Tag Archives: Theology

The Pastor’s Role in Art as Worship. Reasons for Art as Worship, pt. 3

(This is part of a series. The first two installments are here and here.

Pastors have a great many tools by which they can serve, teach, and love their congregation. Preaching, prayer, writing, one on one counseling, hospitality, acts of service, leadership, administrative tasks, etc…  All exist in the toolbox of the pastor for the sake of accomplishing the equipping of the body of Christ. In many modern churches, preaching is the primary tool that is used to engage the congregation and is often supplemented by blogs, writing, and activities designed to aid in discipleship. Pastors are adept at these tools and we frequently use them in powerful and meaningful ways. In our modern church, the pulpit is used mightily and songs are frequently used to enhance the ministry of the pulpit. Yet, there is another tool that the Christian community appears to have forgotten. That is: art.

Art as worship is not new

ricardo-gomez-angel-367741-unsplashArt is not a new tool in the discipleship of Christians. Francis of Assisi, Jerome, and even Luther recognized the power of art for the discipleship and worship within the Church. Ancient churches were covered with stained glass, paintings, and statues that were used to instruct and inspire! In Christian history, art was used to magnify God through worship, teach people of His great character, and even evangelize those who do not know the truth. One cannot study art history without recognizing the dominant themes of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the day of judgment, and the creative power of God. Art was used to teach, inspire worship, heal, and even console the believer in times of turmoil. Yet, in modern churches, we have reduced the use of art to backgrounds on a screen or environmental lighting.

Art is a tool for worship

markus-spiske-378490-unsplashArt can be a profound tool that can provide a balm to the soul of longing Christian. To gaze in wonder at a piece that is designed to glory in the character and nature of God, or to wander through a poem that challenges the intellect and engages the soul, or to rejoice in the motion of a dance that tells the story of redemption can engage the soul on a level that a sermon of solid conversation cannot. It cannot because it lacks the freedom to uniquely engage the audience without explanation. A freedom found in most clearly in works of art. Two people can be moved in completely unique ways by a piece of art. One can see the beauty and majesty of God in the rendering of a landscape while another can be deeply moved by the courageous-loneliness of a tree within the field of that same landscape.

The Pastor’s responsibility to utilize art.

The pastor of the local church has a profound responsibility in discipleship of their congregation. We are commissioned to love and train the souls of people. We must use all the tools afforded to us and sometimes that means stretching ourselves beyond our ability or preferences. In order to do this, I believe pastors must re-shape the way we think about our role. We must begin to understand our role within our congregation to include: pastor as creative artist, pastor as curator, and pastor as conductor.

  1. tim-wright-506560Pastors as Creative Artist: If we are to teach our people to utilize art in worship, we must model it. You don’t have to be a good artist to model a striving to utilize art in worship. Especially in your personal worship. Draw pictures, use visual aids when you teach, read poetry, exhibit a thirst for material that challenges the intellect and soul without blandly explaining every aspect of itself. Art engages through mystery and expression! As you strive to engage the Lord beyond words, your soul will be strengthened and your ability to lead your people to worship will be enhanced. It might be difficult to do, but your congregation will benefit from the artistic/poetic soul that will result through engaging them on a level beyond their own ability to verbally express themselves. Show them that they can create worship beyond words! Strive to model art as worship through your own efforts.
  2. dev-benjamin-219172-unsplashPastor as Curator: Pastors must curate art as worship. So you can’t paint, draw, or write poetry, and rhythm and message of dance escapes your ability. If you desire to use artistic expressions to teach your people, engage your people in worship, or provide some salve to the soul of your brothers and sisters, then stretch yourself by studying and curating a volume of art that engages the soul. Study art! (Some recommending readings are at the end of this article.) Collect a compendium of poetry, artwork, and performances that exalt the name of God in powerful ways. Then, when your people are in need of inspiration, healing, or teaching, you will have more than just an exposition. You will have an aid to your exposition that will inspire them to worship beyond your ability to verbalize God’s character.
  3. radek-grzybowski-74331-unsplashPastor as Conductor: While you may not be a competent artist, you are surrounded by people who are. I say that in utter confidence, you ARE surrounded by artists. You must enable them to express themselves. You must conduct the worship of your congregation by utilizing the gifts of your people in worship. A conductor does not play every instrument. The conductor directs the combination of the various artists to make one expression. Likewise, the pastor needs to find creative ways to combine the expressions of the various members of the congregation to display Christ! Dig deep into the expressive talents of your people. Equip your people to engage their souls in worship to God! Even if you don’t understand art and it does not resonate with you. It resonates with someone in your congregation!

