that occurred to me was this: it would be very possible for us to be so concerned to stand fast against the potential of anything that may come at us from without that we become diverted from the fact that one of our greatest challenges is actually from within. And so we pride ourselves in knowing what the Bible teaches and knowing why this needs to be dealt with and why that needs to be stood against, and all of a sudden, unsuspectingly, we find that there are individuals within the fellowship who are beginning to divert the church from the cause of Christ. And instead of our reaching out to those who don’t know Christ and building up those who have come to know Christ, we find ourselves distracted by petty and often peripheral concerns which sap the energy not only of the arguers but also of all who are caught up with it, and they scatter seeds of bitterness within a church family.
Now, you would recognize that I have nobody in mind this morning; I don’t have a couple of ladies that are at war with one another. I’m sure there are ladies who are at war with one another—probably lots of them—just as there are probably lots of men who are at loggerheads with one another as well. The only issue is the extent to which it is true. There are no perfect churches, and we’re not perfect people. We’re not even perfect within our houses. How in the world would we pull it off when we move in a larger group such as this? But I mention that so that nobody wants to get overly concerned that I have you in mind. I have no one in mind. If I did, I could mention you and put everyone else’s mind at rest, but it’d be such a long list to go through—especially with my name at the top of the list.
But the fact of the matter is that we cannot “stand fast” à la verse 1 while tolerating division and disharmony à la verse 2. Because the kind of division which Paul addresses is contrary to the call that he had already issued. If you turn back one page to the opening verses of chapter 2, you will remember that he speaks in generic terms about the need for unity: “If you have any encouragement”—from where?—“from being united with Christ … any comfort”—where does that come from?—“from his love … any fellowship”—on the basis of what?—“the Spirit …any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded.” Paul had already issued that command, and he had had it read out. And now they come to this next part of the scroll, and dear oh dear, their names have emerged.
It would be nice to think, would it not, that on the strength of what they heard in the chapter 2 part of the scroll, Euodia and Syntyche had already responded to that and gone and dealt with it. Because if they hadn’t, you can imagine how they felt when their names got read out. It would have been nice to think that on the strength of what he said in chapter 2 they had already cleaned it up, and so they looked at one another with knowing glances, saying, “Boy, I’m glad we already took care of this problem.” I have a sneaking suspicion that they didn’t. It had been going on for so long.
This kind of division, then, was contrary to the call that Paul had already issued. This kind of division was contrary to the nature of the church. Because the church is fundamentally one. The names that are written in the Book of Life are there as a result of God’s grace. No one name is more significant than the other; there is only one name of significance, and that’s the name of the Lord Jesus, the head of the church. Depending on how it was done, if it was done in alphabetical order, you may be near to the top or the bottom, but the fact of the matter is, no one name is more significant. We have a shared birth, we have a shared calling, we have a shared citizenship, and there is a heaven reality about the church, since there are absolutely no divisions in heaven. As God looks upon that, he sees it in its perfection. But, of course, the challenge is that we’re not already in heaven. We’re not already experiencing all of that. And so, for God’s people to confess unity in heaven and practice disunity on earth is against the nature of the church.
And also, this kind of division is a serious flaw in the church’s armor against the world. In 1:27 he had exhorted them there in Philippi, “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know [this].” What? “That you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel.”
Those of you who are military men and women will know the absolute necessity of this kind of closing of the ranks—of identifying the primary front where the battle is raging. If the ranks are not closed and the primary front is not identified, then the temptation is for skirmishes to begin at secondary fronts, or worse still, for skirmishes to begin internally as a result of the fact that the people on the front have lost sight of the real enemy that they face. Somehow or another, Euodia and Syntyche had done just that. They knew what it was to contend for the cause of the gospel, but they had a contention that was going on which was superseding the cause of the gospel. And as a result of that, they presented a serious flaw to the church’s armor in the battle against the world and the flesh and the devil.
Only a united church can present a united front. Disharmony within will lead to defeat without. When God’s people can’t bear the sight of each other, they will not be able to look the world in the face. I mean, you just can’t go out and tell people, “Well, come to our church, it’s a wonderful place, and they’re a happy bunch of people,” and so on, if you know that if they come walking in here and sit down, they won’t be in here two or three minutes before they say, “Well, why is this person at loggerheads with this person, and what’s the confusion over this and that and the next thing?” and the whole place is a dog’s breakfast of the worst kind. So you see, it is harmony from within that gives us the opportunity to display unity without. And that, you see, was what was being eroded in the church in Philippi. That was why Paul was so concerned about it. That was why he would address it as he did.
