A.J. Thomas is the Founder of Joyful Giving Group, whose mission is to cultivate a culture of generosity.
A.J. is a practiced believer in the power of generosity to transform individual lives, congregations, and entire communities.
A.J. is an ordained United Methodist pastor with over a decade of leadership experience in the local church. He is appointed to Joyful Giving Group as an extension ministry of the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.
4 Be glad in
the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! 5 Let your gentleness
show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. 6 Don’t
be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your
prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. 7 Then the
peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds
safe in Christ Jesus.
8 From now on,
brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable,
focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all
that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of
praise. 9 Practice these things: whatever you learned,
received, heard, or saw in us. The God of peace will be with you.
10 I was very
glad in the Lord because now at last you have shown concern for me again. (Of
course you were always concerned but had no way to show it.) 11 I’m
not saying this because I need anything, for I have learned how to be content
in any circumstance. 12 I know the experience of being in need
and of having more than enough; I have learned the secret to being content in
any and every circumstance, whether full or hungry or whether having plenty or
being poor. 13 I can endure all these things through the power
of the one who gives me strength.
Be glad in the Lord,
always.Don’t be anxious about
anything.I must admit that at the
beginning of the week, when I opened my Bible and read the first lines of our
passage for today, I wondered if we were being punked.Be glad always?Don’t be anxious about anything?Nice try, God, but do you have any idea what
we’ve been through lately?Do you know
how much death and tragedy we have faced as a congregation in the last six
weeks?Do you know how many are facing
difficulties – medically, in their families, in their relationships, their
jobs, their finances?Islamic State,
Ebola, the economy, the election.Our
church – our relationships, our mission, our budget, our resources, our future
– friends, there is plenty to be worried and anxious about!
And yet the Scripture
says, “Do not be anxious about anything.” I used to regard that as good advice, maybe
even a command: sort of self-improvement slogan; a personal, spiritual pep-rally. I would
read it and try to psyche myself up. "Let's do this! No anxiety! Who needs
it? I am a competent adult. I just need to breathe deeper, summon more faith,
and I can achieve this anxiety-free life Paul talks about. Let's do this!"
There are a lot of things we can do ourselves. Home Depot, Lowe's, and
other companies specialize in selling products to people who want to do their
projects themselves. Their slogans seek to inspire confidence in people that
they can do it themselves!
Lowe's was "Let's Build Something Together," which gave way in
2012 to "Never Stop Improving." Home Depot, until recently, was "You can
do it, we can help."
We are a society built on self-improvement, do-it-yourself, can-do-ability.We believe that the ability for each of us to
do and be whatever we want is somewhere inside of us, and the key to success is
to look and dig deep enough to find it.
And, truth be told, there’s an awful lot of good that we can accomplish
ourselves.There is satisfaction in
tackling a difficult project and completing it.Small children delight in being able to master some new skill without
any help and proudly announcing to the world, “I do it myself!”Goals of independence and self-sufficiency
are common both to our growing children and our aging parents.
All the self-help gurus will tell you that the keys to peace and
contentment and joy are found within ourselves, as well, but I’ve got news for
them – I’ve looked, and it’s not there.That need that we have for deep peace and joy and contentment is a real
need.We go looking for it where we’re
told to look for everything else that gives us meaning – within ourselves.And true enough, that need is inside of us,
but the solution isn’t.
So, if it’s not within us, it must be around us.Maybe we find joy in our circumstances, our
surroundings, our jobs, our wealth, our status, our possessions.
Over the winter, I had been hinting for months that I wanted a new
television.My birthday rolled around in
April, and low and behold, I came home from a trip to Kansas City and there in
my family room was a new flat-screen television more than twice as big as the
clunky old TV we had been watching.
The old TV worked just fine – it was just, old.I am grateful to my wife for getting it.Season Five of The Walking Dead begins tonight, and I’m glad to have a nice, big,
clear screen to watch it on.But, after
a few weeks, the excitement of having it wore off because I was used to
it.And then, they started advertising
for those new curved-screen TVs, and I was thinking, “Oh man, here I am
watching this outdated flat-screen; we should have waited and gotten the
Or, you buy a car, new or used, and you’re excited to get it because it’s
so much nicer or newer or more reliable or whatever than your old car, and you
show it off to all your friends, but then after a few weeks, you’re used to it.
You see how quickly that excitement and euphoria of a new thing can wear
off? Often the build-up and anticipation
of having those things brings more actual pleasure than the thing itself.So, no, true peace and joy and contentment
aren’t found outside of ourselves, either.
So if not inside of ourselves, and not outside of ourselves, where do we
find it? Well, for one thing, maybe each of us needs to take our “self” out of
the picture.If I may, we are far too
impressed with ourselves, and far too obsessed with ourselves.If you bought a Coke over the summer, be
honest, did you dig through the cooler on more than one occasion seeing if they
had a bottle with your name on it?I
know I did!Why was that campaign so
successful?Because it capitalized on
our unhealthy obsession with ourselves.