Pastor, you are a talker… I get it. I’m a talker too. I preach and I value preaching. I engage the Lord through expository sermons and classic hymns of the faith. I like to read weighty theological books and sermons by old dead preachers. And still, I must recognize that my congregation is not going to be solely comprised of people who respond to reading a theological treatise on the impassibility of God or the theologically rich hymns of Martin Luther. There will be some who engage beyond words. They paint, draw, ponder, dance, create, and provide a richness to worship that is valuable and necessary to the empowerment of your congregation and the engagement of a lost world. Stretch yourself! Pastor, this is not about you! Get over your hang-ups and conduct worship, curate volumes of great art, and create expressions of art for your congregation. They will be stronger Christians because of it and you will engage the lost world on a level you would otherwise fail to realize.

What do you think? Is there another role that the pastor can play to help engage the congregation in this unique way? put it in the comments.

chasin francisChasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale by Ian Morgan Cron 

Chasing Francis is an excellent fictional story about a mega-church pastor who leaves the ministry and is forced to re-evaluate ministry in the face of changing paradigms. He goes on a journey in which he learns about Francis of Assisi and rediscovers what church is.

Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life by Makoto Fujimurafujimura

Culture care is an excellent treatise on engaging culture beyond mere words. Many bemoan the decay of culture. But we all have a responsibility to care for culture, to nurture it in ways that help people thrive. Artist Makoto Fujimura issues a call to cultural stewardship, in which we become generative and feed our culture’s soul with beauty, creativity, and generosity. We serve others as cultural custodians of the future.

ReCreated_4Re-Created: A Poetic Walk Through The Gospel of John by J. Novis Elkins

Re-Created is my own offering to exemplify the gospel through artistic expression. It is a book of poetry intended to be read alongside the gospel of John. As the reader walks through the Gospel, it is my hope that they will encounter Jesus in a fresh and powerful new way.

Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

In his letters and papers from prison, Bonhoeffer expresses the value of art in worship. He wrote poems and hymns while imprisoned and models for us the artistic soul of a Christian in captivity. That is a soul that can never really be held captive by anything other than Christ.

piperThe Misery of Job and the Mercy of God by John Piper

This book was my first introduction to the pastor’s use of art to shepherd and teach. Piper lays out a fantastic example of how to utilize poetry and art in worship. It is worth your time and labor to engage with poetry. John Piper is not an artist. His poems are simple and easy to access. He is a pastor who models the use of art in the ministry.

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Reasons for Art as Worship pt. 1

Modern western Christianity has lost a great foothold that once was a bulwark and balm of Christian discipleship. There was a time in Christian history when the Christian community’s senses were engaged and the mind was elevated to new heights because of the efforts of its adherents to worship the Lord in unique ways. joel-filipe-191372There was a day when we sought to learn of God through the arts and worship Him through artistic expression. We commissioned art, lead society into deep thoughts and engagement with the arts, and even sought to express theology through in our artistic works. Christians once lead the world in expression through the arts. Yet, modern Christians have reduced the Christian’s artistic expression to paintings with crosses in them and songs with short memorable choruses. This should not be! Art of all kinds should spill out from the heart of the Christian community.

There are many reasons to embrace artistic expression in b

oth corporate and private worship. One of the reasons is the infinite character of our God.