Now, the only hint that he gives to be able to rectify this essentially comes in the phrase “in the Lord”: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord.” Now, this little phrase “in the Lord” is crucial. Because it is this, more than any other thing, which explains who Euodia is and who Syntyche is. These women have to remember, as do we, that we’re not our own, we’re his. First Corinthians 6:19: “[You] are not your own … [you were] bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.” When I forget that I’m not my own—when I forget that I belong exclusively to Christ—then I will begin very quickly to champion my own agenda, to establish my own cause, to fight for my own rights, to get on my own high horse, and to dispute with anybody who doesn’t agree with the fact that I have this legitimate agenda on the strength of who I am, and what I believe, and what I desire.
As well-meaning as all of that may be, and as justifiable as it may be in part, the fact of the matter is, when I remember that I am “in the Lord,” it will be inconsistent for me to insist on my own way, to the detriment of Euodia or Syntyche—when I recognize that I belong to a Savior who never insisted on his own way.
And this is the incongruity of it. We say that we follow Jesus Christ, who never insisted on his own way—but by golly, I’m going to insist on my own way! Well, you can’t do that. Well, you say, “Yes, you can do that, because I’ve been doing it regularly.” Well, I don’t mean “can’t,” impossible; I mean “can’t,” incongruous. It is incongruous. And it was this incongruity that these folks were tolerating. If Jesus had desired simply his own way, there would be no Philippians 2:5–11, there would be no incarnation, there would be no cross, there would be no forgiveness, there would be no hope of heaven.
These women needed to recognize that they were in the Lord, and they needed to submit their lives to the instruction of the Lord as it was coming to them through the apostle and as it comes to us now in the words of the prophets and the apostles as we have it in the Scriptures. For example, in Romans chapter 15: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak”—now notice the next phrase—“and not to please ourselves.” “Not to please ourselves.” You think of how much trouble we all get in simply because we please ourselves! At every level of our lives: “I just want to please myself. I just want to do whatever pleases me.” The Bible says if you’re a Christian, that’s not your first issue. The first issue is pleasing God. If you recognize that you’re not your own and you belong to God, then you’ll please him. If you please him, then you’ll prefer your brother. “Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.” So you’ve got it negatively and positively: “Don’t please yourself, please your neighbor.” Why? “For his good, so that he can be built up.” Euodia and Syntyche were violating that at every front. They were clearly pleasing themselves; they were not pleasing one another for God’s good, or for their neighbor’s good.
So their dispute was going to have to be rectified by recognizing that they were in the Lord, by submitting to the instruction that comes from the Lord, and frankly, by taking the initiative in dealing with each other.
There is one thing that is absolutely certain in the healing and mending of relationships, and that is that we must always be the initiator—always and every case, the initiator. Neither of us is to wait for the other person. Isn’t that what happens in our marriages? “Well, I’m not saying anything. Doggone it, I didn’t even say anything in the first place, and look at the mess I’m in now! No! She can say something. She says something, I know what I’ll say, but I’m not saying anything till she says whatever she should say, because after all, she should…” And you have this conversation with you in the car, by yourself. Do you? Maybe I do, just… maybe it’s just me.
It’s the same in the church: “Well, I’m not, no… I mean, I don’t hold anything against him. No. Nothing!”
“Well, then go and tell him that you don’t.”
“No, I’m not telling him. No, there’s no reason why I should. After all, I didn’t start this thing in the first place. If he wants to come to me and acknowledge that he got us off to a bad start, then I’m quite ready to accept that and go with that and so on, but… he’s coming first.”
That’s not love. Love takes the initiative.
