Mar 22 - Focus On The Positive Things In Life

Focus on the Positive Things in Life

March 22, 2015

Philippians 4:8

Philippians 4:8
March 22nd, 2015

I recently listened to a TED talk that I liked.  In it an individual named Shawn Achor spoke about happiness and the work place.  He pointed out that the traditional viewpoint is that the more successful you are at work, the happier you will be.  

Whether or not we realize it, most of us are taught from a very young age that achieving success – getting good grades, being good at sports, getting into the right school, college or university, having a prestigious career, marrying the right person, driving the right car, living in the right neighbourhood, having smart and talented kids, having the yacht, going on the certain vacation, having enough savings to do what we want in retirement – achieving these goals will make us happy, or at least happier.

So we can be forgiven when we sometimes feel we will only be happy “when” – when we graduate, when we get married, when we buy the house, when we buy the yacht, when we go on vacation, when we pay of the mortgage, and so on.

So let’s say that you do reach a big goal or you are able to purchase what you really wanted.  How does that feel?  Likely, good – unless buyer’s regret sets in.  You may feel really happy – elated even.  But how long does that feeling of euphoria last?  

For most of us, the answer is "not long."  Perhaps a day, a week, or a month, and in certain cases, a few months.  But those feelings fade even if we continue to be pleased about whatever milestone we’ve reached or a purchase we made.  The reality is that once the moment of achievement passes, we tend to look for the next goal, the next purchase, the next achievement.  We simply aren’t content to stand still.  

Success allows a person to spend more money and purchase more things.  It brings with it moments of happiness but not necessarily a lasting sense of happiness and joy.

And then there is the reality that more money can mean more taxes, greater fear of loss, more upkeep, more stuff in storage, moorage fees, more insurance, maintenance, and worry.  So success will bring with it many perks but also many worries.  

Similarly, success allows for greater generosity, at least in principle, but on the other, it can also lead to greater debauchery.  Nor will success set aside disappointment and suffering, or bring overall contentment, or peace of mind, or a happy disposition.

Or as Albert Schweitzer, the acclaimed theologian, musician, and physician from a century ago said:

To get back to the TED talk, the point of the presentation was that the company he works for actually helps people to have an attitude adjustment so that they can experience ongoing happiness.  For 21 days in a row their clients have them do a number of things:

1. Each day they have to write down three new things that they are thankful about
2. Each day keep a journal of the good things that happen (rather than the bad things, which permeate the news)
3. Each day they have to exercise – the point is to release the endorphins such as dopamine that actually help people to feel good
4. Each day they have to meditate – to mentally rewind.  
5. Each day they have to do a “Random” acts of kindness – actually it isn’t so random.  They have to send at least one email a day where they encourage someone or point out something good about them or thank them

The theory is that if we get into the habit of looking for the good in situations, in the habit of being grateful and caring, in the habit of being physically active and psychologically rested, then we will be a positive and happy individuals.   

What struck me about this approach is that it didn’t ask people to stop themselves from being critical, uncaring, self-centered, negative, or feeling entitled.  Instead, it asked them to build into their lives some positive things. 

If you have noticed, some dieticians and health experts tell you what to avoid or stop eating in order to lose weight and live longer.  This is the case, let’s say, with Dr. Oz, who on Oprah spoke of five ingredients you should stop eating right now:

high fructose corn syrup, 
white flour, 
saturated fat (= animal fat), 
trans fat (= hydrogenated vegetable oil – used as a preservative) 

This would mean reading labels extensively and not buying products where sugar, corn syrup, flour, saturated fat or trans fat is on the ingredient label.  

Another approach by dieticians is not to try to tell people what to avoid, but to get them to incorporate healthier food choices in their diet, particularly raw fruits and vegetables.  One statement by a health expert caught my attention:  

Don’t focus on not eating certain foods.  Diets are bound to fail.  Instead focus on eating good foods and you will naturally eat less of the stuff that’s not good for you, which will lead to weight loss.  

I think part of that statement is based on something that I’ve noticed and maybe you’ve noticed as well, particularly when you make a new year’s resolution, or you cut something out of your life for the Lenten season, which we are in right now.

If we try to stop doing something, let’s say, we want to stop eating chocolate, what can happen, is that we obsess about the very thing we want to avoid.  In the case of chocolate, I might say to myself, “I won’t eat chocolate, I won’t eat chocolate,” but what that does is direct your mind to the very thing you want to avoid, which usually leads to an increased desire for it.

