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Have you ever noticed that things don’t always go according to plan? Well, that may be true for our plans anyway. We all suffer or go through trials for one reason or another. It is the nature of our humanity. I Peter 1:7 tells us that there is value in our suffering, more than we could probably imagine. Suffering produces endurance, endurance, character and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-5)

Where is your focus? Do you dwell on the problems of the past, lament your current struggles or look with hope to the future. In Philippians 3:12-14, Paul encourages us to press on towards our goal, the prize, which is the heavenly calling of God. Our time of struggle is temporary in light of eternity. The living hope in I Peter 1:3 does not represent wishful thinking but a confident expectation of future blessings. I Peter 1:3-9 outlines them for us.

First of all, we have been redeemed because of Christ’s death on the cross, but we have assurance of everlasting life because of Christ’s resurrection. Because He was raised to life, we know that we can be too. Secondly, we have an inheritance reserved for us, that is protected by God, and we are protected for it; we cannot lose it. Thirdly, we will be purified like gold through our suffering. When gold is put into the fire the impurities are burned away, and the gold can be reshaped in a purer state. All of these blessings are because of God’s great mercy; we have done nothing to deserve them. However, we are called upon to have faith. Faith is being sure of what we hope for, what we have the confidence to expect, even though we cannot see it. (Hebrews 11:1) Jesus said that those who believed He was raised from the dead without seeing Him would be blessed. (John 20:29) You will be praised and honoured for your faith when Jesus comes again. (I Peter 1:7)

Even though you can’t see Jesus in the flesh, you can know Him, and knowing Him will bring you indescribable joy, no matter how bad the circumstances seem to be that you are in right now. If you don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus, just speak to Him—you don’t have to talk out loud; He knows your thoughts—and ask Him to make Himself real to you. Tell Him that you want to know if He really exists, and if He really wants to have a relationship with you. Then be open for the answer.

God loves for His people to celebrate. Now, I know there are people who think that God is a big ogre in the sky getting ready to push the “Smite” button the minute we do something we shouldn’t, but that is simply not the case. Don’t get me wrong; God hates sin, but He loves us. He wants us to be filled with joy, and to celebrate together. In Deuteronomy 14:22-29, the people were commanded to take a tenth of their produce each year and use it to have a big party, to share it and be blessed by God in all the work that they did.

In Nehemiah 8:1-10 the people of Israel had recently returned to their own land after seventy years of exile in Babylon. They had rebuilt the temple, and just days before the one described here they had finished rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. On this day they gathered to celebrate the Feast of Trumpets, a day of sabbath rest and holy assembly. In those days, the people didn’t have their own copies of the Word of God at home; they only had access to it at the temple. So on this day of holy assembly, the people asked Ezra to bring out the law of Moses, their Bible, to read to them. The people who were gathered there had come from all the cities of Israel, and they included men, women and children who were old enough to understand. They stood for possibly six hours listening to the priests read and explain the words of God to them, and they were eager to hear it. If you’ve gone to church on a Sunday morning, you’ve probably noticed people sitting in padded seats becoming restless if the service goes one minute longer than expected. That was not the attitude of the Israelites on this occasion. They had been living under the rule of the Babylonians in a foreign land for seventy years, and now they were back home. They wanted to know the law that God had handed down to Moses and their ancestors.

The reading of the Word of God at this assembly was the beginning of a spiritual revival for the Israelites. They took the message that they were hearing so seriously that they began to weep. (Nehemiah 8:9) But Nehemiah reminded them that this was the Feast of Trumpets, a day for celebration. He told them to go and eat choice food, drink sweet drinks and to share with anyone who had nothing. No one was to be left out of this celebration. No one was to grieve. This was a day to focus on God, and to be filled with joy.

What do you really believe about God? How does your belief affect your life? Do you believe that God is truly good? That He has a plan for your life? A purpose for your pain? I know that I have trouble with that when I am in the midst of the pain, but I propose that it is essential to finding joy, and perhaps to surviving the tragedies in our lives.

