Six Things to Do When Life Ain’t Perfect
A Reflection on Philippians 4
There is sometimes an expectation that since God loves us, and since we have responded in faith, then life should be pretty much perfect from now on. But then what follows in our experience is, well, far from ideal. When we realize that things are far from perfect we might be surprised. We might even fall to pieces.
Life is a reality check. Paul’s concluding words to the Christians in Philippi are also a reality check. The fact is, that things are far from perfect.
In Philippians chapter 4 we are reminded that the apostle Paul’s life was hardly flawless. Here we are given the reason for the letter. It is a thank you note from Paul for the gift the Christians in Philippians sent him because he was in prison. Yes, this encouraging letter was written while Paul was in troubling circumstances. He might even be executed! We have good reason to believe that he eventually was executed following another imprisonment. Paul’s life was far from the dreamy experience we seem to expect Christians to have. His existence was no picnic.
In Philippians chapter 4 we are also reminded that the Christian church is far from perfect, since Christian people are far from perfect. In verses 2 and 3 we discover that there are troubled relationships. Euodia and Syntyche are two leaders who are evidently mature Christians. Yet they are not getting along. They are not the flawless people we seem to expect Christians to be. Getting along was no picnic.
As a side note, if you ever find a perfect church, where everyone is perfect, don’t bother telling me about it. I don’t want to wreck the perfection by showing up.
Here we have evidence, of less than than perfect people in less than perfect circumstances. In fact you could say, messy people in messy circumstances. Perhaps you can relate … .
So how do we handle the mess?
First, we do the best we can:
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. – Philippians 4:2-3 (NRSV)
Euodia and Syntyche are to iron out their differences and be reconciled. We can wonder if Paul in our day would encourage the Anglicans and the Baptists among others to iron out our differences and be reconciled. At any rate, we are to just do the best we can as individuals and faith communities and to help each other out the best we can too.
We celebrate God:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. — Philippians 4:4 (NRSV)
Most translations go with “rejoice” or “be glad,” but I like those that say “celebrate.” It can be hard to just switch our emotions, to suddenly just go from grumpy to joyful. It is not as if our emotions respond like a light to the flick of a switch. Think of going home grumpy from a hard day at work. We may still be grumpy when we get home, which is no fun for our loved ones. But if you go home to a celebration, a birthday celebration for example, your emotions may well catch up to your celebrations. When we regularly celebrate Jesus, celebrating all that is real and true in Jesus, then our awful emotions will eventually catch up with the awesome facts.
We grow in gentleness:
Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. — Philippians 4:5 (NRSV)
How often have you heard a sermon on gentleness? If you attend Calvary, not very often, for I have not often preached on it. I suspect that across our land there are many sermons on holiness, and very few on gentleness. Yet gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. Gentleness is an important mark of following Jesus. I promise to speak about it more often. Perhaps we should all promise to grow into it more.
We give our anxiety to God through prayer:
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:6-7 (NRSV)
Simply turning off worry can feel like an impossible thing to do. It likely is. Thankfully, we are not so much encouraged to simply turn it off, but rather to trade it in. Through prayer we trade it in for peace.
We focus our minds on good things.
I like Eugene Peterson’s rendition of the next few verses:
Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do best by filling your minds and meditating on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious—the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God, who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies. — Philippians 4:8,9 (The Message)
We are so good at being focused. Unfortunately, we focus on the dirt. We focus on the negative. We focus on what is worst about others, and ourselves. News and social media often doesn’t help in this regard. Let us learn to think on all that is good, in God, in life, in our world, in our church, in others, and yes, even in ourselves.
We learn contentment with the reality of things:
I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. — Philippians 4:10-14 (NRSV)
Here we are, back to a reminder that Paul’s situation was from from ideal as he sits in prison, dependent on others for the basic necessities of life. Yet Paul could speak of being content. Yes, things could be better. But yes, things will be better. The reality is that being a Christian is no guarantee of a perfect life. The reality is that in Jesus there is the guarantee of God’s perfect love. As bad as things could get, they can’t do anything but get better yet.
Messiness is Nothing New
Things are less than ideal in our day. We have been living through an incredibly messy year. We should not act surprised. In fact we have been sheltered. Messiness is nothing new. One of the books I read this summer was A Journal of the Plague Year, written by a citizen who continued all the while in London, by Daniel Dafoe. This book is a memoir about a plague that hit London, England, in the 1600s. It put our current plague into perspective. Thanks to advances in society, we are in a much better situation now than then.
The first Christians knew what Paul knew; life gets messy. Following Jesus does not excuse us from that. In fact, as Paul also knew, following Jesus could get you into a bigger mess. Sadly, many believers around the world today know that all too well, as persecution continues to plague many Christ followers.
Let us not fall to pieces when life is less than ideal, when the people around us, including ourselves, are less than perfect. Let us do the best we can, celebrate Jesus, grow in gentleness, trade anxiety for peace through prayer, focus on the good, and learn contentment. May we not fall to pieces, but as we walk with Jesus, let us watch how God picks up the pieces.
Originally published on Clarke’s blog. Reprinted with permission.