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About this series
I Choose Joy
How to Live Life Above Your Circumstances
In the midst of difficulty, chaos, and continual pressure, what is it that sets a believer apart from the crowd? What causes people to notice that there's something supernatural at work in their lives? In this series, from the book of Philippians, Chapter 1, Chip tells us it's joy! He explains how understanding the power of focus, purpose, hope, and expectation enables an ordinary believer to live life above circumstances, weather the worst storms, and experience true joy.More from this series
It’s pretty easy to choose joy when things are going well. But it is pretty tough to choose joy when circumstances are very, very difficult. And what we’re going to learn in this series is that it really is a choice, that God will give us everything that we need, regardless of how devastating the circumstances. But tell you what, when it’s really, really hard, it’s just easy to look inward, to fall into self-pity, and just watch your life spiral down.
And what we’re going to learn, it doesn’t have to be that way, but we’re going to talk about the power of focus. I brought a little pitcher of water and if we took a little contest and if I said, “Is the pitcher half full or is the pitcher half empty?” the answer is “yes.” Right?
Some people will spend their entire life, no matter what is happening, focused on what they don’t have, what is wrong, what they wish were better, on and on and on with what they don’t have, what God hasn’t provided, and what they think would bring joy and happiness.
Other people have learned to focus on what they do have and they recognize that everybody’s life has some emptiness. Everybody has struggles. Everyone is going to suffer. Everyone has some problem relationships. Everyone eventually will have some health issues. Everyone has struggles at work. They either define you or you learn how to focus and to think and to trust God in such a way in order to choose joy.
Pull out your notes, if you will. And I’ve got to tell you a true story that, at times, I can hardly believe it’s true. He was a neighbor; he was a friend. We got pretty close; got to talk about a lot of things. In private conversation, at this point, he wouldn’t care that I share this – he was a backslidden Christian – he knew God, he used to go to church regularly, he used to serve in a church. And he had slidden away from all of that and, poor guy, got his new neighbor was a pastor – me.
And so we get to know one another and he’s a great guy, very gregarious. And he just lived right across the street from Theresa and myself. And so he was out in the yard, we got to know each other well, and I’ll never forget the day that he got a phone call, walked out in the yard, and he had found out that someone had, he was a cabinet maker, and top of the line cabinet maker, and put in these super expensive cabinets into these super-luxury homes.
And he had hundreds of thousands of dollars of his cabinets that he had already made, that he was going to be putting in these homes along with his material, and someone arsoned his warehouse, he lost everything and had no insurance.
And I saw him out in his front yard and he looked like someone, literally, had just died. And he went into clinical depression. He ended up having to go to the doctor. I remember I would take walks around the block and he had a big bay window. And if you have ever seen someone sit in a chair like this – life was over. He had, everything he had was gone.
Fast forward three and a half years, he was a pretty resilient guy. Quite the entrepreneur. And so he built his business up again and got another big contract, made a bunch of money again. And there’s people that have this gift. And so he’s got twelve or fourteen Master Craftsmen. And he’s got another big set of super-luxury homes and he has a big warehouse again. Are you ready? You guys, anybody feeling what’s coming here?
So one of his employees, they really love him, he’s great to get along with. So he goes in to help out and so he sweeps up all the sawdust and then there was one of those things that you torch, whatever you call it when you weld things? And he was cleaning some stuff out and so he lit that to empty something and it sparked, it hit the sawdust, and within minutes, everything he had, again, was gone.
His wife, I still remember the morning, I think it was a Sunday because I was pulling out and she comes out, “Oh no! And this is what has happened.” And he had a tiny bit of insurance. He didn’t get clinically depressed this time. He said, “I heard the news. I have been through this before. My whole life was about things before. And I realized they couldn’t satisfy.” And he says, “Everything in me just wanted to break down and I just decided, I told my wife, ‘Stay right here. I’m going to walk around the block.’”
