Before we look at today’s passage, let’s remind ourselves a bit about the church that Paul is writing to. It was a church that he planted in the city of Philippi. Two of the key events from the church’s early life are its roots in a prayer group that used to meet at the river, and the dramatic conversion of the local jailer following an earthquake at his jail that seems to have been linked to Paul and Silas singing hymns of praise and thanks in the prison.
Some years have passed and Paul is writing to the Christians in Philippi to encourage them and to address some problems and quarrels that seem to have sprung up. As David said last week, the key gift that Paul thought the Philippians needed was grace. Today we have read the opening paragraph of his letter, and it seems to me that Paul is subtly reminding the Philippians of their DNA as a church, of their founding values. They are people of prayer, and they have seen first hand the power of thanks, joy and confidence in God in the most difficult circumstances. So Paul begins his letter where he began his mission in Philippi, with prayer.
Firstly I’d like us to think about how Paul prayed and then I’d like us think about what Paul prayed.
In verse 3 we read that “I thank my God every time I remember you.”
The most obvious thing about this is that Paul prayed with gratitude. He was thankful to God. What also seems to be the case, however, is that the prayer of thanks is prompted by the remembering or mentioning of the person. It’s not so much that Paul thanks God for people when he is having his prayer time, but that every time a person comes into Paul’s mind, for whatever reason, he thanks God for them.
Now, if you’re anything like me there will be people that you find it easy to thank God for, and there will be people that you will find it difficult to thank God for. To be fair, Paul is talking about people that has reason to be grateful to God for, they have supported him financially, they have been partners of his in the sharing the good news of Jesus. Having said that, it does seem from the rest of the letter that some of them have been falling out with each other, and this might be expected to cause Paul to be upset with them, but still he thanks God for them.
I wonder if we might take his example further and use it to help us to put something that Jesus taught us into practice.
In Matthew’s account of the good news of Jesus, we read that Jesus taught his followers that,
“You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:43-45
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul describes some of the things that this kind of love involves:
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” Romans 12:14
What does it mean to love our enemies, how do we bless them? Well, one way to do this is to ask God for good things to happen for them. Another is to thank God for them. I find this really difficult. When there is someone who is making life painful or difficult for us, why would we want to thank God for them, we might wish that they didn’t exist.
This isn’t about pretending that we haven’t been hurt, or that the things that a person has done have been OK, it is about asking God to give us love for them, so that we can be thankful for them. After all, God created everyone and loves us all. Sometimes part of the process of God changing our hearts is for us to make the decision to be obedient and to say thank you to God for everyone we come across, or who comes into our mind, for whatever reason.
Some time ago there was a particular child at one of our children’s schools that was causing our child a lot of trouble and hurt. Liz, my wife, was really angry with this other child but felt that God was telling her to bless this child and to thank God for the child every day in her prayers. She didn’t want to, because this was our child’s enemy, but she did so. The bullying stopped and the two became good friends, and Liz’s obedient thankfulness to God bore fruit.
So, firstly, Paul prays thankfully. What do we find in the next verse?
“In my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…”
Joy and rejoicing is an idea that keeps coming up in Philippians. Paul is very keen for the people in the church of Philippi to be joyful, and he leads by example.
I wonder if you are a naturally joyful person. I’m not particularly. If I were a Winnie the Pooh character I would probably by Eeyore. We’ve just come back from holiday in Germany, and whilst we were there Liz took loads of photos. We were out visiting a castle with friends on about the tenth day of the trip when suddenly Liz exclaimed that she had finally got a photo of me smiling. This is not to say that I hadn’t been having a good time on holiday, just that I’m not generally a smiley kind of bouncy personality.
So whenever I read, or am asked to preach on something about joy, I feel my heart sink a bit, which is probably a bit counter productive. I feel like I’m being asked to do and be something that is difficult for my personality. But it is really important. Not just because we told by God in the Bible to be joyful, but because of the effect it can have on those around us.
Just have a think for a minute about this quote I came across:
“A deeply religious man was once asked he considered himself a truly pious person. He responded that while he aspired to be one, he felt that he fell short in two areas. One was his not being happy enough. He said unhappy Christians reflect poorly on their religion and on their Creator. He was right — unhappy religious people do pose a real challenge to faith. If their faith is so impressive, why aren’t they happy?
There are only two possible reasons: either they are not practising their faith correctly, or they are practising their faith correctly and the religion itself is not conducive to happiness. Most outsiders assume the latter reason.
Unhappy religious people should therefore think about how important being happy is — if not for themselves, then for the sake of their religion. Unhappy religious people provide more persuasive arguments for atheism and secularism than do all the arguments of atheists.”
Now, I’m not entirely convinced by this, for instance I’m not sure where it leaves those of us who struggle with depression, and I think that there is a difference between happiness and joy, but I also think that there is a nugget of truth in it. If we are consistently miserable then the good news of Jesus is less likely to look like good news to those around us.
