The Best Years Of Your Life
THE [RBK1] BEST YEARS OF YOUR LIFE
"Is this as good as it gets?" "Is that all there is?" "After all these years of work, it now comes to this?" "Whatever happened to the 'Golden Years'?" Many times as a physical therapist I have heard these questions posed to me. Patients and their families who have spent years working, years saving, and years planning to retire and enjoy their retirement are thrown for a loop when circumstances derail this ideal of retirement bliss. "And these are the Golden Years?" A stroke comes along, or a fall causes a hip fracture, or Alzheimer's comes in and robs the abilities of a loved one. These circumstances surround them. They become anxious and begin to despair.
Some might say that the best years of life are the carefree college years: football, parties, new freedom from parents. But then the pressure of an exam comes, or a large paper is due, and the pressures build. Others would say that the best years are the early-married years, beginning a new life, beginning a new family, growing together as a new identity, only to experience difficult adjustments to the new schedules, or to face financial setbacks. So often the plans we have for different periods of our lives present themselves differently than we had imagined. At these times it is easy to become discouraged and anxious. Yet there was one in Scripture who learned that in whatever situation he found himself he would rejoice and not despair. Over the years the apostle Paul faced imprisonment, beatings, receiving thirty-nine lashes three different times, beaten with rods, and stoned. He had been shipwrecked, day and night adrift in the sea. And even now, as he is writing this epistle to the Philippians, it is believed that he was probably 65 or 66 years of age and in prison. Yet his proclamation was not a sarcastic comment, such as, And these are supposed to be the best years of my life?! Or, Why is God making me suffer? But rather, Rejoice in the Lord. Again, I say rejoice!
Paul's circumstances were anything but pleasant. Not only did he have the history of tremendous difficulties and turmoil, but the prison from which he wrote this letter, no doubt, did not have air conditioning, cable TV, comfortable beds, or good food. Even in this situation he calls out, Rejoice! Have joy!
The Philippian church that received this letter had been a very strong church, was good to Paul, worshipped the Lord, and they were good to each other. Paul's letter to them is filled with praise and does not have the admonishment or rebukes that his other letters contained. Yet even this church received instructions from Paul so that their walk with Christ would be more dynamic.
In this section of chapter 4 there are nine imperatives or commands. I will focus on only a few of them. The first two are interesting to me. Paul begins and ends this sentence with the commands, Rejoice! It is not only a goal, but an assignment or a duty. Rejoice! Paul tells us to rejoice because the Lord is near. It is in Him that we are to find our joy. Rejoicing is supernatural. The fruit of the Spirit is to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Joy is part of this supernatural blessing from the Holy Spirit. And yet we have a responsibility to ripen this fruit and to develop it and to deepen it through spiritual activities and exercises. You see, if you want to truly rejoice in the Lord in ALL of your circumstances, you must actively develop your Christian character and discipline yourself spiritually.
In the first place, REJOICING IN THE LORD REQUIRES PRAYER. (v.6) Paul begins this section concerning the opportunity and the responsibility to pray to God with the command to not be anxious about anything. Is it possible for us to live without anxiety? Without worry? Worry really is a natural, human response to the insecurities we encounter day by day. A person may be facing a serious operation, a financial concern, and uncertainty about employment, death, and dying. To be anxious or to be concerned about these things is human and natural. Although it is human and natural, we must counter the effects of this anxiety. Paul recognized this concern in the members of the Philippian church. He wants to present to them an alternative to being anxious. He says in verse 6, to not be anxious about anything (this is another one of the imperatives or commands), but -- and here he gives the alternative -- in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. It's OK when an anxious moment comes upon you. It's not unusual to experience moments that you are worried about the events in your life. And yet, to dwell on them is what Paul wants us to avoid. You must discern why you are worrying-- and then pray!
Paul uses three terms to describe prayer, three synonyms used to emphasize the need for this action, to emphasize the need to be responsible to bring before the Lord our concerns. Paul says that in prayer and supplication we are to make known unto God our requests ("make known" is another command). He says we are to pray in everything. Prayer needs to be the reflex response to worry and anxiety.
While attending seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, I had the opportunity to visit a number of Civil War battlegrounds. These visits piqued my interest in the characters in these wars and I began to read the biographies of several Confederate soldiers, many of them who were Christians. One, of course, was Robert E. Lee. Another one was Thomas J "Stonewall" Jackson. Stonewall Jackson was a true man of God and a man of prayer. This was written about him: "A friend was once conversing with Jackson about the difficulty of obeying the Scriptural injunction, Pray without ceasing. Jackson insisted that he could so accustom himself to it that it could be easily obeyed. When we take our meals there is grace. When I take a drink of water I always pause as my palate receives the refreshment to lift up my heart to God in thanks and prayer for the Water of Life. Whenever I drop a letter in the box at the post office I send a petition along with it for God's blessing upon its mission and upon the person to whom it is sent. When I break the seal of a letter just received, I stop to pray to God that He may prepare me for its contents." You see, Jackson was a man of fervent prayer. In fact, many soldiers thought he was crazy, that he was a nut, because after they would make camp, he would frequently go out into the woods walking back and forth while talking out loud, praying out loud to God, frequently making statements and motions that did not make sense to those who overheard, because he was presenting his case before God concerning the battles ahead. It was also reported that many saw him stumbling over fallen trees and rocks, thinking he may have had too much to drink. You see, what he was doing was pacing around, praying with his eyes closed--- in the forest! Jackson was indeed a soldier of prayer. He so often withdrew from his staff to find a quiet place to pray. He prayed without ceasing. He brought his petitions before God.
