Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Aiming at God

Series on “Real Happiness”, Part 2
Isaiah 26:3
June 8, 2008

A quick survey: how many of you have cars? Now how many of you have a radio in your car? OK, one more: how many of you have that scan button, where you can check what’s on all the stations?

I hit the scan button recently. In the course of about a minute, I heard broadcasts in at least five languages. I heard news, talk, and several musical styles. I heard ads and PSAs (public service announcements). But I didn’t hear anything completed. I just heard fragments as the scan setting went from station to station.

It was disjointed, incomplete and scattered. Just the same way my thinking is sometimes! Don’t get proud—you’re the same. Our minds flit from one thing to another with such speed sometimes it’s frightful. How can you go from Homer Simpson to fast cars to lingerie to the Book of Psalms in 10 seconds? (Really—I read once that the average twenty-year-old male will think about God about every sixty seconds. Of course, the same guy thinks about sex every 20 seconds!)

Last week we began looking at happiness—what it is, how to get it and how to keep it. The big confusion we have about happiness is the idea that you can get it by going for it. Even the Declaration of Independence talks about “the pursuit of happiness.”

But the paradox of happiness is that you can’t reach it aiming for it. Happiness is a byproduct of other things. Real life (and that would include happiness) is a byproduct. Happiness is found is the full-on pursuit of God and His ways. Happiness is found by saying no to yourself and saying yes to God. And if you think you can have happiness by going straight at it, think again: “whoever wants to save his life will lose it.”

The language of happiness is all over the Bible. In Philippians 4:12, Paul talks about “the secret of being content.” That’s the same chapter where he talks about “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding” (vs. 7).

Jesus uses a distinct term for happiness that’s easy to miss: “blessed.” In the opening of the Sermon on the Mount, He has a series of eight blessings all starting with the words, “Blessed are…” “Blessed” is not just some super-spiritual term. One Bible scholar said that the meaning of “blessed” both in the Hebrew Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament is “truly happy.” Could it really mean that God wants you happy? You bet!

The image of God who’s looking out for anyone having fun so He can rain down wrath on them is pretty persistent, and it’s completely false. Our problem is not that we have happiness, or even seek happiness, but that we settle for half-baked happiness instead of real happiness. We settle for stale bread when God offers us manna. We settle for water when God offers us new wine. We settle for what C.S. Lewis calls “pygmy-sized” joys instead of full-grown ones.

Back in 2005, a TIME magazine cover story on happiness examined the data on faith and happiness and found this:

“Studies show that the more a believer incorporates religion into daily living–attending services, reading Scripture, praying–the better off he or she appears to be on two measures of happiness: frequency of positive emotions and overall sense of satisfaction in life… Attending services has a particularly strong correlation to feeling happy…”

Somehow, I’m not surprised. It’s not just a matter of faith, but really integrating that faith into your whole life that leads to happiness. I could have guessed!

There are many passages of Scripture we could select to examine the Biblical idea of happiness, but I’m pretty much just going to stick to one. It’s found in Isaiah 26:3-4:

3 You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.
4 Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD, the LORD, is the Rock eternal.

These are general principles in the middle of a prophecy of Isaiah about God’s preservation of the people through war and conflict, in his own time and down the ages.

In vs. 3 there is a promise: “You (God) will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in You.” God doesn’t keep everybody in “perfect peace”: He keeps those “whose mind is steadfast, because He trusts in You.”

There’s a condition for “perfect peace” here: it comes from a mind that is steady in its focus and in its trust in God.

Easier said than done! We’re back to the problem of the scan setting on the radio. We flit from mental station to another. How do you lock in on God’s channel? How do we aim at God surely enough that we get to the place of peace?

Sometimes we get a fuller picture of a passage’s meaning by looking in different translations. For example, the New Living renders vs. 3 this way:

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!

Hmm…it seems that peace (and happiness) comes when we can “fix” our thoughts on God. I don’t know about you, I still need some help figuring out how to do that.

