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Are We Building the Altar?

Are We Building the Altar?

In 1 Kings 18 we find one of the most dramatic Old Testament accounts. Elijah, the prophet of the one true God of Israel, challenges the prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal, to a contest to demonstrate whose God is real. 

 

The terms of the contest were simple. The prophets of Baal and Elijah would each prepare an altar and each would sacrifice a bull on the altar. But neither would set a fire on the altar. Instead, each would call on the name of their god and whichever god answered with fire, that god was the true God.

 

Tim Keller in his recent article “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church: Part 3 — The Path to Renewal” points out that many Christians have seen this Old Testament account as a helpful metaphor for how God brings about renewal in the church. Keller defines a revival or renewal this way: “Revivals are periods of great spiritual awakening and growth. In revivals, ‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians wake up, nominal Christians get converted, and many skeptical non-believers are drawn to faith.”

 

Only God can bring the “fire of renewal.” Human technique and effort alone cannot produce renewal. Nor can the church compel or manipulate the means or timing of God’s work. However, this does not mean there is nothing we can do as we long for a fresh work of God in our lives, churches, and culture. We can build the altar. As noted by Keller,  “Christians looking for revival, they are ‘building the altar,’ praying that God will use their efforts to bring a fire of renewal with a movement of his Spirit.” 

 

In the first two installments of his four-part series of articles, Keller gives an account of the decline of both mainline and evangelical Christianity. Both articles are lengthy and nuanced and well worth careful reading. Keller’s point in both articles is summed up this way: 

 

Virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there is more polarization and conflict than ever, with all factions agreeing (for different reasons) that the church is in deep trouble. Outside the church, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers either bemoan or celebrate the church’s decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence.

 

While the church is always in need of reforming and refining, it seems like this moment in American Christianity is in need of something more than refining. This seems to be a moment when something like renewal or revival is needed.

 

Over 30 years ago Christ Community was founded with the longing and prayer that this local church would be a catalyst for spiritual renewal in Kansas City. That longing and prayer still endures today.  

 

How can Christ Community build the altar?

Keller suggests three altar-building practices. 

 

Recovery of the gospel

It is all too easy for pastors and congregation members alike to functionally forget the radical good news of grace. This is the news that in Jesus we are completely known and loved — not because of anything we have done — but because of what Jesus has done for us. 

 

Theologian Kelly Kapic in his wonderful book You’re Only Human invites his readers to consider two questions. First, do you believe God loves you? He suggests that most Christians would say of course, God loves me. But then he poses a second question: does God like you? How would you respond? He writes: 

 

Have you ever felt that your parents or spouse or your God loved you, and yet wondered if they actually liked you? Love is so loaded with obligations and duty that it often loses all emotive force, all sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Like can remind us of an aspect of God’s love we can all too easily forget. Forgetting God’s delight and joy in us stunts our ability to enjoy God’s love. Forgiveness, as beautiful and crucial as it is, is not enough unless it is understood to come from love and lead back to love. Unless we understand the gospel in terms of God’s fierce delight in us — not merely a wiping away of prior offenses. Unless we understand God’s battle for us as a dramatic, personal rescue and not merely a cold forensic process, we have ignored most of the Scriptures as well as the needs of the human condition.

 

It is this understanding of gospel love and grace that is the keystone in the rebuilding of the altar.

 

Corporate prayer

The second altar-building practice is corporate prayer. While private individual prayer is vital, a quick survey of the history of renewal moments shows a common thread: Christians gathering together to pray for God to work and move.

 

As we seek the renewal of our churches and communities, prayer is critical. And not just corporate prayer within Christ Community but with other like-minded Christians and churches, especially across racial and socio-economic dividing lines. 

 

Creativity

Finally, altar-building is marked by creativity. No two renewal moments have looked exactly the same. Building the altar isn’t a matter of simply trying to reproduce the methods from previous moments. It is about looking for fresh insights into this particular moment, discerning how the Spirit is working. A fantastic resource for understanding this cultural moment and sparking creativity is Mark Sayers book Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture. Get a copy and read it with a group of other believers.

 

Conclusion

In the story of 1 Kings 18, not only does Elijah build the altar but he saturates it with water. The more soaked the altar is, the more dramatic the demonstration of God’s work and word. As we approach deeply contentious election seasons in 2022 and 2024, and face violence, war, and economic challenges in our nation and world, it is obvious; no mere human can light the fire. 

 

But we trust the resurrected King Jesus who, when He had ascended to the right hand of His Father in Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in Acts 2 appeared as flames of fire above the heads of those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost.

