How to Think and Do Beautiful in the Midst of Terrible

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In his book To End All Wars, Ernest Gordon, native of Scotland, describes his three-and-a-half-year experience in Japanese prison camps in World War II. He was twenty-four when he was taken as a prisoner to Chungkai along with thousands of other military prisoners who were forced to build what became known as the railroad of death. He watched fellow prisoners be tortured, shot, drowned, decapitated, starved, and refused medical care. The images here are taken from a movie that I have not seen. I’m describing the book. But most of the men in the camp had malaria, dysentery, worms. Waves of other sicknesses like cholera came through the camp. All were malnourished. Death was everywhere, every day. But Gordon described something in the book that was even worse. He writes,

“As conditions steadily worsened, as starvation, exhaustion, and disease took an ever-increasing toll, the atmosphere in which we lived became poisoned by selfishness, hate, and fear. We were slipping rapidly down the slope of degradation.”

And as hope declined, selfishness soared. He described it as

 “the law of the jungle became a way of life.”

Every man looked out for himself. The sick were ignored or resented because they couldn’t work. The dead were exploited for a belt or a blanket. Gordon writes,

“When a man lay dying, we had no word of comfort for him.”

Gordon was an atheist at the time.

“When he cried, we averted our heads. Men cursed the Japanese, their neighbors, God. Cursing became such an obsession that they constructed whole sentences in which every word was a curse.”

He continues,

“Many had prayed, but only for themselves. Nothing happened. They sought personal miracles — and none had come. They had appealed to God as an expedient. But God had apparently refused to be treated as one. We had long since resigned ourselves to being derelicts. We were the forsaken men — forsaken by our friends, our families, by our government. Now even God seemed to have left us.”

In this place of hopelessness, Gordon descended even further. He contracted diphtheria; so, now he could no longer walk, which meant he could no longer work, which meant he was taken to the hospital. The hospital was a place not to get better, but to die. It was known as the Death House. It was built on a sea of mud. It was teeming with bedbugs, lice, flies, and the smells of excrement and rotting flesh dominate. Soon Gordon didn’t even realize he was dying. He was too weak to care, too delirious to try to survive. His six-foot-two, two-hundred-pound muscular frame had deteriorated to a sack of bones, barely breathing.

And at this point, Gordon’s story should have ended. But for the miracle on the River Kwai. The miracle was not just that Gordon lived but that hope lived. Several Christian prisoners refused to live by the law of the jungle. They practically forced Gordon to live. They nursed him back to health. They thought, lived, and often quoted passages like John 15:12,

“This is my commandment that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”

And many did.

And the love and the sacrifice began to be contagious. Several men had smuggled Bibles into the camp, and Bible studies started popping up throughout the camp. Soon, there were church services. Teams of men began to volunteer to massage the legs of the amputees. And not long after, there were crews fabricating primitive artificial legs so the amputees could walk again. Professionals from various backgrounds began to offer classes in the middle of this death camp. Listen to the description Gordon gives.

“The curriculum, for those circumstances, was amazingly varied. Courses were offered in history, philosophy, economics, mathematics, several in the natural sciences, and at least nine languages, including Latin, Greek, Russian, and Sanskrit. The faculty was handicapped by a shortage of textbooks, but they were not deterred. They wrote their own, from memory, as they went along. Language instructors compiled their own grammars on odd scraps of paper.”

Somehow a shipment from the international YMCA made it to the camp. And in the shipment, they found several musical instruments. So, they, with those instruments, along with many others they made out of materials from the jungle, began holding concerts. Their prison guards were invited. And they would host these concerts put on by the POWs. Soon … Yes, they were still in a prison camp, and prisoners were still dying, but soon the atmosphere had completely changed. Hope, yes, even forgiveness dominated the camp, and it began to spread. By Christmas 1943, over two thousand POWs gathered to sing and take communion in the midst of one of the most terrible prison camps in history.

This prison, I believe, is a microcosm of life. Of course, the worst of life was amplified, and the best of life was minimized, but it raises a very important question for us. How can anyone think about and practice what is beautiful in the middle of what is terrible. How do you think and do beautiful in the middle of terrible?

