Paul’s Christian friends at Philippi had things to worry about. They faced both external and internal threats to their peace and progress as heaven’s citizens, trekking as pilgrims through earth’s unfriendly terrain. From the outside, they were confronted by opponents whose intimidating aggression was daunting, putting at risk their courage to stand together. Paul, their spiritual father, was chained in Rome, awaiting the emperor’s life-or-death verdict. Back in Philippi, they, too, were engaged in the conflict that they had witnessed in Paul and Silas’s experience when their congregation was first planted. Within the church, individuals’ preoccupation with their own agendas jeopardized their unity of mind and affection toward each other. Earlier in his epistle, Paul had addressed suffering and the threat it poses to our joy and peace (Phil. 1:27–30). He also spoke to the problem of self-centeredness and its insidious effect on the unity of the church (2:1–4). For both problems, the apostle’s prescription was for believers to refocus on Christ himself, and Paul showed them how from his own example.
As Paul draws his note of friendship and thanks to a close, we have heard him reassert his call to courage and to unity, summoning every follower of Jesus to “stand firm” in the Lord and urging two prominent members of the congregation to pursue reconciliation and oneness of mind in the Lord (Phil. 4:1–3). Now in Philippians 4:4–9 Paul continues the “wrapping-up” process in what sounds like a last-minute bullet-point “to-do” list: rejoice, be gentle, don’t worry, pray, think good thoughts, do good deeds. As he does in other letters, Paul fires off every piece of parting advice he can think of before his closing benediction (see 1 Cor. 16:13–18; Col. 4:2–6; 1 Thess. 5:12–22).
Paul’s list certainly springs from love. He has just described his friends in Philippi as those whom “I love and long for, my joy and crown …, my beloved” (Phil. 4:1). Moreover, although at first glance the list seems as random as a last-minute parental “stream-of-consciousness” farewell, these bullet-point directives are actually linked by more than the apostle’s affection. We see the list’s deeper unity when we recognize these instructions as God’s antidote to the anxiety that so often disrupts our joy and deprives us of peace. Paul prescribes the remedy to the stresses that we experience both from the pain of suffering from outside and from the strain of friction within the church.
There are two ways to handle the stresses of life. One approach comes “preloaded” at birth on the “hard drive” of our hearts. The other can come only from a radical change of heart and perspective, produced by the gracious intervention of God. The first approach is rooted in the desire to control the variables of our own lives through diligence, ingenuity, and hard work. This is the “Invictus” approach immortalized in William Ernest Henley’s famous nineteenth-century poem, celebrating Victorian England’s stiff-upper-lip self-reliance. The poem’s brave motto, “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul,” exudes nobility, dignity, and resolute courage. But when its “I’m in control, I can do it” optimism bumps up against the harsh reality that so many factors lie beyond our control, it has nothing to offer but stress and frustration. Ask the employee and breadwinner who gave decades of competent and loyal service to a company, only to be “downsized” in a time of recession. Ask the cancer patient whose oncologist sadly changes the subject from treatment to pain management. Ask the homeless victims of tornadoes and hurricanes, of floods and droughts and wildfires.
Henley’s braggadocio may sound quaint and out of touch as news media constantly bombard us with images of chaos in our complex and troubled world. Yet politicians know that voters’ hearts still long for the stirring strains of can-do, it’s-all-under-control confidence. No one wins elections by sounding uncertain over the prospect of solving the nation’s problems upon entering office. Maybe that’s why Bobby McFerrin’s calypso ditty, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” won the Grammy for best song in 1988. Its verses actually described the miseries of homelessness, poverty, and loneliness, but few people recall the verses. What everyone remembers is the lilting, four-word refrain, “Don’t worry, be happy” (which may have been more ironic than sincere). It lifts the heart to hum this little hymn to hollow hope, doesn’t it? And if we need more to calm our uneasy minds, media sages and celebrity psychologists offer stress-management strategies to help anxiety-prone people cope with the uncontrollable forces in our present and the uncertainties in our future.