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  1. God is infinitely creative, therefore his people ought to strive to reflect that creativity. Consider for a moment that God created the earth from nothing and that He commanded man to expand His image across that earth. In the expansion of His image across the earth, that same creativity of God that birthed life must also be reflected in subduing the earth. Likewise, Christians ought to exemplify the creativity of God, for they are the redeemed image of God incarnate! If we claim that Christ has redeemed and changed us, we must display His creativity.
  2. God is infinitely vast, therefore there is no exhaustion of him as a motive for and source of our own creativity. O Christian, if you will try to exhaust the character of God, you will find yourself creating art and beauty that exceeds the scope of understanding. Art has a unique way of simultaneously expanding a mystery and providing intricacy. Unlike almost every other form of expression, artistic works do not narrow the field of view but expand it. Thus, we create art, not to try to narrow our understanding of God, but to expand it. As the expression of worship grows and develops, so our view and understanding of God grows.
  3. God is infinitely expressive, therefore those who claim to know Him ought to create expressions of infinite variety. If we are God’s people, then our communities should produce a variety of worshipful expressions. Poetry, dance, paintings, graphic arts, speeches, music, and anything else imaginable ought to be manifest in the worship of believers, be it corporate or individual. God created you to be His image. That image was marred in the fall. Now, in Jesus, He is re-creating you (Col. 3:9-10). So, be His image bearers and express His character in infinite methodologies.
  4. God is infinitely distinctive, therefore the expression of His glory and character must be infinitely unique. There is never a sunset repeated. There is never a moment the exact same. There is never a cloud that is perfectly mirrored in another. God produces a unique product! Further, there is no copy of Him. There is no other God like Him. Even when someone attempts to copy, mirror, or represent God, the effort is always wholly inadequate. God cannot be replicated, He is too unique and the more we get to know Him, the more distinctive He becomes. He is like none other! Therefore, when we are producing art in praise of the most creative, vast, expressive, and unique being, we must be unique. Worship must be distinctive. Artistic expressions allow for that distinct nature in a way that no other form of expression can.

tim-wright-506560There is much more to say about The Infinite God. What other infinite qualities would you argue for? Put it in the comments. Our communities must recapture the arts. For too long the arts have been the domain of the secular world, it is time we make some waves and produce art for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ! So, what are you waiting for? Go grab a sketch pad, notebook, musical instrument, dance shoes, or computer and create! Express praise to God through the arts.

I have contributed some to this effort most recently by producing a book of sketches and poetry. You can check it out here.

If you’re interested, you can purchase the book

here: Lulu.com  (Use promo code: BOOKSHIP18 for 10 percent off plus free shipping)

or here: Amazon.com

 

 

Dear Christian, how long will you go limping between two different opinions? – I Kings 18:21

In 1 Kings 18:17-41, Elijah levels the charge against the people of Israel and their king. He calls out the king and the people for worshiping the false fertility god Baal, demanding they choose between Baal and the LORD. The people must choose! Either submit to the will of the LORD and believe in Him, or follow your own passions and find your help in the worthless Baal.

He stood before the people of Israel to display the Lord’s might, proposing a competition between the LORD and Baal. Which god would answer? The fertility god Baal or the LORD, God of all. Baal was a god that promised fertility and sexual satisfaction. Cultic prostitution and sexual deviance were normative parts of worship within the cult of Baal. As such, the LORD, God of the Hebrews, stands in total opposition to the worship of Baal. The Law of God condemned the very acts of religious fealty in Baal’s religious cultic worship. Two bulls were prepared and Baal could go first. Let your god light the fire.

The 450 men of Baal prepared their altar and pleaded with their god to answer their cries. They danced, begged, preformed rituals, and even cut themselves to bring from their god the desired outcome of fire from heaven. Yet, nothing came. The spectacle went on for hours as Elijah taunted them, fanning their furious attempts to call forth fire from the heavens. The prophets used knives cutting deep into their own flesh and the flesh of others in desperate pleas to secure the answer. Still… silence. All day they worked to call their God to appease their desires. Still… nothing… their god could not bring fire.

The prophets of Baal trusted in that which could not bring fire. They mutilated themselves and begged their god to answer and yet they received nothing. As you read this account in the Bible, you get the feeling that no one has ever challenged these prophets on this scale before. No one says anything save Elijah, who simply taunts them. The entire nation is gathered to watch and sits enraptured, waiting for Baal to answer. The prophets obviously expected their god to answer. Hours of desperation and embarrassment, yet the prophets persist.

This devotion to the false gods of sexual indulgence is not uncommon in our own culture. Promiscuity is the norm and deviant sexual behavior is lauded and even heralded as entertaining (e.g. the 50 shades series). Men and women will spend hours indulging in pornography hoping it will bring fire that will satisfy. They will cut themselves, ruin their relationships, and beg and plead for their false gods to bring fire. The more they beg and plead for their false god to answer, the deeper their despair grows and the more ruinous their scars become. The result of such false worship is a “limping” life. “How long will you go on limping…” (1 Kings 18:21). Elijah recognized the result of such wicked hypocrisy: a limping, unsuccessful life.

