"Peace in Frightening Times"
(Delivered Sunday, October 7, 2001 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
The events of September 11 have awakened us to the fact that we're living in a completely different world than we had previously thought. Now, our nation faces challenges the likes of which it has never faced before. We can't even be sure of what life will be like in our nation - or even in our own city - one week from today. Collectively, this crisis inspired in us a sense of unity and courage; and in many ways, it has brought out the best in us as Americans. But this truly is one of the most challenging periods in our nation's history; and people are understandably anxious and fearful.
The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon Building have certainly caused people to become anxious. None of us will ever forget, the awful images we saw - and still see - on the news. Our hearts have gone out to the many people who have lost loved ones or gave their lives in rescuing others. But in our private moments we've all asked ourselves, "Could it also happen here?"
The very credible threat of further terrorist attacks have caused people to become even more anxious - especially considering that those threats have come from an enemy we can't even see or locate; as well as because of the ominous nature of some of those threats. Both Time Magazine and Newsweek featured cover stories last week that asked such questions as: How real is the threat? or How afraid should we be? The Oregonian reported that stores have been crowded with people stocking up on emergency goods, and items for personal and home security. And concern for chemical and biological terrorism has driven many to buy-up some items that aren't usually found in the typical shopping mall - such as chemical containment suits, long-lasting army rations, night-vision systems, and even gas masks.
In Portland, military surplus stores are experiencing a run on gas masks and hazard suits; with some stores reporting a 50-60 person waiting list. Some people are buying as many as 10 gas masks at a time. One army surplus store opened up a little over a week ago with a line of people going out into the street. A mother broke down emotionally in desperate tears when a store owner told her that there weren't any gas masks that would fit her infant child. Another woman had a heart attack while waiting in line.
Experts are encouraging us to make sensible provisions in our homes - such as having working flashlights, blankets and three-days worth of food and drinking water on hand. But they're warning us that, while there may be a psychological benefit to having gas masks and hazard suits, they really provide very little in the way of actual security. To be effective in the event of a surprise attack, these items would have to be properly fitted, properly maintained, and worn constantly. And even then, they may only be effective in the case of certain kinds of attacks; in other types of chemical or biological attacks, they may not be of any value at all. Other people are trying to stockpile medications and anti-virus vaccines; but the experts are warning that even this isn't a reliable safe-guard against such attacks.
We should face the reality of such threats, and to prepare intelligently for them. But considering the nature of the threats we face today, real peace of mind just isn't going to be found in external things. The cause of our internal fears are bigger than can be dealt with through mere externals. We must turn to God for His help and protection. Only through faith and trust in Him, and in His merciful help, will we be able to have true peace of mind.
And that leads us to this morning's passage. I believe that God has something to tell us about the anxiety people are feeling today. God wants us to know that, as dreadful as these days may seem, we can experience His peace in the midst of them - a supreme and lasting peace that surpasses human understanding. He invites us to follow His instructions for obtaining this peace; and if we do as He tells us, He promises that this peace will protect and keep our hearts and our minds in the midst of the dreadful challenges we face in weeks and months to come. His peace will prove to be a reliable security against anxiety.
The apostle Paul wrote about how to experience this peace from God in his little letter to the Philippian believers. He wrote;
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).
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What does it mean to be "anxious for" or - as the King James Version has it - "careful of" the things of life? The Greek word that Paul uses is one that comes from two Greek words joined together: merÝzo, which means "to divide"; and nous, which means "mind". The image of a divided mind, then, is what this resulting word merimnß§ uses to express the idea of being "anxious" or "careful".
Now to be completely accurate, this word doesn't mean "to be divided of mind". It means "to be anxious" or "careful" about something. Nevertheless, I think that the picture of a divided mind does illustrate for us how anxiety can plague us. Such times of anxiety really do make us feel as if our mind is "divided".