He said, “I started to walk around the block and I don’t know why, but this came into my mind: ‘Naked I come into the world, and naked I will return. The Lord gives; the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!’”
And he said, “For thirty minutes I kept walking and I started, Thank You I have a wife who is loyal, who cares with me. Thank You for my son. Thank You for my grandson.” He said, “I just started choosing, and all I did was, for thirty or forty minutes, I just focused on what I actually did have.”
Before his other workers, where everyone was discouraged, everyone is out of work, within forty-eight hours, he had found jobs with his competitors for all twelve of his craftsmen.
I’ll never forget, out in the front yard, less than a week later when, before he was in a catatonic state of just depression, and he was out in the front yard playing with his little grandson who was about three or four at the time.
And I said, “Gary, how are you doing?” He goes, “You know, it’s hard.” And then he looked at me and he looked down at that little boy and he said, “But I’ve got a lot. I’ve got a lot.” What’s the difference?
Fire number one – his focus in inward. Fire number two – it’s upward, and then it’s outward. Question: where is your focus? How do you deal with the tough circumstances in your life?
Notice on the front there’s a little divine equation. The divine equation is: C + P = E. I want you to get that. Some of you might write that somewhere or put it on a card, put it in lipstick on a mirror: C + P = E. Circumstance plus perspective equals your experience.
Living above my circumstance occurs when my perspective interprets my circumstances, rather than my circumstances determining my perspective. It’s true, isn’t it?
Either I look at life through the lens of: these are my circumstances. When they’re kind of good, I’m kind of happy. When they’re kind of bad I’m kind of sad.
Or, I look at my circumstances through the perspective of the lens of God’s promises, God’s power, the lens of a sovereign God, a good God who is going to take even the worst and most difficult things and He is going to use them for my good.
The fundamental question is: How can we develop the kind of perspective that transcends our circumstance? How do you do that? I’m going to suggest that it’s going to be C + P = E
And we are going to learn from a man who models this for us like nobody’s business.
Key number one, jot the word in, focus. The question is: where is your focus? Now, I want you, on the left side of your notes, I want you to put a little box and I want you to imagine that is a white board in your mind. And I want you to write one or two words and if you’re next to someone that happens to be the problem that goes into that box, I would maybe not do that right now.
But what I want you to do is actually think of: what is the most difficult, challenging circumstance or relationship that you have right now? What is it that gets you down, that, if you could say, God, either fix it or take it away, what would be in that box? Have you got it?
Now, we are going to look at Philippians chapter 1. But before we read it, I want you to get the circumstances of the author. It’s A.D. 62, 63 – he’s in a Roman prison. He’s a little past mid-life. He has already been beaten three times. He has been overnight in the sea. He has been stoned and left for dead once. He got some revelation in Arabia. He is taking the gospel and his mission, his plan, his circumstances are: God has called me to take this message to the whole Gentile world.
And instead of going to the whole Gentile world, he is stuck in a cell, which what we know is he ends up writing a lot of letters that reach the whole world. But he doesn’t know that. All he knows is: God told me to do this. I wanted to do that. Every time I try and do it, people beat me up or they stick me in prison.
And you would think Paul would be discouraged. And he would be if he looked through the lens of circumstance. But his perspective is not that. Follow along. Paul’s circumstance.
“Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Christ Jesus, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and the deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
And so this is a church that he has a real heart connection with. And they have heard you’re in prison and they’re concerned about him. And so they send a financial gift through one of their members, Epaphroditus, and this is really a “thank you” letter. And they want to know, “Well, how are you doing?”
And so Paul is going to explain his circumstances here. He says in verse 3, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of. Always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all.” Well, why? “In view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now, for I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
I’d like you to circle the word thank, I’d like you to circle the word remembrance, I’d like you to circle the word prayer with joy – I guess that’s a phrase. Circle the phrase prayer for you all. And then circle the word confident.