This actually is our calling as followers of Jesus. Look at Philippians 4:8,

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there’s any excellence, if there’s anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me–practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Two main commands here — think, practice. Think about these things. What things? True things. Honorable things, just, pure, lovely, commendable things. Not ugly things, not angry things, not immoral things. Beautiful things. Think about these things.

Practice. Practice. “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” Practice what has been modeled and taught by the apostles recorded for us by the Spirit Jesus sent to write his Word so that thousands of years later, we can do what Paul called his followers to do — to think about and to practice these things.

Some of us might be thinking, “Yeah, Paul, that’s easy for you to say. Think and do. I’ll get right on that. But you don’t know what I grew up in, and you don’t know what I face every day.” And maybe not. But don’t forget where Paul was when he wrote those words. He describes it in this book. He was in chains, in prison, with fleas, and lice, bedbugs, the smell of excrement and rotting flesh. And in that terrible situation, he is calling to think about beautiful things and practice beautiful living as modeled and taught by Jesus through his disciples.

Now, why is this so important for us as we begin this new year? Let me just give you a couple of reasons. One is personal. This is a passage that God has — God has used many — but another passage that God has used in a big way in my heart and Karen’s heart during this cancer journey.

Secondly, culturally as a church, this is Paul’s way of saying exactly what Peter said in 1 Peter. As we learned last year, Christian mindfulness is not contingent on circumstances being perfect.

And third, culturally, we are repeatedly told today that for our mental health to flourish, for our lives to flourish, we need to get ourselves out of any negative situation, away from any negative people, and create a cocoon of positive energy where we can experience joy and peace. And I can’t imagine a more precarious way to live because you will live constantly with the fear that someone’s going to invade your cocoon. And on the same days, you’re going to realize that my problem isn’t just out there with you. My problem is in my cocoon, too. And my cocoon can quickly turn into a coffin if I entomb myself to protect myself from you.

There’s got to be a better way. That’s what Paul is describing here — a better way. So, how do I think and do beautiful in the midst of what might be terrible. I’ve wrestled with this question you know, it’s easy to look at those commands and go, “Okay, Paul, this year I’m rolling up my sleeves, I’m setting some New Year’s resolutions, and I’m going to do it! Every day — think and do beautiful.” And we know how well that goes. But what is fascinating to me about this passage, the more I wrestle with that question, the more I think Paul answered that question right before he issued those commands.

So, let’s look at the passage just before he calls us to think and do. And you’re going to see some commands embedded in some promises that summarize his whole book, Letter to the Philippians, and answer the question “how do you think and do beautiful in the midst of terrible?” And let’s do it by raising three questions.

First, where am I turning for joy? Where am I turning for joy? Verse 4,

“Rejoice in the Lord always.”

Rejoice in the Lord when? Always.

“Again I will say, rejoice.”

This is not a command to put on a sappy Christian smile, even when you feel like cussing. It’s something much deeper than that. Paul described in chapter 3 the fact that where we find our joy reveals where we put our trust. Rejoice in the Lord, in his steadfast love, in his sacrificial love, in his presence, not in your health, not in your family, not in your job, not in your car, not in your clothes, not in your friends, not in your ministry. All those things can be things of joy if they are not made into fake gods, as if they in and of themselves can provide joy. No, they can be received with joy when they’re the overflow of the one who is joy. Rejoice in the Lord. Rejoice in the Lord. That’s another way of saying “trust in the Lord, rely on the Lord.” He is the source of our joy.

George Mueller, the 19th century pastor famous for his orphan care, describes joy in the Lord as

“of supreme and paramount importance.”

He writes,

“But in what way shall we attain to this settled happiness of soul? How shall we learn?”

And I love the fact that he says “learn” because some of us still think you’re just going to wake up one day and be a happy Christian. George Mueller disagrees. As we’ll see later, Paul disagrees.

