Saturday, December 17, 2011

Wired for Worship

Acts 16:16-40

Bronze Medalists

I read about a fascinating research study done by Vicki Medvec, a professor at Northwestern University. She studied Olympic medalists and discovered that Bronze medalists were happier than Silver medalists.

Here’s why. Medvec found that Silver medalists tended to focus on how close they came to winning gold so they weren’t satisfied with silver. Bronze medalists tended to focus on how close they came to not winning a medal at all so they were just happy to be on the medal stand.

I think that study reveals a fascinating aspect of human nature: your focus determines your reality. How we feel isn’t determined by objective circumstances.

If that was the case, Silver Medalists would be happier than Bronze medalists because they had an objectively better result. But how we feel isn’t determined by our objective circumstances. How we feel is determined by our subjective (personal) focus.

Here’s another way of saying it: your internal attitudes are more important than your external circumstances.

John Milton said it best: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a Heaven out of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

All of us know people who can find something good to focus on even in the worst of circumstances. And all of us know someone who can find something bad to focus on even in the best of circumstances.

The principle is this: we tend to see what we’re looking for. In the Christian world there tends to be two basic types of people: complainers and worshippers. 

Complainers can always find something to complain about.

Worshippers can always find something to praise God about.

All of us develop ideas about everything all the time. Then we look for evidence to support what we believe and ignore evidence to the contrary.

For example, if you decide you don’t like someone you’ll notice everything that is wrong with that person. And you’ll probably ignore anything you could potentially like about them.

The flipside is true as well. If you’re head-over-heels in love with someone you tend to only notice those things you love about them.

We see is what we’re looking for.

What does that have to do with worship? A worshipper makes a pre-decision to look for something to praise God about even in the direst of circumstances.

Acts 16 is exhibit A.


In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are in a prison cell in Philippi. I’d encourage you to read the entire chapter yourself, but let me set the scene.

Paul casts a demon out of a fortune-teller. Her master doesn’t like it because she loses the ability to predict the future (and make money for him), so he has Paul and Silas arrested.

Acts 16:22 says, “A mob quickly formed against Paul and Silas, and the city officials ordered them stripped and beaten with wooden rods. They were severely beaten, and then they were thrown into prison. The jailer was ordered to make sure they didn’t escape. So he took no chances but put them into the inner dungeon and clamped their feet in the stocks.”

When we read a story like this it’s almost tough to put ourselves in their shoes. I’ve had bad days before, but nothing like this.

Karol used to read Katie a book titled, Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day when she was little.

This is definitely Paul and Silas and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Both Paul and Silas had to have been emotionally, physically and spiritually spent with nothing left to give.

Their backs are bleeding from their beating. They are black and blue all over. And probably not in the best of moods.

I’ve never had a mob form against me, but I’m guessing that will certainly set you off emotionally. And to top it off they land in the maximum security cell!

It just doesn’t get much worse than that. And that’s why this next verse is so amazing to me. Acts 16:25 says, “Around midnight, Paul and Silas were complaining about their circumstances.”

That’s not what it says.

It says, “Around midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening.”

We must learn to “Zoom Out”.

Let me share something I’ve learned from personal experience. When I get into a spiritual or emotional slump, it’s usually because I’ve zoomed in on a problem.

I’m fixating on something that is wrong. I’m focused on the wrong thing. Nine times out of ten, the solution is zooming out so I can get some perspective.

Sometimes you’ve got to zoom out and look at the big picture.

That’s what the following college student did in writing this letter:

Dear Mom and Dad,

I have so much to tell you. Because of the fire in my dorm set off by student riots, I experienced temporary lung damage and had to go to the hospital.

While I was there, I fell in love with an orderly, and we have moved in together. I dropped out of school when I found out I was pregnant, and he got fired because of his drinking, so we’re going to move to Alaska, where we might get married after the birth of our baby.

Your loving daughter

PS: None of this really happened, but I did flunk my chemistry class and I wanted you to keep it in perspective.

Sometimes you need to zoom out and look at the big picture. You fail a chemistry exam and it feels like the end of the world. But it’s not.

So how do we zoom out?

Let me give you a one word answer: worship.

Worshipping is taking our eyes off of our external circumstances and focusing on God. We stop focusing on what’s wrong with us or with our circumstances. We start focusing on what’s right with God.

Paul and Silas could have zoomed in and complained about their circumstances. God, we cast out a demon and this is what we get? We’re on a missionary journey and we get beaten and thrown in jail?

Instead of you “watching our back” our backs are bleeding from a beating! They could have complained till the cows came home. But they made a choice to worship God in spite of their external circumstances.

Here’s what worship does. It restores spiritual equilibrium. It helps you regain your perspective. It enables you to find something right to praise God about even when everything seems to be going wrong.

Worship is zooming out and refocusing on the big picture.

It’s refocusing on the fact that two thousand years ago, Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for my sin. It’s refocusing on the fact that God loves me when I least expect it and least deserve it.