So I want you to close your eyes for just a moment.  Eyes closed?  So I want you to stop thinking about the chocolate bars you saw on the overhead.  I want you to stop thinking about the Snickers, the Mars, the Kitkat, the Twix, the Cadbury Dairy Milk.  OK.  Go. 

Alright, how did you do?  Anyone able to not think about the chocolate bars?  What did you have to do in order to do this (usually supplant it with an emotionally charged image of something else).
But for most of us, the more we try to avoid something, the more we try to put it out of our minds, we actually tend to think more about it.  In some strange way, by saying to ourselves that we are going to stop something, it heightens our awareness of the thing we are trying to avoid, and it actually empowers the temptation - often leading to predictable results.

If you are a Christian, this reality may lead to frustration.  The first Bible verse I ever memorized is this one:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape that you may be able to endure it.              1 Corinthians 10:13  

According to Paul, believers have the ability to endure every temptation that is brought their way because God has provided a way to sidestep the temptation, to get away from it.  

For most of my Christian life, that way of escape has escaped me.  Often I felt like a helpless pawn when it came to temptation, and the harder I struggled against it, it seemed that the more strength and power I gave to the temptation.  

And this principle tends to hold true no matter what the temptation may be.  Tell us we aren’t to do anything and it engenders temptation.

The apostle Paul describes this phenomena in his letter to the Romans as he describes his own pre-Christian condition in Romans 7.  By the way, many Christians see reflected in these verses their own condition even after they believed and dedicated themselves to God, because they are it seems powerless to stop doing the things they say they don’t want to do.

I would not have known what it is to desire after the possessions of others if the law had not said, “You are not to covet.”  But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.                        Romans 7:7-8

Paul goes on to describe the tension and frustration this propensity to give in to temptation produced in him - prior to his conversion:

I am of the flesh, sold under sin.  For I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  … I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but he evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.                    Romans 7:14-15,18-19

For Paul, the problem in his pre-Christian condition was his obsessive focus on the minutiae of the Mosaic Law.  He felt that this actually empowered sin in his life.  The result was that he ended up being eaten up by hate and self-righteousness – and therefore actively engaged in the attempt to put an end to this movement called Christianity through violent means.   

Now we are released from the Law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit. …The Law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.                        Romans 7:6; 8:2

The way this tension between what he wanted to do and what he actually did, was resolved in Paul’s own life when he set aside or died to the “Law of Moses”, with its focus on the “shall not’s”, and turn instead to what he called “the Law of the Spirit” (Rom 8:2), which focuses much more on bearing fruit for God (Rom 7:4), that is, with loving God and loving others.  The emphasis is on building into our lives that things that are right, rather than weeding out the things that are wrong.

Paul put it another way as well:

Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.                    Romans 8:5

If you give this a bit of thought, you will realize that Paul is speaking about focusing on the Spirit’s voice or the things that are important to the Spirit of God, rather than obsessing about the things of the flesh, the desires which lead us into temptation.  In other words, if we are focused on thinking about the right things, we will think much less on the things that will lead us into sin.  

As I added to this slide:

Thoughts engage our desires
Desires dictate our priorities
Priorities shape our choices
Choices determine our actions
Actions define who we are (as well as set the direction of our lives)

The issue then is about what we are thinking about, what preoccupies our minds.  Are we focused on erasing certain thoughts or behaviours from our lives, or are we focused on adding certain thoughts and behaviours into our lives?  

By the way, that is not to say, that we cannot decide to stop doing the things we don’t want to do.  After all, the Scriptures do call on us to resist the devil.  However, I think it’s a lot easier to avoid areas of temptation rather than to resist it.  In fact, wouldn’t it be silly to go to the same place or hang around the same people who bring with them temptation. 

What I am getting at, however, is that the refocusing of our minds is key to when it comes to living a life that truly matters to God and actually fulfills a greater purpose than simply trying to get as many moments of happiness as possible.  I think that is what Paul was talking about in his other letters as well.  For example,

Be renewed in the spirit of your minds.        Ephesians 4:23

Set your minds on the things that are above and not on the things that are on earth.                        Colossians 3:2

If our actions, really our lives and our destinies are tied to our thoughts, if the real spiritual battle takes place for our minds, if right living is tied directly to right thinking, then it is imperative with what we occupy our minds.

We cannot expect to display the fruit of the Spirit, we cannot expect to be joyful and kind, gentle and loving, patient, gentle or peaceful without thinking joyful, kind, gentle, loving, patient, gentle and peaceful thoughts.

That is what Paul told the believers in Rome as well.

Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.    Romans 12:2

There is one passage in particular that comes to mind with regard to refocusing our minds.  

Finally brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.            Philippians 4:8

When Paul tells the Christians in Philippi that they are to “think about these things,” he is not telling them to spend a fleeting thought here or there on them.  Rather, he’s telling them that they are to spend some time focusing their thoughts on them.  You could say he told them to “ponder about these things,” or perhaps to “keep on thinking about these things.”  

Now I’ve read a few sermons that go into detail on each one of these adjectives.  You know, truth is contemplating the truth about God, about ourselves and others.  It is the truth about how we relate to God, how that relationship can be established and maintained.  It is the truth about our own fallible nature and our need for a Saviour.  It is the truth about our need to extend forgiveness and mercy to others, just as God has extended forgiveness and mercy toward us.

We are to think about what is genuine and authentic and real, and in that way reject what is false, inauthentic, fake.  

Or honourable speaks of us thinking about the things that bring dignity to ourselves and others.  

However, I don’t think that Paul was so much concerned to give the Philippians a complete list of the things that they are to focus their thoughts on.  He simply listed anything that is good or worthy of praise and thanksgiving in some way or another, whether we find it in God, in ourselves, in others, in our circumstances, in our environment.  

And that means shifting our thoughts about ourselves and others from finding fault to finding what is right in us and them.   

Instead of putting ourselves down or thinking that we are inept or weak or useless or ugly … instead of listing all the things we can’t do or can’t do well … , we should really think of ourselves in completely different ways … what our strengths are, what we do right, what we are capable of, our gifts and talents.  

The reality is that we can always find something bad, something to complain about, something to bemoan, something that is wrong, unjust, untrue, ugly, despicable in our past, in our present circumstances, in ourselves, and in others.  There will always be unpleasant circumstances, unreasonable people, and an uncertain future.   

But it really is our choice whether we are going to dwell on these things, or whether we are going dwell on what is right, on how blessed we are, on what a great part of the world we live in, on the good people at work, on friends that are kind, and so on.

Have you heard the story of the farmer who was unhappy with his farm?  He had lived in the area for years and wanted change.  The house was too big.  The barn too small.  So he decided to sell and move.   

He engaged a realtor to look the farm over, take some pictures and prepare the write up for the MLS listing.  But before posting the farm, the realtor came over to show the pictures and write-up of the listing to see if it was OK with the farmer or if he wanted to change anything. 

The pictures showed the farmhouse, barn and the land during the late afternoon where everything was glowing in warm tones.  The write-up spoke of a great location, sturdy and well-maintained buildings, a great well, lush pasture, a beautiful pond, fertile soils and a great view.  The farmer read over the description carefully and then read it again.  

Finally, the farmer paused and said, "No, don’t list the farm. I’ve changed my mind. I’ve always wanted a place like that."

It’s like that with so many things we take for granted.  Our health, our loved ones, … 

By thinking or dwelling or pondering the things that are good and right and honourable and praiseworthy and just and commendable, it will help us not to take these things for granted, but be filled with a deep sense of gratitude, with appreciation, and contentment.  It will help us to become mindful of the positives in our world and that will influence our happiness, our self-talk, our perception, and thus our sense of wellbeing, what the Bible calls joy and peace.  

Where focus goes, energy flows.  So a focus on the positives will also help us to see where we ourselves can become a source of what is right, honourable, and so on, … and thus we begin to display these characteristics toward others.  For example, if I see a person helping another person and take note of it, it will prompt me to help out when I see a person in need.  Or if I dwell on the lovingkindness (hesed in Hebrew) that God displays toward me, it will motivate me to share that same lovingkindness with others.

Again, Albert Schweitzer, who lived for 30 years as a medical missionary in North-West Africa, comments on the connection between serving and happiness:

When we demonstrate the love of God in our actions, that is just one way that we bring light into this world, and it ends up blessing us as well as others.  

There can be those who call themselves followers of Christ who are unhappy, grumpy, negative, greedy, unkind, uncaring, even mean.  That means that their professed belief really hasn’t translated into a renewed mind.  Their thinking is going along familiar negative paths.  They have never deliberately and consistently focused their minds on the good stuff.  Let’s not be like that.

Think about it in this way.  Prior to power engines, the only way to move ships over water was to either row or sail.  Given enough wind to fill the sails, even very large ships could traverse oceans and lakes.

Let’s set the sails of our minds to all that is …

Let us think about these things.  Discover them around us, in us and in others.  Let us have eyes open to see and hearts open to appreciate all the good things and the good people and, most of all, our good God.