“How shall we learn to enjoy God? How obtain such an all-sufficient, soul-satisfying portion in him as shall enable us to let go of this world as vain and worthless in comparison?”

Now, this is a very important question before we see the answer to the question.

A little background on Mueller — his father was an unbeliever, mother died when he was fourteen, in prison at sixteen. He was a thug, a thief, getting in trouble constantly. The Lord saved him and began to change him and began to satisfy his soul. So, I want to know how. He goes on to give the answer.

“I answer, this happiness is to be obtained through the study of the Holy Scriptures.”

Now stop. Someone thinks, “Oh! I thought it was going to be something cool or mysterious!” Keep listening. “God has therein revealed Himself unto us in the face of Jesus Christ.”

So, each morning, Mueller got up early before he took care of … They took care of tens of thousands of orphans … Before he did any of that, he prayed his way through the Word of God. He said that in his lifetime, he knows he read through the Bible over one hundred times. When he was seventy-six, he said this.

“I saw more clearly than ever that the first great and primary business to which I ought to attend every day was to have my soul happy in the Lord. [He writes], The more we know of God, the happier we are.”

Now, let me clarify. Who knows more about God, you or Satan? Satan. He’s been around much longer. He’s probably smarter. If we’re just merely talking about facts about God, he could win a theology test, exam, trivia, Bible trivia, whatever. But Mueller’s not talking about that. What he’s talking about is a relational knowledge. Yes, it’s vital that we know facts about God as we read his Word. But have you ever known someone and then you went through something with them, maybe a difficult struggle, or you tackled up a project together, and throughout that project or that struggle, you got to see aspects of that person that you would have never known? Now, with humans, the more we get to know each other, sometimes it’s not always great. We’ll see things that aren’t that attractive, but with God, the more you get to know him — what Mueller’s saying — and truly know him, the happier your heart is because he is so beautiful, so worthy, so pure, so loving! Everything about him stirs our hearts like nothing else when we really see him as he is. That’s what Mueller’s talking about.

Our father will use trials, struggles, conflicts to relocate our joy from things that are insecure to the one who is secure. Some of you may be saying, “Well, right now I’m not in any major trials.” Well, praise God. It’s not something to apologize for. It’s actually a good thing. Paul said I know how to be abased. I know how to go down. But I also know how to go up. And there are seasons of our lives where things are humming. So, what do we do then? One of the things, there are many things we do, but one is utilize the gifts God has given us that help relocate that joy even in times of prosperity. How do we think and do beautiful in the midst of beautiful?

Well, let me give you one example — fasting. When we fast from food, one of the things we’re saying is, “God, I love the fact that you give me my daily bread, but I’m acknowledging that there is no permanent joy in a burger, and I’m willing to set that aside today to seek your face, to experience discomfort as a reminder you are better. You are better than a burger.” And that may sound funny in church, but when you’re fasting, it doesn’t sound funny. Wow! I look forward to food way more than I realized I look forward to food, or your phone or social media or whatever the Spirit leads you to fast in order, not to earn a favor or try to work your way to God. No, no, no, no! Only by grace through Christ. But because you’re saying, “God, I want you to relocate my joy to you, the one who is the true source of real joy, that can produce joy in the middle of a prison camp or a prison.” So, where am I turning for joy?

Number 2, who am I waiting for? Now I know it’s supposed to be “for whom am I waiting?” But we generally don’t talk that way, and I got permission from my wife to say it wrong — special moment. Who am I waiting for? Verse 5,

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.”

The Lord is that hand. Now, “the Lord is that hand” could be interpreted spatially or temporally, spatially meaning he is at hand in the sense of he is near now, referring to his first coming, Emmanuel, God with us. Or temporarily, referring to his second coming, “the Lord is at hand,” in the sense of his return, his second coming is near. And I’ve wrestled with this so much. You can go both ways because the context, if you look back a few verses, chapter 3, verse 20 has the second reference to the second coming.

“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

Now, in short, I believe it’s referring to both. He is near now. He is coming soon. He is near now like Gregg talked about last Thanksgiving, Matthew 28:20.