Jesus’ servant Paul, however, writing God’s truth, commends to us a radically different approach to the troubles that tempt us to worry. Paul presents a far stronger antidote to anxiety than politicians’ promises, cheery self-coaching, or calming meditation. He directs his Philippian friends and us to a life-anchor that goes deeper than the surface storms of circumstances, even deeper than whatever emotional equilibrium we could muster through happy talk or mellow mantras or any other stress-management technique. Paul offers us an anchor that secures our well-being eternally in the life and love of the ever-living God. He commends to us the joy that he has found through having his life defined by Christ, his cross, and his resurrection power. From that joy flow calm gentleness, thankful prayer, and the pondering and practice of the character of Christ. The result is protection from worry through the peace of God, conveyed to our troubled hearts through the living presence of the God of peace.
As we listen to “Dr. Paul’s” prescription to remedy the anxiety that threatens our joy and peace, we must remember that Paul is not offering an ivory-tower theory from the armchair comfort of a tranquil university campus. He is writing from imprisonment, with the possibility of brutal execution on the horizon, and he writes to people who face real-world threats. So a brief review of the troubles facing Paul and his Philippian friends will set the context for us as we hear Paul’s counsel. We will consider first, therefore, the Philippians’ reasons to worry. Then we will explore the remedies to worry that this Word of God presents.
Reasons to Worry: Rejection, Resistance, Recession, Relationships
As we comb through this brief letter, we turn up clues that Paul and his friends encountered sources of distress that still tempt us to worry today: rejection, resistance, recession, and relationships.
Paul and his friends faced the pain of rejection. In Philippians 3:5–6 Paul rehearsed the stellar résumé that had once brought him honor in the community of his birth: he had belonged to the right nation, clan, family, and religious party. But when Jesus invaded Paul’s life, Paul lost all that he had once considered “gain,” forfeiting his standing in the Jewish community. Now he was accused of leading people away from the law of Moses and violating the sanctity of the temple (Acts 18:13; 21:21, 28). So Paul encountered rejection from the very people whose high opinions he had once treasured. The believers in Philippi faced similar social rejection. Their first church-planters had been “smeared” as disturbing civic order and advocating anti-Roman practices—grave accusations in a city that boasted in its status as a colony of Rome (Acts 16:20–21). When Paul wrote this letter, the Philippians themselves were facing social ostracism, still “engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had” (Phil. 1:30). Christians in Asia Minor, to whom Peter wrote his first epistle, were likewise suffering social stigma from the pagans among whom they resided: “they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:3–4). If the pain or fear of rejection—by family members, coworkers, former friends, or civic leaders—has put you on the defensive, you need Paul’s prescription as much as the first-century believers of Philippi did.
For Paul (certainly) and the Philippians (probably), things had gone beyond interpersonal rejection and had escalated to overt, even violent, resistance. When Paul and Silas first brought Christ’s message to Philippi, they were not only falsely accused, but also beaten and jailed. Now Paul writes from Rome in chains (Phil. 1:13). Paul’s Philippian friends also face opponents whose threats tempt them to cowardice and retreat (1:27–30). Whatever the form of this opposition, it goes beyond social rejection to overt resistance. You may not have faced prison or bodily harm for your faith, but people who dislike your allegiance to Jesus can express their resistance in subtler ways. Since even mild opposition can easily intimidate and silence us, when we meet resistance we need Paul’s antidotes to anxiety.
Paul will conclude his epistle thanking the Philippians for their financial contribution (Phil. 4:10–20). In his thanks, Paul alludes to a third factor that can generate anxiety: financial hardship or recession. Before the church’s donation arrived, Paul’s finances had been tight. He calls it “my trouble” (4:14). The Philippians, too, knew tight budgets. Elsewhere Paul described the “extreme poverty” of the churches in Macedonia (Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea) (2 Cor. 8:2). Money is an “equal-opportunity” anxiety-producer. Christians and non-Christians alike, poor and rich alike, fret about where funds will come from to cover life’s necessities. Paul will share the secret of contentment that he has found in “plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:12), to help his friends at Philippi resist the temptation to worry over economic hardship. Do you worry over finances? Your resources and budget may be at subsistence level, with no margin to absorb unforeseen emergencies. Or you may anticipate adequate income in your employment years but fret over fragile investments that may fail to provide the secure retirement they once promised. When you wonder where next month’s rent check or your children’s college tuition or the doctor’s payment will come from, you need God’s antidotes to anxiety.
