By Pastor Glenn Pease
My earliest childhood memories of being in church are of the rope that I could ride. The thick rope hung down through the ceiling in the church entry way. I was so little that when the rope was pulled to ring the bell in the belfry, I could hang on to it and get a ride as it would pull me up off the floor, and then set me down again. It is a pleasant memory in my mind, and my earliest thoughts of being in church are memories of church being a fun place to be. This memory was brought back to my mind when I read this statement by Christmas Evans, the great Welsh preacher. He said, "Prayer is the rope up in the belfry; we pull it and it rings the bell up in heaven."
For the first time in my life this image linked prayer and fun. I had never given it a thought that prayer and fun could be compatible partners. After all, prayer is a solemn and serious business, and that is why we tell children to be quiet, and stop having fun and clowning around. Bow you head and close your eyes and knock off anything you are doing that could be construed as having fun. From this childhood lesson we move on to a life time of having it drilled into our brain that prayer is anything but fun. It is a chore; it is a challenge; it is such a burdensome labor that it is one of the hardest aspects of the Christian life to develop.
C. S. Lewis, one of the greatest Christians of the 20th century, describes the feelings of millions of Christians when it comes to prayer.
"...Prayer is irksome. And excuse to omit it
is never unwelcome. When it is over, this
casts a feeling of relief and holiday over the
rest of the day. We are reluctant to begin.
We are delighted to finish. While we are at
prayer but not while we are reading a novel
or solving a cross-word puzzle, any trifle is
enough to distract us....
The odd thing is that this reluctance to
pray is not confined to periods of dryness.
When yesterday's prayers are full of comfort
and exaltation, today's will still be felt as, in
some degree, a burden."
We could quote many others who feel the same, and all the evidence indicates the majority of Christians feel that prayer is a hard part of the Christian life. Seldom to never does anyone relate prayer and fun. I must confess I certainly never did until this past week when I saw, for the first time, that for Paul prayer was fun. It was a time to be joyful, and a time of happy memories, and thanksgiving to God for His abundant goodness and grace.
Let me show you what has been before my eyes for years, but which I never saw until the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to see. Now I want to be the instrument to illumine you on what is clearly revealed in God's Word, but is also hidden because Satan does not want God's people to discover that prayer can be fun. Look at the facts. Paul says in verse 4, "I always pray with joy." Then in chapter 4 Paul goes all out to make it clear that prayer is to be surrounded with positive joyful feelings, and the negative feelings of life are to be eliminated. Listen to 4:4-7, "Rejoice in the Lord always, I will say it again, rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Paul is clearly revealing a life of prayer full of joy and thanksgiving. Eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive. Prayer is to be a fun and enjoyable time, and not a time we dread as a duty we have to be dragged into. Paul lived the way he wrote for others to live, and he demonstrated these words in his own life. When he was in the prison there is Philippi, having been attacked, beaten, flogged, and locked in stocks in a cell, we read this of Paul's attitude in Acts 16:25, "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God..."
It was one of the most miserable days of his life, yet Paul is enjoying his prayer time, and he is singing hymns to God. In the midst of pain he is finding pleasure in prayer. He is singing songs of thanksgiving, and rejoicing in the Lord with the peace that passes understanding. Paul demonstrated the power of a thankful heart to overcome enormous negative circumstances. Prayer is not the dark garment of despair. Prayer is a bright garment of praise that will dress up the soul even on the dreariest of days.
It is not that there is never a time for lament and a pouring out of the poison in our soul to God. This is a legitimate aspect of prayer as well, but the dominant note of Paul in prayer is the high note of joyful thanksgiving. This enabled Paul to look any direction in his life and see reasons for being and optimistic Christian. We want to focus on each of the directions Paul could look: The past, the present, and the future, and see how his thankful spirit made prayer a fun time. First look at-
I. HIS THANKFULNESS FOR THE PAST. V. 3.
"I thank my God every time I remember you." Paul had fun in prayer because his prayer was full of gratitude for memories of the past. When Paul says later in this letter that he forgets what is behind, he was not referring to his past blessings, but to the burdens he bore. His past was not all good at all. It was loaded with bad things like being falsely arrested, and kept in prison. He was treated like dirt, and humiliated. He had to suffer great injustice, but Paul says I forgot all that of my past, and I press on to the future, and the prize God has for me in Christ.
What Paul does not forget is all the good things and blessings he had in Philippi. We have a choice as to what we bring on to the screen of our mind from the computer-like data bank of our brain. Some Christians chose to remember the hurts, the failures, and the bad stuff of the past. That is why you have Christians who are neurotics of all kinds, and depressive type people. They have legitimate records of life's injustices, and damaging negatives. There is no question they have had some, and even many, raw deals, but they let these bad memories dominate their memory. The result is, they seldom feel joyful and thankful, for you cannot have these positive emotions when your focus is on pain. Imagine how depressed Paul would have felt if he would have written to the Philippians, "I can't help remembering how miserable it was to be in that damp moldy prison. I still wake up in the night remembering the stench of the other prisoners, and the unsanitary conditions of the jail. The injustice of it all still burns me to the core as I languish here in Rome incarcerated for doing good. It truly is a rotten world, and hell is too good for the scum who treat people like this." All of this would be authentic reality, but it was not the reality Paul chose to remember.