God has given us a mind that naturally thinks through possible situations and scenarios. And our mind and our inner state of being are connected together, so that what we think about can't help but affect the way we feel. And so, when we lay in bed and think about this possible situation, or that possible scenario (which is something that we can't help but do), we soon find that we have a variety of different emotional responses to what we're thinking. The more ominous the thoughts, the more fear we begin to feel growing in our heart. Our minds and our emotions begin to revolve around and around in a cycle - thinking about this dreadful situation, and feeling fearful about that possible circumstance - to the point that we can't sleep or concentrate. It's as if there's a war going on inside us - a war between our inner selves, which longs for a sense of peace; and our rational minds, which just wont let us have that peace. It's very much the experience of a divided mind.
Have you ever felt like that? Many have been feeling that way constantly since September 11. This inner war - this "divided mind" - can so overwhelm you that you're not operating on the basis of sound judgment anymore. Instead, you're operating out of irrational fear; and you begin to do things that just don't make sense to do, or you try to find peace in things that just wont provide it.
Such an experience feels like something that's outside our control; and I believe that, to a certain extent, it is outside our control. We can't pull ourselves out of that emotional cycle; and we can't manufacture peace from within. Real inner peace has to come from a source outside ourselves. And God is telling us, in this morning's verse, that there is a way to experience His peace in our present circumstances. It comes as a result of bringing those anxious fears and concerns to Him in prayer. When we give them to Him, He gives us His peace in their place. This is a peace that's a gracious gift of God from outside ourselves. It's a peace, Paul says, that guards both our hearts and our minds.
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Does this really work - even in dire circumstances? Yes; it absolutely does. The apostle Paul gives us his own personal testimony of its effectiveness throughout this letter. He was in prison at the time he wrote these words; and he was under the very real threat of execution for spreading the gospel. But in spite of all this, he had a victorious peace. He expressed confidence that none of the threats he was facing would in any way hinder God's work of saving people through the gospel. In fact, he said that "the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel" (1:12). He had inner peace that things would work out according to God's plan, And so, he could say with great confidence, "For I know that this will turn out for my deliverance through your prayer and the supply of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, according to my earnest expectation and hope that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but with boldness, as always, so now also, Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:19-21). He knew that in the long run, any way that the circumstances went, he couldn't loose! And he had confidence about the immediate future too. Near the end of his letter, he was able to testify to an inner peace that prevailed over his circumstances; "I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:12-13).
"But wait!" someone might say. "Paul may have had it bad at times; but he certainly didn't have to deal with the sort of threats we have to deal with today." And that's very true. But look at what he did have to deal with. He testified that he did his work for the Lord Jesus
"... in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness - besides the other things, what comes upon me daily; my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? (2 Cor. 11:23-29).
There's no question that Paul knew what it was like to live life in the face of threats and challenges. And yet, in spite of it all, the peace of God guarded Paul's heart and mind through Christ Jesus. Paul's life was a life of victory! He was characterized by a settled, confident peace that could only have come from God. It was the same sort of confident peace that was found in his Lord; because Jesus Himself imparted it to him.
In times like these, wouldn't you want to experience the kind of peace Paul experienced in times of trial and trouble? Well, the good news is that you can! This verse tells you how.
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Notice, first, that Paul tells us ...
I. WHAT NOT TO DO: DON'T BE ANXIOUS.
He begins by saying, "Be anxious for nothing". In the original language of this letter, the emphasis is on the word "nothing". Literally, Paul says, "In nothing be anxious" - in no situation at all. There isn't anything for which we're to allow ourselves to have an unhealthy, mind-dividing anxiety - not one thing! - not even over the things we see happening in the world today.
Why does the Bible command us not to be anxious, or to worry? I think there are several reasons. For one thing, it's wrong to do, because worry isn't a response of faith. The Bible tells us that "without faith it is impossible to please [God], for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Heb. 11:6). To worry is to respond to the unexpressed idea that God isn't really there for us; or that, if He is there, He won't reward our trust in Him. Worry is utterly incompatible with genuine faith - and, in some respects, is its opposite.
Second, I believe the Bible tells us not to worry because, in order to engage in worry, we have to deny that God is true to His word. He has made promises to us about His care for us, and His protection over us in the future. His promises are all true and reliable. But when we worry, we treat those promises as if they're false. We show that we don't believe we can completely count on them. My wife has a convicting little quote on our wall at home: "Worry slanders every promise of God." That quote is very true.
