The Philippian Prescription

 

SPIRITUAL FORMATION: A LIFELONG LIFESTYLE

Spiritual formation is the dynamic process whereby the Word of God is  applied by the Spirit of God to the heart and mind of the child of God so that he or she becomes more like the Son of God.1

 

"Spiritual Formation is not simply a college course on your academic transcript.  More importantly, much more importantly, spiritual formation is meant to be a lifelong lifestyle." I spoke these words to 184 graduating students on Friday March 27, 2015 when Sheila and I had the privilege of returning to our most recent previous place of ministry service and speaking at the sixtieth graduation ceremony of Pentecostal Bible College in Nyang'ori, Kenya. As I had taught Spiritual Formation seven different times in the PBC classroom between 2008-2013, I wasn't saying anything that these students hadn't heard me say before.

 

I do my best to walk the talk. In spite of the inevitable bumps and bruises, potholes and pitfalls that one encounters along the way of life's journey as we--in John Bunyan's arresting statement which opens his 1678 classic work PILGRIM'S PROGRESS--"walk through the wilderness of this world."2

 

Friday December 22, 2007 is forever etched in my mind as a tide-turning day in my walk with God. I awakened early that morning in, at that time, our Ottawa Valley home for my morning meaningful time with God, as has long been my custom and, literally, within thirty seconds of rising I was doing just the opposite--sinking--as I listened to negative, internal, destructive toxic trash talk that could only have one ultimate dark source, namely the devil, the malicious slanderer, the father of lies and the twister of truth (John 8:44). Out of nowhere--well actually from the very pit of hell--I was blitzed by what I call the unholy-fear-trinity of, namely, future-related fears, financial-related fears and failure-related fears. Have you ever been there? 

 

It was a transitional season in life and ministry. I was vulnerable. I think vulnerability or susceptibility to fear may almost be par for the course during seasons of transition (e.g. Deuteronomy 31:6,7, 23; Joshua 1:6,7,9, 18).  Earlier that year I had resigned as Lead Pastor of Bethel Pentecostal Church in Smiths Falls, Ontario--a great church--and Sheila and I, absolutely convinced that we were following the call of God, had been reappointed for the third time as global workers  with the PAOC to Africa. O happy day!! We indeed were following the call of God and on-the-ground  ministry at Pentecostal Bible College in Nyang'ori, Kenya would prove to be an amazing and fulfilling  seven-year season but that was yet down the road a piece. And so, that December morning back in 2007 was a morning which began with a devilish attack on my heart, my spirit, my mind. The harassing questions, from the crafty, undermining serpent--"Did God really say...?"3--came with blazing, subtle, sneering fury: Will you ever get to Kenya? Will the budget funds really come in? Will this be a good family fit?

 

I had an important and impactful decision to make. Would I receive this poisonous, emotionally paralyzingly and spiritually toxic trash talk or would I reject this poisonous, emotionally paralyzingly and spiritually toxic trash talk? Thankfully--actually thank God--I realized what was happening and within that brief timeframe of thirty seconds I grabbed hold, so to speak, of the shield of faith in order to parry the fiery darts of the enemy of my soul (Ephesians 6:16). It worked! I won! Thank you Jesus! You, by Your indwelling and empowering Holy Spirit enabled me to follow Your amazing example (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-14a). The passage that was impressed upon my heart of hearts by the God of truth from the Word of truth that morning was Philippians 4:4-9, a passage which I have since dubbed the Philippian Prescription.

 

PHILIPPIANS 4:4-9

(4) Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! (5) Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (6) Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (7) And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (8) Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things. (9) Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

 

I, like many, had memorized this passage verbatim many years before. Philippians 4:4-9 was hidden and cherished in my heart of hearts. I had over the years drawn much inward strength through meditating and ruminating on--and reflectively and submissively praying into--this powerful practical passage of Scripture. But that morning was different. That morning was deeper. A quiet dynamism of the Holy Spirit was flowing forcefully within my innermost being as a counter-attack to the blazing fury of the crafty serpent. In a manner of speaking, it was as if God was in a hurry-up offense in my life that December 22, 2007 day and as I sat down on the couch in our quiet living room it was as if spiritual formation in fast-track fashion was taking place in my life. As I prayerfully, leisurely, and carefully meditated on Philippians 4:4-9 while seated there serenity, certainty and stability was imparted to me from God's Spirit-quickened Word and the Holy Spirit's impromptu prescribed passage from God's Word overtook and drove out the insidious and ignominious unholy-fear-trinity of future-related fears, financial-related fears and failure-related fears which had begun to plague me within thirty seconds of awaking that morning...and I've never been the same since! It was truly a tide-turning day! 

