Paul’s letter to the Philippians, which you’ll want to keep open at chapter 4, is a letter to people for whom he has deep love. It is filled with warm and encouraging advice on how to live as a disciple of Jesus.
At one time on his travels the Holy Spirit had prevented Paul and his companions from preaching the word in the province of Asia. Then they headed north for the province of Bithynia, but again the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to go there. Perhaps you remember what happened next. It is in Acts 16:9. Paul had a dream in which he met a man from Macedonia in northern Greece. It says that in Paul’s dream the man was standing there, pleading with him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!”
Paul took that as a clear direction from God and went to Macedonia, where he became possibly the first person ever to preach in Europe. That place was Philippi. Those people are the ones to whom he is writing this letter.
At this stage in his life, Paul has very little reason for optimism or for hope. He is in prison, and the future is decidedly bleak. He is suffering and he faces death. He calls this his ‘present difficulty’.
And yet Paul tells these dear people how he is full of contentment and explains how they can enjoy overwhelming peace, just as he does. What an amazing man is our brother Paul. He makes it sound so simple. All we have to do, he says in verse 4, is ‘always be full of joy in the Lord’. And then to emphasise his point for those of us who are unable to believe it could really be so simple he repeats it: ‘I say it again—rejoice!’
In verse 6 he says, ‘Don’t worry about anything.’
It can sound ridiculous advice if we aren’t careful. We can misread what Paul is saying if we don’t pay attention. He is not saying something like: ‘Don’t care. Just be happy.’
It is an easy mistake to make, but Paul is not advising us to ignore reality. Nor is he telling us to be happy in spite of the circumstances.
He says rejoice. He says don’t worry.
This requires us to recognise our present difficulty, as Paul calls it, and yet still rejoice in God. And even though things look bleak, don’t worry.
Why shouldn’t we worry? Is he saying to just give up and accept things? No, in fact he isn’t. Paul says that there is something we should do instead of worrying. Something that will help us rejoice.
He tells us that instead of focusing on our hopelessness we should pray. Instead of thinking about how bad things are, he says in verse 8, you should ‘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.’
You may be surprised to learn that there is a scientific principle at work here. This not a sort of positive thinking where the goal is to persuade yourself against all the evidence to the contrary that things aren’t really ‘that bad’.
There is something called ‘Stockholm Syndrome’. It is named after a bank siege that took place in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973 when Jan-Erik Olsson and a friend strapped dynamite to four people and kept them locked in a bank vault with them as hostages for 131 hours.
What surprised many people was what happened after the siege was over. In their media interviews, it was clear that the hostages supported their captors and actually feared law enforcement personnel who came to their rescue. The hostages had begun to feel the captors were actually protecting them from the police. One woman later became engaged to one of the criminals and another developed a legal defence fund to aid in their criminal defence fees. Clearly, the hostages had “bonded” emotionally with their captors.
Stockholm Syndrome is universally recognised and acknowledged, but it didn’t actually start in Stockholm. Psychology had already been familiar with this phenomenon for many years among Abused Children, Battered/Abused Women, Prisoners of War, Cult Members, Incest Victims, and Concentration Camp Prisoners.
Soldiers returning from the Korean War who had been captured and held prisoner in North Korea often spoke highly of their captors despite having been brutally treated. This led to the term brainwashing.
You might say that rather than birds of a feather flocking together, birds that flock together become of one kind. It is the story of Mowgli writ large. Mowgli is the story of a feral child who was raised by wolves and thought he was a wolf.
It is a fact that most people become like the people with whom they spend most of their time. All of us adapt to become one of the crowd. And that we don’t even realise that we are doing it.
We adopt the attributes of our peers. We share their perceptions and goals. We naturally become average.
There are career advisers who suggest that the best way to succeed is to spend as much time as possible with successful people. If you spend all your time with cheats, it won’t be long before cheating will seem to you the only natural and normal way to live. You won’t even be able to see it is wrong. I find this scary.
Think about that day all those years ago when Eve first listened to the serpent.
He lied to her and she ate the forbidden fruit. Then she persuaded Adam to eat as well. Ever since then mankind as almost universally been living a lie. We look at each other and we are all sinners. We think it is the most natural and normal thing. We cannot even see what is wrong with our condition.
Into this world came one man who could see clearly. A man who knew the true way to live. His name was Jesus, and he came with the ability to help us see not only that we are not supposed to be living like this. He also came to show us the true way to live.
He lived a new way, showed us a new way, was killed by those who felt threatened by this new way. Jesus showed us that even though we live among sinners we are actually sons and daughters of God.
And so Paul says, don’t be misled by what you see. Think about all the things that are true and beautiful. Think about reality, because what you used to think was reality is in fact an illusion, and you need to be disillusioned. Fill your mind with all the thoughts of Jesus.
Paul says that the closer we get to Jesus and God the more we get like them. He is also saying that we need to get with other people who are getting closer to God and Jesus.
He says in verse 12 that he has ‘learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.’
Use Stockholm Syndrome to your advantage. Draw close to God and he will draw close to you. Spend time with people who are trying to draw close to God and you will all encourage each other. Isn’t this what we are trying to do in Jinju International Christian Fellowship?
This is why you cannot do it on your own. We need each other and we need pray and to fill our hearts and minds with thoughts of God instead of worries and fears. So in Paul’s words, ‘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.’
We need to fill ourselves with thoughts of God’s victory, because as Paul says in verse 5: ‘Remember, the Lord is coming soon.’