You say, “Well, I’m not gonna go over there and say ‘I’m sorry I was wrong’ when I didn’t even know I was wrong in the first place.” Well, certainly there are some things that are less convoluted as others. Let’s say you opened your big fat mouth and you did something—which is something that I can speak to with great certainty and clarity—and you know that you took one foot out, put the other foot in, and it was a disaster. So you can go over and say, “Sorry that I got my feet in my mouth, it was absolutely wrong, and I’d like you to forgive me.” However, if you’ve done something inadvertently, and the person doesn’t know, and you for the life of you can’t work out why it is that it is, and you’re saying to yourself, “Well, I’m just going to wait over here till I find out,” you may wait till eternity to find out, and that’s too long to wait. So go over and say, “You know, I don’t see how I got myself in the position I got in, but it’s clear to me that I must have hurt you. And please forgive me for hurting you.”
“Euodia and Syntyche, I’m pleading with you: agree in the Lord.” God’s people are not to be disagreeable. We’re not supposed to be a company of disagreeable rascals. We’re supposed to be a family that deals with disagreement—that doesn’t say there is none, that doesn’t say everything’s fine, that says everything isn’t fine, and there is some, but this is what we have to do in order that we might be obviously a company of the redeemed: agree in the Lord.
You know, this little section here is about three things: it’s about love, joy, and peace—love in all of its practicality, as described here in verses 2 and 3; and then, in verses 4 and 5, joy in all of its fullness. “Agree in the Lord,” he says, and then in verse 4, “Rejoice in the Lord.”
Now, look at the word that follows “Lord” there in that little five-word sentence: “always.” Always! Now, if it had simply said “rejoice,” full stop, we might have said to ourselves, “Okay, well, I’ll do my best with that, and whenever everything is going well, and when the stars are in line, and all that kind of stuff, then I’ll be fine, I’ll be able to rejoice.” But it’s the “always” that’s the kicker. In fact, he repeats it; he says, “I will say it again: Rejoice!”
Now, here’s the question that comes to my mind—I don’t know about you: How in the world are you ever to achieve this? How can you rejoice always? Is it even possible to rejoice always, or are we supposed to take this as some kind of hyperbole statement that it holds out to us an unattainable dimension of Christian living? No, we are not! He says, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Therefore, we should!
Now, the reason we get into such difficulty with this notion, I think, is because we tend to think of joy—and forgive me if I am including you in a thought process which isn’t your own, but rather than using the first person I want to use the second—we tend to think of joy in the same incorrect way that we tend to think about love: namely, that we think of love as a victim of our emotions rather than being a servant of our wills, so that the notion of love is something that no one can command. So nobody should say, “You must love,” because we say, “Well, we can’t turn it on or turn it off. We only are the victim of whatever is sloshing around us or within us.” And in the same way, joy is completely determined by external factors over which we have no control, and therefore, how could anybody encourage us to “rejoice in the Lord always”? So clearly, we’ve got to think this out. Because the Bible means what it says.
And the real key is in understanding the distinction between thinking and willing and feeling. Now, if you’re taking notes, you should write down thinking, willing, and feeling—or, the cerebral dimension, the volitional dimension, and the visceral dimension, for those of you who like a kind of little lean back to the lab. But thinking, willing, and feeling. When we get these all jiggered, then everything goes to pot from there. And the reason that so many of us are all to pot is because we haven’t got this worked out in our minds. And we just stumble through our days on some great roller-coaster ride of emotion; we don’t know how to deal with disagreements, we don’t know how to deal with circumstances, we don’t know to put everything in the right box. So we throw up our hands and we say, “Oh, forget it. This must be for somebody else. I’ll just go over in a corner here and have my own little pity party.”
Now, in the divine order of things, God’s purpose is this: that our thinking was supposed to be informed and shaped and governed by his revelation. Okay? So that the way in which we think, in the purposes of God, was that we were supposed to “think God’s thoughts after him,” as it has been said. And it is when we think on the basis of God’s revelation—what he has made known of himself and of his purposes—that we then inform and we influence and we direct our powers of volition. So it is as I learn to think correctly that I then bring my doing into line with my right thinking.
That’s why we’ve got such a dreadful predicament in evangelicalism, because by and large evangelicals don’t think! It’s not a feature of evangelical Christianity, thinking. You talk to people about issues, they don’t know the issues. They only know the heroes. And then they line up behind the heroes: “What did Mr. X say about it? Oh, I like him. I think I probably believe what he believes. Oh, no, I like him a little better. I think I believe what he believes.” But they don’t think the issues out. And it is imperative that our thinking, then, constrains our doing. And that’s, you see, what transforms it all.