Friction in interpersonal relationships has also reared its ugly head in the Philippian congregation. Their conflict is not as sharp as at Corinth, where Christians split up into competing parties (1 Cor. 1:10–14). But Paul has needed to urge them to replace rivalry with humility (Phil. 2:1–4), and he has just appealed to two beloved coworkers to resolve their differences “in the Lord” (4:2). Are relationships the source of your sleepless nights? Perhaps your husband or wife seems distant or every conversation degenerates into criticism and arguments. You fear that your marriage itself may be crumbling. Or your child, who was so open and loving and trusting just months ago, is becoming increasingly defiant, or sullen and secretive. What is going on behind that dour, expressionless face, inside her mind and heart? Or perhaps the sweet unity of your congregation is jeopardized by misunderstandings or competing agendas among members, as the oneness of the Philippian church seems to have been at risk when Paul wrote. If strained relationships cause you stress, you, too, need God’s antidotes to anxiety.
Rejection, resistance, recession, relationships—the Christians of Philippi had plenty to worry about, as we do! What antidotes to anxiety does Jesus prescribe for our troubled hearts through his servant Paul?
Antidote to Anxiety #1: Refocus on Your Faithful Lord
Paul’s parting directives—his parental “to-do” list for his spiritual children, now far from his fatherly eye—touch on a variety of themes: joy and gentleness, prayer, pondering, and practicing. Yet through them all, underlying each instruction, runs a motif that binds them all together: refocus on your faithful Lord.
If you have attended weddings in the last decade or two, you have probably heard Johann Pachelbel’s famous “Canon in D Major.” You can probably hum from memory the stately ground-bass motif that moves from D to A to B to F sharp to G to D to G to A, even if you couldn’t reproduce all the variations built on that recurring theme. Likewise, the motif that pervades each “movement” of Paul’s parting instructions and binds them all together is the presence of the true, triune God in the lives of those who trust in Jesus. Notice how persistently in these few verses Paul mentions the God who has loved and rescued us through Christ: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4). “The Lord is at hand” (4:5). “Let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). “The peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). Even “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (4:9) is the gospel, which is “preaching Christ” (1:15–18). And finally, “The God of peace will be with you” (4:9).
Through different variations Paul keeps playing one tune: the antidote to anxiety is to have the living God deeply involved in your life. Whether he is addressing how to find emotional equilibrium in trouble (joy, Phil. 4:4), how to respond to those who reject or resist us (gentleness, 4:5), how to petition the Father (pray, 4:6–7), or how to cultivate Christ-centered “habits of the heart” (ponder, 4:8) and patterns of behavior (practice, 4:9), at every turn Paul shows us another facet of the anxiety-banishing constancy and compassion of our Creator and Redeemer.
Paul meets us at every turn with a reminder of the God of grace because he knows that our anxiety is not merely the product of poor coping strategies. It is symptomatic of misplaced trust. Anxiety shows that our hearts are so set on something that we are terrified of losing it, desperate to hold onto it for dear life. That “something” that we cannot bear to lose is our heart’s foundation, its “center of gravity.” Even good things—love, family, knowledge, success—cannot last through thick and thin because they are creaturely and finite. In his 2009 book Counterfeit Gods, Pastor Timothy Keller told recession-terrified New Yorkers (and the rest of us) that what we worry about is symptomatic of the counterfeit gods that we instinctively count on, though we sense uneasily that those idols cannot bear the weight of our hopes. Keller says:
Anything that becomes more important and nonnegotiable to us than God becomes an enslaving idol. In this paradigm, we can locate idols by looking at our most unyielding emotions. What makes us uncontrollably angry, anxious, or despondent?… Idols control us, since we feel we must have them or life is meaningless.