 

After a short while, I stepped outdoors and, as was my habit during that season of life, I embarked on a 45-minute to one hour early morning meditative prayer-walk in the cold, crisp winter air. That which Edmond Smith refers to as "true spiritual meditation" has for 35-plus years been a spiritual discipline or spiritual exercise which I deeply value (e.g. Joshua 1:8; Psalm 119:97; Luke 10:39; and Philippians 4:8 with its admonition to "think about such things"). Smith, in his fine book titled A TREE BY A STREAM: UNLOCKING THE SECRETS OF ACTIVE MEDITATION defines and describes "true spiritual meditation" in connection with his comments on Psalm 1:1-3: "The [person] who meditates day and night constantly draws from God's Word. And becomes like a tree by a stream. Water secretly causes the tree to thrive--yet the work of the water is not observable. Meditation is a secret, hidden occupation--it does not go on parade--but the blessing of it becomes apparent and bears fruit. Its fruit is not secret even if its source is. Meditation will lead to a calmness of disposition, a serenity of mind, and a certainty about the ways of God."4 And so as I walked, I prayerfully meditated on Philippians 4:4-9 and nutrients from God's Word--Words which are full of the Holy Spirit and life (John 6:63)--continued to impact and inform me. Preacher that I am--and I never go to the Bible pressurizing myself to find a sermon outline--the Holy Spirit gave me an alliterative homiletical outline which, to my way of thinking, breathes spiritual formation principles of growth and which has stood me (and perhaps a few others along the way) in good stead from that day to this. 

 

1. REJOICE  = verse 4: "Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again: rejoice!"

The noun χαρά (joy) and the verb χαίρω (rejoice) collectively appear a total of fourteen times5 in this brief letter...so these terms--the noun χαρά and the verb χαίρω--coalesce to become, obviously,  a very important theme and thrust of the letter. In  writing this letter, the apostle Paul, as is well known, was in prison (1:12-19). Do prisoners rejoice? Paul did because his outlook and his up-look were not circumstantially based on the temporal but rather Christo-centrically based on the eternal (1:6, 26; 3:20-21).  Paul modeled a Christo-centric-based joyful attitude, as opposed to a world-weary circumstantial-based attitude from the very inception of the Philippian congregation (Acts 16:11-40, but especially 16:25). Back in 1989-1990 we used to sing a joyful testimonial song at Liberia Assemblies of God Bible College, in the early months of the long-lasting civil war that ripped that great country apart, titled GOD NEVER SAID IT WOULD BE EASY. I'm deeply ministered to simply by the title of Tim Hansel's book, and this meshes well with the message of Philippians--YOU GOTTA KEEP DANCIN': IN THE MIDST OF LIFE'S HURTS YOU CAN CHOOSE JOY.6 Our students in Liberia, like Paul, chose joy! 

 

2. REMIND  = verse 5: "Let your gentleness be evident to all.

The Lord is near (εγγύς)." It is a wise and good thing to call to mind the nearness of the Lord. When we are mindful of the fact that the Lord is near it should have a positive, fruit-of-the-Holy-Spirit, impact on our comportment. Here in the text an  awareness of the Lord's nearness on the part of the Christ-follower coupled with a gentle demeanor on the part of the Christ-follower appear to be closely related. Awareness. Nearness. Gentleness. There is some exegetical discussion as to what Paul precisely means by the Lord's nearness. Gerald Hawthorne points out that εγγύς can mean both nearness in space and nearness in time. In other words, the everywhere-present Lord is near His people at all times which is true enough of course, or, the imminent return of the Lord is near in time which is also true enough.  This latter view seems to gain some support from Philippians 3:20-21. At any rate, both Hawthorne and Gordon Fee (who definitely shows some affinity for the eschatological interpretation) leave room for a double entendre on the part of Paul.7 As Hawthorne writes, "Just possibly Paul deliberately chose this particular word, εγγύς, with all its ambiguity precisely to include both ideas of time and space together."8

 

3. REJECT  = verse 6a: "Do not be anxious about anything."

We may define anxiety/μέριμναω  as denoting internal, strength-draining harassment. Do not be anxious. This is quite a tall order to say the least, but we must take God at His Word by endeavoring to walk in the fullness and the richness of this command. It is interesting in that earlier on this very day in which I am presently writing I received a phone call at home from a very godly, mature, seasoned member of our church family here in southern Ontario. I have some knowledge--and empathy of course--for the severe turbulence this family is presently passing through and the endgame so to speak--will it be difficult or will it be delightful?--remains uncertain from the human perspective. This mature saint said to me: "It is wonderful, pastor! Although we are in the middle of a raging storm, we feel God's peace!" Say, what? Say, hallelujah! "I can do, all things through [Christ] who gives me strength (4:13)." "You will keep in perfect peace [shalom, shalom in the Hebrew] those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in You (Isaiah 26:3). There is victory over anxiety! Actually, I have had to reject a little bit of anxiety even as I have been writing this paragraph...as the thought of the article deadline9, in uninvited fashion, intruded into my mind. 