YOU NEED to come before God with your heart's concerns. James says that you do not have because you do not ask. We are to make supplication and requests unto God, no matter how big nor how small the request. We are to come before God with thanksgiving. These words remind me of the acronym, ACTS, A-C-T-S, which stand for Adoration - Confession - Thanksgiving - Supplication. If you're not sure HOW to pray, this is a mnemonic device to take with you when you go into the prayer closet to help order your prayer thoughts before God. You MUST pray, because rejoicing in the Lord requires prayer.
Secondly, REJOICING IN THE LORD REQUIRES REFLECTION AND PRACTICE. In verse 8, Paul says, "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things." Paul lists six virtues and then summarizes the list with these words, "If there is anything excellent, anything worthy of praise...” Imbedded in this list and summary are the characteristics of the Christian thought life. Paul requires these thoughts of the Philippians AND OF US by using another imperative or command, "Think on these things." We actively think all day. From the moment we awake until the moment we go back to sleep. Our days are filled with many different activities, but thinking is something we do all day long. We are RESPONSIBLE for our thoughts and by writing this particular passage, Paul indicates that we are able to control our thoughts. In answer to a question by a scribe concerning which is the most important commandment, Jesus said, "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." Jesus emphasized the fact that our heart, mind, and soul are to be constantly thinking of and loving God. Paul wants us to saturate our thought life with these virtues---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 on these things." We are to think on "these things" for we live in a society that does not think this way. We live in a society that frequently encourages just the opposite. Look at the magazines in the magazine racks, review the TV programs you're exposed to on cable television, or the types of movies that are made and the ratings they seek. The more immoral, the more it sells. Just listen to the lyrics of a lot of the popular music-- particularly rap music. Paul, having experienced the constant bombardment the world presented to the Christian mind in his day, tells the Philippian church, AND US ALSO, to take these virtues and think about them, concentrate on them, ponder them. As recorded in Proverbs 23:7, "For as he thinks within himself, so is he." As a man thinks, so he is. What do you think about? What does your mind dwell on throughout the day? What do you focus upon? Not long ago I treated an elderly widow in her home who had a fractured hip. Each time I went to visit her, her television was turned on to the Financial News Network. Her constant focus was the Dow-Jones. I would ask her to do particular exercises and at the end of the activity she would say, "I can't see the TV. Would you tell me what the Dow-Jones is now?" And I would indicate whether it was up or down, and then we'd do a few more exercises and at the end she would ask again, "What is the Dow-Jones now?" She would ask me seven to eight times within a forty-five minute period. I could tell that all of her life's focus was on her money, her investments, her securities. She was very insecure about her securities. She was very anxious about her money and she thought about it constantly. In a similar way, we as Christians throughout the day should ask ourselves, often, Have I been truthful? Am I being pure in my thoughts? Is that which I do worthy of praise? We SHOULD be thinking on these things. We MUST discipline our thoughts.
Paul continues his instructions in verse 9, "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things." Here is another one of those imperatives, those commands. Basically, he's saying, what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, DO THEM. Do these things. Practice them. I Corinthians 11:1 - "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ." Paul says, Focus on me and focus on others you know who are living a life of godliness. Follow in their footsteps. Turn in your Bibles to chapter 3, verse 17(17-19) of this letter. Paul says, "Brothers, join in imitating me. Keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many of whom I've often told you now and tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame with MINDS SET ON EARTHLY THINGS."
Let me encourage you to read Christian biographies; biographies of the saints. Biographies about James, or Paul or John. Biographies concerning Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin. Biographies describing great Christian leaders, like Charles Spurgeon or Dwight L. Moody. One of my favorites was that of Jim Elliott, the missionary who was martyred at the hands of the Auca Indians in Ecuador. In these individuals we see other humans, other people, who are faced with the similar trials and difficulties as we, and yet continue to rise above their troubles because of their commitment to focus on Christ and Him crucified and to think of Him at all times. We need to emulate them.