On the other hand, those who trust in Christ can face every threat and wound that this twisted world can inflict—“tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword,” death and life, things present and things to come, or “anything else in all creation”—because we are assured that nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35–39). Refocusing on your faithful Lord, treasuring Jesus and his grace as your life’s foundation imparts joy and gentleness, enabling us to combat worry by praying with gratitude, by pondering Christ’s character, and by practicing the pattern of gospel-shaped conduct.
Antidote #2: Joy in the Lord
Joy is interwoven like a golden thread throughout this letter from prison. Paul prays with joy over his Philippian friends (Phil. 1:4). He is filled with joy when others preach about Jesus, even from unworthy motives (1:18). His friends’ unity of heart will fill up his joy (2:2). Even if death for Jesus’ sake is imminent, Paul rejoices and wants his friends to join his rejoicing (2:17–18). Though he was content when funds were few, he rejoiced when the Philippians’ contribution arrived (4:10). Paul has commanded his beloved brothers in Philippi to rejoice “in the Lord” (3:1), identifying the deep well from which joy springs, whatever the vicissitudes of life’s surface circumstances. Now in Philippians 4:4 he explicitly states that Christians can and must rejoice “in the Lord” and do so “always.” Because our joy is rooted “in the Lord” who will never leave us, we are to rejoice at all times and in all circumstances.
Paul may have in mind the song that closes Habakkuk’s prophecy. That prophet was upset that the wicked in Judah seemed to escape justice. God promised to punish unfaithful Judah through an even more evil empire, Babylon, but that only compounded Habakkuk’s distress. Yet Habakkuk also received good news, “The righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4); so his oracle closed with a song of joy, even in adverse circumstances:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation. (Hab. 3:17–18)
It is natural to link our happiness and hopes to juicy figs and ripe olives on trees, sweet grapes on vines, wheat in fields, sheep in folds, cattle in corrals, a robust stock portfolio, or a healthy retirement account. But a moment’s thought shows how fleeting all such resources are. Habakkuk knew that what lasts through boom and recession, success and bankruptcy, is the commitment of God to his people. So does Paul.
Paul’s “rejoice in the Lord always” should not be confused with Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t worry, be happy.” Rejoicing in the Lord does not mean that we never experience sadness or grief over loss. Paul himself felt sorrow over Epaphroditus’s almost-fatal illness (Phil. 2:27) and wept over those who behaved as enemies of the cross (3:18). Paul was no Stoic, coolly shielding his composure from the ebbs and flows of emotion, keeping people and their problems at arm’s length. The Stoics, a prominent school of Greek philosophy in Paul’s day, commended and embraced the virtue of apatheia, “lack of feeling.” Such a cool intellectual aloofness, the Stoics believed, insulates individuals from the wide range of emotions from pleasure to pain. What Paul is commanding, however, is completely different from the Stoics’ anesthetized emotional life. Biblical joy, as God commands it, is compatible with the whole spectrum of emotions that fit the range of situations that confront us in this sin-stained world. Pastor Keller is right:
“Rejoicing” in the Bible is much deeper than simply being happy about something. Paul directed that we should “rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4), but this cannot mean “always feel happy,” since no one can command someone to always have a particular emotion. To rejoice is to treasure a thing, to assess its value to you, to reflect on its beauty and importance until your heart rests in it and tastes the sweetness of it. “Rejoicing” is a way of praising God until the heart is sweetened and rested, and until it relaxes its grip on anything else it thinks it needs.
To “rejoice in the Lord” is to resist the instinct to focus on visible pleasures and problems. It is to concentrate our minds deliberately on treasuring the Lord Jesus Christ, to focus thought on his majesty and mercy, his purity and power, to “see and savor the glory of God in the face of Christ” until our hearts are profoundly persuaded that he really is all we need in every situation.
Antidote #3: Gentleness in Hope
Paul’s next instruction, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Phil. 4:5), directs our attention from the Lord, the source of our joy, to other people, who are often the source of our stress. The key term, which the esv conveys as “reasonableness,” appears only five times in the New Testament. “Reasonableness” is an acceptable translation, but the NIV’s “gentleness” is better—or “clemency, graciousness, forbearance,” or even “magnanimity.” The term refers to the calm and kind disposition that enables a person to offer a nonviolent, even generous, response to others’ aggression. Aristotle explained “gentleness” as a willingness to forgo one’s own rights according to the letter of the law. So this word nicely captures the thrust of Paul’s earlier exhortation about the way that Christians should treat each other: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (2:4). Elsewhere Paul uses this word to teach that elders must not be quarrelsome, but gentle (1 Tim. 3:3). All believers should be gentle rather than quarreling (Titus 3:2). Paul associates gentleness with meekness as displayed by Christ (2 Cor. 10:1).