Third, I believe we're told not to worry because worry assumes that we're qualified to be the ruler of our own destiny. Every time you and I willingly give ourselves over to worry, we are in essence telling God that we believe we know more about our situation that He does, and that we know how to handle our situation better than He, and that we could give ourselves a much better deal than the one we're getting from Him.
Fourth, I believe the Bible teaches us not to worry because worry is one of the most unproductive and useless things we could ever do. Worry is unique in that, no matter how great the investment of time and energy you put into it, gives absolutely no benefit whatsoever return, No one has ever gained anything good through worry. No one will ever looked back on his or her life and say, "Out of all the choices I've ever made, I'm glad most of all that I decided to worry. I only wish I would have been more anxious in life than I was."
Look at what Jesus said about anxiety. His is the final, authoritative word on the subject. He said.
Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you , O you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Matthew 6:25-34).
Here, we have our Lord and Master's own permission to stop worrying. He's the King of kings and Lord of lords; how much more permission could we want than that?
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We live in a situation right now, in which things could change for us very quickly. We really have no idea what we will be dealing with one week from now. But one of the first things God would want us to know about it all is this: Don't live in fear or dread of the future. Don't worry about what lies ahead, as if our mighty God and loving Father was not there. Be anxious for nothing.
But how do we go about that? How do we keep from becoming anxious? The good news is that God doesn't teach us what not to do, without also telling us what to do in its place. And so, next, we see ...
II. WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: PRAY ABOUT EVERYTHING.
"Be anxious for nothing," Paul says, "but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God."
Our loving Father already knows that we have concerns and anxieties whirling around in our minds - especially at a time like this. And His Bible doesn't tell us to ignore those anxieties, or deny that we have them. Instead, the Bible tells us to be realistic about them. We're not to just let them sit there, stewing away in our minds. We're to do something positive with them. We're commanded to take hold of them and place them on to Him. We're to unburden ourselves of them by talking to our Father about them.
Now; think about it for a moment. Why are we urged to make our requests known to the Father? He certainly doesn't need us to tell Him about our anxious thoughts, does He? As it says in Psalm 139:1-2, "O LORD, You have searched me and known me. You know my sitting down and my rising up; you understand my thought afar off." He already knows about our worries and fears better than even we do.
But it's interesting that, at the very end of that same psalm, the psalmist prays, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me and know my anxieties ..." (v. 23). Yes; the Father already knows those thoughts within us. He doesn't need us to tell Him about them. But I believe we're urged to make our requests known to Him because WE need us to tell Him about them. We need to admit the truth about how we feel or what we fear; and unburden our cares and anxieties upon Him. We do so by "making them known" to Him. This is just like the wonderful invitation that we're given in 1 Peter 5:6-7; "Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you." What could give us greater peace than to know that God cares for us? What greater thing could we do with our anxieties than to give them to our heavenly Father?
Notice the details. In what circumstances are we to make our requests known to the Father? "In everything." This corresponds to the command we've just read against being anxious. In what are we to be anxious? - "In nothing". And in what are we to make our requests known to the Father? - "In everything". That pretty much covers it all; doesn't it?
And how are we to do so? First, we're to use "prayer". Now it may, at first glance, seem rather obvious that we're to use prayer. After all, how else can we make our requests known to God except by prayer? But you'll notice that right next to this is the command to use "petitions" or "supplications". Both words basically mean the same thing - "petitions"; but the second word refers to petitions in a general way; while the first one refers specifically to petitions made before God. That gives, I believe, a significance to this first word "prayer" that takes it beyond the mere presentation of our needs. It includes the idea of "worship" as a part of our petitions. We're to take our main focus off our circumstances, and put it on God in worship, so we can gain His perspective about them.
If you're requests in a time of danger or threat are, first, qualified with a sincere reverence of the almighty God, those requests will take on a completely different character. You won't panic. Instead, you'll worship. Even in a time of anxiety, we're to stop and consider who it is that we approach, and come to Him in a spirit of humble worship. "I will lift up my eyes to the hills - From whence comes my help? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth. He will not allow your foot to be moved; He who keeps you will not slumber" (Psalm 121:1-3).