It’s refocusing on the fact that God is going to get me where God wants me to go. It’s refocusing on the fact that I have eternity with God to look forward to in a place where there is no mourning or sorrow or pain.

Worship is refocusing on the fundamentals of our faith.  Then, this is what happens: God restores the joy of our salvation. We regain our spiritual equilibrium.

Is it easy? Absolutely not. Nothing is more difficult than praising God when everything seems to be going wrong.

However, one of the purest forms of worship is praising God even when we don’t feel like it.  It shows God that our worship isn’t based on circumstances but on the character of God.

George Bernhard Shaw said, “People are always blaming their circumstances for what they are. I don’t believe in circumstances. The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want and if they can’t find them, make them.”

Worship reframes our circumstances.


If we have the ability to determine our response to circumstances, we can have internal peace, no matter what our circumstances are.

In the book, Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Frankl was a Holocaust survivor who wrote about his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp.
Everything was taken away from these prisoners. They were stripped of their clothing, their pictures, and their personal belongings. They even took away their names and gave them numbers. Frankl was number 119,104.

Everything was taken away except one thing. Frankl said, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”

I’m convinced that the most important choice you make everyday is your attitude. Your internal attitudes are more important than your external circumstances.

The outcome of each of our lives will be determined by our outlook on life. If anyone has a critical or complaining spirit, then, he or she will complain till the day they die.

Life will get worse and worse because more and more negative experiences will be accumulated.

But if someone has a worshipful spirit, life gets better and better. Why? Because positive memories are what is accumulated instead.

At the end of the day, one way or the other, our focus determines our reality!

I think response-ability is one dimension of the Imago Dei or image of God. We have free choice. We are response--able. In other words, we have the ability to choose our response in any set of circumstances.

Paul and Silas were in prison. Their bodies were chained. But you can’t chain the human spirit. That’s what Victor Frankl discovered in the concentration camp.

That’s what Paul and Silas modeled two thousand years ago. Their bodies were chained, but their spirits soared.

I believe Paul and Silas must have sung with a conviction that caused their fellow prisoners to listen. They praised God at the top of their voices! That choice to worship in the worst of circumstances set off a chain reaction in those around them.

Albert Einstein said, “You can’t solve a problem on the level it was created.” I think problems created on a human plane are solved on the supernatural plane.

That’s what happens when we worship God. It changes the spiritual atmosphere. It charges the spiritual atmosphere.

You can’t plan for Pentecost to occur. But if you pray for ten days, Pentecost might just happen.

I don’t think Paul could have planned this miraculous jailbreak. To make a long story short, there is an earthquake. The prisoners are set free, but they don’t leave!

The jailer who is about to kill himself gets saved and his entire family is baptized in the middle of the night.


That kind of thing can’t be scripted.  Miracles can’t be planned. But when you worship God in the worst of Circumstances, you never know what is going to happen.

Worship sets the stage for miracles! Worship causes spiritual earthquakes that can change the topography of your life.

Worship is a shifting of the tectonic plates in your life. It may not change your circumstances. But it will change your life.

C.S. Lewis
"I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God- it changes me."

I believe that.

Worship is the way we stay positive in negative circumstances. And it’s not a placebo! It’s reality. No matter how bad things get, as a follower of Christ, I have eternity in heaven to look forward to!

My pain now is real. But so is heaven. The good news is that this reality is temporary. That reality lasts forever!

The key is to change our focus towards the right reality!

I read a fascinating statistic. Research indicates that the average person talks to himself or herself about 50,000 times a day.

Any guess on what percentage of self-talk is negative?

Research indicates that 80% of self-talk is negative.

We say negative things to ourselves. I’m not good enough. I’m not smart enough. And people don’t like me.

So here’s what happens: we let what’s wrong with us keep us from worshipping what’s right about God. We’re focused on the wrong reality.

A pessimist will always see something bad in a good situation and an optimist will always see something good in a bad situation.

Paul gives some priceless advice in Philippians 4:8. It’ a list of eight things to look for all the time.

He says, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

A worshipper always finds something to praise God for because they’re looking for something to praise God for. Worship is a premeditated commitment based on ultimate reality.


Here’s my closing thought: the circumstances we complain about become the chains which imprison us.

Worship is the way out.

It was worship that set Paul and Silas free physically. And it’s worship that will set you free emotionally and spiritually. Worship sets off a chain reaction. The prison doors fly open. The chains break free.

Are there circumstances that you’re allowing to imprison you? Have your complaints about someone or something become like heavy chains weighing you down?

Stop focusing on what’s wrong about you or your circumstances. Start focusing on what’s right about God.

Here’s an assignment.

I would like for each of us to keep a gratitude journal this week. Find something everyday to be grateful for. I believe gratitude is a spiritual discipline. Psalm 103:2 says, “Praise the Lord and forget not all his benefits.”

In the words of the chorus:

Count your blessings. Name them one by one. Count your many blessings. See what God has done.

Your focus will determine your reality!

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