This is my prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray, we ask, we plead: do it again! For your glory and our good, make yourself known to us, renew us, heal us. Make us faithful to build the altar. We trust you and your timing for the fire. Amen.

E90 Is Over… So What’s Next?

E90 Is Over… So What’s Next?

“I have loved watching my heart soften toward the individuals that I have been praying for, and how often I’ve been thinking of them and noticing things about them. Much more intentional interactions!” – Linda

 

Spending 90 days praying for others to come to know Jesus was an amazing time together as a church. Over the course of these 13 weeks, close to 400 different people across all five campuses texted me about their experiences witnessing and praying for others. I was blessed to hear so many people, just like Linda, share how praying each day for the same people shifted their perspective toward them. It is surprising (though it really shouldn’t be) how many opportunities for greater connection with others arise when you intentionally and regularly pray for them. I was even more deeply encouraged when I heard about perseverance through the challenges people faced in their witnessing.

 

A handful of people let me know that one of their nine made a decision to follow Jesus during these 90 days. Beyond these, so many more had their nine make significant movement toward God. Some of their nine reached out with spiritual questions for the first time. Others reached out while facing significant life difficulties and asked for prayer. Some of their nine decided to visit church with them. Others saw their relationship with their nine deepen in new ways. There are so many more powerful stories that you can read about on theformed.life/e90

 

But if you’re like me, as soon as these 90 days finished, you wondered what’s next.

 

Was this just a cool 90 day challenge? One more project to mark ‘done’ and move on? No, from the beginning of our team’s planning process, we hoped e90 would be a catalyst for continued growth in prayer and personal evangelism for our church. Though this initiative is done, we continue to be a caring family of multiplying disciples, influencing our community and world for Jesus Christ. Here are four ways you can continue to grow in this even after e90.

 

Keep Praying

 

Just because the 90 days are over does not mean you need to stop praying intentionally and specifically for others to come to know Jesus! This season hopefully started a habit that remains with you well after it officially finishes. Consider how you can keep praying regularly for others. Think about how much movement you’ve seen in yourself and in them over 90 days. How much more could happen through the rest of the year? Maybe your list of nine grew to fifteen. Keep praying for your fifteen! Perhaps there are just two people from your nine God has highlighted to you these past few months. Keep praying for those two!

 

Pray Together

One of the best parts of e90 was that this was something we did together as a whole church. It reminded me that I’m not alone in witnessing to others. This doesn’t have to end either! What if your community group decided to keep praying for others specifically to come to faith as a part of your regular prayer time? What if you and just one other person committed to praying together for your lists? You could do a short phone call once a week and pray together. Or you could exchange names and pray for their list in addition to yours. This would encourage you to stay consistent in praying for others.

 

Learn Together

 

Another awesome part of e90 was how praying and witnessing motivated greater learning about the gospel and how to practically share it with others. This doesn’t have to end either! What if your community group, or just you and one friend picked a book about evangelism to read together? In addition to discussing what you’re learning from reading, you can also debrief how you’re practicing those things as well. If you don’t know where to start, two of my favorite books on evangelism are The Sacrament of Evangelism by Jerry Root, and Questioning Evangelism by Randy Newman.

 

Keep Inviting

 

Lastly, we can continue to grow in personal evangelism beyond e90 by continuing to invite others. Continue to invite them to hang out with you in a relaxed setting with other believers, to read one of the gospels from the Bible together, to come to church with you, to hear your story of what God has done in your life, to consider what following Jesus might look like. Not every invitation will be responded to with an enthusiastic “Yes!” but that does not mean we’ve failed. Even small invitations and planting seeds over time can be used by God to draw others to Him.

 

I encourage you to keep praying, keep learning, keep inviting, and do all these together with other believers. And I hope I continue hearing how God is working through it all to reach others with His love for His glory.

 

A Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating

A Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating

The greatest enemy to creativity isn’t lack of time, money, tools, or training. The greatest enemy of creativity and productivity is shame. More than distraction or busyness, shame steals the energy and courage required to create. And even more disastrously, shame disrupts the relationships that are necessary for creating and producing together. Even creative tasks that are undertaken alone are always done in dialogue with other minds, in conversation with other image-bearers. Shame disrupts creativity and productivity causing us to hide from one another. Shame breathes lies. Shame lies and says:

You’re an idiot. You have no business doing this work. You’re going to fail. You always fail. You’re never good enough. You never will be good enough. You’re a fraud. This is so derivative, so unoriginal. Nobody will care about this work. Nobody should care about this work. It’s trash. People will laugh at you. People will steal your work. People will think what you are doing is dumb. 