I can psyche myself up in other areas of life. So why do I struggle with
actualizing peace of mind in my own soul?Well, when it comes to finding lasting and peace and contentment and
joy, we are not clever enough, creative enough, smart enough, good enough,
spiritual enough, deep enough.
Peace and contentment and joy are not found in us, they are not found
around us, because they’re not about us.They’re found in God, because it’s about God.
The need for them is inside of us, but the solution isn’t.True joy comes from God.
It may be stating the
obvious, but the joy Paul has in mind is not superficial; there is a difference
between something funny or happy and deep joy, which has a lasting effect and
the power to change us.
Specifically, this joy is
not the same as “happy,” and following Jesus is certainly not always “happy.”
The Apostle Paul, who wrote these words to “be glad and be joyful, always” is
the same Apostle Paul who was persecuted, beaten, and imprisoned. In the end,
his faith cost him his life, as it did for many who believed in Jesus. The
faith is not always happy.
At the same time, it need
not be overly somber, either.Sometimes
we are our own greatest barrier to knowing God’s joy and peace.Sometimes we Christians just take ourselves
too seriously.We can get so focused on
duty and obligation, and rules and regulations that we miss the invitation to
walk with Christ in newness of life.Steve
Brown says, "Religion has made us obsessive almost beyond endurance. Jesus invited
us to a dance...and we've turned it into a march of soldiers, always checking
to see if we're doing it right and are in step and in line with the other
soldiers. We know a dance would be more fun, but we believe we must go through
hell to get to heaven, so we keep marching."
Sometimes we focus on the negative rather than the positive, or the
shortcomings, failures, and annoyances of others, caught up in meaningless
disagreements and petty arguments.I’ve
seen more church folks lose sight of the big picture because everyone was more
concerned with the color of the carpet, the music selections, the “right” way
to make the hot dogs and the setting of the thermostat than they were with
being a community of praise and prayer that sought God’s will over each of
their own.I’ve seen more church folks
major in the minors, thereby destroying rather than building any semblance of
We are too often focused
on sin instead of celebrating that we are forgiven. We complain too often about
the lack of righteousness instead of remembering we are beloved children of
God. We are too often frustrated by feelings of weakness instead of being
delighted about the strength of the Holy Spirit working in us. Yes, we too,
probably need a periodic reminder to “rejoice in the Lord.”
You may know that John
Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a missionary from England to the colony
of Georgia for about 18 months in the 1730s.Despite what the folks in Savannah tell you, his time in America was a
One famous story from that
time was on the ship to Georgia.A
violent storm came up that had most of the passengers screaming for their
lives, except for a group of Moravian Christians – the same Moravians in Winston-Salem
– who calmly prayed, read Psalms, and sang hymns.That incident left an impression on Wesley –
the maturity of their faith, and by comparison, the lack of maturity of his
What Wesley saw was truly
“the peace of God that passes all human understanding.”They found a joy and contentment that was not
within themselves, not circumstantial, but from God.
Now, in theory, we all
know this.We all know that God’s will
is ever-directed to his children’s good, that God is the Lord and giver of life
who came that we would have life and have it abundantly, and whatever forces
are at work in our world to steal and kill and destroy, those things are that
are robbing us of abundant life and taking away our joy are clearly not from
God, in theory, we all know that in our heads, but it’s easy to let the
troublesome circumstances of life cloud out that reality.
Yes, we too, need
instruction to focus our thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is
holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is
worthy of praise.The life of praise and
prayer is the path to peace and joy.If
you are looking for that in your life, commit to being a person of praise and
prayer; you’ll find a joy and a peace that transcends all human understanding.
This joy does not overlook
or diminish the real pain and difficulty we go through in life, but it keeps
the long view in mind that our struggles and grief are both temporary and
counter to God’s will for us.
Where that gets muddled,
our passage from Philippians is like hiring a personal trainer who isn’t going
to drop any new knowledge on us, but just tell us and remind us and encourage
us in what we already know:that we, as
the people of God, are called to a life of joy and contentment and peace in
God, even when the storms of life rage within us and around us.
So what is there to
rejoice? Real and lasting joy comes from the confidence that, no matter what
happens, we are inseparably connected to God and saved – saved from sin, and
saved for abundant life. It has to do with where the focus of one’s life is or,
to employ a famous phrase by Paul Tillich, with one’s “ultimate concern.”True joy is seated in an unwavering faith that
no matter what comes, God will win in the end.Good will triumph over evil, hope will prevail over fear, love will
always win over hate.
When anxiety and stress
and fear and pain and worry and grief are weighing us down, we are invited to
rejoice, because ultimately our identity is found in God, not in our
circumstances.We rejoice, not because
we are holding it all together, but because God is holding us, not because we
are having fun but because God is faithful, not because we are happy but
because God is holy.
We rejoice, not because life is good or we are
good but because God is good.