That’s why the hymn writer says, if I may pause for a moment, “’Tis what I know of thee, my Lord and God, that fills my heart with praise, my lips with song.” Now, this isn’t the same as saying, “I just want to praise you, lift my hands and say I love you.” Because as I’ve mentioned to you before, the circumstance of the hymn writer in the first instance may have been absolutely brutal. His job may have been lost, his marital existence may have been fractured, his children may have been a challenge to him. And if then he was going to allow the circumstances of his life to determine joy or sorrow, he has no chance in the world. So what then will grant to that individual stability? The answer is, “’Tis what I know of thee, my Lord and God, that fills my heart with praise, my lips with song.” In other words, it is his thinking that then determines his doing.
That is sanity, incidentally. And it is not as a result of simply being flushed up by some superficial experience, or hyped up by some worship experience which leaves you horribly flat when you walk out of the door because you have never engaged your minds. That is why true worship engages the mind; it is rational. And it stirs the heart; it is visceral. And it challenges the will; it is volitional. But it is mind-engaging truth. And the reason that many of us feel we cannot respond to the exhortation “Rejoice in the Lord always” is because we have determined that our feelings will control it all. “No!” says wisdom. When we understand what is right and what is good, then we commit our wills to accomplishing that which is right and good. And then, in turn, our feelings are molded by what we think and by what we will. Our feelings and our emotions are not isolated from our thinking and our willing but are guided by them.
Now, I don’t know how many of you are following this; I feel like I need an overhead projector here. But our feelings and our emotions are not divorced from our thinking and our doing, but they are constrained and guided and formed by our thinking and our doing. That is why when you see rock climbers on these precipitous situations and you say to them after the climb—you know, like in Malham Cove in Yorkshire—and when they finally come down you say to them, “Weren’t you scared to death up there?” The answer is, yes! That’s how they were feeling. But their doing, as they took another handhold and another toehold, was directly related not to how they were feeling but on the basis of what they were thinking—namely, “I cannot allow how I am feeling to jeopardize a right kind of thinking which leads to a proper kind of doing. Otherwise, I ain’t gonna be climbing anymore!”
Now, the fact is this: that the order of things has been overturned by sin, and is always overturned by sin. So instead of it being the way I just outlined, our willing or our doing tends to be dominated by our feelings. And then our thinking is so often overruled by our wills. And in that pattern, in that kind of cycle, it’s only possible to rejoice when you’re feeling good. And that’s when your circumstances are conducive to joy. But unless they’re conducive to joy and unless you’re feeling good, you don’t have a chance in the world. So you’re done! So you’re gloomy!
That’s why you’re gloomy. Did you know that? The only time you’re happy—the only time you’re drumming your fingers on your steering wheel—is when either you got a raise, or the sun was shining the way you wanted it, or whatever else it is. So you’re like… And so why is that? Because external factors have filled you up! What about it when it’s the sky is down here? When you’re going, “I don’t think I’ve got enough for a coffee”? When your job is on the line, when your relationships are fractured? Is it possible to rejoice then? Not if you start from feelings and work it the other way. But if you start it from what you know to be true of God, then it is possible.
That’s why Habakkuk—or Ha-BA-kuk, as he is more correctly referred to here. I always remember him as “Hab-a-cookie.” It’s a very spiritual way to remember the book. But anyway, my dear friend Hab-a-cookie, he says in chapter 3, when he thinks about the word of God to him, he says, “I heard and my heart pounded, [and] my lips quivered at the sound; [and] decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.” Okay, not feeling particularly good, Habakkuk, is that right? “Yeah.” “I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.” You’re in deep trouble Habakkuk? “Absolutely.” Thanks for telling us how you feel. Now tell us what you’re going to do. Listen to this:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and [though] the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
See, everything in the realm of feelings rattle his cage and knock him off his box. If he goes with that, he can’t finish out the chapter in this way. He has to bring the experience of how he is feeling and make it subservient to what he knows of the provider God. And then, on the strength of that, you will notice the verb that he uses is the verb “will”: “I will rejoice in the Lord. I will rejoice in God my Savior.” In other words, it is volitional, it is not emotional.
That is how it is possible to rejoice always. That is why there can be even joy in the midst of deep trial. That is why there can be joy in the midst of deep pain. That is why all hell can unleash itself against us, and still to say, “I am going to continue to hold on and rejoice in the Lord.”