This is Paul’s upward focus. He is in jail, his circumstances – where is his heart? Where is his mind? He says, “I pray,” did you notice how? “I pray with joy.” I am remembering what it was like with Lydia. I remember when the little church was birthed. I remember that night when that jailor was ready to kill himself: “Stop! Don’t do it! Stop! Don’t do it! We are all here!” And we went into his house and he cleaned me up and his whole house was baptized. And we don’t know all the story, but it’s a church where God did a great thing.
And he says, “I pray with joy in all my remembrance of you.” And it wasn’t just what he did. He says, “In view of your participation in the gospel. We were in it together. We saw God work in that Roman colony in Philippi.” And his just focus is: God, thank You for them.
And then his focus is still about them: “I am confident of this.” God is in control. Where is his concern? His concern isn’t: Well, it’s really tough, there are a lot of rats, I’m chained to this guy, it wasn’t really fair, I’m completely innocent. There’s no blaming. He doesn’t blame God; he doesn’t blame people.
His concern is: “I’m confident of this very thing, that He, Jesus, who began a good work in you, He is going to perfect it until He comes back.” Where is his focus? It’s upward and it’s outward. Notice his focus continues.
Paul’s outward focus. He says, “For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all,” – why? “because I have you in my heart since in both my imprisonment and the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me. For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
I’m going to ask you to do Bible study one more time here. Circle the word feel, then circle the word heart, circle the word partakers. It’s a Greek word that means people are connected to one another. Circle the word long, and then circle the word affection.
And what I want you to get is, can you, can you imagine someone maybe in our day in bondage in a hellacious prison, maybe in another country who has discovered they have cancer and you write to ask how they are doing and you get this letter back, “Oh, every time I think of you, I am praying for you. I remember when we spent this time together.” And then to say, “I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
I memorized this passage many, many, many years ago and I remember praying, Lord, I don’t know that I could ever say that to anyone, but I would love to be able to say that somehow, someday. To love someone, to long and care for someone in the same way that Christ cares for me.
This guy is filled up with his love for other people so much so he just seems to be almost unaware of the difficulty of his own circumstance.
Finally, out of his outward focus and love, notice he prays for them. So, he takes his concern and he goes, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment.” And then there’s a result: “…so that,” put a little box around the so that. It’s very important. So he says, Here’s what I’m praying. I’m in prison, my focus isn’t on me, it’s on God, but it’s on you. And when I am praying for you, I want you to know this was what I am praying. I am praying that your love and your relationship would grow deeper and deeper in the, it’s a really powerful word, in the “epignosco.” In other words, “in the experiential knowledge of God, and that you would have all discernment.”
In other words, that you would get so close to God in the midst of this corrupt Roman Empire and all the junk coming at you so that – why? “…you could approve the things that are excellent.” In other words, so when the world is coming at you, you would know: this is right, this is wrong, this is true, this isn’t true. So you would have discernment to know how to live your life.
And then there’s a purpose clause, “…in order that you can be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ.” Underline sincere and underline blameless. We will come back to this just a little bit later. “…having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory of God.”
So all I want you to see – Paul’s circumstances, I’m guessing, are as bad as anybody’s in this room, of any kind. In fact, what we are going to learn a little bit later is he is right on the crossroads of, Am I going to be executed or not executed? He doesn’t know.
And in the midst of imprisonment, facing execution – upward focus: God, I thank You. Outward focus: I am confident of this. I remember you. God is for you. I am praying for you, that you become the kind of followers of Christ that understand what is wise, what is unwise, and that your lives would be so transformed – outward focus.
Now, what I want to do is roll up our sleeves and ask ourselves two or three questions to help us get, Hey, Paul, I’m glad you can look at it that way. It’s pretty tough for me, right?
How do you develop an upward focus? And I am going to suggest, right from this passage, number one, it’s a choice. It’s a choice.
And the choice is gratitude. And the way you do it is you choose to remember and you thank God for significant relationships.
In the mornings, our whole staff comes down here and we have a prayer time. And different pastors, actually, different people on the staff lead it.