Like the prophets of Baal, sinful sexual indulgence works until it is challenged. The moment you confront this false god with an actual need for satisfaction, the god can’t answer. In private, as a prophet of the false god, you can pretend. But, once you need actual satisfaction, the horrific reality sets in and you begin to ruin yourself and everyone around you calling on the false god to answer your need for fire. Pornography and sexual deviance are destructive. These practices destroy intimacy, silence truth, emasculate men, and objectify women. Those who indulge in such activities cause irreparable harm to their own psyche and bring permanent damage to their own ability to relate to others. Further, pornography is fiction! It is an illusion that does not actually satisfy. Finally, these practices pervert the glorious picture of sexual intimacy that God created and thereby damage the person’s ability to engage in the worship of the One True God! Like the worship of Baal, our own modern sexual idolatry has left American Christianity limping and weak.

Now, someone will argue that it is not fair to call someone who indulges in private one of the prophets of Baal. However, remember the beginning of the story. Elijah says, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” [1] Elijah is calling the people of Israel to account. He is not attacking the worship leaders of Baal in his challenge. He is attacking the adherents to the religious activity. Indeed, he is challenging the nation of Israel asking them how long they will persist in worshiping Baal and Yahweh. So this display of mutilation and self-destruction in an attempt to get the false god’s attention is meant for those who would vacillate between two opinions. It is an example for those who would worship Christ and harbor within themselves a worship of false gods. It is for those who have split allegiance. It is intended for us.

Consider for a moment the fruit of seeking satisfaction in the false god of pornography.

  1. You will go on limping in life. You will not run so long as you are tethered to the false fertility god.
  2. You will seek satisfaction that will never bring true fire. While you may convince yourself that you have been satisfied in secret, you will forever stand beside a rotting corpse hoping for fire to fall.
  3. You will do damage to yourself. Just like the prophets cut themselves, so you will scar yourself and leave wounds on your soul that may never fully heal.
  4. You will be angry at the Saints when you are not satisfied and they are. You will feel mocked and scorned when your god does not answer.
  5. You will be ashamed. No need to elaborate on this one.
  6. You will die. If you are a believer, this particular half way worship of Jesus will kill your zeal for Christ. You cannot worship God and sex.

Now let’s consider Elijah’s response to Baal.

Baal’s prophets stand embarrassed after hours of labor. Exhausted and wasted, they watch as Elijah takes the crowd’s attention.

First Elijah rebuilds the altar of the Lord. He does not create a new altar, nor divine some fancy new method for defeating Baal. He rests on the strength of the worship that the Lord has commanded. He rebuilds and places his sacrifice on what God has already set in place. Oh Christian, if you are to claim victory over sin and feel the fire of God fall from the heavens to ignite your soul, you must rely on the altar He has already placed before you. You must rely on Christ’s word. Lay your hopes and sacrifices upon the altar of the Word of God… no other counsel will lead you to overcoming.

Second, Elijah finds his identity in the Lord’s calling of Israel. He rebuilt the altar with 12 stones signifying the 12 tribes of Israel. If we are to defeat sin, we must remember that we belong to Him and are called to Him by Him (c.f. John 6:35-40 and John 10:27). It is paramount that you remember that you do not belong to sin any longer. You are claimed as His own, one of His tribe. You are Christ’s now. If you have trusted in Jesus for salvation, you are no longer slave to sin (c.f. Romans 6 and Ephesians 2:1-10).

Third, Elijah covered the sacrifice with water. We must expect greater things from the One True God. Our requests of Him are so superfluous that we should be ashamed. It is as if we have asked for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when offered any meal we desire prepared by the greatest chef in existence. Perhaps the reason you have not overcome your sin is because you simply have not asked. Or perhaps you do not trust that God can satisfy your needs. Do you really think that your sexual desires are beyond His ability to fulfill? Do you think it’s not within the Lord’s realm of provision? Ask the Lord to provide for you in this way. I have seen many marriages rekindled by such a request. Elijah set his sacrifice up with impossible odds stacked against God Almighty! Yet still… fire fell! He will answer you as well.

