“The Grand Scheme of Things”

I pretty much love all varieties of sports (even soccer, just a little bit).  But a sport I’ve never felt any measure of calling to get involved in is that of mountain climbing, though I have his son who lives now in Colorado and who loves all things with sheer elevations!  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. Listen to 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 that advertisement in different words…

“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 crises. 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 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.”

And that is how I am hoping this current sermon series of this Fall season might serve many of you in a similar fashion. Having now been a veteran “mountain man” of learning about following Christ for nearly six decades – perhaps I can pass along to you some mountaineering tips about my high-altitude experiences, good and bad. And indeed, there are peaks and valleys; there are times when you face cliffs that seem insurmountable, even as there are occasions where the vistas are beautiful as you experience God’s goodness and grace.

As I seek to give you my fellow climbers some advice from having assaulted some rock faces ahead of many of you, let me again assert the one particular overarching truth that we’ll come back to, over and over – What God wants from me more than anything else is my total trust, confidence, and rest in Him. And that truth is especially relevant with today’s topic.

For this fourth week and this fourth of eleven topics …

  • Theme – God’s master plan of orchestrating the events of our lives
  • Statement – God has things happen to me, so that things can happen in me, so that things can happen eventually through me. (I did not originate this three-part statement, though I wish I could take credit for it. I’m pretty sure I heard it in a college chapel by a guest speaker … and I think it might have been Stuart Briscoe. But it has stuck with me through the years and given me comfort and perspective, especially in confusing times.)

God does indeed have a grand scheme for our lives, a master plan for us. And I’m telling you, that is a great comfort when you come to believe and understand that. You come to know that the things that are happening to you and around you are never as random as you might think that they are. It is all a part of the symphony of your life that God is composing. Indeed, all things work together for good.

The Apostle Paul, through many highs and lows of his own life, came to understand this truth. And a passage where this is particularly evident is from the beginning of his letter to the Philippians.

Something I have been profoundly impressed with over the years of ministry is the number of people whom I know well and who live with dreadful diseases – all sorts of cancers, ALS, chronic pain syndromes of varied sorts … that kind of thing. And so commonly, these people of faith are among the most joyful and vibrant Christian folks that I have known! One might say that they are “living above their circumstances.”

It was my old Dallas Seminary professor and renowned Bible teacher Howie Hendricks who used to often include in his messages a conversation with a certain Christian acquaintance, where Howie would ask, “How are you doing?” … to which the response would be some version of “Not bad under the circumstances.”  And Howie’s humorous retort would be to say, “Under the circumstances? What are you doing down there?”

The letter to the Philippians rings with a theme of joy. We can have joy in all circumstances, even if we don’t always have happiness. It depends upon our measuring stick. If our measuring device is only limited to the circumstance and events of our immediate physical world, well, we are going to come up short quite a bit. But if our measurement is calibrated in eternal numbers and true realities, we are in possession at ALL TIMES of God’s magnanimous grace and the promise of His eternal relationship with us.

Philippians is a prison epistle – written by Paul while chained to a Roman soldier. But you’d never know it by the joyful tone of his writing.

Yes, God is in control of the grand scheme of things! Even when it doesn’t look like it. And it sure didn’t look like this unjust imprisonment should be happening to Paul at this juncture. There was work to be done in spreading the gospel. He was called as God’s #1 dude to be an apostle to the Gentiles – God’s new and great work in the world. Life is short! And Paul had a bit of a late start. How in the world could this fit into God’s plans?  But it did.

So for this topic I want to talk about how to live above the circumstance, trusting they are also under the control of God. And let’s say three things about “Living Above the Circumstances” from Philippians 1:12-30 …

  1. Living above the circumstances of the persistent problems of life. (12-18)

Problems in this life are rather common, aren’t they?  It really is not a matter of “if” you will have occasional problems, but what perspective should you have “when” you realize that difficulties are a rather persistent hiking and climbing partner in this life.

12 I want you to know, brothers that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

The word used in this passage that speaks of the “advance” of the gospel is actually a military term – used to speak of the advance of an army through difficult or dense terrain.

Maybe Paul has this word come to mind especially at this moment because he is literally chained to a soldier, one of the elite imperial guard – a contingent of 9,000 of the best that Rome had to offer for the most unique situations and demands.

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? Why wouldn’t Paul be downhearted?

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 – his primary life value.