 

4. REQUEST  = verse 6b:"But in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God."

Yes, there is victory over anxiety! The strategy is prayer. This prayer strategy is so pivotally important that Paul employs four different words in this brief discussion of, as early Pentecostals used to say,--and perhaps we should still say--"praying through" to victory! Ralph Martin offers insight on these four words: "[Prayer or] Προσευχή is used of prayer in general...[Petition or] Δεησις gives prominence to the sense of need...[Requests or] Αιτήματα is a word which specifies the content of prayer as the formulating of definite and precise petitions ... [and Thanksgiving or] Ευχαριστία is an important accompaniment of true prayer."10 Hawthorne, reminiscent of the experience of my congregant as mentioned immediately above, cites R. Rainey as compellingly saying, "the only way to be anxious about nothing [is] to be prayerful about everything."11 Wow! I love it. We are to be prayer-driven, God-focused, Bible-based, Christ-centered, Spirit-filled, warriors on our knees! May I also mention that in my own prayer-life I derive significant benefit not only from praying in my native tongue of English, but also through that of praying in other tongues--a supernatural God-given heavenly language--which brings a great sense of internal edification for the outward journey of life (Acts 2:4; Romans 8:26-27; 1 Corinthians 14:4a; Jude 20-21). While glossolalia is not specifically mentioned in our Philippians text, surely praying in other tongues cannot be excluded by this text. It may sound very subjective, but when I pray in other tongues--and I do so very frequently--there are many times in which I have a deep sense in my spirit that the Holy Spirit, for example, is petitioning the Father on my behalf. Hallelujah! And then I could stress the importance of feasting on God through fasting which is an important aspect of prayer which again, though not mentioned specifically in our Philippians text, is, similar to glossolalia, certainly not excluded by this text. Suffice it to say that I have found a regular routine of prayer accompanied by fasting--fasting literally means covering the mouth or forgoing food for the purpose of especially focused prayer--to be extremely advantageous in my walk with God as a man, a husband, a father, and a pastor-teacher. 

 

5.  RECEIVE = verse 7: "And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Back in November 2008  while here in Canada but nearing the end of the fundraising journey to Kenya--I had been back and forth to Kenya four times between January 2007 and November 2008 and we were scheduled to move from Canada to Kenya on December 28--Sheila was suddenly, unexpectedly, and yes, fearsomely diagnosed with breast cancer.  Wow! How did this happen! There was a clean bill of health given not many months previous to my, till that point in time, always healthy wife of, at that time, twenty-six years. We were under siege as it were.  No matter. Facts were facts. There was surgery, There were six cycles of chemotherapy. There were sixteen applications of radiation-therapy...and then we were off to Kenya, with the unanimous approval of Sheila's entire medical team, in September 2009!  However, rewinding to those early days following the out-of-the-blue cancer diagnosis and the initial stalking of fear in predator-like fashion, we fought our way through to day-by-day living peace on our knees and in His Word. As Jack Hayford says, "Prayer is invading the impossible."12 The divinely supernatural, humanly inexplainable peace of God in sentry-like fashion garrisoned (φρουρεω) our hearts and minds day-by-day in prevailing protective custody. 

 

6. REPLACE = verse 8: "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things."

Paul employs eight words--the first six are adjectives and the last two are nouns--to describe a healthy mind...or what we may venture to call the cleansed mind (John 15:3), the renewed mind (Romans 12:2), or, even better yet, "the mind of Christ" (1 Corinthians 2:16b).  In many ways verse eight in our Philippian Prescription is the linchpin of the passage. Mom used to say, and rightly so regarding the physical realm, "Michael, you are what you eat." Here in Philippians 4:8 we can make a strong case regarding the emotional-intellectual realms that--and surely both effect the spiritual realm--"you are what you think." In the words of William Menzies, "Long before our modern psychology and psychiatry, Paul understood the importance of a healthy mind." Indeed! The neuroscientist Daniel Amen, M.D. who has authored a book titled CHANGE YOUR BRAIN, CHANGE YOUR LIFE contends that ANTs--automatic negative thoughts--crawl into our mind, as it were, and that we must learn to "stomp the ants."13 Stomping the ants! This is an imperative. Remove...and...Replace! Get rid of weird thinking and embrace Word-thinking! Isn't this where I began to move from misery to victory early that tide-turning December 22, 2007 morning? 