“I will never leave you. I will never forsake you. I am with you even to the end of the age.”

He is near now, but he’s coming soon to right all wrongs and bring about perfect justice.

Now, here’s the key to this verse. What is the connection between his nearness and our relationships with one another? Look again at verse 5.

“Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.”

Now reasonableness is a really difficult word (we’ve talked about in the past) to translate because it captures two big ideas — a rational idea and a courtesy or “gentleness and reasonableness.” You could translate this “a thoughtful kindness, a willingness to defer,” but not by being obsequious or a doormat. It is a thoughtful kindness, and this kind of rational courtesy flows from an awareness of the nearness of Jesus. He is with me, and he is coming soon to right all wrongs. So, I don’t have to pretend to be large and in charge. Does that make sense? To help us, let me give you an extreme example of the opposite of what Paul is talking about.

Jeremy has been diagnosed borderline personality disorder. Listen to the way he describes how he does relationships.

“When I can’t control my surroundings. I become nervous and angry. It gets much worse when I am under stress. When triggered, I can go from perfectly calm to full-blown, white-hot rage within a fraction of a second. I think that my temper comes from the abuse I suffered when I was a child. At some point, I decided I didn’t have to take my parents’ abuse anymore. Raging back became a matter of survival. So now, it’s hard for me to feel concerned about the other person’s feelings — in fact, I want them to hurt because they’ve hurt me. I know this sounds bad, but that’s the way I feel when I’m in the middle of an outburst. I’m just trying to survive the best way I know how.”

Now, what does that have to do with our question “who am I waiting for?” Think about it. Who is Jeremy waiting for? Nobody, right? He’s waiting for himself to get things under control. I need to take out you before you take out me. I need to threaten you, intimidate you so that you don’t intimidate me. Who am I waiting on? I’m waiting for me. I learned that as a little child. I have to look out for me. In many ways, you understand, right, just like you understand a group of soldiers in a prison camp living by the law of the jungle. It makes sense. Fight to survive. Take out the weak. They’ll take you down. It’s the way the world operates.

But, what if the Lord is at hand? What if you’re waiting for him? By waiting I don’t mean passivity, but I mean, what if you’re dependent on his presence, near now and coming soon? So, when there are injustices that you can’t make right, you still live with the confidence one day he will, he will. I don’t have to freak out. I don’t have to go through life picking fights, intimidating people, manipulating people. Do you see the connection? Who am I waiting for? He is near now; he’s coming soon.

Third question, what am I doing with my anxieties? Paul goes on to say in verse 6,

“Do not be anxious about anything.”

Let’s pause there. Have you noticed that’s the third all-inclusive statement he’s made in three short sentences?

Quick review. When should we rejoice? Rejoice always. Let your reasonableness be known to whom? Everyone. I know we’re all thinking of individuals who don’t deserve our reasonableness. Paul is saying “no, what I’m describing here is not what you do just on Sunday. It’s an all-inclusive way of living, a way of life to think and do what is beautiful in the midst of what is beautiful or terrible.”

Well, look at the third all-inclusive statement. “Do not be anxious about anything.” The word anxious … The Greek word is “merimnao” — “anxious, distracted, concerned.” It’s a word that literally means “to pull apart or divide,” like being drawn and quartered by four horses, going in four different directions and your body being ripped apart. That’s how some of us feel when we are anxious. Figuratively it means to go to pieces. Yet, what’s confusing to me about this word is it’s used in positive and negative ways.

A couple of positive examples — two chapters earlier in Philippians 2:20,

“For I have no one like him [that is Timothy] who will be genuinely marimnao, concerned for your welfare.”

So, I’m sending Timothy because Timothy, unlike anyone else, will have an anxiety about you that will help you really flourish. Whoa, I thought anxiety was bad. Or 1 Corinthians 7:33, Paul describes a married man’s marimnao for his wife that might even prompt him, say, to watch a Christmas movie. That is love or insanity. Fine line there. But what Paul’s talking about is a kind of sensitivity and love or anxiety for the well-being of his wife. So, it’s a good anxiety.