Now, you do see the pay-off, don’t you? If we can figure out how to “fix our thoughts” on God, we get “perfect peace.” Not just ordinary peace, shalom, but “perfect peace.” In Hebrew that’s “shalom shalom”—to convey the idea of really good peace you just repeat the word! Like of like if your three-year old turns over a bowl of spaghetti, it’s a “messy mess.” Well, God promises a “peaceful peace.” How do we get there?

Let me dip into two Psalms to try to round this out. The first is Psalm 16:8-9:

8 I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
9 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure…

It’s exactly the same pattern: the Psalmist says that having “set the Lord always before…at my right hand”, he wasn’t shaken…and as a result, he’s happy: “therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices, my body also will rest secure…”

Here’s another Psalm that says it, Psalm 112:6-8:

6 Surely he will never be shaken; a righteous man will be remembered forever.
7 He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD.
8 His heart is secure, he will have no fear; in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.

Where does this guy get his sense of security and fearlessness and happiness? It’s right there in vs. 7: “his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord.”

That pattern is really clear. It’s the same, all over the Bible. Still, what do all these passages mean? How do you fix your mind on God all the time?

I think the answer is what we can call the practice of continuous prayer. The Bible speaks frequently of the idea of holding God before our hearts and mind all the time. That’s not the same as a specific time of prayer (which is a very good and valuable thing, a must-do for all Jesus followers); it’s a kind of low-level background buzz of prayer-connection to God that permeates our lives.

My mother-in-law was, well, unique. She could be a handful—everybody who knew her knew that. But she lived this life of having God continually before her. Once a few months before Lynann and I were married, we were in the car with her; her husband Earl, my soon-to-be father-in-law, was driving. Out of nowhere a car came charging through the intersection and nearly, nearly slammed into our car. At the moment when Earl had to swerve and it looked like we’d have a collision, Lynann’s mother said two words: “Lord Jesus!” It was totally natural for her. Jesus was never far from her thoughts—the words were just her love for Him and trust in Him bubbling up and coming out. It never crossed my mind that she was abusing the name…it was totally genuine. Jesus was before her, and it was natural that she called to Him in need.

Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:

16Be joyful always; 17pray continually; 18give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

Paul links joy (happiness) with prayer and thankfulness for the very reason we’re talking about here: a heart and mind fixed on God will have the maximum joy a human heart can have—or handle!

How does this work? I don’t know about you, but I need some specifics. I don’t need any more theory, I need some guidelines.

First, let’s admit that it’s impossible to have a total focus on God 24/7. Sometimes you have to focus on getting the square root of 386 or parallel parking or on handling a customer’s order. That’s OK. Just think of it like this. Imagine you’re working in an office where someone keeps a radio playing all the time. Chances are you pretty much tune the radio out—it’s background noise. But if the tone changed you could instantly tune in: “THIS JUST IN: a plane flying from Sydney in Australia to Los Angeles has gone missing somewhere in the South Pacific…” (A little something for the fans of LOST!) Suddenly it has your attention.

Now, how do you turn that radio of focus on God, to begin with? That sense of continuous connection, of “praying without ceasing” comes from those times that we intentionally and intently come to God.

I don’t want to simplify this to “pray so you can be happy.” You pray because prayer is one of the basic commands of Jesus. You pray to worship God and to seek Him and to ask Him to bless your true needs. But that being said, you can’t have God fixed before you, and know the happiness that comes from that, without coming before Him intentionally and intensely.

So have a fixed time of prayer daily, and then cultivate unfixed, free-flowing prayer. As God fills your thoughts, the peace of God will fill your emotions. Life gets in perspective. God gets bigger in our thoughts and problems shrink. Not even death can shake the one who’s fixed on Him.
What’s that unfixed, free-flowing prayer like, and how can we cultivate it? Let me give you a few suggestions:

First, learn simple prayers that you can repeat often throughout the day.

