I want to begin this sermon by sharing what I think is one of the most amazing promises in all of scripture—it comes from 1 Corinthians. But I have to explain the context first. The church at Corinth was a mess. It was badly divided—over a number of issues. Among other things, the church was split into factions based on which apostle was their favorite: Some said, “I belong to Paul; he’s my guy; he’s the best.” Others said, “No… Forget about Paul. I belong to Apollos! He’s a much better preacher!” Still others said, “I belong to Jesus’ numero uno apostle, Peter himself!” Paul refers to Peter by his Aramaic name, Cephas. So some were saying, “I belong to Cephas! I’m his man.”
With this in mind, listen to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23 and prepare to be blown away:
So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.
In other words, here these church members are, arguing over which apostle they “belong” to. And Paul says, “You don’t get it. You don’t belong to me or Apollos or Peter. If anything, we all belong to you! Because our heavenly Father, in his sovereign grace, is enabling us to serve you and your best interests. Always.”
And God isn’t just using people to serve you… He’s using literally everything in the universe to serve you! Everything that happens to you… everything that God allows to happen to you… is for you… and for your ultimate good.
You may not be able to see it right now, but everything that happens to you, everything that will happen to you in the future—even your own death—it’s all for you… it’s all working out perfectly according to God’s plan for you.
And of course this promise goes along with that more famous promise that God makes in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
But do I really believe that? Because if I do, why do I get so unhappy when I perceive that things are not going “my” way?
I saw this on social media recently, and I had never heard it before: “Success is getting what you want; happiness is wanting what you get.” And in a way, that’s what this sermon is about: learning to want what we receive… from God. In fact, if we could take Paul’s message from Philippians 4 to heart, I believe that this would be the antidote to the sins that commandments eight, nine, and ten—the commandments against stealing, lying, and coveting—are opposed to.
I’m tempted to steal, for instance, because I don’t really believe that God is giving me what I need right now. So I better take matters into my own hands, even if it means sinning… because after all, God isn’t taking care of me!
Or I’m tempted to lie, for instance, because I worry what others will think of me, or what they’ll do to me, if they knew the truth about me. I don’t believe that God will take care of me if I tell the truth… so I better lie.
And as for coveting, don’t get me started… I mean, I should have no complaints about what God has given me; he’s always, always so faithful to me. As Paul says later in Philippians 4:19, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” He’s proven the truth of this verse in my life again and again. Yet in spite of his faithfulness, I often want more than what he has supernaturally supplied me with. Or I want something other than what he’s supplied me with.
Because I compare what I have with what others have—and I worry that I’m not getting my share. In fact, what usually makes me unhappy in my life is not what God has chosen to give me; it’s what he’s chosen to give to others that he hasn’t also chosen to give to me!
How about you?
That is at the heart of what it means to covet.
But to say the least, the apostle Paul is not like me. After all, if Paul were simply comparing what God has given him at the moment he wrote this letter with what God has given to other people, he would have many reasons to be depressed. He’s writing this letter while he’s in prison… And although we can’t be sure which imprisonment this was—Paul was in prison a lot!—most scholars believe that he’s in prison in Rome, that he’s writing these words shortly before his death.
And he’s writing in part to encourage the Philippians because they’re worried about him. They know that Paul was called by God to be the world’s greatest missionary ever and take the gospel to the Gentiles—and now he can no longer do the very thing God called him to do. What a setback in Paul’s life and ministry! That should be very discouraging, right?
Not for Paul! He says in Philippians 1:12, “I want you to know, brothers [and sisters], that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” And he lists a few important ways that God has used even his imprisonment to fulfill his God-given purpose. For example, elite Roman guards are chained to Paul 24/7. And Paul is doing what? Witnessing to them about Jesus. And they’re getting saved, and they’re witnessing to others. And more people are getting saved. And people in the churches are being inspired by Paul’s example of faith and courage in prison, and they’re going out and witnessing more boldly. And more people are getting saved.
So what looks like a setback in Paul’s life and ministry isn’t a setback in God’s eyes. God is using it for good! God is using Paul’s imprisonment to accomplish great things!
This is why Paul can say, in verse 4 of today’s scripture, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Rejoice literally means to find joy, to let yourself experience joy, in all circumstances. Paul is saying we can rejoice always because we always have reasons for joy! God is always giving us reasons for joy!
When we looked at Ephesians chapter 5 last week, I quickly passed over an important verse that relates to these words in verse 4. They have a similar ring to them. And I’m referring to Ephesians 5:20. Paul tells his readers there to “[give] thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To give thanks always and for everything.