The Psalmist David was a good example of someone whose faith did not change with his circumstances. Psalm 16:11 is the last verse of Psalm 16, and concludes this prophetic psalm with hope and joy. Throughout it David acknowledges that God is his only source of well-being, the only One he can fully trust. He vows to not give in to the ways of the people around him who are not trusting in the Lord, but will make his decisions based on God's faithfulness and what pleases Him. He knows that God will provide the stability and prosperity he needs, and he will give praises to God for his guidance. Interestingly in Psalm 16:7 David explains that this guidance from God comes through his own reflection and learning. David has the assurance that His trust in the Lord will protect him, will keep him happy and safe. This is his reason for rejoicing. It certainly wasn’t because the circumstances he was in were easy or safe. He was very likely running for his life at this point. Some scholars believe that this type of psalm, a mikhtam, was used in the context of prayer motivated by danger. Certainly David had his fair share of trials in life, enough that we can be sure that his rejoicing was based on his trust in God and not on his circumstances. Psalm 16:10 shows us that David knew that even death could not separate him from God. (Romans 8:38-39) This brings us to the conclusion in Psalm 16:11 that God would for David, as He will for us, lead us in the path of life, so that we too can experience joy in His presence.

We can have the same assurance that David had, and that the Lord Jesus had. There is a parallel between what David says in this psalm and the experience of Christ in His death and resurrection. (Acts 2:31-33) Jesus was the first to travel the path from death to life, but He has promised every believer that because He lives, we too will live. (John 14:19)

So how does this affect your life? Jan Winebrenner, author of “Life in the Midst of Mess” discusses our options: “Will we seek God and take our refuge in Him when our path is littered with broken dreams? Or will we turn elsewhere? We have only these two options when catastrophe strikes. If we choose God, then catastrophe becomes for us a special grace-gift, ushering us into the place where we can experience God in ways we never before imagined. We find ourselves poised on the brink of life’s greatest discovery: that God is the ultimate presence in the universe, and that knowing Him, interacting with Him, by faith, is more satisfying, more exhilarating than anything the human heart ever hoped for or imagined.” Like David we can experience the sheer delight that God provides--always, despite our circumstances.

What a reassuring promise! Philippians 4:19 tells us that God will supply our every need, but notice that this verse comes after discussion of the support that the Philippians gave to Paul. (Philippians 4:15-19) We cannot take this verse out of the context of the rest of the Bible; we must look at it in light of other scriptures.

Throughout the Bible we are told to give generously. The ancient wisdom of Proverbs tells us that those who are generous will be blessed, but those who withhold their wealth will come to poverty. (Proverbs 11:24-25, Proverbs 22:9) In Malachi 3:10 we are encouraged to bring the whole tithe into God’s house. This is one circumstance in which God invites us to test Him, and He promises to pour out a blessing upon us from the windows of heaven. Some people believe, or perhaps just use as an excuse, that this was an Old Testament law, and no longer applies to those of us living under the grace of the New Testament. However, this is essentially the same thing that Paul says in Philippians 4:19, God will supply your need according to His riches. Luke echoes this in Luke 6:38: Give and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over. I always think of baking when I read this verse. When you fill a measuring cup with flour, then press it down and shake the cup a bit, it creates room for more. This is the way that God gives; He presses down the blessings, shakes the air bubbles out and keeps on giving past the point where there is room to hold any more. But our giving has to come first.

When Paul thanked the Philippians for giving to him, he emphasized that it was not because he needed more (though it certainly was a blessing to him), but so that they would be acknowledged for their gift. Their generosity was an indication of their hearts toward God, as they were really giving to Him. (Matthew 25:40) God is pleased with such sacrifice (Hebrews 13:16), and He loves a cheerful giver. (II Corinthians 9:6-8) If you give generously, you will be blessed, and both the giver and receiver will experience joy in the gift.