At this time Paul is not specifically in a prison. Actually, he is in his own quarters, again, 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. As I referenced earlier, think along with me of the people – many of whom we’ve known in our TSF church family 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 shone most brightly!  And through those times, God was most evident, and they were oddly most content and at peace.

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 …

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that 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 appears 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 …

  1. Living above the circumstances of the possibility of death. (19-26)

Yes… wrote the word “possibility” … though we like to deny this reality.

Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.

Unlike Paul’s expectation expressed in 2 Timothy that his life was surely near an end, Paul truly does expect to be released on this occasion, though he did not have a specific certainty of that.

We often remark about Paul that he is truly unbeatable. He is happy to live, but if he dies, he’s even happier with that. This is the ultimate win-win scenario.

And 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.

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.

 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

Indeed, 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. There is genuine, palpable 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 … totally beyond the natural way of thinking.

  1. Living above the circumstances of the probability of suffering. (27-30)

Suffering, be it in the category of the sorrows of this fallen world or be it at the hands of those who oppose the gospel and its adherents … this is totally normal, not unusual.

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, 28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents.

This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. 29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, 30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

Suffering is something we all go through.  Most of our lives are spent trying to avoid it.  And for most people, that is what the pursuit of happiness comes down to: maximizing pleasure while minimizing pain.  Paul says there’s something more to live for, something we can’t buy with fashion, techno-devices, or sport utility vehicles.

See, the way we handle suffering says everything about where our hope truly lies.  It’s the reason C.S. Lewis would write that “crises reveal character.”

  • If I am merely a mechanically religious person, suffering will devastate me.  What have I done wrong?  What did I do to deserve this?  Suffering fills me with guilt and shame.  I want to hide from others, lest my suffering be evidence of my wrongdoing.
  • But if I am not a religious person, I’m also devastated by suffering.  Why?  Because it only reveals the arbitrary nature of the universe.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  What kind of God would allow this?  And for these folks who live without biblical enlightenment, there really are no good answers to these questions.
  • For Paul – for us – joy means looking into the face of suffering and recognizing that this world is not all there is.  Death cannot have the final word.  Our life’s purpose can only be fulfilled by enduring, by facing his hardships head-on.

It’s easy to check out when problems overwhelm us, and it can be harder to have an eternal perspective.  None of us can see the future in its detail, but through God’s Word, each of us can see the future as an unending spring of joy.  Joy is magnified in pain—because it points us away from the gifts of this world to the Giver of all gifts. And suffering is a gift – that is the meaning of it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. And, for each of us, suffering becomes a chance to abandon our trust in self and to live each day with a purpose that is eternal.

When we calibrate our earthly sorrows and challenges against the greater spiritual reality, well, we see the smallness of our problems, along the lines of the old hymn that says “and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”

Yes, God allows things to happen to us, so that things can happen in us, so that things can happen through us. It is God’s grand scheme of things. You can trust it, and you can even embrace it.

Week Four Items for Discussion

Can you imagine how the Apostle Paul might have been irritated by his circumstances of imprisonment? Have you felt this way at times where situations just seem unfair and contrary to what you would expect God to be doing and allowing in your life?

As years go by and difficult life experiences accumulate, are you able to also accumulate a sense of God’s sovereign control over those times?  And are you able to even see them as the gift of God to grow your trust and faith in Him?

Do you find that you think about death … perhaps increasingly as years advance?  Even as we inevitably dislike death in reference to those we would leave behind without our help, are you able to view it in any way with excited anticipation?

Have you found opposition to your faith from people in the world who oppose belief in God? Have you even been “persecuted” in some fraction?  Might we anticipate this to increase in the coming years?

Maybe you could put together a complete story of something that happened to you (that you did not like), but that taught you something within that was beneficial, that made it possible for you to serve or reach out to others in a way that would have been impossible without the original difficulty?

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This entry was posted in Reflections on the Christian Life and tagged by Randy Buchman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Randy Buchman

I live in Western Maryland, and among my too many pursuits and hobbies, I regularly feed multiple hungry blogs. I played college baseball, coached championship cross country teams at Williamsport (MD) High School, and have been a sportswriter for various publications and online venues. My main profession is as the lead pastor of a church in Hagerstown called Tri-State Fellowship. And I'm active in Civil War history and work/serve at Antietam National Battlefield with the Antietam Battlefield Guides organization. Occasionally I sleep.

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