How do we give thanks for everything, when clearly bad stuff, painful stuff, evil stuff, happens to us—things we may not wish on our worst enemy? Suppose, for instance, that an hour after composing this letter, Paul was led by prison guards to his own execution—which may have happened for all we know…
But when Paul says, “Rejoice always” and “Be thankful for everything,” don’t you think he’s considered the possibility that very soon he could be killed? Of course he has! You don’t have to turn to it now, but I invite you to read 2 Corinthians chapter 11 for some highlights of the many ways that Paul has suffered. This is not an exhaustive list, either. He writes these words about midway through his ministry! But listen:
Five times he received 40 lashes minus one; three times he was beaten with rods; once he was stoned and left for dead; three times he was shipwrecked; once he was adrift at sea for a night and a day; he was in constant danger from his enemies; at times he was hungry, thirsty, cold, and naked. He was imprisoned on multiple occasions, as I’ve already said.
Paul is no Polyanna when it comes to suffering; he’s no wide-eyed innocent; he isn’t naive. On the contrary, he knows as much about suffering as anyone. So these words, “Rejoice in the Lord always” and “Give thanks always and for everything” have been thoroughly put to the test in Paul’s life. And God has proven to Paul that they are true. Paul knows that in each and every instance of pain and suffering, with every setback, with every obstacle to success, with every crushing disappointment, with every moment of grief, his almighty God was at work, using it to fulfill God’s purpose for Paul, using it to strengthen Paul’s faith, using it to help Paul grow closer to Jesus, using it to enable Paul to experience more and more of Christ!
And as I’ve said before many times, experiencing more and more of Christ is the best thing of all, as Paul himself says earlier in this letter!1
But maybe as you hear me speak these words, you’re not so sure. Life has beaten you up pretty badly. You think, “I don’t see any good in this situation I’m dealing with. I don’t see how God is using this particular setback or disappointment or trial or sickness or suffering for my good.” And I get it.
If so, maybe you’ll find these words from pastor Tim Keller as helpful as I do. In his wonderful book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, Keller discusses chaos theory and the famous “butterfly effect”: According to chaos theory, a butterfly flapping its wings in China “would be magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.”
Do you get the picture? Something as seemingly insignificant as a butterfly can have enormous consequences in our world.
Now, if even the effects of a butterfly’s flight… are too complex to calculate, how much less could any human being look at the tragic, seemingly “senseless” death of a young person [for instance] and have any idea of what the effects in history will be? If an all-powerful and all-wise God were directing all of history with its infinite number of interactive events toward good ends, it would be folly to think we could look at any particular occurrence and understand a millionth of what it will bring about.
In other words, none of us can begin to understand all the million reasons why God allows something to happen—but God can. So we trust him.
Keller continues: “Certainly many evils seem pointless and unnecessary to us—but we are simply not in a position to judge.”2
And just in case you think Keller is some kind of wide-eyed innocent himself, who doesn’t know about suffering, he was diagnosed last year with pancreatic cancer. He’s responding well to the treatment so far—but obviously pancreatic cancer is about as serious and deadly as cancer gets. But listen to what he posted on Instagram not long ago. He is speaking for himself and his wife, Kathy:
Our situation has driven us to seek God’s face as we never have before. He is giving us more of his sensed presence, more freedom from our besetting sins, more dependence on his Word—things that we had sought for years, but only under these circumstances are we finding them.
Only under these circumstances… Does Keller have reasons to rejoice even in the midst of his pancreatic cancer? Can he even be thankful for… cancer?
Please don’t throw rotten tomatoes at me, but it sounds like Tim Keller would say “yes.” Doesn’t it?
Think about it: even if this cancer ends up killing him—and let’s face it, it might… Keller himself won’t be complaining—because his death means he’ll receive more of the greatest thing imaginable… more of what he’s already living his life for… more of that thing he wants more than anything else… more of Jesus! That’s not a bad trade-off, right?
And I say these words as the biggest wimp imaginable. I don’t want to get pancreatic cancer to prove whether God is telling the truth in his Word. But who am I kidding? I live in a fallen world in which getting pancreatic cancer is a real possibility for me or for any one of us. So I’m telling you right now that if God allows me to get pancreatic cancer, I want you to see me—and I especially want non-believers to see me—facing this cancer with unshakable faith, with supernatural courage, with supernatural strength, and—as Paul says in verse 7—with supernatural peace, which surpasses all understanding.
But I get it: these words only make sense if what we want more than anything else in the world is Jesus—and the heavenly treasure that Jesus promises to give us now and in eternity. If our hearts are set on some treasure other than Jesus, I can’t help you… the gospel of Jesus Christ is not for you.
Look at Philippians 4:12: Paul writes, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.”
Please note: Paul says, I have “learned the secret of facing plenty… and abundance.” Wait… the “secret of facing plenty and abundance”?
Most of us hear these words and think, “I don’t need to learn the secret of facing plenty and abundance.”
I mean, sure, I need to know the secret of facing hunger and need…
If I’m ever hungry or in need, for example, it would be helpful to remember Jesus’ telling me, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”3
Or “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”4
Or “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”5
“So, sure, Paul… You’re right. I need to know the secret of facing hunger and need. And that secret is, of course… Jesus. By all means! But I can manage okay when I’m facing plenty and abundance.”