And we all sat here and he goes, so here’s what we’re going to do for the first twenty minutes. I want you to write on these 3x5 cards everything that you can possible thank God for in twenty minutes. Just don’t stop writing.” I filled out five. God, thank You that You forgave me. God, thank You for Your Word. Thank You that Your Spirit lives within me. Thank You for Theresa. Thank You for Eric. Thank You for Jason. Thank You for Ryan. Thank You…right? God, thank You for this church. Thank You for the people I get to work with. God, thank You that in the midst of a crazy world, this is where we live. I mean, it was easy. I had five of these filled front and back.
And I had this weird experience afterwards. I had a great attitude that day. It’s just a weird experience! You know, hey! Why? Here’s why: I spent twenty minutes focusing on what God has provided instead of my humanness like yours is to always focus on what is missing.
Second, it’s an action – prayer. Prayer. By the way, remember? He said, “I willfully chose.” Willfully chose to remember the past youthfulness and the partnership.
See, I think, I think we think prayer is always going to be some ooey-gooey feelings and these wonderful, great connections with God. I, part of my rehab on this fusion on my back was walking, walking, walking, walking until I could walk for an hour. That’s a lot of walking.
And I just have to tell you, there’s times where I, one, I didn’t want to walk. Two, I’m bummed out. And just, honestly, a little pity party, Hey God, why me? And I’m trying to serve You with all my heart. And wimpy, wimpy, Chippy, Chippy. Just like you guys do.
And then I remember, I’m walking and I listened to some worship songs and I pull out those earplugs: Father, I thank You. And I started quoting verses. And then I started praying for people. I just started praying for people. I started praying for a lot of you. I prayed for our staff. I prayed for this city.
All of a sudden I realized, You know something? This is some of the best time praying I’ve had in a lot of years. Why? Because I had to walk. I don’t know what you’re going through, but it’s not an accident. You can develop an upward focus by choosing to give thanks, and by the action of prayer.
And, third, there is an attitude. And the attitude is confidence. I remember toward the end of my walks, what I realized was, I’ve been through a lot of hard times. I’m getting older. And I have had God’s promises and God’s character, God’s promises and God’s character. And I have these little packets where I have memorized verses over the years and I started reading some of these old verses and I found one: 1978 – God’s Promises for Chip and Theresa. That was, like, a month before we got married.
And God gave me this passage, this Old Testament passage and I was reading through that and I thought, Are you kidding me? My life is like a hundred x better than I ever, ever, ever dreamed. But it doesn’t matter how good it is, because if I have a really great day today, left to myself, I just want it a little bit better. Right? And so do you.
But I want you to know that you choose, you choose joy by being grateful, by being prayerful, and being confident of the future, not because you’ve got it all together, not because your circumstances are going to change, but there is a God who put His Spirit within you who says, I am confident of this very thing, that He who began in a good work in you has promises and character that He is going to see you through.
And I don’t want to be morbid, but the very worst thing that could happen is you die and end up in the presence of Christ with no more pain and the best atmosphere for ever and ever and ever. See, our hope isn’t in this world.
There are three observations that I see out of this passage that have been both helpful and convicting to me so I want to share the wealth.
Observation number one from verses 7 and 8 are that difficult circumstances reveal our true affections.
Fire number one: he was depressed because he lost his stuff. And he was a believer but he got caught up in stuff and money and prestige and flying to Vail and skiing and luxury vacations. And fire number two: he had a different set of affections.
Second observation is: living above our circumstances occurs when our hearts are so full of people there is no room for self-pity. That’s what happened in fire number two! Forty-eight hours later, all twelve of his Master Craftsmen had jobs with his competitors.
Paul, when you squeeze Paul, Paul is like a sponge. You squeeze Paul with pressure and chains and difficulty and what oozes out is who he really was. And who he really was, was a man who loved God with all of his heart and cared so deeply about people.
