Just a few weeks ago I was asked to preach a sermon on Philippians 4: 4-9. It seemed like a straightforward enough request, until I realised what was contained in that particular passage of scripture:
Did Paul really say not to be anxious about anything? What does this mean for those of us with clinical and diagnosed anxiety disorders? Is ‘anxious’ the same as ‘faithless’ according to Paul?
Let’s establish a few key points:
- As far as I know, anxiety as we have come to describe the disorder was not part of Paul’s worldview. Psychology as a discipline was certainly different to what we see in the 21st Century. We have come to understand human physiology in ways that were not dreamed of in the first century.
- We need to look at the context of Paul’s writings. He is in chains for the gospel (Philippians 1: 13) and goes through a great deal of mental and emotional processing. In this 4 chapter letter, Paul acknowledges that death is better by far but he knows he must go on for the sake of the gospel. He also claims that he has learned the secret of contentment in all situations, whether in times of need or in times of plenty.
- If we therefore look at Philippians as a whole, we don’t get the picture of a man who is necessarily calm about his circumstance, but he is at peace in the midst of his circumstance. He is restless, but there is a theological truth that speaks into that restlessness.
Based on these historical/cultural/textual factors, we must conclude that when Paul speaks of ‘anxiety’, it’s not necessarily the same as what we would call ‘anxiety’ in the clinical sense. In modern speak, Paul doesn’t seem to be able to control his thoughts, but his faith in the Lord does help him process the feelings and behaviours that arise as a result of these thoughts.
But even if the anxiety Paul speaks of is not anxiety in the modern ‘clinical’ sense, Philippians 4: 6 teaches all Christians some important lessons. Those of us with a diagnosis ought not to completely overlook the implications of this passage:
- The Lord is near (Philippians 4: 5). This means that in the midst of fear, we know that God has not left us and we know he will return.
- Prayer brings peace (Philippians 4: 6-7). Why? Because it acknowledges that God is ready to hear us in our times of need. The parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18) shows us the power of ongoing prayer.
- Faith in God does impact how we can process the upheaval and restlessness that comes with anxiety. Philippians 4 shows us the power of remembering that there is a God who loves us dearly, regardless of our present circumstances.
While I don’t believe the message of Philippians 4 dismisses the reality of anxiety disorders, it does give us a framework to bring our uncertainties and burdens before a God who hears.