That’s why it’s good to memorize the Lord’s Prayer. But sometimes even that’s too long.

There’s also what’s known as the Jesus Prayer; it’s taken from Luke 18:38, the story of the man whose simple heartfelt prayer was accepted by God while the prayer of the self-righteous was rejected. There are slight differences in wording, but the simplest form of the Jesus Prayer is “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!”

You may even want to make up a short prayer. The late Derek Prince gave this advice in this kind of prayer: seek God for the words, and then pray those words continuously. Say you’re grappling with a big decision. You might want to keep this prayer going in the corner of your mind, “Guide me, Lord Jesus.” Say you’re struggling with temptation? “Deliver us from evil.” You get the idea. Ask God for the words, and He will provide. Then pray back to Him the prayer He’s ordained—it can be very powerful!

Second, fill your heart with praise through music. That can be music from a CD or from your heart. There’s a reason that the middle of the Bible is song book—the book of Psalms. Music grabs a different part of our souls than words alone. It’s a God-ordained way of setting God and His glory before us.

Ephesians 5:19-21 says,

19Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, 20always [that’s the key word!] giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This pattern of “God before me always, joy within me” is seen in a lot of Christian music, whether we’re talking about traditional or today. Take “How Great Thou Art” (the English version, translated from Swedish is from 1954, which isn’t very old for a hymn):

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then (that’s the turning point—going from “God before me” to joy) sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee, How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

So you can use a CD or a MP3 or just your old brain, but songs of praise are a great way to keep God before you.

Third, punctuate your days and nights with intentional prayer.

One way we do this is in prayer before meals. I have a friend who’s taught his family to pray at the end of dinner daily as well. Muslims pray five times a day as an obligation. Jesus followers, living under God’s grace, could learn something from them! We can use natural pauses in our day as occasions to pray. Here’s some possibilities, many of which I’ve used:

-Pray whenever you brush your teeth
-Pray in the car on the way to work or to an appointment
-Pray during TV commercials, even if they are the best part!
-Here’s an idea: both reformer Martin Luther and Puritan Cotton Mather prayed whenever they used the bathroom!

Again, we’re not talking about a long pray; just a quick word of praise to the Lord, a quick moment of intercession.

Joy is a missionary serving in Mozambique. In January, she wrote this on her blog:

A few nights ago, I couldn’t sleep. Two verses from the Bible kept running through my mind, Isaiah 26:3 and 4. I gave up on trying to fall asleep, picked up my Bible, and opened to Isaiah 26. I read verses 3 and 4 quietly to myself… Satisfied, I closed my Bible and lay back down with hopes of falling off to sleep. Didn’t happen. My husband asked me what was wrong. I asked him what time it was in Michigan, because I felt like I needed to call and talk to my Mom. 1:30 in the morning, and I’m calling my Mom. That’s okay, because in Michigan it is 10 a.m. or something like that. Mom was home. It was great to hear her voice. I shared with her my struggle of falling to sleep. You see, it wasn’t insomnia. I was discouraged…

As I lay awake, fighting tears, desperately wanting sleep to come, Isaiah 26:3 and 4 came to comfort me. The Lord brought them to my mind. I read them in His Word. Then, I called Mom. And you know what she said to me? [She quoted] Isaiah 26:3 and 4! I couldn’t get away from those two verses. God was speaking them to me. First, in His still small voice, as rode through the emotions and battled thoughts from the Enemy. Then, through His Word. Now, through my mother…half a world away. There was no escaping it.

[She concludes]; I could hardly believe my ears. In fact, I think I interrupted her to point out what God had just done with these verses for me. She wondered what my problem was then…

God is talking…listen. Relax. Have faith. The same things my husband has been telling me. Things that are so difficult to do when you want something so badly.

Isaiah 26:3-4:
3 You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.
4 Trust in the LORD forever, for the LORD, the LORD, is the Rock eternal.

Let’s pray.

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