the shape of leadership


Four Keys for Navigating Uncertain Times

You don’t have to look far — or live long — to encounter chaos and uncertainty in our world. Whether it’s the unexpected outbreak of disease ravaging an entire region of the globe, war disrupting a volatile and unstable country, or a political climate producing division and uncertainty, chaotic outbreaks are everywhere.

Chaos can also surface on a personal level. A bad doctor’s report, a broken relationship, financial distress, a disgruntled church member or a pending deadline at work can bring chaos to your doorstep.

Regardless of its source, chaos usually appears when two things happen: fear increases and control decreases. A sharp increase in fear, and a quick decline in control, produces the chaos gap.

Peace quickly evaporates in the chaos gap. That’s exactly what happened in 1933 during the Great Depression. Unemployment was at 25 percent, and farmers were losing their land to foreclosure. As fear increased and control decreased, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt uttered the now famous words: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Roosevelt’s words weren’t just theory. When he was 39 years old, Roosevelt was stricken with polio and developed a fear of falling into a fire and not being able to escape due to his disability. Yet, despite the uncertainty surrounding him, Roosevelt mustered the courage to face his personal chaos. He did the same for a country sinking into a deep depression.

Whether global or personal, all chaos has one thing in common: It robs our peace. The early Christians also experienced peace-robbing chaos, but in the fourth chapter of his letter to the church in Philippi, the Apostle Paul gave them four ways to respond in the midst of uncertainty. Each of these insights is just as relevant today.

God’s peace is superior to human understanding.

1. Protect Unity
The church in Philippi was likely experiencing its own chaos and uncertainty. False teachers had infiltrated the church, leaders were fighting with one another, and Paul was sitting in prison.

So, Paul begins the wrap-up of his letter to the Philippians with these words: “Now I appeal to Euodia and Syntyche. Please, because you belong to the Lord, settle your disagreement. And I ask you, my true partner, to help these two women, for they worked hard with me in telling others the Good News. They worked along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are written in the Book of Life” (Philippians, 4:2–3, NLT).

Paul understood a simple truth: Disunity multiplies uncertainty. When families, teams, churches or countries are divided, chaos quickly ensues. Small problems become major divisions, and we quickly lose sight of the mission that unites us. Facing chaos alone is a sure recipe for disaster. Together we can accomplish far more than any one of us can alone. Unity makes the difference.

All disunity is the result of pride. When a father’s pride keeps him from saying, “I’m sorry,” his family is quickly divided. When a church member’s pride keeps her from rallying behind the pastor’s vision, the church is divided. When neither political party can admit they are wrong, their pride divides a nation. What’s the cure? Humility.

Back up a couple of chapters, and Paul makes the cure clear. “Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too” (Philippians 2:2–4, NLT).

Humility opens the door for peace to flourish. Author John Dickson wisely observed, “Humility is the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself … the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.” 

2. Resist Anxiety
Paul continues his insight on responding to uncertainty with a challenge to resist anxiety. In Philippians 4:6–7, he writes, “ 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” (NLT).

Paul’s approach to resisting anxiety is almost formulaic in nature. Life is often too complex for formulas, but sometimes we let the complexity of life complicate how we should respond to it. Paul keeps it simple with a “resist anxiety” framework: Don’t + Do = Then.

Paul begins with four words, “Don’t worry about anything.” Easier said than done, right? When your kids are out late, your mind starts racing, even though they texted you just 30 minutes ago. What if there was an accident? What if somebody hurt him? What if that boy mistreated her?

When they finally walk in the house, you’re a nervous wreck. They look at you with a smile and say, “Goodnight,” as if nothing ever happened, while you lay in bed trying to get your mind to slow down so you can get some rest.

In our worry, we often assume the seat of a forecaster. Like a weatherman predicting the weather, we forecast the worst outcomes. We let worry choke the life out of us. But Paul said, “Don’t worry about anything.” Why? Because when we worry, we adopt a high view of our problems and a low view of God.

A.W. Tozer said, “The low view of God entertained almost universally among Christians is the cause of a hundred lesser evils everywhere among us.”

When the size of our worry distracts the mind, the heart diminishes the size of our God. We start to believe that God can’t handle our problems, our uncertainties or our chaos. To resist anxiety in the middle of uncertainty, ask God to enlarge your view of Him. When your fear is increasing and your control is decreasing, He is still able.