The louder the voice of shame, the more energy it takes to overcome it and create something good and beautiful. It robs us of energy we could otherwise use to create. This is a major theme in Curt Thompson’s work. Curt is a Christian psychologist and author who writes on the themes of shame and creativity, andt Christ Community recently had the privilege of hosting him for an evening conversation. You can watch his talk HERE and read more in his books The Soul of Shame and The Soul of Desire.

All of us are creating even if we aren’t professional graphic artists or creative writers. Making dinner is a creative act. Building a presentation slide deck and building a deck on your house are creative acts. Putting together spreadsheets and spreading fresh sheets on the bed are creative acts. 

And wherever there is the potential for creativity and ushering goodness and beauty into the world, shame is lurking — seeking at all costs to choke and strangle that creativity. I want to offer you a practice for combating shame when you’re preparing to create. This is a liturgy, a prayer, for combating shame that you can use when you begin a creative endeavor. 

Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating 

All:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are the Creator and Sustainer
of everyone and everything,
You uphold the universe by the Word of Your Power.

Leader:
You have made us creative collaborators in your image;
Male and female you have created us. 

Created us to be creative.
Created us to draw out all the fulness and beauty
of the world you have lovingly formed and fashioned.

Yet now as we stand on the precipice of this creative endeavor,
the threshold of this good work,
this good work, O Lord, which you have prepared for us to do,
we find ourselves haunted by shame.

In the face of this shame,
we shrink back, we hide;
we grow suspicious of others,
contemptuous of ourselves.

King Jesus, who for the joy set before You despised the shame of the cross,
teach us now to despise this shame.
Against the lie of shame which says, I am worthless.
We speak the truth of Your voice:

We are fearfully and
wonderfully made.

Against the lie of shame which says, I have nothing to offer.
We speak the truth of Your voice:

We are God’s handiwork,
created in Christ Jesus to do good works,
which You prepared in advance for us to do.

Against the lie of shame which says, They can’t be trusted, they will hurt you.
We speak the truth of your voice:

We are all baptized by one Spirit into one body,
we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, defend us now
from all the assaults of shame.
And shepherd us into the green pastures of your goodness and beauty.

Amen.

I Wonder Where The Anger Is

I Wonder Where The Anger Is

I wonder where the anger is?

My counselor said these words to me this past year, and yes, pastors see counselors too. The question caught me off guard for a few reasons. Not the least of which was that I don’t consider myself an angry person. I’m the fun guy, the joking guy, the adventurous guy, and, on rare occasions, the obnoxious guy. But I’m not the angry guy. 

As I was driving home from my session I remember having this internal dialogue with myself:

“Sure, I get angry sometimes. And yeah, I don’t like who I am when I get angry, but….” 

Right then it struck me. I don’t process or express anger very well precisely because I don’t think I am an angry person. That may sound noble at face value but in actuality it produces emotional ignorance and ineptitude. By denying that I get angry or that I have anger only serves to make my latent anger more potent when it does come out. The truth of the matter is that I am an angry person precisely because I am a person. 

To put it another way, my problem with anger is not that I have anger. It is tied to the things that cause anger and the things I do with my anger. That is true for all of us. Our problem with anger is not actually with anger itself. Our problem is with what evokes anger and with how we respond to our anger.

The biblical author James penned these familiar Spirit-inspired words:

James 1:19–20
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 

Notice that James does not say “refrain from anger” or “turn from anger” but to be “slow to anger.” Implying that there is a time for anger. This is affirmed by the teaching of the apostle Paul in Ephesians.

Ephesians 4:26-27
Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. 

Anger is like a small crack in your windshield. It is not ideal when it happens but it still needs to be recognized and responded to right away, otherwise it will get worse. When you notice the crack and react accordingly, you can actually treat it in a way that won’t require replacing the entire windshield. In many ways, the problem isn’t the crack. The problem is in our failure to respond to the crack in an appropriate and orderly manner.

We may think that when we minimize, bury, or ignore our anger we are displaying patience. But it is a counterfeit patience. It is only adding pressure to the impending outburst of anger that will come out eventually. The person who claims that they are patient by ignoring their anger is like the person who claims to be good at auto maintenance by putting a post-it note over the check engine light on their dashboard. We are only deceiving ourselves and delaying the inevitable.

