Near the end of Philippians, a letter you could call Paul’s Book on Joy, we get a glimpse of his heart-felt and loving concern for two church ladies in the midst of a disagreement. There is plenty that we don’t know about this situation including what the disagreement was about, what caused it, how long it had been going on, and how it affected others. Whatever the answer to these questions, the issue was significant enough for Paul to publically call out the ladies and urge others in the church to help correct the issue:
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. ~ Philippians 4:2-3
Immediately of note, in addressing the problem and urging a solution, Paul affirmed these ladies’ faith, showed appreciation for their work in spreading the gospel, and expressed the need for togetherness. Paul would have known well what Jesus prayed for in John 17:20-26: our unity because such is a great apologetic for the gospel.
It should come as no surprise, then, what surrounds this call to unity in Paul’s letter. In 4:1 he wrote of his love for and joy in the church, and urged them to stand firm in their faith. Then in 4:4-8, Paul urged a rejoicing heart, a humble disposition, a trusting life, and a heavenly-focused mind. Each of these aid greatly in building unity with other believers.
A rejoicing heart (4:4). “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” If you want a theme verse for Philippians, this would be it. As early as 1:4, Paul started speaking about joy and he never let off the gas. He bookended everything else in the letter with joy. All of the other statements, including brief but deep theological reflections on a life totally committed to the Lord who sold himself out to the humility of the cross to gain his throne, are saturated and surrounded with comments about joy.
The best way I know how to define joy is happiness based in God. This is why joy can even be manifested in the face of trials—though we might hurt and face confusion in the moment, God is doing something better that will ultimately bring about our greatest good: glorification forever together with Jesus. A rejoicing heart pushes forward through the darkness to stay focused on this light.
Often divisions start with grumbling. We think our view is being left out or under-represented. We don’t like what others are doing. We get irritated at the way Ol’ Mr. Smith said something. So we start to grumble, complain, gossip, and divide. But, Paul wrote, “Do all things without grumbling and complaining” (2:14). And what do we find a mere four verses later? “Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.”
Rejoicing in the Lord forces out a lot of the grumbling in our lives. That’s not to say that we will always be in agreement with another person or the other side. We might not see eye-to-eye. It might not be our preference or the way we would have done it. But if we’re rejoicing in the Lord then we are able to approach the situation with a better attitude.
And speaking of attitude… A humble disposition (4:5). Paul wrote, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” I have a note in my Bible from when I preached this to help me remember what Paul had in mind: Reasonableness—a sense of courtesy, not over-concerned about one’s own rights. Paul had spoken about this idea earlier in the letter. He urged the church to complete his joy through unity, the laying aside of selfish ambition, and showing concern for the interests of others (2:2-4).
Humility doesn’t deny that we have our own needs and desires. But humility will “count others more significant than yourselves” (2:3). This is what Jesus meant when he said: if you want to be first, then be a servant to others. The greatest way to see our ambitions met is through serving and self-sacrifice. This seems paradoxical to the way we think the world works, but much of the Kingdom is.
Through serving we show a Christ-centered love for others that creates a bond of trust and helps them be more willing to listen to what we have to say. Through serving we often also find our priorities and ambitions changing. Striving to serve like Christ is transformative to helping us be more like Christ. And that is huge in our fight against fighting against others.
A trusting life. Next, Paul wrote about anxiety. He said instead of being anxious about anything, we should “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let [our] requests be made known to God” (4:6). The trust here is that God is in control, he knows what he is doing, and he is really, really good (like infinitely really good) at what he’s doing.
Again, back to grumbling and complaining: we tend to do it when things don’t go our way, which means we tend to do it when we feel as if we aren’t in control. Here is a wonderfully freeing secret: you’re not in control. This is hard for the self-made man/woman of the American dream to swallow. The poem Invictus captures well what we desire: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.”
Yet the reality is there are many things we don’t control. How much of our economy is based on what big businesses or other governments do? How much of our safety while driving is based on what the drivers around us do? Despite attempts to be healthy, how many diseases and health problems are based on genetic issues we inherited? How much is our grade on that essay exam based on what the professor feels about what we wrote? On and on and on…
I think many of our problems and conflicts in church and the SBC come down to this issue. Either we are in a position where we think we have control and we’re afraid of losing it; or we’re in a position where we used to have control and we want it back; or we’re in a position where we have no control and we want some.
Again, Jesus’ admonition seems fitting: if you want to be first… Anxiety about control, who has it, or the lack there of will send us into a downward tailspin of disunity, fear, and mistrust. But stepping back and realizing that having control and being in charge shouldn’t be the grand ambition, and realizing that ultimately God is in control of it all will help ease a lot of anxiety. “The peace of God…will guard you hearts and your minds in Christ” (4:7).
A heaven-focused mind. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, thing about these things” (4:8). On the one hand, the truest, most honorable, most just, purest, loveliest, most commendable, most excellent, and most praiseworthy thing or person we could think about is God. We should gaze oft at his glory and beauty. For “we…beholding the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).
Yet, also, what do we more often fill our minds with? The angry rants, sexual innuendos, promiscuous happenings, and inane violence, all of which we find in various degrees in politics, tv, books, the internet, etc.? Or with the beauty of nature, imagination soaring literature, praiseworthy deeds by others, the decades-long romance of a Jesus-loving couple quietly holding hands, etc.?
Glimpses of true beauty are tastes of God’s grace and goodness, tastes of heaven, of eternity. These are the very things we are to first look for in others and hope to see in repentance if they are lacking. After all, think of how Paul described love: “It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:6-7).
When we gaze first at the goodness of God and then second look for the God given goodness in others, it changes our perspectives and invites unity even when we disagree.
Conclusion. There’s more to be said. How do we handle disagreements? How do we approach someone who has offended us? How do we approach someone who has been offended by us? How do we help two other people or groups “to agree in the Lord”? How… how… how…? These will have to be for another day and perhaps another author.
In Paul’s letter of joy, though, I believe we find the foundation we must lay as we seek to pursue answers to these questions. There are plenty of different ideas and desires that we will have which are at odds with others, at least as long as we are on this side of eternity. Yet that doesn’t mean we have to default to insecurity, mistrust, and division.
Instead we can strive for something greater. And it starts with a rejoicing heart, a humble disposition, a trusting life, and a heavenly-focused mind.