Paul doesn’t stop there. Not only does he say, “Don’t worry,” he adds the next piece of the “resist anxiety” framework: Do pray. He reminds us to tell God what we need and thank Him for all He has done.

Telling is an act of asking; thanking is an act of faith. Both are necessary when walking through chaos and uncertainty. Share your need with God, and then thank Him for the answer.

Three years ago, the mitral valve in my heart unexpectedly ruptured. During a dramatic series of events — including an emergency CareFlite ride to the heart center in Fort Worth — my wife and I faced a wave of fear and worry. We discovered just how important “do pray” is. During that experience, especially after I had been sedated and intubated, my wife kept asking friends, family and doctors, “Is Stephen going to be OK?”

At one point, the Lord challenged Karen to drop the question mark: “He’s going to be OK … period.”

It was a small, fragile shift to combat the onslaught of fear and anxiety.

Finally, Paul points our attention to the last part of the framework for resisting anxiety: “Then.” He writes, “Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand.”

The peace that Paul describes is so great that the human mind — no matter how intellectual or skillful — could never produce it on its own. It’s as if Paul is saying, “You might be smart, but you’re not smart enough to manufacture peace, because God’s peace is superior to human understanding.”

When we stop worrying and start praying, then peace follows. Don’t + Do = Then. 

3. Think Positively
Paul continues with a practical response to uncertainty with these familiar words in Philippians 4:8: “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” (NLT).

The word “fix” describes a discipline of the mind. Paul was saying, “make it a habit to think this way.” His challenge was to adopt a habit of thinking that ultimately produces a new habit of behaving.

The rest of your life starts with the thoughts of your life. If your thoughts are healthy, your life will follow suit. If your thoughts are unhealthy, your life will emanate dysfunction and negativity. As the old saying goes, “Sow a thought, reap an action. Sow an action, reap a habit. Sow a habit, reap a character. Sow a character, reap a destiny.”

Proverbs says, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (23:7, NKJV).

By choosing to think true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy thoughts, you turn toward a new destination. You cut what scientists call a neural pathway through the forest of your brain. Rather than following the same well-worn path to a place of negativity (which is easy to do when chaos abounds), you take the equivalent of a spiritual machete and begin clearing a new trail. As Paul said, “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

I recently started speaking a daily declaration over my life. This isn’t some name-it-and-claim-it formula or hyper-faith prosperity message. Rather, it’s a declaration of the truth of Scripture, and a realization of who I am in Christ. Each statement in my declaration is one more swing of the machete as a route to Christlike thought patterns slowly appears. What new pathway do you need to cut into your thinking to help you better navigate the uncertainties around you? 

4. Live Contently
Paul concludes his instructions for navigating uncertainty with these words: “I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:10–11, NLT).

The word “learned” means “learned by experience.” Paul learned to be content because he faced plenty of circumstances that demanded it. He had experience, not just theory.

The word “content” means “self-sufficient.” This was a common concept in Paul’s day because Greek philosophers believed people could find peace and happiness within themselves. But Paul turned the meaning of contentment on its head when he said, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).

In other words, Paul said, “I’m sufficient, but not in myself. I’m sufficient in Christ. I have learned to be content because Christ is enough.”

The Amplified version of Philippians 4:11 captures it well: “Not that I speak from [any personal] need, for I have learned to be content [and self-sufficient through Christ, satisfied to the point where I am not disturbed or uneasy] regardless of my circumstances.”

True contentment allows you to experience peace in the midst of your problems. Paul boldly declared that he learned contentment in both good and difficult times. Verse 12 says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

How could Paul be content no matter what? Because he recognized, “I need God, period.”

When times are bad, I need God. But I need God just as much when times are good. If you don’t need God when times are good, you’ve turned your good into God. God doesn’t play that game. God doesn’t compete. You have to answer the question for yourself: Is Christ enough for me? When He is, you will discover the joy of living contently in the middle of uncertainty.

How do we respond to the chaos around us? How do we respond to uncertain times? We protect unity, resist anxiety, think positively and live contently. And as we follow Paul’s instructions, we will experience the kind of God-given peace that transcends human understanding.

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