In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament we find this brief but powerful teaching on anger in Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 7:9b
Anger lodges in the heart of fools. 

That word “lodges” is the English translation of the Hebrew word nuwach, which means to rest in, settle down in, root in, or remain. It also has this picture of making a home in something. 

Think of anger like a tick. Although it is an unpleasant thing it can be dealt with properly when recognized on the surface right away. But it can also have lasting consequences when we ignore it and allow it to bury itself within us. And with that illustration I know that many of you stopped reading. It’s gross, but you will always remember it.

So let me offer four very quick ways that we can all grow in a more godly and sanctifying approach to our anger.

  • Feel it

Don’t shy away from feeling anger. Again, the feeling of anger is not our primary problem. Our main problem is what evokes anger and how we respond to it. But we won’t make any progress in working on our anger issues if we avoid feeling our feelings. Feel your feelings and pay attention to what these feelings do in you.

  • Name it

This may sound rather simple but say out loud that you are angry. Even if it is just to yourself. There is a power that comes to us over our emotions when we not only feel them but also when we name them. By stating clearly that you are angry it serves as a way of giving yourself control and agency over your emotions rather than forfeiting yourself to your emotions. We name emotions to tame emotions.

  • Pray it

One great way to express anger is through prayer. Turn your anger into prayer. The psalms are a great help to us in this work and Psalm 59 is a great example of this. It is a psalm of David crying out to God in response to the angering situation of being hunted down by king Saul. God is big enough to handle our anger in prayer,  and in doing so we can find ways to more effectively process our anger. But sometimes we need to turn to God in prayer to confess our anger. Anger turns sinful when it ceases to want the wrong righted or the wrongdoer restored and simply wants the wrongdoer wronged. 

  • Watch it

Pay attention to the situations, moments, environments, and even times of day that tend to evoke anger in you. Identify the things that routinely bring about anger in you and start to watch for it. So often we try to battle anger in the moment it arises. What we need is to be more preemptive in our work of mitigating unhealthy anger. Give attention to the things you give attention to. One way to do that is to ask yourself, “I wonder where the anger is.”

Chronic Illness and the Good News

Chronic Illness and the Good News

We were having coffee, just catching up. I asked politely about work, about summer schedules, just small talk. Then I asked about family. His whole demeanor changed. The smile faded. The shoulders dropped. The eyes shifted. He told me, “You know, my wife has chronic headaches. Migraines. Sometimes, she can’t get out of bed. It means that every day, we don’t know what we can and cannot do, who we can and cannot see, what we can and cannot enjoy. It is very difficult and lonely for her.” 

“That sounds really hard,” is what I say back. We kept talking about other things. 

Years later, I am sitting in a doctor’s office. An ENT actually. He’s great. Friendly. Competent. He’s telling me that the symptoms I am experiencing are part of a larger phenomenon known as sudden sensorineural hearing loss (SSHL – because who wants to spell that ever again?): an unexplained but rapid hearing loss in one ear, accompanied by tinnitus (ringing), bouts of vertigo, and a constant sense of “fullness” or congestion. None of the symptoms, mind you, actually mean anything. They all represent the brain’s stubborn attempt to re-establish a connection with the nerve of the inner ear, which is (likely) permanently damaged. It’s a futile attempt to fix something that is fundamentally unfixable. 

How did it happen? I don’t know. The doctor doesn’t know. We never will.  

Anyway, I’m sitting there, realizing that from this moment on, my experience of life will never be the same. And all I can think about is that guy, over coffee, trying to tell me something about his wife and how hard her life is. I do a lot of coffees, a lot of sharing, a lot of listening. I’m a pastor, after all. And I know a lot of people with chronic illness, just stuff that will never go away. I’ve talked to them, held their hands, read them Scripture, prayed over them. But until this moment, I didn’t understand them. What it feels like to know, deep down, there are no next steps, no more doctors, no more meds, no more plans. There’s just a broken body, and the ways you learn to live around it. 