And you know what happens? When we discover that kind of joy, then it delivers us from an obsession with ourselves and an obsession with our circumstances. And it produces the gentleness of verse 5: “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”
Where does that come from? Where does gentleness all of a sudden jump out? We’re talking about joy; where did gentleness come from? Listen, joyfulness and gentleness go together. Joyful people are gentle people. Crabby people are not gentle people. Argumentative people are not gentle people. People who know that “the Lord is near” will know that he comes to the broken and the contrite spirit, and they will derive comfort from that, which they will be glad to share. And when they know that the return of the Lord is near—if that is the emphasis here—that his return is imminent, then they will be saying to themselves, “Well, since the righteous judge will come and put these things to right, I don’t have to be the judge in this circumstance.” So they’re saying—like in Laugh-In, you know—“Here come the judge, here come the judge.” And when you know “here come the judge,” you don’t have to be the judge. So there’s one thing to take off your stinkin’ list: quit judging everybody! Quit trying to sort everybody else out. Get joyful, get gentle. No joy? No gentleness.
See the way it works? “Agree in the Lord”—the basis of genuine, practical love. “Rejoice in the Lord”—the foundation of a deep-seated approach to life which is challenged by but not overturned by the difficulties of our days.
And finally, find your peace in the Lord. Let me just spend a moment on this. Verse 6. Just when we thought “Rejoice always” was an impossible notion, Paul follows it up with verse 6: “[Don’t] be anxious about anything.” It would be okay if it stopped at “anxious,” wouldn’t it? It’d be bad enough: “Don’t be anxious.” But he says, “Don’t be anxious about anything.” Now, if I gave you all a sheet of paper to write down the things you’ve been anxious about this week, or today already, or while I’ve been speaking, man, we would have such a long list! And here’s the Word of God to us: “Don’t be anxious about anything.”
Now, part of what I’ve said in relationship to joy, I think, is the explanation in relationship to peace—this whole interplay between thinking, willing, and feeling. But he actually gives to us the antidote to a suffocating anxiety. When you feel yourself to be almost choked by the situation—“I can’t breathe!”—he says, “Don’t let it choke you. Get the oxygen masks!”
“And in the unlikely event of a loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen masks will drop down from the overhead compartment in front of you. Put on your oxygen mask first, and then help the person next to you.” Okay! Why? ’Cause if you suffocate, you won’t be able to help your kids or your wife. So get your own on. Stop fiddling around with everybody else’s: “Oh, you know, you need to start praying about that. Yeah, Philippians 4. Yeah. That’s the reason you’re in the predicament you’re in, you know. You’re not… you’re not getting the oxygen you need.” Hey, you take care of your oxygen, all right?
The antidote is prayer and thanksgiving. When I’m anxious—and I don’t understand this except for the perversity of the human heart—when I am anxious, it is actually easier for me to retreat into a corner and complain than it is to bring the matter before God in prayer. Now, I’m not proud of that confession, but it is honest. Even though I know what I’m supposed to do is get down on my knees and cry to God, I go over in a corner, say, “Goodness gracious, I can’t believe this thing, and the stinkin’ thing, and…” When I know what the Bible says; it says, “Go over here, get on your knees,” I say, “No, I’m going over here, I like it over here.” And the anxiety grips you, it squeezes you, you’re paralyzed by it. He says, “Don’t do that.”
“Pray about it,” he says. Prayer takes up the anxiety-provoking question, “How am I going to cope with this?” Isn’t that what comes? “I don’t think I can cope with this!” Well, when we come before God in prayer, we’re pointed a way to the resources of God and his promises, we’re pointed a way to he who is totally competent, and therefore, we can leave the matter under his control. See, that’s what we’re doing in prayer. I mean, prayer is spreading our needs before God, knowing that he will give us what we ask, or he will give us something better. Even if the something better is something that we don’t like, it’ll still be better!