Here Paul expands the circle of those to be treated “gently” beyond the borders of the church. We are to display such forbearing kindness to “everyone,” including those who are making our lives miserable. As children of a Father who sends sunshine and rainfall on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45), as brothers and sisters of the beloved Son who died for us while we were his enemies (Rom. 5:10), believers should extend kindness rather than retaliation to those who harass and oppress them.
Paul cinches this summons to gentleness with a promise, or a reminder, or both: “The Lord is at hand.” This brief statement can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand, most recent interpreters understand it to refer primarily, if not exclusively, to the eschatological “nearness” of Jesus’ second coming. Although no one knows the timing of Christ’s second coming, the New Testament assures us that our Lord will not needlessly delay, but will come “soon” (Luke 18:7–8; Rev. 22:7, 12, 20). James urged suffering believers to wait patiently, “for the coming of the Lord is at hand” (James 5:7–8). Paul has just reminded the Philippians that we “await” the future appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ from heaven (Phil. 3:20–21). Because our coming Lord will give joy beyond our wildest imaginations, we can now be gentle in hope.
On the other hand, Paul may intend us to understand “the Lord is at hand” as an assurance of Christ’s nearness to us even now through his indwelling Holy Spirit, as the psalmists affirm: “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” (Ps. 34:18; see 145:18). Paul has mentioned the heart-transforming work that God is performing in and among believers (Phil. 1:6; 2:12). So “the Lord is at hand” may motivate our gentleness by assuring us that, even now as we undergo injustices, we are not alone. Or Paul may intend “the Lord is at hand” to convey both truths: the Lord is near now by his Spirit, bringing aid in our sufferings; and he is coming soon in his glory, bringing suffering to an end.
Antidote #4: Praying with Thanks
Paul’s “let everyone see your gentleness” shows a better way to respond to trouble than lashing out at other people. Now his “replace worry with prayer” (Phil. 4:6–7) turns our hearts back toward God, urging us to approach him not with grumbling or questioning (see 2:14) but with gratitude and expectant petition. Paul is echoing Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Having invited us to address God as “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9), Jesus went on to show that God’s children do not need to worry over life’s necessities:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matt. 6:31–33)
Here Paul compiles a rich inventory of prayer-vocabulary—prayer, supplication, requests—to emphasize the freedom of access that is ours to bring every sort of concern to our Father. We “make our requests known” to him, obviously, not because he would be ignorant of them unless we informed him, but rather because speaking them aloud expresses our dependence and trust that he cares for us personally and delights in his children’s speech.
Notice the ingredient of “thanksgiving” that is to be blended with our requests. Gratitude preserves our prayers from going sour with complaint or degenerating into a list of self-centered demands. Thanksgiving is the natural response to a generous gift, freely bestowed. In polite society, we sometimes say “thank you” just because it is expected. But real thanksgiving bubbles up from the heart when we are delighted by a gift beyond anything we expected, unearned and undeserved. That is the thanksgiving that must permeate our prayers as we bring our requests to the Father.
If we were to ask Paul the reasons to thank God, no doubt he could go on for hours. But if we asked him to pick the very best gift, he would take us to his explosion of amazement in 2 Corinthians 9:15: “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” He would explain that the gift that goes beyond words is God’s Son, Jesus, as he wrote to the Romans: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32). So this antidote to anxiety is to feast your heart on God’s gracious gift of Christ to the point that you burst forth in thanks, as you bring your worrisome problems—rejection, resistance, recession, or relationships—to your loving heavenly Father. Rather than fretting like orphans left to fend for themselves, you can bring your griefs with your gratitude to God, confident that, whatever his answer on the particulars, his peace will guard your heart in Christ Jesus.