Fourth, Elijah prays a simple prayer, asking that the Lord would answer him. His request is that God would answer him so that others would see and that others would be drawn to repent. This is our purpose for life, that the Lord’s name would be made great in us. However, so long as we vacillate between two opinions, we will not rest in the provision of God.

Finally, Elijah kills the false prophets. Pornography must die. It’s that simple, Christian. You must make war on sin and kill the pornographic influences in your life. If you want a life that revels in the power and provision of God, you must be devoted to Christ. Otherwise, you will spend all your time being called to a singular devotion rather than living in it.

 

Colossians 1:1-2; Brief Thoughts

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father

It is a tremendous relationship that Christians share. The unity expressed through faith is encapsulated by Paul in one simple word: “brother.” Paul’s address displays a familial relationship with those who share the faith. Indeed, so great is the tie that binds Christians that it is deeper blood connection. When Jesus is called upon by His own brothers and mother in Mark 3:31-35, He responds, “Who are my mother and my brothers?… Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34, 35). Jesus’ response elevates the position of faith above biological attachment. Further, His repudiation of His family’s request establishes a priority of fidelity within the faithful. Those who follow Christ share a spiritual connection that supersedes any other relationship.

Consider the power of this deep truth. Believers share a common connection that can and does supersede even their own family. Perhaps there is no greater example of this than in countries that persecute Christians. When a believer in Christ is forced to flee their home because of their faith, they choose the family of faith over their biological and environmental family. IN this way, the persecuted serve as the greatest examples of testimony for the “brothers” in the faith. They’ve rejected this life in favor of the next. They’ve surrendered this world in favor for Heaven. They’ve given their own familial titles up in their adoption into Christ’s. They have exchanged the life and attachments of this world, for the true life of Christ and attachment to Him.

How powerful to ponder that Paul calls Timothy and the Colossians, “brothers!” As members of the family of faith, Paul and Timothy can write to their family at Colossae and know that they are brothers. The use of the term “brother” is also profound. He does not refer to them as family or as his children (as is done elsewhere in Scripture. E.G. Gal. 4:19, 1 Thess 2:2, 7, and 5:5). He refers to them as brothers. It may seem semantics, but Paul is intentionally using the connection of brothers. Brothers share a unique bond. There is an equality among siblings that does not exist in the parental relationship or in the more general familial sense. Brothers labor together and utilize their gifts alongside each other. There is no actual hierarchy in brotherhood, only earned respect by diligent work. Paul considers Timothy and the Colossians to be brothers. What a phenomenal encouragement! Timothy and the Colossian believers are placed on equal footing with their missionary patriarch! How empowering to hear a man of Paul’s stature grant such a title as “brother” to other believers.

Such is the nature of the Christian faith. There is no hierarchy. Not really. Churches sometimes impose one out of a minor necessity of leadership, but there is truly no hierarchy. Christ is the head of the church. Not the bishop, not the pastor, not the elders, not the presbyters, not the pope. Christ! Christ is the head of the church. Everyone else is brother.

In the western church, there is an epidemic of poor leadership. Men take the position of pastor assured and self-confident that they are the head of their congregation. Now, don’t misunderstand. Many of these men are godly men who love and obey the Lord. But they believe themselves to carry some weight of authority because of their title. In truth, their title grants them responsibility… not authority. Simply because a man dons the name of Pastor does not grant him a position higher than the rest of the congregation. No. He must submit to the Scripture, the same way everyone else in the body does. The Scripture is the authority in the church and it is what directs the people.

To be fair, governance is a necessary component of church life, and there is much to be said about it. There are responsibilities that must be assigned within the church and there are structures by which the local bodies of Christ organize themselves. (There are different models of structure within the New Testament church, and that is a large topic that I will endeavor to answer only if people comment on this post asking me to do so.) The critical truth to grasp is the power of recognizing a lack of hierarchy within the people of God.

When the leaders of the church will recognize that they are leading from a position of equality with those they lead, they will empower and strengthen their brothers in the faith. When they insist that they have a position of authority beyond the Scripture, they will domineer their congregations and cause harm. When leaders recognize that Scripture places them on the same level as everyone else in the congregation, vision will rise from the community and churches will begin to see changed lives. It is no small matter to be called brother. Indeed, it is a deep and profound truth that could potentially save the western church. We are brothers laboring together.