I haven’t shared this with many people. I wasn’t ready. I don’t want this to be a long, drawn out thing about my health. I was listening to someone recently talk about their own chronic illness, and he said, “One of the hardest things about it is that I’m offended when people don’t ask how I am doing, but then I’m exhausted when they do ask how I am doing.” I loved that. It’s so true. I don’t want this blog to be about how I’m doing (I’m really ok). But I’d love to share what I am learning. So here goes…

I need daily bread. During this time with my health, I have learned that some days I can do whatever I want, and some days I just can’t. I have no control over it. My plans are very much plans for the day. I know now more than ever the reason Jesus teaches us to ask for daily bread in the Lord’s Prayer. Not weekly bread. Not monthly. Not quarterly. Not annually. Just daily. Upon further reflection, I think too much of my energy in life has been looking ahead to some hypothetical future, or mulling over some unchangeable past, instead of living the day right in front of me. Now, I find myself concentrating more and more on this idea, to live the day God gave me. There is a design element here: God indeed made us to plan as well for the future as we are able, but more importantly, He made us to live and obey and depend on Him today. When you really begin to pay attention, this idea is all over the Bible. Hebrews 3:12-13 comes to mind: 

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

My body failing me is difficult, but it also throttles my attention from drifting too far ahead or behind. What can I do today? What does faithfulness look like right now? I need daily bread, and Jesus is happy to give it to me when I ask. I’m asking now more than ever. 

This body is not my home. It’s one thing to feel out of place in the world. It’s another to feel – even just a little – out of place in your body. To feel that your own body is an obstacle to who you want to be and what you want to do. This, by the way, is a feeling we will all experience at one point or another. If illness doesn’t get us, age will. My fellow chronic-illness folks and I are just practicing a little early. 

I hate to admit this, but for most of my 20s and 30s, Paul’s teaching on the new body has been for me a fascinating abstraction. Chronic illness has cured me of that. When I turn to, say, 1 Corinthians 15, rather than reading for mere comprehension, I read for hope. I read for reminders and promises. Promises that reshape my reality. Promises like “what is sown perishable will indeed be raised imperishable”, and that a glory awaits me that I can hardly fathom, just as I cannot fathom the beauty of a rose by merely studying it’s seed. 

I no longer just believe this is true. I need to believe this is true. And there’s a sense in which the culmination of our faith only happens when we don’t just think it; we feel it. 

I feel now, in a way I didn’t before, that while this broken body is a gift, it is also a problem. It has limits, weaknesses, short-comings, and liabilities that I was not designed to carry. But God is not surprised by this, and He gave me good news about it before I knew I needed it. If that is true, if my broken body is not an obstacle to His love and care, then I can trust Him with what comes next. I can trust Him with tomorrow. And so can you. 

Return to Joy

Return to Joy

I am ready for joy. I am hungry for it. After a year of pandemic, characterized for many of us by disappointment, loneliness, and fear, our appetite for joy has only increased. Spring has arrived and the vaccine is becoming available. “Normal” doesn’t feel too far away. Will we return to joy?

We were created for joy. It is the root of every longing, and we spend the majority of our lives searching for it. Joy is both a command and a promise, but we’re often not very good at understanding it or finding it. Every one of us wants more of it, so how do we do it? Where do we get it? How do we sustain it? How do we return to joy?

The Most Joyful Book of the Bible

To answer these questions, I often turn to Philippians in the New Testament. Philippians is sometimes referred to as the most joyful book in the Bible, which means for me, it’s pages are well-worn. I even memorized all 104 verses of it back in college (please don’t quiz me!).

Now before you think that’s me bragging — look how spiritual I am, I memorized a whole book of the Bible —I only share that to show you my desperation. That’s how hungry I am for joy! You see, I am not very good at it. As someone who is definitely a bit on the melancholy side, joy often feels out of reach.

As a result, I can easily gravitate to the many pseudo joys around me. Maybe the next meal, or the next drink, or the next vacation, or the next purchase, or the next show, or the next accomplishment, or the next whatever will finally do it. Have you been there? Even though these are often good things, it can be a vicious cycle of escalating disappointment and discontent. 

Paul shows us a better way. And what always amazes me about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is that he wrote it from prison! From prison, suffering for preaching the good news of Jesus, Paul writes one of the most joy-filled books of the Bible. At the very least, this should remind us that joy is not based on circumstance. But if it’s not circumstance, where do we get it?

Choose Joy?

I know you’ve heard the phrase or seen it on some home decor or motivational poster: Choose Joy. I have a love/hate relationship with that phrase. On the one hand, I do love it. Joy is a command from God and therefore we all have an active role in pursuing it. Joy is not an option for Christians. Choose Joy!

On the other hand, as someone who has struggled with mild depression for most of my life, I also sort of want to punch that phrase in the face. Believe me, I’ve tried to choose joy! It’s not that easy, is it? I don’t think we can just “choose joy” and have it magically appear.

