As with other devotionals prior to this one on weeks that I have presented the sermon, this post is essentially a transcript of the message. Those who attended and heard the content may find it to have value in reinforcing the concepts covered, whereas the 50% or so of those on vacation each summer Sunday may find this to keep them in the flow of this Counterintuitive series.
Many of you may likely recall Frank Minirth from Christian radio of the past, particularly the Minirth/Meier Clinic broadcast. Frank was an internationally-known psychiatrist, author, and radio personality. His successful medical practice was distinguished by integrating Christian principles into mental healthcare. He was the author or co-author of over 100 books, including the best-sellers Happiness Is a Choice, Love Is a Choice, and How to Beat Burnout.
When I was at Dallas Theological Seminary over 35 years ago, Frank was an adjunct professor whom I sat under for a couple of classes relative to Christian counselling. (No, I’m not a counsellor!) A native of Arkansas, Frank was sometimes a bit difficult to understand, even in the neighboring state of Texas with its own peculiar twang.
One day he was praying to begin the class session, and he finished his prayer by saying, “… and so Lord, help us to die, in Jesus name, Amen.” All of the guys around me looked at each other and whispered, “What did he just say? Help us to DIE?” And finally, one of the guys said, “Oh, that’s just his accent; he said, ‘Help us TODAY!’” And we all cracked up laughing, causing the famed psychiatrist at the front to quietly psychoanalyze why this unruly group of students in the back of the room was laughing at his prayer!
Dying is not something we would like a lot of help getting accomplished! But the Scriptures often speak very positively about death. And that is a surprise. Being content about dying is what we might call “counterintuitive” by definition: counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way.
A summary thought to lead into today’s topic is this: We want to cling to life in this world and grasp onto it for as long as possible, yet the better world and greater life is yet to come by being with the Lord.
This dying thing – I’m pretty sure this is something everyone thinks about a lot more than most anyone admits, particularly as one ages. But the Scriptures tell us to not fear this at all, rather it is something to anticipate positively. Yet, in the meantime, there is work to be done for the spread of the gospel through us and the gifts we’ve been given, as we work together to build the Kingdom.
This is an attitude that is very different than what is the mindset of the person of this world who does not have the eternal comfort of a relationship with Christ. This was very evident in an article that came out this past week, being referenced by a number of media personalities.
The article was published on the cutting-edge website called “Medium.com”. Written by professor and technological futurist Douglas Rushkoff, it was entitled “How Tech’s Richest Plan to Save Themselves after the Apocalypse.”
The author was given the equivalent of one-half year’s professorial salary to come speak to a group of Silicon Valley people at an elite location on the future of technology. But upon getting there, he found out that he was actually being paid by a group of only five extremely wealthy hedge-fund managers to answer their personal questions about their fears of the future.
The group was concerned about the demise of the planet due to climate issues and other manmade calamitous possibilities, asking about where and how they could best survive a doomsday scenario they are rather sure is inevitably going to happen. Where would the best location be for a compound – Alaska, or Australia? But then, how could they manage their compound successfully relative to the outside world?
The author wrote … “They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers – if that technology could be developed in time.”
Truly these elitists – men who are the most materially successful of all on the planet – are yet bankrupt and empty when it comes to the reality of true life. They are literally “godless.” And therefore, their solutions could come only from the material world, hoping that the morally neutral world of technology could save them, even at the expense of all others.
Truly, this is hopelessness at its highest level. It is the ultimate end of the road for the human mind in a sinfully fallen and lost world. But even we who know Christ and have the intellectual certainty of eternal hope, we too – being human – have an aversion to death. And on one hand, rightly so – it is the great enemy. Yet there is a perspective we should have that is bigger … transcendent … we might even say “counterintuitive” to the natural way of thinking.
The Apostle Paul especially had this way of thinking, this mindset that is so “other worldly” and beyond the normative flesh and mind. And we see this thinking particularly well-stated in his letter to the Philippians.
As always when turning to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we remind ourselves that this is a “prison epistle.” Paul is penning these words while literally being chained personally to a Roman guard. In the first chapter, after Paul’s warm greeting of affection for the recipients, expressing his confidence in God’s good work in their lives and lifting a prayer for them, he begins to reflect on his own circumstances in verse 12 …
And the first thing we will see today from this passage is this …
- Bad Circumstances Can Have Positive Outcomes (12-14)
To the most common question asked between people – “How are you?” – we have often answered or heard the response, “Oh, not bad I suppose, under the circumstances.” Another of my seminary professors – the late, well-known conference and radio speaker Howie Hendricks – was famous for mocking that answer by saying, “Under the circumstances? What are you doing down there?”
Indeed, the letter of Paul to the Philippians could be subtitled, “Living Life Above the Circumstances.”
Philippians 1:12 – Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
Everyone knew that Paul was not a prisoner because he was a criminal; rather, it was because of his outspoken witness for Christ. And so, it would be logical for the Philippians to have a concern that Paul would be very discouraged by this turn of events, sending Pastor Epaphroditis and a financial gift. After all, is it not terribly discouraging when you do something good and out of genuinely kind intention, only to be falsely accused in a public way – perhaps with others believing the errant story about you?
But Paul was not discouraged, quite the contrary. He says that the circumstances had eventuated toward greater good in terms of the advance of the gospel.
At this time, Paul is not specifically in a prison. Actually, he is in his own quarters, though having a Roman Praetorian Guard fastened to him. We can surely imagine the conversations. It is rather clear from all we know of the life of the Apostle Paul that he did not lack for being anything but a chatty fellow! So, who was really the prisoner?
The result was that conversations with these guards on their shifts resulted in many of them, along with those of their extended relationships, coming to a saving faith in Christ. Though Paul was unable to go out to the crowds, God was not limited in bringing the crowds to him!