Philippians 4:14-20; brief thoughts pt. 1

14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. 16 Even in Thessalonica, you sent me help for my needs once and again.17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

One of the most prominent marks of the authenticity of a Christian community is a concern for the expansion of the gospel. When a pastor or missionary begins a new work, other Christian groups prove the veracity of their faith by their own support of the work of the gospel. This is the reason that modern division and dissension over new church starts and gospel ministries is so disheartening. When a church plant begins, often the new work has met a sort of passive rejection. Churches will express sentiments such as, “We’re not going to help and if this is the Lord’s work, it will survive.” Behind closed doors, the same churches will exclaim that their town does not need new churches. This sort of rejection is the same sort of rejection of the gospel ministry that the early church dealt with (Acts 5). Of particular interest is the statement of Gamaliel in which he advises the other Pharisees that they should leave the Christians alone because their work will fail if it is not of God (v.38-39). It is a tragic reality that many modern churches would assert the same instruction given by the opponents of the gospel in the first century.

The heart of the Christian church ought to be the increase of the mission of the gospel. When one body of believers hears of another work that is proclaiming the gospel, their response ought to be an immediate and powerful desire to join in the work. The Philippians joined in the work of the gospel from the beginning of Paul’s ministry. So great was their partnership with him that no one else joined in the work. Consider what they are being commended for: “giving and receiving.” The Philippian church joined with the work in both giving and receiving. It is easy to receive. It is easy to take the benefits that ministers and churches provide. It is quite a different when the support of another ministry requires sacrifice. The easiest way to test the authenticity of a church and its dedication to the mission of the gospel is to examine their budget and finances. Churches will allocate their money to what they deem most important.

Paul’s motivation for the commendation of the Philippians is that they would be inspired to increase and maintain their work for the gospel. He does not need nor want to gain more money from them. His motivation is for the proliferation of the gospel. Paul is glad to receive the gifts that the Philippians send because the resources sent result in the increase of the gospel. Paul has already exhibited a tremendous confidence in the provision of God for him. For Paul, the advance of the gospel message into the world is the chief purpose of the resources he is given. Concern for his own welfare and provision are secondary to the call to obey the gospel ministry.

Oh Christian, if you would submit to the calling of the gospel in the way Paul demonstrates, you would find that you have nothing to lose in obedience to the gospel. You will see that the Lord provides for those who follow Him. Paul surrendered every comfort for the gospel. He allowed himself no luxury and sought no benefit or provision beyond what the Lord would provide. Yet, in obeying the gospel’s call to engage his community with the gospel, he found peace, happiness, security in God’s provision, and a renewed purpose of life and ministry. You have nothing to lose in obedience to the gospel. Obey what the Lord calls you to do, He will meet your needs.

Philippians 4:10-13; Brief Thoughts

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Anytime a reference is made to Philippians 4:13, someone will inevitably misapply this precious truth to mean something it does not. When Paul says that he “can do all things through Christ who strengthens [him],” he is displaying a radical contentment. Paul reminds us of the great power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ while simultaneously explaining that he can be content in whatever situation he is in. The context of Paul’s assurance is not that he will be removed from struggle, but precisely the opposite. The power of Paul’s statement is that he is struggling with tremendous purpose within the contented fellowship of Jesus Christ.

Contentment evades the grasp of most western Christians. In the face of great comfort and means, modern, western Christians often struggle to develop a lasting peace. Yet, a first century, converted rabbi achieves contentment amidst severe persecution. This seems counter-intuitive. A first-century rabbi with little money and almost no creature comforts should not be able to express greater contentment than people who have all forms of leisure and comfort at their fingertips! (Literally, in the palm of our hands.)

Paul expresses that he has learned the secret of contentment – Christ. Facing plenty and want, need and abundance, exaltation and humiliation, Paul knows how to be content. He knows the strength of the Lord will provide for him whatever he may suffer. He knows how to transcend the destructive nature of the world’s oppressive persecution of his faith. He knows how to be content. At the beginning of chapter 4, Paul explained the great measure of peace a believer has and how it is achieved (v.4-7) He proceeded to examine how one may rest in the presence and grace of God (v.8-9). In these four verses, he continues to elaborate on the effects of this glorious communion with Christ. He is able to overcome and survive every circumstance because of the great strength of Christ within him.