So, if we find it difficult to be joyful, what can we do about it? Well, one thing we can do is to practice that habit of thankfulness. Joy and gratitude build on each other.
Another thing that we can do is to ask God to make us more joyful. Joy is part of the fruit of the Spirit. That is to say, one of the things the Holy Spirit has been given us to do is to grow joy in our lives. We don’t have to do this on our own, we have help.
Joni Eareckson Tada was born in 1949 in the States. When she was 18 she broke her neck diving into shallow water. She was paralysed from the shoulders down, and has experienced anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, and religious doubts. In 2000 she wrote this in “Joy hard won”
“Honesty is always the best policy, especially when you are surrounded by women in a restroom during a break at a Christian women’s conference. One woman, putting on lipstick, said, “Oh, Joni, you always look so together, so happy in your wheelchair. I wish that I had your joy!” Several women around her nodded. “How do you do it?” she asked as she capped her lipstick.
“I don’t do it,” I said. “May I tell you honestly how I woke up this morning?
“This is an average day. After my husband, Ken, leaves for work at 6:00 a.m., I’m alone until I hear the front door open at 7:00 a.m. That’s when a friend arrives to get me up. While she makes coffee, I pray, ‘Lord, my friend will soon give me a bath, get me dressed, sit me up in my chair, brush my hair and teeth, and send me out the door. I don’t have the strength to face this routine one more time. I have no resources. I don’t have a smile to take into the day. But you do. May I have yours? God, I need you desperately.’ ”
“So what happens when your friend comes into the bedroom?” one of them asked.
“I turn my head toward her and give her a smile sent straight from heaven. It’s not mine; it’s God’s.” I point to my paralyzed legs. “Whatever joy you see today was hard won this morning.”
I have learned that the weaker we are, the more we need to lean on God; and the more we lean on God, the stronger we find him to be.”
So Paul prays thankfully and joyfully, and he also prays confidently. In verse 6 it says:
“Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
So Paul is praying with confidence, but it’s not random, baseless optimism it is confidence with a good basis.
Confidence is a weird thing isn’t it. If you go on google looking for quotes on confidence, then you get a load of very inspiring things about how you can do all kinds of things if you’re confident, and that a lack of confidence can stop you doing things you would be able to do otherwise. Sports commentators are always going on about confidence or the lack of it. Confidence seems to be the key thing. But then you see people on the X-factor or Britain’s Got Talent auditions who obviously have loads of confidence in their abilities, which is almost entirely misplaced.
The big question about confidence, then, is what is the confidence in, and is the object of the confidence trustworthy?
In his prayer Paul’s confidence is in God’s ability to finish what was started. Paul is confident that the current difficulties facing the Christians in Philippi can be sorted because it is part of God finishing what was started. Paul has experienced the change that God has made in his own life, he has seen the difference that God has made in countless lives in towns and cities all over the place. His confidence is well placed, in someone who is entirely trustworthy.
How about us, in our prayers. I wonder how confident we feel in our own prayers. When we talk to God about things, do we believe that things are going to change? Are we expectant? How can we grow in confidence?
The first thing that we have to do is to pray, to talk with God and put ourselves in a position of risk. It is only when we dare to lean into God that we can feel the supporting arms. Another thing we can do is also to do with thankfulness. As we focus on remembering things to be thankful for, so our confidence in God increases, because we are deliberately remembering the things that God has done already. Then we can also ask God for more faith, for more confidence.
As I said, most of the quotes that came up about confidence seemed to be a bit confused, but there was one that I would like to share with you, from Martin Luther.
“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man could stake his life on it a thousand times.”
That is the kind of confident faith that Paul had, and that we need.
So, Paul prays thankfully, joyfully, and with confidence. That is how he prays for the Philippians, but what does he pray for?
“that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight”
It is often said that love is blind. The idea being that if you love someone you overlook or even cannot see their faults or failings.
Paul seems to be suggesting something else. He seems to be suggesting that love comes in different qualities. That there is a healthier love than blind love, and that healthier love is seeing love. It is insightful love. It is discerning love. It is the love that can work out what to do for the best.
In the case of the quarrelling Philippians it is quite possible that just saying that they needed to love each other more wouldn’t have been helpful, if what they’d understood by that was a blind love. Because with blind love people’s wrong behaviour can end up being ignored or swept under the carpet. The risk is that victims are pressurised or made to feel guilty for not loving the people who have been hurting them.
What is needed is insightful love that challenges people when they are going wrong, so that they can become more like Jesus. It is insightful love that can bring true reconciliation and health into relationships. This is love that is strong enough to see failings and love anyway. This is the kind of love that God has for us. God sees us perfectly. God knows all the corners of our lives, even the bits we don’t like to admit to. And God loves us perfectly. It is this kind of love that Paul prayed for the Philippians to experience themselves. It is the kind of love that we should pray for for each other. It is insightful love for ourselves, for each other, and for God that releases us to pray honestly and thankfully, realistically and joyfully, and with confidence in the God who loves us and is trustworthy.