Paul starts this section of the chapter (Philippians 4:10-14) with a familiar theme: joy! He tells the Philippians that he has great joy in the Lord because they have again showed their concern for him. He is thankful for what they have done to provide for his needs, but his joy does not come from their provision. He is grateful for their gift, but he wants to be clear that he is not asking for more. He has learned to be content in any circumstance, whether he has little and is hungry or he has food in abundance.

The Greek word that is translated as ‘learned’ has the connotation of a long, hard lesson. It wasn’t just a matter of hearing someone say that Christ’s grace is sufficient, (II Corinthians 12:9) as many of us have. I have often heard that verse used as a platitude when someone is facing a trial, but Paul learned this from experience. You may remember from the post on April 20, 2011 that Paul had had more than his fair share of trials, and yet he had learned the secret of contentment. We all should be so fortunate. Sometimes I think that we don’t appreciate the suffering that we have to endure. I know I often wish that things were easier, but perhaps we (I) should look at what we can gain from our suffering rather than work so hard to avoid it. Job learned that lesson in the Old Testament. He had lost everything, even his wife’s support, but Job continued to bless the Lord despite his circumstances. (Job 1:21) Likewise, Paul rejoiced despite his circumstances because he knew that he was in the will of God. Whatever came his way, he knew that he would be able to get through it because God was on his side.

Philippians 4:13 is another verse that is used frequently to encourage people. It is usually quoted by itself without the verses around it for context. Yes, it’s true that with Christ’s strength we can do anything, but the context tells us that this is Paul’s secret of contentment. As long as he is in the will of God, God will provide the strength that he needs to face any situation. Nevertheless, the Philippians were right to support him in whatever way they could. Sometimes the way God provides His strength is through his people, by allowing us to be His hands and feet. It is not that God could not do it without us, but He is allowing us to have a part in the blessing of helping others. We, too, could be the reason for another’s joy.

On Friday (April 22, 2011) we looked at the simple solution to living a stress-free life. I say simple because there are not many steps to follow, and none of them are complicated to understand, but I, as much as anyone else, know that it is not easy. It is a challenge for humans to stop focusing on themselves and start focusing on God. That is in fact what we need to do.

Philippians 4:8-9 gives us further direction on how to do it. I’m sure you’ve probably heard of the power of positive thinking. Psychologists and business experts alike promote the concept for personal and economic success, but the idea isn’t new. Paul suggested it thousands of years ago. It is a well established fact that if you dwell on negative things—your problems, weaknesses or shortcomings—things will only go from bad to worse. I’ve proved it myself. When I was a student, I used to have terrible exam anxiety; I always feared that I wouldn’t do well enough, that I wasn’t good enough. Finally I tried positive thinking: I can do this. I know the material. I am prepared. I can’t say that I ever became fond of doing exams, but I can say that I did better when I went in with a positive attitude.

Paul’s advice is to think about the positive--the good, noble, pure and lovely. It is very similar to his advice in Philippians 4:6-7. There he said that when you feel anxious, you should change direction by praying and thanking God. Now he expands on that, and says when you find yourself thinking negatively, you should stop yourself and start thinking about the excellent and praiseworthy things. You can control your thoughts. You first need to recognize when they need changing and then make a conscious effort to do so. Think about Jesus and all that He has done for you. Think about the wonders of creation that tell of the power of God. Read the book of Philippians. Realize from Philippians 1:6 that God is in the process of perfecting us. He has a purpose for us, and our trials have a purpose. (Philippians 1:12) Paul in all his distresses was able to keep his eye on the goal, and he encourages us to do the same. (Philippians 3:13-14) Above all, remember the hope of eternity (Philippians 3:20-21), and that our struggles here are temporary.

Paul again accompanies his instructions with a promise. If we follow his advice and example, change our outlook and attitude, and then let our actions match our thoughts, the God of peace will be with us.