Consider for a moment what it means to have the strength of Christ within you. The divine Word, the Creator and Sustainer of our souls, He who holds all things together, takes up residence within the believer and empowers that believer to overcome (c.f. Jn. 1:1-4, Ps. 54:4, Col. 1:15-20). So, assuming you are a believer, the power of creation is living and active within you. Is there anything that you cannot endure? Is there any suffering so great that you cannot overcome? The difficulty many Christians have is not in the truths that Scripture presents, but in our lack of knowledge of those truths or confidence in them. It is not for a lack of intellectual agreement that these truths exist that you may struggle to be content. It is, rather, a lack of confidence that these truths matter. However, the example of the apostle displays the tremendous power of Christ within the believer. You have more strength within than could be measured.

Rest in this confidence: that Jesus Christ is Lord over all things and that He is working within your heart. Cultivate a spirit of gratitude and a faithfulness in prayer, surrendering your anxieties to the holy King of all things. Then you will find yourself contented in Christ.

 

Philippians 4:8-9; Brief Thoughts

 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

In Matthew 15 and Luke 6, Jesus explains that what comes out of a person’s mouth is the result of what is in their heart. What a person’s inner being is filled with will overflow into their outward actions and words. Likewise, what a person fills themselves with will be made evident when they speak or act. So Paul tells his readers to think about good things. As an attentive reader, it is important not to overthink this particular list. Paul is not offering an exhaustive list of characteristics to meditate on. He is not charting out a legalistic set of standards by which to judge one’s mental processes. Nor is He providing some sort of pattern by which to evaluate one’s entertainment choices. He is simply listing off characteristics that are good. These characteristics should be considered when discerning what activities to engage in or what to occupy one’s thoughts.

Truth, honor, justice, purity, beauty, excellence, and value. What would a life that is consumed by meditation on these characteristics look like? To meditate on such marvelous subject matter changes the world. However, before it changes the world, such activity changes the meditator. The person who seeks to change the world around him must first seek to see the change within himself, for each person is a part of the world in which they live and if they cannot change their own part, then they cannot change the world around. If Christians will focus their attention on righteous virtues, they will begin to see the change that they desire in their world.

Examine this list closely. Ask yourself if these are the characteristics upon which you base your affections. For, if you will focus your efforts towards this sort of piety, then peace will be yours. Dear Christian, our brother Paul calls you to a life of obedience that will bring you peace. Direct your attention toward that which is righteous and good. Imitate Paul’s life and peace will abound. It is an intriguing thing to ponder – that the imitation of such a tumultuous life would bring peace. Yet, here is Paul’s claim. “Practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Could there be any greater peace than the presence of God?

Amidst suffering and struggle, this is the assurance we need: the God of peace is with us. We do not need assurance of our own strength or our own virtuous ability. We do not need self-confidence or motivational inspiration to soothe our troubles. We need His presence. We need to be assured that the God that we know and love is nearby and has not abandoned us. This is the theological foundation that will overcome our worries and strife. It is a pursuit of piety in the virtues that are listed that will establish this confidence within the core of our beings. The closer our pursuit of holiness, the bigger and fuller our understanding of God becomes, and the more intimate our fellowship with Him grows.

Paul encourages his readers to model what they have learned, received, heard, and seen from his life and testimony. Likewise, Christian, find older saints that you can learn from. Seek wise men and women who know the Scripture and teach it well. When you have discovered such a person, receive what is taught. Teachers are not perfect, so be discerning. Listen for what they teach that is based in Scripture and discard what errors may arise, forgiving the mistake. Learning does not benefit the one who will not receive the instruction. So, if we are to learn, we must be intentional about receiving what we learn.

In the western church, discipleship is often thought of as an intellectual exercise. We provide classes and instruction in front of a whiteboard for a group of students. Yet, in truth, the best form of learning is life-observation. We must submit ourselves to instruction, to be sure, but we also must be attentive to what we see and hear with regard to the teacher. Pay attention to the life of your leaders, imitate what you see and hear with regard to holiness. If your spiritual leaders are not practicing holiness, then it is time to find new leaders who know and follow after God. Practicing this pious pursuit of life will provide more assurance and confidence in the faith than any self-help or motivational book could ever bring.