An additional positive impact and effect was that this obvious work of God’s grace through him was encouraging the local believers in Rome to also be confident in God’s power to work through them in proclaiming the gospel. The church there was growing and expanding. There was a multiplication principle at work. This was amazing!
And the lesson for us is clear. Though it is natural to believe that bad circumstances thwart the larger purposes of our lives, God is able to use them bigger … because HE is bigger! He is ABOVE the circumstances.
But it’s true. Think of the people – many of whom we’ve known in this body in recent years – who went through difficult circumstances, even the valley of the shadow of death. But it was in those times where their lives and their faith most shone brightly! Through those times, God was most evident, and they were oddly most content and at peace. We might even say that it was all rather counterintuitive as to what might be expected!
But here now is why life circumstances don’t get the believer in Christ down and out …
- The Advance of the Kingdom is Bigger than our Circumstances (15-18)
Many of you who are close to me know and have heard me say that there is nothing much in life that gives me more joy than to be working outside on my country property – cutting grass, trimming trees, fighting back to reclaim the forest behind my house where my family of foxes lives. I say that, but honestly, after a day or two of that work, I’m ready to get out again and see people and be involved somehow in something that has greater impact and purpose.
We all need to think about living for something that is bigger than ourselves. And that something is the gospel message of the Kingdom of God, as Paul writes …
Philippians 1:15 – It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
Paul speaks here of the various factions of those who were preaching the gospel. He can’t be speaking here about the Judaizers who promoted the works salvation stuff of depending upon the Old Testament keeping of the Law – something that Paul called “another Gospel.” Here it would seem that the message is not substantially different, though the motivations of those doing it were questionable. Some of them were likely able to gain more of a following by drawing people toward them and away from that jailbird named Paul.
This was annoying, at least. But Paul steps back from it by saying, But what does it matter? … Christ is preached. Paul is maintaining here the bigger picture. So, this sort of thing happened then, and it happens today. I’ve lived to see it – the building of personal kingdoms around eternal truth. Yep, it’s annoying. But here now I’ve learned more in my 60s (easier than in my 30s) to just overlook the motivations more and more and have the bigger picture in mind.
And that is the takeaway point for all of us. There is something that is SO MUCH bigger than ourselves and our lives. The message of the gospel is more important than anything else. And when we are sold out to that, other things tend to fall into place, and we can depend upon God’s goodness to give us a sufficiency of living. Here the is a major takeaway point for us today …
“Our contentment in life is inextricably tied to our commitment to gospel participation.” ….. to having our priorities aligned with God’s top priority.
But you might say, “Yeah, but… but… but… sometimes people are really committed to truth and yet it doesn’t work out so well for them personally. Like, people are daily martyred in places around the world because of their faith. And yes, some people are powerful testimonies in their dying days, but… but… they’re like very, very dead right now!” Here’s the divine perspective on that …
- Living or Dying; It’s All a Win-Win Situation (18-26)
Unlike Paul’s second letter to Timothy where he knows the end of his life is near, here to the Philippians there is a more positive tone. Paul really believes he is going to be released, though it is not a certainty … as we read …
Philippians 1:18 – Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.
I love all sorts of sports (even soccer, but only just a little bit). But, a sport I’ve never felt any measure of calling to get involved in is that of mountain climbing. I really don’t mind heights, but are you kidding me? There is no way that hanging by your fingernails on the side of a mountain makes any sense at all! That truly is treacherous!
However, there are a lot of similarities between the venture of journeying through life and the venture of mountaineering. Look at what this advertisement says, coming from a company marketing mountain climbing equipment…
“Mountaineering can be fun, and relatively safe. Much depends on your level of expertise, partner, and choice of route. There are some potential objective hazards over which you have no control, such as weather, falling rock, and unseasonably late snow. What can stack the cards in your favor, however, is arming yourself with the right gear. It’s true, mountain climbing has become easier in the past decade, with sport-specific technology producing lighter, more efficient equipment. Lightweight helmets, mountaineering axes, and harnesses shave pounds off the weight of traditional gear, making it easier to feel like a climber rather than a pack mule.”
Let me see if I can rewrite the above advertisement in different words… about living life …
“The journey of life can be fun, and relatively safe. Much depends upon your level of experience in walking with your partner – Jesus Christ – and the route you take in terms of the priorities of your life. There are some potential objective hazards over which you have no control, such as diseases, natural disasters, and unexpected events. What can stack the cards in your favor, however, is arming yourself with the Word of God. It is true, the journey of life has become potentially easier given the abundance of resources available in recent years. With lightweight tech devices, podcasts, study Bibles, and audio and video resources that ease the burdens of understanding the weighty truths of Scripture, it is easier for the believer to feel like a real champion in this life instead of a mere survivor.”
It is good for us to rightly calibrate our expectations for the inevitable sorrows and circumstances of life, even of losing one’s life. I fear that too many of us as Christians fail to have an appropriate balance in this regard, viewing life rather in terms that are too negative and too much expecting that everything should always go swimmingly well for us.
Yes, there is great reason for joy in this world – our excitement at the prospect of living in this world as an ambassador of the King of Kings. And beyond that, even with the worst thing that can happen, we can see it as the best thing, to personally live in the Kingdom.
You’ve got to love the perspective of the Apostle Paul… Philippians 1:21 – For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
So what do you do with a person like this? He is happy to live, because that means the joy of a life lived with God. But if the worst thing that could happen, happens – death… that is even better yet! Because, to die means being with the Lord! That is a great perspective. Win-win!
And Peter also has the same great idea… “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8,9) He rightly notes that we are even now, here in this fallen world, beginning to receive the joy of all that comes from the salvation of our souls.
It may be counterintuitive, but that’s how truth is in a dark and fallen world.