Antidote #5: Pondering Christ’s Character
The promises in Philippians 4:7 and 9, with the wordplay connecting “the peace of God” and “the God of peace,” show that Paul’s directives in 4:8–9 are linked to his previous summons to joy in the Lord, gentleness in hope, and prayer with thanksgiving. Moreover, these last two prescriptions for our worrywart hearts are bound to each other by their parallel structure: first a list, then a command “ponder these things” (4:8), and then another list, followed by “practice these things” (4:9).
Paul knows that the thoughts that occupy our minds and the images that capture our imaginations shape our characters and find expression in our behavior. As Israel’s ancient sage observed, “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). Jesus confirmed that the heart’s secret thoughts are the fountain from which our outward actions flow (Mark 7:14–23). So Paul speaks first of letting our minds dwell on qualities that reflect the perfections of our Creator (Phil. 4:8), and then he calls us to practice the pattern that we have heard in the gospel and seen in those who live Christ-focused lives (4:9).
Paul tells us to think about, or to ponder, “whatever is true, … honorable, … just, … pure, … lovely, … commendable, … any excellence, … anything worthy of praise.” Many of these words are rare in Paul’s letters and in the New Testament as a whole. Although Paul uses the adjective true rarely, he often insists that God’s truth—God’s utterly trustworthy and accurate portrayal of reality—must control believers’ minds and, consequently, our behavior. Because “the truth … in Jesus” means that we have shed the control of deceitful desires, our legacy from the original Adam, and have been clothed with “righteousness and holiness” characterized by truth (Eph. 4:20–24), our conduct must follow suit: “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor” (4:25). Paul uses honorable or its related noun six other times (and he is the only New Testament author to do so), always with reference to men and women whose spiritual maturity, dignity, and authority make them worthy of others’ respect. In this context, just refers not to the legal standing that belongs to believers through Christ’s imputed righteousness (as Paul used a related noun in Philippians 3:9; see Rom. 1:17). Rather, it describes that which conforms to God’s perfect norm of equity. For example, masters must treat their slaves “justly and fairly” (Col. 4:1). What is “pure” is free from defilement or pollution. It includes sexual purity and fidelity (Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:2; and, metaphorically, 2 Cor. 11:2–3), but it extends well beyond the realm of sexuality. In Philippians 1:17 Paul used a related term to describe the unworthy motives of some who preached Christ “out of rivalry, not sincerely.” Lovely appears nowhere else in the New Testament. Its uses elsewhere in ancient Greek suggest that it refers to the quality that warrants and attracts admiration. Similarly, commendable makes its only New Testament appearance here, although Paul once uses a related noun to describe the varying responses to his ministry, “through slander and praise” (2 Cor. 6:8). Paul uses the term excellence only here, where the context suggests that he has in view ethical integrity, the same sense that it has in 2 Peter 1:5, in the Greek Septuagint, and often in the moral literature of the Greco-Roman world.20 Finally, Paul commends to our reflection “anything worthy of praise”—a term that he uses eight times elsewhere to refer to praise directed toward God (Phil. 1:11; Eph. 1:6, 12, 14) or toward human beings who deserve commendation (Rom. 2:29; 13:3; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Cor. 8:18; see 1 Peter 1:7; 2:14). Paul urges us to fix our thoughts on themes that are not only intrinsically virtuous because God approves them but also visibly virtuous, attracting the approval of human beings who care about integrity, purity, and justice.
Where these terms do appear more frequently (than in the New Testament) is in Jewish wisdom literature and in the great pagan thinkers of the ancient world: Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. When these philosophers discussed the qualities of character that the good person should display—integrity, justice, self-control, prudence, courage, and so on—they used many of the terms that Paul uses here. The moral decay in Greco-Roman society in the first century was a sordid preview of the decline of the West in the twenty-first century: kinky sex (homosexual practice, sexual abuse of children, bestiality, and so on), self-indulgent luxury, and brutal violence masquerading as entertainment. Nevertheless, there were morally sensitive thinkers in that day, as there are today. The ancient world even had its equivalents to The Book of Virtues, which William J. Bennett, former U.S. Secretary of Education, assembled to try to recapture America’s imaginations with a vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Paul seems to be picking up terms from those ancient “books of virtues,” perhaps to implement Jesus’ instruction, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and [recognizing their goodness, they will] give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16).