 

7. RESOLVE = verse 9: "Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me--put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you."

Paul is a pastor worth following. Paul is a mentor worth following. His walk matches his talk (1 Corinthians 11:1; 2 Timothy 3:10-11). By the grace of God and, "God's provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:19) we can absolutely and resolutely put into practice all that Paul has taught us in canonical Philippians, and, for our purposes, especially that which he has taught us in Philippians 4:4-9. I resolved that tide-turning morning over seven years ago that I would do my very best, with the help of the Lord of course, to not allow spiritually poisonous negative, internal destructive toxic self-talk to enter my soul and make inroads into my soul for even thirty seconds! Actually thirty seconds is far too long. Thirty seconds may turn into one minute, one minute into five minutes, and five minutes into an hour. One day. One week. One month. One year. One life. I have read of otherwise successful people who have blown 18 holes on the golf course because of a poor first shot coupled with a worse attitude about the same. It happens in golf. It happens in life. It doesn't have to happen! I have resolved to live by the less than thirty second rule not only on the golf course but also in all of life! I have resolved to immediately replace any unwelcome, intrusive thought that does not pass muster with Holy Scripture with a thought that does pass muster with Holy Scripture. It works!  Have I succeeded? I'm better at it today then I was yesterday.

 

AND FINALLY: Oh, here is an entry from my journal dated Thursday January 3, 2008.

"It is 8:44am. On [Friday] December 22, 2007 the following outline, connected to Philippians 4:4-9, surfaced in my heart: Rejoice, Remind, Reject, Request, Receive, Replace, Resolve." Yes, that tide-turning day I engaged in meditation-saturation of the text. Adding research meat to the devotional bones would come later. The Philippian Prescription! It works! Not just for one day, but for a lifetime! I get it! 

 

Now, when I awaken in the morning, or turn in for the evening--Oh, that is another story for another day, but I think you can connect the dots as to what I'm alluding to by looking at Psalm 65:8b--"Where morning dawns and evening fades, You call forth songs of joy." Hallelujah!

SOLI DEO GLORIA

 

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END NOTES:

1 Gary R. Collins, The Biblical Basis of Christian Counselling for People Helpers (Colorado Springs, Colorado: Nav Press, 2001), 233-134.  Collins is quoting Rowland Croucher.

2 John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Glasgow:  William Collins Sons and Company Limited, 1987), 25.

3 Genesis 3:1 As mentioned in the preceding paragraph, I am simply referring here to the ultimate course of all temptation – the serpent, the devil, the satan.  Space does not allow for an exegesis of what Paul delineates as the flesh (the sin within us), the world (the sin around us) and the devil (the sin beyond us)  in Ephesians 2:1-3.   See Clinton E. Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baher Books, 1997), 32-37.  And also, Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology:  A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1998), 63.

4 Edmond Smith, A Tree By a Stream:  Unlocking the Secrets of Active Meditation (Scotland, Great Britain:  Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 1995, 8-9.

5 χαρά  = 1:4,26; 2:2,29; 4:1

χαίρω  = 1:18 (2x); 2:17,18,29; 3:1; 4:4 (2x), 10

6 Tim Hansel, You Gotta Keep Dancin’: In The Midst of Life’s Hurts, You Can Choose Joy! (Elgin, Illinois:  David C. Cook Publishing Company, 1985)

7 Gordon Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians:  The New International Comments of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Eerdmans, 1994), 407-408.

8 Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians:  Word Biblical Commentary – 43 (Dallas, Texas: Word Incorporated, 1991), 182.

9 An edited version of this article appears in Enrich:  The Leadership Magazine of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada (Summer 2015, 10-13)

10 Ralph P. Martin, Philippians:  Tyndale New Testament Commentaries – Revised Edition (Leicester, England:  Inter Varsity Press, 1987), 171-172.

11 Hawthorne, 183.  Italics added for emphasis.

12 Jack Hayford, Prayer is Invading the Impossible (Bolwark, Great Britain:  Bridge Publishing, 1985).

13 Jack Canfield with Janet Switzer,  The Success Principles:  How to Get from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be (New York, New York:  Harper Collins, 2005), 231-232.

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