So what’s the difference between bad anxiety and good anxiety? And in short, it’s what you do with it. Well, what are we supposed to do with our anxiety? Two examples: one here in Philippians 4:6. Look what he says.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

What happens when I do that?

“The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding”

You’re not going to be able to figure a formula as to how this works.

“will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

So, the way we keep anxiety from stealing our joy and destroying our relationships is to give it to God with thanksgiving. And there’s something about that casting our care on him who cares for us that results in a protection of our minds and our hearts. Isn’t that amazing? We protect our minds and our hearts as we give it to God, which is just to me so mind blowing that the Lord of heaven and earth would want our anxieties or care. But he’s arguing with us, “Please! Give them to me. Give them to me. I can handle them way better than you can handle.”

One other example of how to turn a bad anxiety into a good anxiety is number one, give it to God. Second, 1 Corinthians 12:25 — this is a little sidebar here —

“that there be no division in the body, but that the members have the same marimnao, the same anxieties for one another.”

Well, I thought we weren’t supposed to have anxiety. But what he’s saying here is the way you turn a bad anxiety into a good anxiety is to, first of all, go to God vertically, but then secondly, live in a way where you are sharing your struggles with one another. He goes on to say,

“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”

Prayer and share are the primary means (there are others) God uses to prevent legitimate concerns from degenerating into really bad, paralyzing anxieties, as we give them to God and as we live with an openness with one another. In other words, the quickest way to suffocate your soul, stifle your joy is to pretend like you can do this alone better than God and without your brothers and sisters.

So, how do we think and do what is beautiful in the midst of what might be terrible? Let’s review. First is we need to wrestle with the question where am I trying to find joy? Where am I turning for joy? Second, who am I waiting for, which has a lot to do with in whose presence am I living? My own? Or the fear of man, what other people think? Or in the nearness of Jesus? And then the third, what am I doing with my anxieties? Am I giving them over to God with thanksgiving? That means I’m trusting him before I see the result.

Now, let me just say, you can spend this year on just one of these. So, I know it can be overwhelming. So, I want to just slow down for a moment and give you time to ask the Spirit to put his finger on one of these for you. Where are you going to begin? Which of these questions are you going to spend some time maybe today, this week, this year, this millennium? Where am I turning for joy? Who am I waiting for? What am I doing with my anxieties? And as you wrestle with that question, I want to strongly encourage some of you that this would be a really good passage to memorize because I promise you, if you just walk out the door and never think about this passage again, it’s just too much. I’ve been soaking on this for months and months and months and feel like I haven’t even just scratched the surface of what the Spirit has for me here. So, memorize, meditate, spend some time here.

And then let’s remind ourselves as we wrap this up. Look at verse 10, Philippians 4:10, and I hope this will be encouraging for some of you who feel a little overwhelmed by all this. Paul says,

“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned”

That’s just what Mueller said. Paul is saying this is something that takes time.

“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Let’s pray.

Father, we are acknowledging we cannot just roll up our sleeves and try harder this year. The way of living that you’re calling us to is not a way we can fabricate in our own strength. I can do this through him who strengthens me. You are the source of joy, Jesus, not my having all the answers, not my figuring it all out, not my getting my way, not my having everything I think I need. You are near, and you are coming. So, Father work in us a reasonableness that reflects your nearness, that is shaped by your presence. And thank you, Father, for giving us this remarkable gift of prayer, that you’re inviting us to take all those things that weigh us down to prevent us from being suffocated or poisoned by these anxieties. Through prayer and thanksgiving, we’re casting them on you. Father, thank you for showing us that we your people can think and do what is beautiful, whether it’s an orchestra in a prison camp; or like Paul, singing in a Philippian jail; or us, wrestling with an unjust work situation or struggling with broken hearts, people we’re concerned for. Whatever it is, Lord, we want to think and do beautiful in the midst of what feels sometimes so terrible. Our eyes are on you. Spirit of God, you do this in us, we pray in Jesus’s name. Amen.

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