Paul was thankful for the past, not because it was free from evil and hurts, but because he forgot that bad stuff, and remembered instead the goodness of the Philippians, and the grace of God in his life. Everyone of us could look back and pick out bad things in our past. People who did us wrong, and events that were unfair are in everyone's past. Everyone has their own personal copy of, when bad things happen to good people. Some feel it is their gift to be able to recall the negatives of life, and remember every terrible detail. Then they wonder why the Christian life is not making them happy, and why prayer is a laborious chore.
We need to see that the only way to be a happy Christian, who can even make prayer time a fun time, is to forget the bad past, and remember those things that fill our minds with a sense of gratitude. Precious memories for which we can thank God are the key to joyful praying. Tom Landry, the Christian coach for the Dallas Cowboys for many years said, "I suffer over a loss like everyone else, but its how soon you forget it and get going again that's important." If your thankometer needle gets stuck on the negatives of the past, it will not work, and you will be locked into a non-thankful mode letting life's burdens, rather than life's blessings, be the dominant influence in your life.
In the book Tiger Of The Snows by Tenzig Norgay, one of the two men, who on May 29, 1953 reached the top of Mt. Everest said, "What I felt was a great closeness to God and that was enough for me. In my deepest heart I thanked God." All the fears and frustrations, and the pain and struggle, were forgotten. All that mattered was the blessing. Only those who learned this can live like Paul with a perpetual thankful spirit.
Examine your memory bank, and ask yourself which memories do you tend to focus on in the past. If you find you tend to remember the negatives, you need to listen to Paul, and follow his instructions. He practiced what he preached, and that is why he is our guide to a thankful spirit for the past, and a fun time in prayer time. Listen to the focus he gives to the Philippians in 4:8, "...Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever if admirable-if anything is excellent or
praiseworthy,think about such things." If this is the kind of stuff you bring to the screen of your mind from your memory bank, you too will, like Paul, be a person full of thankfulness for the past. Next look at-
II. HIS THANKFULNESS FOR THE PRESENT.
The same principle applies here as to the past. Which present realities are you going to choose to focus on? The fact that you are in prison unjustly, or the fact that God is using this bad thing for the advancement of the Gospel? The fact that you are separated from your good friends in Philippi, or the fact that in spite of that separation they are still supporting you in prayer, and by means of gifts. In the end of this letter Paul is so grateful for their renewed financial support. He says he has learned to be content in both plenty and want, but he was thankful that they met his need, for even Paul found life easier when he had plenty rather than being in want.
Notice here in verses 4 and 5, the real source of his joy and thanksgiving and prayer was their partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now. Right now in the present moment Paul felt not alone, even though isolated in prison. He felt like a part of a body of people who cared for him. Paul was thankful for the present because of his partnership with people. Thanksgiving is a relational thing. If there are no people in your life adding to your joys and comforts, then you are living a deprived life. You have got to have relationships to be a thankful person. Paul was a million miles away from these people, but they were still partners, and that oneness gave him a joyful and thankful perspective on life.
Paul was thankful for their gifts, but more thankful that he had partners who cared enough to give gifts. In other words, Paul, like all of us, enjoyed physical comforts, and was not opposed to having some cash in his pocket. But the real source of his gratitude was not the gifts, but the giving people. Sometimes we get so excited about good things that we forget they are relatively insignificant compared to good people. Paul had his priority on people, and not their possessions. We often forget that almost all of our blessings in life come to us through other people. If we are thankful for the blessings, but fail to see the value of the people they come through, we will be operating on a lower level of thanksgiving.
The Jews have a story that illustrates this lower level of thanks which ends up being a no thanks spirit. "Rabbi Jacobs, I need $50.00 to get out of debt," sobbed Gottlieb. "I keep praying to God for help but He doesn't send it!"
"Don't lose faith," said the rabbi. "Keep praying."
After Gottlieb left his house, the rabbi felt sorry for him. "I don't make much money," he thought, "but that poor man needs it." I'll give him twenty-five dollars out of my own pocket."
A week later, the rabbi stopped Gottlieb, "Here, God sent this to you!"
Back in his home, Gottleib bowed his head. "Thank you, Lord!" he said. "But next time you send money, don't sent it through Rabbi Jacobs-that crook kept half of it."
Because he did not recognize God works through people to bless him, he had a bitter spirit rather than a thankful spirit. If you don't find yourself thanking God for other people often, you are taking the low road rather than the high road of thanksgiving.
In 4:6 Paul says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God." Paul has a high view of what the Christian is capable of doing. He feels the Christian can choose where to focus his mind. Life is full of things to be anxious about, but he says, you don't have to give them your attention. You can choose instead to focus on things for which to be grateful. Easier said than done, but he did it, and so can we. Chuck Swindoll says, "Worry forces us to focus on the wrong things." If you are anxious, you are focused on the things that are wrong, or could go wrong. But if you are thankful, you are focused on the things that are right, or could go right. We all have a choice as to where we focus our minds, and which choice we make determines whether we are anxious or thankful Christians.