Now, my father’s better than an alarm clock. There’s no question about this. My father is an alarm clock! That’s actually what he is, as I think about it. I could ask him—didn’t matter where I was going, when I was going—all the time I lived at home, “Dad will you wake me up?” “Absolutely, I’ll wake you up. What time do you want woken up?” Whatever time it was I told him—four in the morning, five in the morning, doesn’t matter—“I’ll wake you up.” I’d go to my bed and I’d sleep like a baby. I never gave me one thought, never set my alarm clock, never looked at a clock, never did a thing, ’cause I knew that his hand would be on my throat at whatever time I said—I mean, his gentle hand would be on the back of my neck at the time that he promised. And he never let me down once. I never ever laid in my bed and said, “I wonder if I’ll wake up, I wonder if I’ll miss the plane, I wonder if I’ll miss the bus, I wonder if I’ll miss the game?” I never! I said, “Hey dad? You get me?” “I’ve got you.” Done. Sleep. Finished.
Now that’s the kind of trust that he’s calling for. When the anxiety’s about to squeeze the life out of me, I go to my heavenly Father and I say, “Father, will you take care of this for me?” He says, “You’ve got it.” Said, “Okay,” then go to sleep. Because it is by prayer that I answer “How shall I cope?”
And it is in thanksgiving that I answer the question “Why has this happened to me?” See, a thankful heart doesn’t ask, “Why has this happened to me?” Because the thankful heart recognizes that God always acts with purpose, and that he always fulfills his purpose, and that he knows exactly what he’s doing. And you see, that’s where I get all confused. That’s why I get all anxious. ’Cause I’m not sure that the guy up there in the left-hand chair is paying attention. I want to go up and knock on the door: “Hey! Uh… just… ah, just want to put my head in, just see everything’s okay and stuff, you know?” Don’t you ever want to do that? Is this another one that only I do? I always want to go up and go, “Hey, just checking, you know, just seeing everything’s cool, you know. Thanks. All right. Might be back later. Bye for now!” Now, why is that? ’Cause you got a sneaking suspicion they’re reading Newsweek or something—that the automatic pilot’s got it seven degrees south when it should be three degrees north, and we’re all going into oblivion. Well, since you can’t keep going up and knock the door, you can either keep your feet on the floor or you can put your bottom in the seat and you can trust the pilot. And you can fly the instruments right along with him.
We landed in DC—probably my second favorite landing—at the Reagan Airport the other night. You can always tell when there’s no visibility at all, ’cause they try and couch it. “Well, it’s a little overcast, a little on the dull side.” I’m going, “It’s pea soup,” you know. They don’t tell you that when you’re going. They get closer: “Well, it’s closing down a little from what I mentioned earlier.” You knew that… And then eventually they say, “Yeah, we can’t see a thing out the window,” you know. And then you do that little thing along the Potomac, you know. And you look, and as you’re going down further and further and further towards the ground, you say to yourself, “Was it going in or coming out that the DC-9 crashed?” You say, “It was going out. Oh, that’s good, ’cause we’re going in.” And then you reach in the pocket in front of you, just as a matter of interest to see what kind of plane it is you’re flying in, and it says, “McDonnell Douglas DC-980,” you know. Trust? Or jump? Or bang your head off the wall till you’re oblivious?
The practicality of it is this: that when I understand that God is in control of these things, then all of my struggles and all of my challenges and all of my experiences are brought before the God of peace. He gives peace to garrison our hearts. He’s “the God of peace”—verse 9. The word there for “garrison” can be used to describe an umpire who adjudicates and rules things in and rules them out, and God is umpiring the events of our lives. And at the heart of it all is not the contemporary notion of emptying my mind of everything in order that I might discover tranquility, but rather it is in filling my mind with the truth of God’s grace, so that, as John Newton says,
Though troubles assail, and dangers affright;
Through friends should all fail, and foes all unite,
Yet one thing secures us, whatever betide:
The Scripture assures us, “The Lord will provide.”
Love, joy, peace.
 Philippians 2:1–2 (NIV 1984).
 1 Corinthians 6:19–20 (KJV).
 Romans 15:1 (NIV 1984).
 Romans 15:2 (NIV 1984).
 Attributed to Johannes Kepler.
 Horatius Bonar, “Not What I Am, O Lord, but What Thou Art.” Paraphrase
 Arthur Tannous, “I Just Want to Praise You” (1984).
 Habakkuk 3:16 (NIV 1984).
 Habakkuk 3:16 (NIV 1984).
 Habakkuk 3:17–18 (NIV 1984).
 John Newton, “Though Troubles Assail.”
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.