Friday, November 5, 2010

Think Thanks

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God… If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Philippians 4.8,10)


It’s tempting to visualize Christianity’s formative years the way movies like The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959) did—as a time when well-mannered, clean-cut idealists were singled out for persecution by a corrupt totalitarian regime. But those pictures were less concerned with Church history than post-WWII mores. (It’s no surprise that audiences easily equated imperialism with fascism or Anglo-American matinee idols like Robert Taylor, Richard Burton, and Charlton Heston played the films’ Jewish and Roman heroes.) A better reflection of the Early Church exists in today’s small-to-midsized churches, where working-class people make up the majority and Christianity’s vast diversity is less evident. Thus, when reading Paul’s letters, a few facts about the churches that receive them are very useful. Beside the Roman and Corinthian epistles’ erudite readers, he (and later disciples signing letters in his name) writes to congregations with fairly limited views and means. Colossians addresses believers in a once-prosperous town fallen on hard times—a place much like today’s dying Rust Belt cities—adding a poignant touch to Paul’s concern about their vulnerability to false teachers. The Ephesian church, based in the second-largest city of its day, compares with urban churches dealing with the same issue: maintaining unity among believers with varying backgrounds and needs.

Based on historical information and the text, there’s little doubt the Philippians are the most homogenous, best-loved congregation Paul writes to—though their lack of diversity and his unabashed admiration aren’t linked. Philippi is a mining town yet to boom. Like those in Appalachia, Wales, and other mineral-rich areas, its miners are industrious but impoverished. Next to none of the gold underfoot falls into their pockets; survival above and below ground demands hard digging. Working for foreign management—in this case, the Romans—generates deep resentment and fear of outsiders that results in clannish insularity. Yet once a foreigner proves him/herself, as Paul does by saving the local jailer from ruin after an earthquake frees his prisoners (Acts 16), the Philippians’ loyalty knows no bounds. Despite poverty and powerlessness, they found Europe’s first church and win Paul’s heart by generously supporting him and many others who spread the Gospel—often to people far better heeled and positioned than they.

Amazing Faith and Fortitude

Keeping these details in mind while reading Philippians brings the letter to life. We envision a faith community that more closely resembles those currently dotting West Virginia’s back roads than Hollywood’s glossed-up first-century Christians. We see care-creased faces, patched clothing, young widows surrounded by children, and men who look twice their age after sacrificing health and happiness to the mines. But our look also reveals people of amazing faith and fortitude whose charity flows freely beyond their walls. Seeing the Philippians in this way heightens our ability to hear and appreciate Paul’s concern for them.

He knows these people, distinguishing this epistle with a sense he pictures faces and recalls names as he writes. “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now,” he says. (Philippians 1.3-5) Being under house arrest in Rome, not resolving doctrinal disputes, prompts his letter. “Don’t worry,” he assures them. “I’ll be fine.” He goes on to magnify the Philippians’ strengths, encouraging them to continue in humility and harmony. Still, he keeps circling back, insisting they mustn’t worry about what may happen to him—even though their experience with Roman injustice gives them every reason to fear. We swell with admiration for these wonderful souls, as every time Paul tells them he’s okay we’re reminded even in their hardships, they find it in themselves to care about him. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” he urges as he brings his letter to a close. (4.4) “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (v6) If you do this, Paul says, “The peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (v7)

A Four-Step Process

Don’t worry? Be thankful for problems that seize our minds and require God’s attention? Then, while waiting for answers, rely on His incomprehensible peace for emotional and psychological safety? That’s a lot to ask—maybe too much, especially for poor, hardworking people without political clout and public support to improve their situation or Paul’s. If we were Philippians, living on very little, laboring for less than we deserve, and faced with possibly losing our leader, what would we think? Paul anticipates this reaction. He immediately follows it with guidelines on how (not what) to think. In verse 8, he counsels his beloved friends to focus their thoughts on what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable, adding, “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

It’s impossible to overemphasize the importance of learning to think thanks. It’s a crucial skill every believer should have on call at all times. Displacing personal anxieties to worry about others is a generous gesture. But worry is still worry and its harms are the same whether its motives are selfish or selfless. Paul’s letter to the Philippians teaches us to defeat anxiety before bringing problems to God by training our minds to mine gold from worry’s darkness. When we think thanks, we discard lies for the truth, disgrace for nobility, wrong for right, filth for purity, ugliness for beauty, and shame for honor. Digging out excellence and praise demands great concentration and stamina. It’s hard work. Yet each nugget we retrieve increases our capacity to detect grace and goodness buried in hardship. We come to God with confidence He’ll extract the wealth and wisdom we fail to find in our hardships. Thankfulness He’s there shields us with inexplicable peace. It’s a four-step process: Think thanks. Don’t worry. Give thanks. Find peace.

Being thankful begins with thinking thanks—disciplining our thoughts to mine gold from worry’s darkness.

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