Stress. There are so many circumstances in life to cause us worry or anxiety, from everyday annoyances, like getting the kids to school on time or not burning dinner, to huge tragedies. The earthquake and tsunami in Japan come to mind. So does the Chretien family. (Missing – Al and Rita Chretien) Is there really a way to be stress-free? The Apostle Paul tells us how.

In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul echoes Jesus' words (Matthew 6:25-34) when he tells us not to be anxious about anything. Nothing. But then he tells us what to do instead: In every situation, through prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. One simple sentence is the cure to all our anxiety; let’s look at it closely.

(a) In every situation. Every situation. That means the small, everyday annoyances as well as the devastating tragedies; God cares about every single detail of your life. (Luke 12:6-7) There is nothing too big or too small to bring to God, for He desires that we trust Him and rely on Him for everything. Nothing will catch Him by surprise, and He invites us to come to him boldly with any request we have. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

(b) Through prayer and petition. Some versions translate this as “by prayer and supplication”. What are the differences between these three terms? I believe that prayer is a more general term and encompasses all of our conversations with God. As followers of Jesus, we should have an attitude of prayer, or some would say live in an atmosphere of prayer, such that we feel God’s presence with us constantly and we are always in communion with Him. When we petition or supplicate, we are asking more earnestly for our needs to be met. Supplication gives more of a sense of pleading, but both terms include the idea of humility. When we are told not to be anxious, it is not that God expects us to stop caring about the situations in our lives. What He wants is for us to bring our cares to Him, and especially to lay at His feet the responsibility of all those things that are out of our control.

(c) With thanksgiving. I think when we have a lot going on that concerns us, we sometimes forget to be thankful. We focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have. God has given us so many blessings, and many of them we take for granted. In I Timothy 6:8, Paul said that he would be content just to have food and shelter. I’m sure that if you are reading this on a computer, you have so much more than that. We need to take time to thank God for our blessings, but we also need to thank Him for all the things we see as hardship as well. Ann Voskamp, author of one thousand gifts, has said, “If I can take everything in my life and see it as grace, a good gift from God’s hand, and give thanks for it, there is joy in this. That joy really is a function of gratitude. And gratitude is a function of perspective. Can I see the things to be grateful for? If I can see the things to be grateful for, I can find joy.”

So, can we be stress-free? Yes. In fact we are commanded to be stress-free, but it is a command with a promise. If we will take all of our cares to God, and if we will be thankful, we will have peace that is beyond our comprehension, peace that comes from knowing that God loves us and has all things in His control. A peace unlike any earthly peace. (John 14:27) This peace will protect our hearts and minds the same way that a sentinel stands on guard to protect the garrison—a way that will keep us free from anxiety.

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This year, where I live in Canada, we have been longing for Spring, but it is seems so slow in arriving. Everyone around me is tired of the cold, the snow and the grey days. We long for sunshine and warm temperatures. It is interesting how the weather and other circumstances in our life can affect our moods. That wasn’t the case for the Apostle Paul; if anyone had reason to be discouraged, he did. Among other things he was beaten, shipwrecked and imprisoned. (II Corinthians 11:24-33) He endured hardship after hardship; yet he continued to rejoice, and to exhort others to rejoice also.

Philippians 4:4 is not the first time in this letter that Paul encourages the people of Philippi, and by extension us, to rejoice. (Philippians 3:1) The entire emphasis of this letter is joy. For Paul, joy was not the result of circumstances, but found in his relationship with the Lord. Paul was also able to see the blessings that surrounded him. Not only had he been brought through all the trials mentioned above, but in Philippians 4:3 he recalled the names of his fellow workers and that their names were written in the book of life. He focused on the great rewards of their service, not on the hardships they would encounter along the way. Although he knew first-hand what kind of hardships there could be, and that they would encounter more of them, he continued to remind the Philippians to rejoice. It was not a natural reaction to circumstances, but a discipline, an intentional act of devotion to God. Joy is a part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and a sign of true faith. If we really believe that we have given control of our lives over to a sovereign God, and we believe that He only wants what is best for us (Jeremiah 29:11, Luke 11:9-13), that His grace is sufficient (II Corinthians 12:9) and that there is a purpose for our trials (James 1:2-4), we will be able to have joy even in the most trying of circumstances.