When pressure and difficulty and circumstances, whether it’s work or health or problems in your family – when the vice of pressure and circumstances come into your life, whatever oozes out, that’s who you are. That’s who you really are.
If you’re negative, if you’re critical, if you’re blaming, if you’re down on everyone – it’s easy to have a great attitude when things are going great. God uses affliction sometimes to allow adverse circumstances to realign our affections.
We all want to change, right? This whole deal, I have been with all my back, if you would have asked me before all this, I would have said, “You know, I’m working on some things.”
But God revealed some blind spots in my life and I’m so glad he did, and, actually, my wife made, it was very kind the way she did it, and my children as well, and a couple friends. Basically, these new revelations I had about these blind spots that I needed to address, they kind of looked at me like, Oh, really? You just, you just found out? So, you just got that you’re driven, over the top, productivity-centered, nuts? In a loving kind of way.
Sometimes God loves you so much that you’re praying, Oh, God, take it away, take it away, take it away, take it away, take it away. And He’s going, No! My goal isn’t to make your life comfortable. My goal is to make you holy and the only way you ever will really be happy is if you’re holy. And the only way you’re holy is if you see what needs to be addressed and allow Me to forgive and cleanse and empower you.
The summary on the first portion of this section was that our feelings always follow our focus, in case you missed that. Our feelings always follow our focus. So, how you are, emotionally, is always going to be determined on what you focus on.
And then, here, our focus always follows our affections. See, my focus is my affections. My affections were – and not uniquely – but my blind spot was my affections were around that being productive is what gave me value with God and people. Not solely, it wasn’t like I was just completely in left field.
But there was a lot more of that than I ever dreamed. And what I want you to know is that God is not down on you and the difficulties that we have in our lives and the circumstances in a fallen world there are storms, there are tsunamis, there are earthquakes. The issue will be: what do you focus on and how do you respond?
As I think about saying, Okay, Lord, I want to choose joy, I understand I need to have an upward focus and an outward focus. And I get to have an upward focus, I need to choose to be grateful, I need to talk to You. And I understand that there’s some things that adversity reveals.
But here’s the last question I want to address – it’s this – is how do you develop this outward focus? How do you get where, under pressure, you’re praying for other people the way Paul prays for other people? How do you do it where it becomes a habit? Where it becomes who you are, not just a thought under some pressure?
And I’m going to suggest that the apostle Paul is going to address that in verses 9 through 11, specifically. Number one, think about those who have loved you the most. When you are really discouraged and really down, just think: Who are the people that have loved me the most?
That’s what he does in verse 3. “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you.” They have just sent a financial gift. And when you’re in prison back in those days, they didn’t serve food. If you didn’t have friends to bring you food, you just died.
And he was just, he, you think about the people who have loved you the most, instead of the people who have ripped you off the most. And then, here’s something interesting, you pray for those you think about the most.
And put a big circle around “prayer.” And, by the way, there’s a couple different ways to pray.
I had a good friend who really struggled with, if this was this full, he could focus on that much being empty.
I’m not a very good counselor but I gave him a few shots and tried to help him. And so I just said, “Well, are you praying?” He goes, “Yeah!” And so, I said, “Well,” he goes, “It doesn’t help.” I said, “Well, let’s pray, right now, together.” I’ll never forget this. And if you have heard this story, you need to hear it again, because it was like, “Are you kidding me?”
And so it was in my little apartment and so Bob and I both get on our knees. And I said, “Bob, you pray first and then I’ll pray.” And so Bob gets down and he goes, “Oh, God, You know the terrible childhood I had. You know how bad my father was. You know how the kids teased me all my life. You know…”
And he goes on and on and on and on and on. He didn’t pray at all. He was whining in the presence of God. At one point, I just opened my eyes and like, “For real?” “And, You know, that You know, I haven’t been able to hold down a job and I think everyone doesn’t like me.”
And then, finally, “Hey! Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob, Bob. Let me, can I cut in here?” “God, help Bob, amen!”