Second, we see that we're to use "supplications" or "petitions". This refers to making specific requests to the Father. God wants us to get specific. When we're trapped in a whirl of anxiety, we're already thinking in specifics. God doesn't command us to simply run to Him and say - in a general way - "I'm anxious! Please take all my anxieties away!" Instead, He urges us to tell Him the specifics. Tell Him specifically what you're afraid of. Tell Him specifically what you need. We will find that, when we bring "specific" concerns to Him, He gives a "specific" peace to our hearts.
And third, we're to make sure that we bring our requests to our Father "with thanksgiving". Elsewhere, Paul tells us, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Thanksgiving is to be an essential element in our prayers whenever we make our requests known to God; but it's especially important when we're in an anxious frame of mind. By thanking Him when we make our petitions to Him, we're acknowledging His goodness in advance, and giving expression to our trust in Him for the future. Giving thanks is an early investment in the praise we will give Him later. This glorifies Him.
And finally, notice to whom we're to make our requests. I think that it's significant that Paul says, "make your requests known to God". He uses the name "God" - which speaks of our Father's supremacy over all His creation, and of His transcendent sovereignty over all that concerns us. As Paul said elsewhere, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son,that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Rom. 8:28-31).
When we bring our requests to God, we're bringing them to the One who sits upon the throne of heaven as the Sovereign ruler of His universe. We're taking it right to the top! And so, as it says in Psalm 55:22; "Cast your burden on the LORD, and He shall sustain you; He shall never permit the righteous to be moved."
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The thing, then, that we're not to do in a time of crisis such as ours is to be anxious. Instead, we're to bring all our requests to the God of the universe through prayers and supplications with thanksgiving. That leads us, finally, to ...
III. WHAT WE WILL HAVE AS A RESULT: THE PEACE OF GOD.
Do all these things faithfully; "and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Notice, first of all, that it's not just "peace" that we will receive; but rather "the peace of God" - that is, the peace that has God Himself as it's ultimate source. The peace that the world hopes for, and sometimes manages to experience, is simply an absence of trouble. But the peace of God is a peace that abides within us, even in the midst of terrible trouble. It's a peace that nothing in this world will ever be able to take from us.
This kind of peace is the kind that Jesus promised to His disciples. On the night that He was to be betrayed, He gave some final instructions to His disciples. And then, He told them, "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, neither let it be afraid" (John 14:27). He concluded with these words; "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
Notice, also that this is a peace that "surpasses all understanding". It's a peace that doesn't make any rational sense to the world. There's a popular little quote that gets pinned up in a lot of office cubical: "If you can keep your head while everyone around you is losing theirs; then you obviously don't know what's going on!" But the fact is that, if you can keep your head in the midst of trouble because you had first given your anxieties over to God, then it's because you have a peace from God that the world can't understand.
I'd like to tell you a story that illustrates that "out-of-this-world" kind of peace. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote in his journals about his trip as a missionary to serve the Indians in Georgia. Even though he was a missionary, he hadn't yet been born again. A group of German believers called Moravians were on the same ship; and they were frequently having religious services and prayer meetings together. Wesley had been watching them, and had admired their godly conduct and joyful spirit. But it wasn't until a particularly violent storm broke out that he really began to see that they had a peace from God which he didn't possess.
During this storm, many of the English people on the ship were screaming in terror and crying out from a fear of death. Even Wesley himself - the unsaved missionary - was terrified in the face of death. But the Moravian believers remained remarkably calm. They continued with their worship service, and singing of hymns, in perfect peace. At one point, the waves of the sea washed over the ship and split the mainsail to pieces. It poured into all the decks below; and appeared as if it were swallowing the ship whole with a giant, watery mouth. Wesley wrote, "A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sang on. I asked one of them afterwards, 'Were you not afraid?' He answered, 'I thank God, no.' I asked, 'But were not your women and children afraid?' He replied, mildly, 'No; our women and children are not afraid to die.'"