But do you see the problem? We risk making Jesus the “consolation prize” for not having plenty and abundance! And since the vast majority of people hearing me speak these words already have “plenty and abundance”—myself included—we risk living our lives as if we don’t need Jesus. And we risk living our lives as if “plenty and abundance” are better than Jesus! Jesus is just a consolation prize!
You’ve got to admit that’s a huge temptation for us, right? No wonder Proverbs 30:8-9 say, “Give me neither poverty nor riches. Feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’”6
I know none of us is denying Jesus with our words, but how are we denying him through our thoughts and attitudes and actions? The secret to facing “plenty and abundance” is believing that Jesus is infinitely better than plenty and abundance!
Now I have a confession…
When I’ve preached this scripture in the past, I haven’t paid adequate attention to what Paul says in verse 6: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words I’ve preached it as if the most important take-away from this scripture is simply to remember the doctrine of God’s sovereignty and providence: that God is in control; that he has a plan and purpose for everything we go through; that nothing will prevent him from fulfilling his purpose for us.
And I just love that doctrine. I do find it immensely comforting to know that no matter what I’m facing, God has a reason for allowing me to face it, and that reason is ultimately good. That’s music to my ears.
But not so fast, Brent…
By all means, God is sovereign over this world, and God is working his plan and purpose for our lives. But… how God works his plan and purpose in our lives depends, in part, on us! Do you see that in verse 6: in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God.
So even as we’re trusting God in everything, we are also “letting our requests be made known to God”… in everything. If we’re going to obey God’s Word here, that means we don’t simply say, “Well, God’s in control. Nothing I can do about it. I’m just supposed to accept that whatever happens is what God wants for my life.”
Are you kidding? What God wants is for you to get on your knees and fight for what you want—what you think is best, what you think you need, what you think others need, and what you think would bring glory to God!
In everything, Paul says, tell God what you need.
God is in control—he has a plan and a purpose—but how God works out that plan and purpose will take into consideration our prayer requests. God will do things for us when we ask him that he won’t otherwise do!
Or as the apostle James said, “You do not have, because you do not ask.”7
My wife, Lisa, gets this better than I do. I’ve told some of you that I have a first cousin who is just a few years older than me, and he’s literally dying of covid. Or at least he appears to be! He’s been on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma for two months. And it just seems so hopeless. And I told Lisa, “I don’t think I have the faith to believe that God is going to work a miracle at this point, so I’m praying that God would just comfort him and bring him safely home.”
And Lisa is like, “Not me! I’m asking God for a miracle! I’d rather pray boldly and risk being disappointed.”
And even since we had that conversation a couple of weeks ago, my cousin has actually shown signs of improvement, for the first time!
I want y’all to pray boldly like that!
Paul wants his Philippian readers to pray boldly like that!
Let me show you one more thing: If you have your Bibles—and you should—turn a few pages back to Philippians chapter 1, verse 18: Paul writes, “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ”—notice that: through your prayers… “this will turn out for my deliverance, 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.”
Paul is confident that he will continue to be successful in fulfilling his mission in part “through the prayers” of the Philippians! In other words, he’s saying, “If you don’t pray for me, I may not be successful. My success depends, in part, on your prayers.”
Isn’t that astonishing? Our prayers make a difference!
A few weeks ago, it was my birthday weekend. Lisa and I were at the beach. And as I was having my quiet time the day after my birthday, I checked my voice mail. I had missed a message from the day before. It was my mother-in-law, Anna Lee, singing “Happy Birthday” to me. That’s one thing that my own mother did for me literally every year: She would call and sing “happy birthday.” So I was reminded of my mom. And… in case you don’t know, Anna Lee has advanced Parkinson’s, so it’s not easy for her to do things like sing “Happy Birthday.” Her voice is very faint, very weak, very scratchy.
So I heard this message at the exact moment I happened to be reading scripture about experiencing joy in the Lord. And I felt prompted by the Spirit to write these words in my journaling Bible on February 19:
I got a voice mail from Anna Lee, who sang “Happy Birthday” to me—even through her infirmity brought on by Parkinson’s. I feel very confident that I wouldn’t know the joy in the Lord that I know apart from her prayers for me [over the years… She is a prayer warrior!]. Can I even comprehend how faithful in her prayers she has been for me? [Her prayers for me have made me a better person.]
It convicts me that I need to be faithful in prayer for others, that they, too, would experience the joy of Christ!
If I’m going to be faithful to what Paul says here in Philippians 4, I need to pray a lot more often. Not just at the beginning or the end of the day as I have quiet times, or at mealtimes or in church. I need to pray throughout the day as my specific circumstances change. If I want to avoid breaking commandments 8 through 10, I need to do this: Every time I start to feel stress or worry or anxiety or anger or jealousy or resentment, I need to take that as a cue… from God: “Brent, stop what you’re doing and make your requests known to God!”
So I beg you, brothers and sisters, please do the same. Amen?