I have heard people say on numerous occasions that the best way to cheer up your spirit is to read the book of Philippians, Paul’s letter to the people of Philippi, every day for a month. So I challenge you, for the month of May, in an attempt to bring the encouragement for which you would usually depend on Spring, to read Philippians once a day. Sign up to “attend” our Facebook event for a daily, gentle reminder. In the next several posts, to prepare for our month of rejoicing, I will focus on some of the other memos from God found in Philippians 4.

Do you ever feel lonely? I spend a lot of time alone, but that is not necessarily when I feel the loneliest. Sometimes I feel the most lonely when I am in a crowd--when I am surrounded by people, but none of them are talking to me or seem to care about me at all. Do you ever feel that way? Jesus knows how you feel. He was surrounded by people who mocked and tortured Him, and He had no one on His side.

When Jesus was arrested and then sentenced to death, His disciples all fled from Him or denied Him; the people, the Pharisees and the experts in the law were all against Him, but as He hung on that cross, nothing hurt so much as being separated from His Father. (Mark 15:34) God had to turn His back on Jesus, His Son, even though they had lived in communion with each other since before the world began. Because God is holy, He could not accept us who are unholy into His presence. Only the life of His perfect Son could be an acceptable sacrifice to atone for the sins that have been inbred in us since Adam and Eve fell to the temptation of Satan in the Garden of Eden. While our sin was on Christ, He was separated from His Father. That was the greatest rejection in history, and yet Christ chose to endure it so that all people since then could have a personal relationship with God. We can be adopted into God’s family, and Jesus can become our brother and our friend. Even when we do not have any other person around us that we can talk to, when it seems like no one understands us, we still have Jesus. We will never be put into the position that Jesus was put in. Because of Him, we will always have someone to turn to. Hebrews 4:14-16 tells that Jesus understands everything we have ever been through or will ever go through, and the invitation is extended to come to Him boldly when we need help. We are invited to cast all our burdens on Him because He cares for us. (I Peter 5:6-7)

The next time you are feeling lonely, take time to talk to Jesus. Ask Him to help you through your time of sadness, and to know that you are not alone. Lay all your cares at His feet. He understands.

Friends of mine recently had a blessing party for their sixteen year old daughter. I have heard of people blessing their children before, at certain milestones in their lives, but this is the first I’ve heard of a blessing party. I think it’s great. At this party, friends and family came prepared with a letter of blessing that was read aloud and then given to the person being blessed, so that she could re-read them in the days to come. The letters would include words of acknowledgement, encouragement, wisdom, advice and the Word of God.

In Numbers 6:22-27, God instructed the priests to bless the people, and God provided the words of the blessing, so that the people would know that it was from Him. This passage follows a description of Nazirite laws and dedication which involved adherence to several rules that they would follow in order to separate themselves from the world and devote themselves to God. But the blessing in Numbers 6:24-26 was not only given to the Nazirites as a reward for their sacrifice; it was given to all of the people. The word “you” is singular in the Hebrew indicating that it applied to each individual. God wants to bless each of His people, not because of their devotion to Him, but because of His great mercy and love.

Many people seem to think that people lived under the law in the Old Testament, and grace was not given until the time of the New Testament. Although laws were given to the people to live by in Old Testament times, this did not indicate a lack of God’s love. This passage tells us that God wanted His people to be blessed, protected and recipients of His acceptance, grace and peace. In that time, it was not usual for a monarch to give audience to just anyone, but by shining His face upon you, the King of Kings welcomes you into His presence. He wants to bless you, so that you may be a blessing to others. Freely you have received; freely give. (Genesis 12:1-3, Matthew 10:8b) Take the time to bless your children, your grandchildren, your friends and your family.