Choose Habits of Joy

But we can choose habits of joy, and I think this is where Philippians encourages us. We may not be able to simply choose to have joyful feelings but we can choose to pursue the practices that are most likely to build joy into our lives. Paul shows us some of these practices, and while there are many lessons on joy here, let me focus on three primary habits of joy: prayer, people, and presence.

Habit of Joy #1: Prayer

Perhaps the most obvious habit of joy from Philippians is the habit of prayer. According to Paul, prayer is not simply a means of getting stuff from God, but a means of receiving the kind of peace that leads to rejoicing.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. …do not be anxious 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 4:4, 6-7

It’s interesting to me that more and more is being written today from a variety of worldviews about the importance of mindfulness and gratitude when it comes to joy. People from several disciplines (neurology, psychology, theology) all agree on how important this is to joy, even if they disagree on other foundational principles.

The practice of quieting ourselves mentally, articulating our feelings, and focusing most on the things we’re grateful for is good for your brain, and more importantly, it’s good for your soul! The people of God have been doing this work for millenia. We are actually invited to express those things to the God who made us.

If you want more joy in your life, but are not growing in prayer, you are going to be disappointed. For me, I try to start each day with prayer, and I try to spend about half my time thanking God for those ways in which I’ve recently experienced His love. All joy is relational (more on that below) and when I pray with gratitude, my joy increases. I think yours will as well.

Habit of Joy #2: People

The second habit of joy that stands out to me from Philippians is people. This letter is deeply relational, deeply personal, and highly communal. Paul addresses conflict among Christians, he encourages the relationships within the church, and he demonstrates that there is no real joy apart from others.

There is no real joy apart from others. That may be a shocking statement, but the older I get and the more I read on this subject, the more convinced I am of this truth. Although I’m an introvert, need a lot of alone time, and occasionally just don’t like people, I am convinced that the majority of our joy is found in the context of relationships. 

I recently read that one definition of joy is knowing that someone else is glad to be with me. Simply being with that person and knowing that you are loved and respected — that they want to be with you — is the place of deepest joy.

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.… Philippians 2:1-5

What will make Paul’s joy complete? The same thing that increases our own joy — a community of people shaped by the love of Jesus.

Sadly, we often think joy will come by doing what we want, expressing ourselves, possessing unrestricted freedom, and essentially getting our own way. Which means, if you think about it, many of our faulty definitions of joy actually hinder community, and therefore hinders our joy! True community isn’t possible if I’m always getting my way. True community demands a sacrifice of some of my rights, preferences, and desires, yet even with these sacrifices, this kind of community is the place of deepest joy.

This is why Paul can tell us to put others first, to serve relentlessly, and to give generously. He can tell us all that and keep a smile on his face, because he knows: if you want joy, you need people, and the best relationships are characterized by the way of Jesus.

This has shaped my priorities. For example, even though I often think I’d rather stay home and watch Netflix (which only rarely satisfies), I’ve forced myself to schedule greater time with the people I love (which almost always satisfies). The church is a great place to do this, even though it certainly takes work. Prioritize these relationships, and when you see that people are glad to be with you, and they see that you are glad to be with them, there will be joy.

Habit of Joy #3: Presence

This also applies to God. God is happy to be with you. His face lights up when you enter the room. He delights in spending time with you, and in His “presence there is fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11).

The presence of God is always available to His people. In the third chapter of Philippians Paul lists many of the things we run to in order to give us joy. He mentions his heritage, his national and ethnic background, his accomplishments and good works. But that is not Paul’s joy.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… Philippians 3:7-9

Knowing Christ and being found in Him — this is Paul’s joy. And we also can know Him and be found in Him. We can spend time consciously in His presence. We can get to know Him through prayer and people, spending time with Him and spending time with His community. We also get to know Him through His Word and through His Spirit.

And for Paul, that is a joy greater than personal self-expression or unlimited freedom. It is a joy greater than power or accomplishment or feeling like a good person. It is a joy that is greater than any circumstance and it is a joy that is available to us.

Prayer, people, and presence…I’m not going to say just choose joy. But I can encourage you to choose the habits of joy. They take time and they take work but it is a lifelong path worth taking. And together, we can return to joy.

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Additional Reading

Philippians — Read it, study it, meditate on it, and perhaps even memorize it. You can also engage in our sermon series: Return to Joy: Studies in Philippians.

The Other Half of Church: Christian Community, Brain Science, and Overcoming Spiritual Stagnation by Jim Wilder & Michel Hendricks. (While not perfect, this book does a fascinating job in bringing many of these things together. It’s a pretty short read but very worth it. I’m still chewing on a lot of it.)