This bothered Wesley greatly; because he was supposed to be in the service of God, but he was very much afraid to die. He didn't have the peace they had. When he made his return trip to England, after serving as a missionary to the Indians, the ship was once again caught in a violent storm at sea. And once again, Wesley found himself utterly terrified in the face of death - without the peace that he saw in the Moravian Christians. During that time, he wrote these words: "I went to America to convert the Indians; but oh! who shall convert me? who, what is he that will deliver me from this evil heart of mischief? I have a fair summer religion. I can talk well; nay, and believe myself, while no danger is near; but let death look me in the face, and my spirit is troubled. Nor can I say, 'To die is gain!'"
The absence of this "peace that surpasses understanding" troubled Wesley greatly after he returned to London. But it was shortly thereafter that he found himself in that famous worship service on Aldersgate Street during which he heard the gospel message through the public reading of a Bible commentary on Romans. God blew new life into Wesley's heart that day; and he believed and became born again. And from then on - as any student of Church history will tell you - he lived one of the most courageous lives any Christian has ever lived.
This reminds us that the unbelieving people of this world are looking at us and watching us. When we turn our anxieties over to God, and He gives us His peace, the people of this world see it. And what they see utterly defies explanation. The only peace they know anything about depends on the circumstances. They live continually under the tyranny of the circumstances. But when they look at people who have the peace of God, they see in them a peace that isn't subject to circumstances - even as dreadful a set of circumstance as being in a ship violently tossed at sea in a storm, ... or even being threatened by terrorist attacks. Instead, they see a peace that they don't understand - one that's "out-of-this-world". They see it, and they long for it to be their experience too. Soon, by God's grace, they - like Wesley - will ask about it. And the apostle Peter says, "... Sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you ..." (1 Peter 3:15).
Notice, thirdly, that when we bring our requests to God, we receive a peace that protects us from anxiety. It's a peace that guards our own hearts and minds. It's able to do this, because it isn't a peace of our own making. It's a peace that's a gift of God's grace.
There's lots of ways that praying prayers can "conjure" an artificial sort of peace on a strictly human level. Even unsaved people can experience that. By merely "praying prayers", even a committed atheist can make himself feel better. Modern psychologists even recommend prayer as a way to relieve stress. By praying, an unbelieving person can get their mind off their troubles, fill their minds with happy thoughts, and experience temporary relief. But that kind of peace is a merely artificial peace of one's own making. It's not the same thing at all as experiencing a peace that "guards your hearts and minds". It's a peace that's generated from out of one's own heart and mind; and not a peace from God that objectively guards our hearts and minds.
Our hearts and minds can't be "guarded" by a peace that comes from our own hearts and minds. That's like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. That kind of peace will never last. But the peace that is being spoken of here is something from outside ourselves. It's a gracious gift of God. Its something that's objective - not subjective. It's something that's real - not merely imagined. It's something above the circumstances - not because of the circumstance. It's a peace that God Himself puts in us; and therefore, it's a peace that actively "keeps" or "guards" our hearts and minds from becoming subject to anxiety. It's a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22) - something that only He can produce. It's the very peace Jesus spoke of when He said, "Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you ..." (John 14:27).
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There's one more point to be made; and in many ways, it's the most critical point of all. Notice that this peace that Paul speaks of is a peace that guards our hearts and minds only "through Christ Jesus". It's a peace that's a product of a personal, saving relationship with Jesus through faith in His cross. It's not a peace that's available to anyone apart from Him.
Real freedom from anxiety comes only from experiencing the peace of God - a peace which is a free gift of His grace. And that peace of God can only come as a result of first having peace with God. Jesus died on the cross in order to purchase that peace for us; and we receive that peace with God through faith in what Jesus did on the cross for us. "Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance; and perseverance, character; and character, hope. Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us" (Rom. 5:5). First comes peace with God; then comes the peace of God. Both are available only through Jesus.
Would you like to have peace in times like these? You certainly can. But it can only be yours through a relationship with Jesus Christ. There are a lot of uncertainties in these days; but the thing you must be certain about - above all else - is that you have that all-important relationship with God through His Son Jesus. In whatever other preparations you make in the days to come, make it the top priority to be sure you've make sure that you have placed your hopes for eternity on the cross of Jesus, and that you have a relationship with the resurrected Savior. Then - and only then - can you have the freedom to make your requests known to God, and experience the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.
(copyright 2001 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is prohibited.)
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