Paul says if we choose to focus on what is right so that we rejoice with thanksgiving, this will lead to a peace that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. In other words, thanksgiving is like a spiritual body guard that protects our emotions and thoughts from being captured by the negative spirit that Satan would love to get us ensnared with. The Christian who is ever focusing on the negative that makes them frustrated and anxious is a Christian with no security system. They are sitting ducks for the devil to rob them of their joy in Jesus. A safe Christian is a thankful Christian. If you want to live dangerously, and risk losing your Christian testimony, just leave thanksgiving out of your life. It is the equivalent of a layoff notice to the Spirit of God. It is like saying, your services are no longer needed. I can take care of myself.
When you hear a Christian locked into the negatives of life, full of bitterness, frustration, and resentment, you know they have laid off the Holy Spirit, or as the Bible puts it, quenched the Spirit. They have lost the attitude of gratitude which enables them to see the present blessings of life in spite of the burdens. Paul looked right past the negatives all around him, and focused on the pleasant blessings of the support and partnership of the Philippians. He was not going to wait for all to turn out okay before he was thankful. He was thankful right now in the present, for the bad things of life cannot rob you of the good things of life, if that is where you focus. Next we see-
III. HIS THANKFULNESS FOR THE FUTURE.
Paul was thankful every direction he looked, because God is same yesterday, today, and forever, and He does not leave any good work unfinished. What He starts He completes, and the result will be a truly Christlike people to enjoy for all eternity. Paul writes in verse 6, "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." Paul was joyfully thankful because never stops working in us, and through us. He never said the Philippians were perfect. They had their weaknesses and faults that he had to deal with. He never said he was perfect. In chapter 3 he says he was not complete, but keeps pressing on, for the best is always yet to be.
Nobody knows better than Paul how poorly Christians can reflect the light of Christ. He knew of their sin and follies, and all the ways they fell short of the glory of God. He never wore blinders, or rose colored glasses. He was as fully aware of Christians sins as any human being has ever been, but this was not his primary focus. He had to deal with sin in Christians often, but his confidence and thankful spirit thrived on his vision of the future. This is the perspective of all the Biblical writers. The hope and expectation of the Christian is a future where all in Christ will be what He is-the perfect example of what God had in mind when He made man in His image. When God completes His work in us, we will be like Jesus.
It is true, the vision of heaven that John saw in Revelation was filled with delights for all the senses. The golden streets, the jeweled walls, the glorious light and music that thrill the eyes and ears, plus the fruit for taste, and incense for smell entice all of the senses to anticipate the ultimate in pleasure. But the fact is, all of this would be meaningless without the people out of every tongue, tribe, and nation that praise the Lamb for ever and ever. The bottom line is never things, but always people. Jesus lived for people, and he died for people. They were the treasure he came to seek and to save, and when this focus of God becomes our focus, as it was of Paul, we will be able to praise and thank God for the future.
The future in Christ is loaded with people who are like Jesus. They love and care and share, and make the future a paradise. The first paradise was no big deal without another person to relate to. Perfection, beauty, and abundance do not fill the bill. God made man so he cannot be complete without relationship. People and paradise are linked as necessities. If you could have the New Jerusalem all to yourself, you would be miserable, and soon realize it is nothing but glorified hell without other people. Someone once said that hell is other people, but the fact is hell is the lack of other people. Paul had a thankful spirit about the future because he knew he had a future filled with Christlike people.
Paul was thankful for the past because of these people, and their response to the Gospel. He was thankful for the present because these people were his partners in the Gospel. She was thankful for the future because these people would be with him as perfected saints. Lets face the reality of this. Much, if not most, of what we have to thank God for comes to us through other people. They are the primary tools of God to achieve His purpose in history.
Consider our American heritage from the Pilgrims. Governor Bradford of the Plymouth Colony wrote in his diary of a man he called, "A special instrument sent of God." He was referring to the incredible Indian named Squanto. His story, and how God used him to save the Pilgrims from certain destruction is one of the great providence's of history. Squanto was kidnapped and sold as a slave and taken to Spain. There he was trained in the Christian faith, and then sold to a merchant in England. He sent him with an expedition back to America. He was back in his native land just six months before the Pilgrims arrived. Here was an Indian who knew English. He helped the Pilgrims communicate and form friendly relations with the Indians. He lives with them and taught them how to plant corn, and to fish, and to use them as fertilizer. It is not likely they could have survived without this gift of God. They thanked God often for this man.
An artist painted a picture of an old church with its time worn steeple. The bell is there and the rope hangs down to the earth. Beside the bell sits an owl suggesting that the bell had not been used for a long time. People are running by it as the street is full of hurrying people, but the motto under the picture says, "Why don't they ring?" Why don't we have fun in prayer by ringing the bell of heaven by thanksgiving to God for people in our past, present, and future? The opportunity to ring the bell of heaven by means of the joyful prayer of thanksgiving is ever available. May God help us to pull the rope, and add to the harmony of heaven, and the mirth on earth, with the prayer of thanksgiving.