Paul says that we are to practice these things. As my children grew up we had a jingle we had learned in a children's song. When the children had difficulty we would remind them to "Practice, practice, do it again. Over and over 'til you get it." And we would repeat this song over and over until the children would catch on. Just last week my wife was observing me trying to learn how to type. I had just bought a program called "Mavis Beacon Teaches You How to Type" and I was having an interesting time getting my fingers in the right locations. My wife said to me, "I don't know if you gave me a drawing of the keyboard if I could fill in the letters in the proper place. She types very quickly and nearly error free, but she does not know where her fingers go; they go to the proper letters without her thinking. She declared, "They just go there." Just a day or two later I was speaking to John Wilson, our Music Director. We were talking about the organ and talking about playing the music and he indicated that he does not see the notes on the page and then think about where his fingers are to go to find that note on the keyboard. He said that his fingers just go to the right notes. Both my wife and John Wilson are experts in what they do because they have practiced and practiced and practiced, and they have actually caused their hands to respond to the commands without thinking. "They just go there." Paul is encouraging us that if we were to indeed think on the virtues listed in verse 8 and practice the things we can observe of Paul's life and the lives of other godly individuals, and continually, constantly, earnestly practice these things, we would "just go there." We would become so adept in our Christian walk we would be able to rejoice, even in the face of difficult times. Rejoicing in the Lord requires prayer. Rejoicing in the Lord requires reflection and practice.
Thirdly, REJOICING IN THE LORD PRODUCES PEACE. Let's go back to verse 7 and see what Paul says. Following the time of prayer he said, "the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Then skip to the end of verse 9. And after thinking these things and practicing these things, "the God of Peace will be with you." Paul now ties these three activities together--praying, pondering and practicing--and gives to us the great benefit from these spiritual disciplines he has just instructed us to perform. He indicates that we will experience a peace that, according to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, passes all of our comprehension, all of our understanding. This peace is unlike any peace that the world offers to us. LISTEN TO THIS!! The world is seeking for peace. We ALL want peace. And Paul is GIVING us the key to have peace, true peace. PAY ATTENTION!! This peace, like that joy which we spoke of earlier, is a supernatural peace. It is a fruit of the Spirit of God. God’s peace will be working in you as you pray, as you control your thoughts, and as you do godly activities. And yet, this peace will not come instantly. You will not have total peace immediately. It is something that, as you come before the Lord REGULARLY and PRACTICE the disciplines that Paul has been mentioning, that this understanding of the peace of God, and peace from God, and the God of peace will become that sphere in which you will live and exist. It will become your lifestyle. You would not need to stop and ask, “What would Jesus do?” in this circumstance. You would know it because you have been in the presence of God. This peace of God will be a unique, abiding peace that will become yours.
Notice also that this peace of God will GUARD your hearts and your minds. Your heart is the center of your personality. Your mind, as mentioned earlier, is that which is never at rest, from the time you awake until the time you sleep. The Scripture says that this peace of God will KEEP your hearts and minds. The Greek term for the English words "guard" or "keep" can be translated, “garrison.” God's peace will not only keep your heart and mind, but will be as a garrison for your heart and your mind. A garrison is a military post, or a military installation that is placed before the gates of a castle or a city, a defense or a fortress, a safety measure. It is to defend or to protect. The garrison outside the city protects it from outward onslaughts, protects it from the enemy, and keeps safe those who are inside. Think of those who are inside the castle. They are no longer concerned for their safety, but can be at peace and have a calmness while going about their daily activities, knowing that outside the gate are trained, armed, and capable military personnel keeping watch over the city or castle. The peace that these troops provide is evident and obvious. The peace of God and the God of peace CAN be evident in your life. It will protect and oversee the Christian’s heart and mind, particularly those who are active in prayer, thinking God's thoughts after Him, and pursuing godly living. Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower. The righteous runs into it and is safe.”
Observe also that this peace that comes from God does not necessarily alleviate the difficulties we will face in this life, but will make the difficulties more tolerable. When Paul was writing this letter to the Philippians, he was still in chains, still in the dungeon, still being mistreated because of his testimony about Christ Jesus, and yet he had a peace about him. A peace that even, as he says, passes all understanding, passes all comprehension. Isaiah the prophet wrote, “Thou shalt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusts in Thee.” (Isaiah 26:3) Paul, due to his focus and practice, achieved this level of discipline of prayer, godly thinking, and godly living. Along with that discipline comes the unique sense of peace. He says later in this letter, “Not that I speak from want, but I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”
Paul specifies the realm in which we are to enjoy this peace. At the end of verse 7, he says that it is in Christ Jesus. The promise is that of peace THROUGH the Prince of Peace. Jesus Himself declared, “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled nor let it be fearful.” Again, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage, I have overcome the world.” The Apostle Peter concludes his first epistle with these words, “Peace be to you all who are in Christ Jesus.”
Paul has given to us instructions in how we can strengthen our relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He has given to us very encouraging insights from his own experience. We need not experience all the hardships that Paul experienced, nor wait until we are elderly to have this unique insight, for the Holy Spirit has inspired Paul to instruct us and inform us right here in the Word of God. The Word of God - preached, read, memorized, and prayed is the spiritual food for spiritual growth. As a Christian, will you seek to deepen your prayer life, dwell in Christian truth, and walk openly before the Lord? Will you pray, ponder God's Word, practice God's directions, and rejoice? Is this a golden year for you? Is this the best year of your life? Is it the best month of your life? Is today the best day of your life? Do you have a peace that dominates and colors all your day? You can. Remember, the Lord is near. Rejoice in the Lord! Again, I say rejoice!
May we pray.