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Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice! Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. - Philippians 4:4 (NLT)
I read an article in CNN that played off of the now-cliche phrase, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” contrasting it with a reality of: “It's pretty much inevitable, so you may as well learn to use it to your advantage.” The article went on to highlight a book by two social psychologists, who argue that “social comparison is an innate human tendency, and, whether it's the wisest move or not, it's a big part of the way we determine our own level of happiness,” and ultimately advised to use our comparative tendencies to boost competitive motivation.
As much as I cringed reading these words, I wasn’t surprised - isn’t this the overwhelming cry of our culture? To get ahead so you can be happier? The key flaw is a distinction that was failed to be recognized between joy and happiness: one is life and freedom, the other is a hamster wheel. Joy is a reality we choose; happiness is a feeling we chase.
Looking at this verse, I’m tempted to feel defeated by it - I know I don’t feel happy all the time, and I certainly can’t create that reality. However, choosing joy has nothing to do with modifying our mindsets, but rather shifting our perspective. The Message translation puts it this way: “Celebrate God all day, every day… I mean, revel in him!” (Phil 4:4a). Joy is an active celebration of the reality of who God is, and what He’s already done. To have a life full of joy is not to bend our emotions, but to revel in truth. When we focus on the truth of who God is, we inherently reject comparison; we reject the chase of happiness to embrace something eternal. We are free from our hamster wheels. We are free to rest in contentment.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. - Philippians 4:6-7 (NLT)
Confession: I totally pray for parking spots, and probably too frequently. In my defense, it’s only in desperate situations downtown when nothing is available, and I usually do end up finding one. The Lord provides, y’all.
While I’ll readily admit this isn’t the holiest of spiritual practices, it took a lot of growth to feel permission to communicate with God without running my prayers through my editor’s brain. I grew up thinking, “that doesn’t matter to Him,” “He doesn’t care about that,” or “I’ll figure it out.” I’ve been much more likely to think about worry as a reality to manage than as a sin to seek freedom from.
But what a sweet peace and power in this verse, in a command to worry over nothing and pray about everything. The Message translation says, “...Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life” (Phil. 4:6-7).
And this is the truth we must embrace: worry and trust cannot coexist. But when we pray about everything, when we surrender, we turn from behavior management to transformative vulnerability. We inherit God’s wholeness, banish worry, and rest in contentment. Pastor Bethany Allen put it this way: “It’s a vulnerable thing to ask God to do something on your behalf… [but] when we risk in prayer, we are saying, ‘I trust you this much.’”
We pray to a God who can be trusted - not just with the little things (like bad days or parking spots), but with the heavy things - anxiety, disease, tragedy, brokenness. In light of this truth, we can pray with a kind of power that leads us to contentment.
And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing. Then the God of peace will be with you. - Philippians 4:8-9 (NLT)
Have you ever gotten on an app or started watching a show, only to find yourself engrossed an hour (or hours, thanks Netflix) later? It’s easy to make jokes about how we’re all addicted to our iPhones, but I’m a little embarrassed at truly how easily (or how long) technology steals my attention.
Moments like that make this verse as convicting as it is beautiful; as much as I want my thoughts to be solidly fixed on the Lord, I’m easily distracted. There’s a show, there’s new music, there are people to see and things to read, and always something new on social media. And these are such good things! But at the end of a busy day, if I find myself frustrated and feeling distant from the Lord, I can typically look back and see the spare moments I filled with distraction. I dulled my own awareness when I could have fixed myself on the true, lovely, admirable Father, who’s truly worthy of all my praise and attention.
What is it that consumes your thoughts, maybe in an unhealthy way? It varies from person to person, but the absence of peace, joy or clarity in our lives may reflect distracted thoughts and hearts. In moments of struggle and muddled thoughts, I frequently return to Jeremiah 29:13, where the Lord promises, “If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me;” and ask myself if I’m seeking wholeheartedly. In our pursuit of Jesus, it may be our little compromises that keep our attention off Him, that keep us from fully abiding in the presence and contentment of God.
"When you read this verse, where do your habits oppose or lack these words? Consider what regularly steals your attention from the Lord - it may be an app on your phone, a TV show, or even a person. Challenge yourself to remove that distraction from your life - maybe for a week, or even a day - and replace it with a spiritual practice that will help you seek the Lord more wholeheartedly."Share Tweet
Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. - Philippians 4:11-12 (NLT)
In high school, I was the super uncool kid on the outs of every social group, believing with all my heart that if I could afford the right brand of clothing, I would belong. I remember reading this verse and wrestling with contentment and thinking, “but I can’t be content!” or “but I just need this one thing!” As much as I have matured since then, I still have moments of restlessness, insisting I cannot possibly achieve contentment without (fill in the blank). But contentment isn’t something we achieve; in fact, true contentment often springs from a surrendered area of lack or pain, and in turn, satisfies us more deeply.
Paul, the writer here, knows true suffering and therefore deep, abiding contentment. The Bible Project summarizes Philippians 4 this way: “Paul sees his suffering as a reenactment of Jesus’ life story, and hardships taught him that the secret of contentment is simple dependence on God.”
Though we avoid suffering, Paul’s life and his conviction to live as a reflection of Jesus remind us that while suffering is a guarantee, joy and contentment are possible because dependence is available. As much as we are promised hardship, we are promised even more victory and even more presence. In John 16:33, Jesus tells us, “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth, you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.” In Psalm 27:13 we are reminded we can still hope for goodness, even on earth. Psalm 31 says we can still rejoice because He sees us and cares for us in our anguish. I could make a mile-long list of reassurances of His care and goodness, and above all, this is where we find contentment: in His promises and presence.
For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. - Philippians 4:13 (NLT)
This verse classifies as one of those easy inspirational quotes that graces Christian bookmarks and coffee mugs, or is quoted by athletes as they ask to win a game. It’s simple and easily applicable, but the power in it becomes muddled when we forget the context - when Paul says “everything,” he says it as someone who has faced resistance, persecution, and many imprisonments and counted it all as a joyful reflection of Jesus. What our coffee mugs miss is that this isn’t simply a reminder for our bad days; this is a beacon of hope in true suffering. This doesn’t disqualify our pain, it displaces a false pressure to manage it.
I am the queen of, “No, I can do it!” I bear my struggle with shame, and try to convince everyone, including God and myself, that I have it under control so I can avoid being burdensome. But in my failure and stillness, I often remember 2 Corinthians 12:9 - “Each time he said, ‘my grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.” What a joy it is to be weak.
We can do absolutely nothing without Jesus, and what a blessing! His strength looks nothing like our wobbly attempts; it’s confident and sure, abundant and joy-filled. We are free to take our eyes off ourselves and our failures and turn toward a Father who rejoices in our steps.
The true power in Paul’s imprisonment and suffering isn’t just the strengthening of his own faith - it’s the way it echoed into the lives around him. To the other prisoners, to the Philippians, to you and I reading his words today. When we seek the Lord and let the Spirit be our strength, we find that His heart is to intervene in the suffering of others, and we can only do so with Him.