Okay, I said, “That’s how you pray, right?” He said, “Well, yeah.” I said, “I’ve got news for you. You can pray until the cows come in. God is not answering that one. Bob, that’s just, that’s not prayer, that’s you. You’re telling God all this, you’ve told me this. And I have heard it once or twice or three times. And now, have you noticed that people in this fellowship, like, when you come around they start going away?” “Yeah, it’s terrible, isn’t it?” I said, “There’s a reason, Bob!” He said, “What’s the reason?” I said, “You’re like a recorder. All you do is whine, complain, whine, complain. We tried to help you once but…”
I said, “Bob, okay, let’s try a different prayer. Pray something like this. ‘And this I pray: God, would You help Bob’s love, his passion, like never before, to understand who You really are, how much You love him, and have discernment about what truth is in life?’” Whoo. “In order that Bob could approve the things that are excellent, he might know what are the best things for him, and the people and the things that are worse for him so that his life could be blameless, the word means tested by sunlight, sincere – tested by sunlight – take that back. And blameless means morally pure.”
In other words, what Paul prays and what we can pray, this is, I pray this for my kids, I pray this for me, I pray this for Theresa, I pray this for our staff. Sometimes I think we, we have these prayers: “God, help so-and-so, help so-and-so, help so-and-so, help so-and-so.” God knows all that and I’m not saying we shouldn’t do it.
But when Paul prays, Paul prays, “This is what I am praying.” I pray this for my adult kids: Lord God, would You give them an experiential, genuine knowledge of You where they feel You and experience You like never before, in such a way, that in the world and all the pulls that are coming at them, they would understand, “I don’t want to go that direction, but I want to go this direction.” And, God, that each one of my boys, that You would keep them pure in their hearts and their minds and each one of my daughter or my daughter-in-laws would have such a love for You and understanding that as everyone tells them they ought to be this and ought to be that, that when You look like sun coming through a pane-glass window, they would be pure before You and morally pure so that they would be the kind of men and women that would love one another and honor You and create an environment so my grandkids could see Jesus in their life.
And if you look at this, he has a request. Then he gives the reason for the request. And the last phrase, he gives them the resource, “Having been filled with the fruit of righteousness.” It’s what is called a passive perfect participle for those of you that are English majors.
Passive means the action is upon you; perfect is something that happened in the past that continues on into the future. And what he is saying is: Philippians, it’s a hard world, but let me tell you something. I am praying that you’ll know God like never before. And I’m praying you’ll get it so crystal clear that all the trash and all the temptations that you’ll see: that is not the way I want to go. And that, instead, you will walk with God in such a way, because when you received Christ, the old man died, the Spirit of God came into your life, and the righteousness that He purchased, the fruit of it, this is how God sees you now. And it’s not about trying hard to be a good person. You actually possess the righteousness of Jesus Christ and, by faith, you live out what is already operating in you until the day of Christ, which is when He returns.
And so it’s a deeply theological and personal prayer. You start praying that kind of prayer for people you care about, and your self-pity will go whoo. And your “woe is me” will go whoo. And it won’t just be, some of our prayers are: Oh, God, help them sell their car, help them sell their house, help their back to get better, help this to get better, help.
We think that the, sometimes when we, I listen to myself pray and some of you is that the only goal is that God would make life better or easier. What if the bigger goal is He makes us more like Christ so that we are actually change agents that change everything and everyone around us?
C + P = E. Question is: where is your focus? Okay, in that box, when you think about that box, is your focus upward: God, what do You want to do in and through this? And is it outward: God, how are You going to use me? Or, What is happening in other people’s lives? I’ve got a tough situation, but maybe at work, or maybe the unwed mother, or maybe the lonely person, or maybe a relative, or maybe there is someone I know in this body whose difficulty and challenges…
You get your heart filled with loving other people, and I will tell you – joy! Joy! Not because things got better. It’s because joy is the evidence of Christ’s presence operating freely in your heart. It’s a gift of the Spirit.