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Practicing Joy

Sermon delivered on Trinity 14
Lebanon, N.H.
Sept. 9, 2012

Today’s passage is often interpreted as a caution against worry, and a recipe for having right emotions. At first glance, it may seem a !st Century version of the current popular philosophy of "don’t worry, be happy". In many ways the Christian Church often mimics this catchy tune and teaches us to judge our spiritual health by how good we "feel" at any given moment. Listen to much of the current programming on Christian radio in the Upper Valley and you will certainly come away with the idea that we are not "growing in the Lord" if we are not emoting properly. In fact, this focus on emotions rather than thoughts is rampant in our culture, with feeling becoming almost synonymous with thinking. We no longer talk about what we think but must report how we feel . But is Paul really focusing on feelings? It may seem that way at first.

After all, Paul tells us to rejoice several times. We are told not to be anxious or overly-concerned, rendered in the King James by the word "careful" or, we could say, "full of cares." So it sounds like the issue is how we feel. But then we are also told to think about what is "true", "just", "pure", and "of good report." We are furthermore told to model ourselves on Paul: "Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard and seen in me, do." And if we follow his instruction here, what will be the result? We will participate in the peace of God. There is more going on here than just an emotional exercise.

What Paul says here is not all that obscure or difficult to understand. But it is hard for a culture that is as emotionally oriented as ours to really embrace it. It is increasingly the case that our feelings are treated as sacred and above correction. "That is just how I feel" is pretty much the end of any serious argument about important matters, because these matters deal with "values" and these, we are told, are rooted in feelings. And how can these be challenged? For to challenge someone’s values is to challenge their identity, and that is tantamount to an act of violence against them, or at the very least, an act of disrespect.

But when we look at this passage in Philippians, we don’t read anything about the importance of our feelings on some issue. We are not told to "follow our gut" in evaluating what Paul says or to see if we are "comfortable" with where he is going. No, the passage does not see our emotional life as the area on which we must primarily focus. Rather, we are told to do certain things and think certain things. The direction that Paul’s admonition moves is from thinking and doing first, and then to the positive mental states of peace and contentment. There is really quite a bit of solid research supporting Paul’s view. These concepts are based on an approach to therapy that focuses on changing thoughts rather than changing feelings.

Feelings are the result of thinking, not the other way around. As we think, so we are, and so we feel. While "gut feelings" might be reliable in some cases, especially in those cases where one already has experience and the accompanying discernment that brings, emotions are not all that reliable as a guide to life generally. It is hard to see how different courses of action can be evaluated if all we have are different feelings. By what criteria should one feeling win out over another? Simply by its felt power? Does the strength of an emotion or desire necessarily give it the go-ahead? This is highly doubtful. Often what a strong emotion is motivation us to do is ill-advised. In any case, feelings alone certainly won’t answer the question of which feelings should be fostered and which ones curtailed.

So if feelings are not what they should be, we cannot work on the feeling as if it has a life of its own. Rather, we must look at the belief from which that feeling grows. You cannot replace a feeling with another feeling the way you can replace a cup of milk with a glass of juice. You have to go after the belief or thought process that gave birth to the feeling.

"But," someone might say, "isn’t Paul doing just this when he in effect orders people to rejoice or orders them not to be anxious. Isn’t he treating emotions like a water spigot, which you can simply turn on or off without concern for any change in belief? Actually he’s not and here’s why. When he tells the Philippians to rejoice, he is telling them to respond as is appropriate considering what they already know to be true; namely, as he states in chapter 3, that their commonwealth is in Heaven where Jesus awaits, knowledge of whom makes the suffering of this life as nothing. This is what they should be holding to, as Paul continually reminds them. If this is what you really believe, then you should rejoice.

The same goes for letting go of anxiety. You can’t just replace anxiety with being utterly carefree by some act of will. But Paul is not arguing for that. He is saying that you should not be anxious because the Lord is at hand and cares for you. If you are in Christ, He has made you His own. Your perspective on life and its worries should change. As the late Church historian Jaraslav Pelikan put it: If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then nothing else really matters; but if Jesus did rise from the dead, then nothing else really matters. In this same context, we are to pray with thanksgiving. We are not simply to try through strength of will to feel thankful; we should cultivate a perpetual thankfulness because of what God has done for us through Christ. Thankfulness just is the appropriate response. And the practicing of a thankful spirit produces eventually a genuinely thankful spirit.

So, again, Paul is operating with a well-validated approach to positive human functioning. It is borne out in many reputable sociological and psychological studies. Furthermore, neuroscience gives support to the above finds by showing that different thinking actually changes the brain. We are not angels, that is, we are not disembodied intelligences. Our changed thinking can actually produce physiological changes that result in a different way of being in the world. We become different spiritually, but also in terms of our physicality. This happens through repetition of a new way of thinking, or one could say, re-training.

And this leads to another important thing to glean from this passage. Paul is advocating imitation as a legitimate pedagogical tool and a way toward spiritual growth. This is another thing about Apostolic Christianity that rubs moderns the wrong way, especially highly individualist Americans. "I should be able to do it my way!" But, again, there is sound research, not to mention common sense, that supports this way of advancing in our spiritual lives, or advancing in anything, for that matter.

Consider how we learn to do anything. We need to be shown how and given instruction along the way. Sure, there is practice, which no one can do for you. But you need to see it done well in order to have something to aim toward. Without a doubt your personal style will enter into it, but that can come into play only after some initiation by others into whatever you are learning. When what you are learning is a new form of life, as is the case with following Christ, the need for models to imitate is even more important than in various crafts. You can become good at a craft, whether woodworking, playing the flute, or practicing law, without any fundamental change in your heart. But God wants all of you; He is rather extreme that way. The changes He requires can be daunting. We can undertake them only by "putting on Christ", as Paul says. We are to undertake an apprenticeship to Jesus that will last our whole life. We have to truly believe He is the Lord of Life and requires this of us. We need this degree of authority in order to undertake such a difficult task.

And that is exactly what Paul possesses—orders from the highest authority. Without this, his instructing people to imitate him is the greatest hubris. But because he is imitating Christ, he can tell us that we must imitate him. He is not merely suggesting this as an option to those "seekers" who are exploring different "spiritualities" as they proceed along their individual "faith journeys." This is what our individualism and exaltation of the self want to hear. But this is not what Paul is proposing. He is trying to lead those who have been called into a new kind of community toward the goal that has been set before them. They are now the Body of Christ on earth and most grow into that reality through the instruction and example of those who have been appointed by God. The only way such a community can survive and prosper is to continually reinforce who they are by fellowship, ritual, instruction, prayer, and discipline. And this can only happen in the matrix of a group of people who share a mission and identity that is not constantly up for a vote and who recognize an authority outside themselves. We are talking about what researchers have called a morally authoritative community. We need such communities if we are to learn to walk in the way of Christ. Because of the wounding of our nature through the Fall, we need continual reinforcement and encouragement in our Christian life. This is not something we can leave behind when we become "mature" enough. Being in a community is not merely for those who haven’t graduated to a higher plane yet; it is actually how God designed us. We come to Him by learning to serve others and becoming part of their lives. We grow in holiness not merely by private study and devotion but by real involvement with others in a community that consistently continues the mandate of the Lord by keeping faith with its Founder. This occurs where we take seriously what is said in Acts 2:42: "And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers."

God does not expect us to go it alone. We can ultimately do nothing without Him. Being part of a true community of His people is how he wishes to change us and make us fit for heaven. May we be formed into such a community by His grace.

Robert Philp

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