Paul realizes that not everything that is considered “lovely” or “commendable” by society at large would meet with God’s approval, so he adjusts his grammar slightly at the end, calling us to exercise discernment: “if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The term rendered “think about” is not the one that Paul has used so frequently in this epistle (phroneō), but instead one that expresses “taking into account” or assessing that which deserves approval. As we survey the virtues celebrated in society, we must blend our appreciation with discernment. Paul is applying complementary truths that Scripture teaches elsewhere: (1) though the human family is fallen and flawed by sin, God’s common grace still sustains even in unbelievers a sense of what is true, honorable, just, pure, and praiseworthy; yet (2) true virtue can be defined only by its supreme standard, the character of our infinitely holy Creator, revealed to us in his Scriptures and in his Son. Therefore, in the next verse, as Paul’s exhortation moves from thought to action, from pondering to practice, he places the common virtues just listed into the specific framework of the gospel of Christ.
Antidote #6: Practicing Paul’s Pattern
Whereas the points to ponder in verse 8 were character traits, the list in verse 9 focuses on the means of communication by which the Philippians encountered the gospel and observed its life-changing power. “What you have learned and received” sums up the message that Paul and Silas brought to Philippi. That message is good news (“gospel”), and its subject is Christ himself (Phil. 1:5, 15, 17–18). Christ’s divine and human person and his redemptive mission (2:6–11) were the only theme that Paul cared to convey (1 Cor. 2:1–2; Col. 1:28).
What they had “heard and seen” in Paul was the fruit of God’s grace, as the Holy Spirit had caused the gospel to take root in his life. This second pair of verbs alludes to the situation that Paul mentioned in Philippians 1:30, namely, that the believers of Philippi had seen Paul suffer in the past, while he was among them, but now heard from a distance that he still suffered. In his current imprisonment and legal crisis, Paul is prepared for whichever outcome God has planned for him, affirming one single-minded resolve: “it is my eager expectation and hope that … with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (1:20–21). Paul has shown his friends how faith in Jesus works out in practice, in the midst of life’s trials. Just as Christ is the Savior who captivates Paul’s belief, so also Christ is the Lord who controls Paul’s behavior.
What the Philippians heard and saw in Paul was the effect of Jesus Christ transforming a selfish, sinful man into the beauty of his own image, in holiness and love. When we read the virtues listed in verse 8 in the light of Paul’s gospel-focused message and lifestyle in verse 9, we see that he is not just saying, “Think good thoughts, like the upright pagans.” Rather, he is calling us to ponder the dimensions of Christ’s perfection. Christ is the standard of truth, honor, justice, purity, beauty, and praiseworthiness.
So Paul sets the pattern for how pondering Christ’s perfections progresses on to practicing them in daily living. Fixing and feasting your minds on Jesus must ignite the fire of your will and motivation, so you are eager to express your love for him by loving others. In that move from ponder to practice, God’s Spirit quietly conforms our desires to the mind-set of Jesus, so we are no longer preoccupied with our safety or rights, no longer intimidated by threats, no longer paralyzed by anxiety. As trusting children, we learn to let our wise and mighty Father deal with factors beyond our control. Set free from that burden of protecting ourselves from harm and loss, we begin to practice the self-forgetting servanthood of Jesus, as we have seen it reflected in people such as Paul.
So Paul does close with a parental “to-do” list of sorts: rejoice in the Lord, be gentle in hope, pray with thanks, ponder and practice the beauties of Jesus. We could even add to these that, in some circumstances, there are other practical steps that we may take to address the occasions of our anxiety. If you have accrued looming debt by living beyond your means, beginning to practice responsible stewardship before the Lord—spending less, paying off overdue bills, and saving more—may be God’s means to bring some relief to your stress. If the strain in your relationship with another believer has persisted because you are afraid to speak the truth in love or too proud to confess sin and seek forgiveness, consider your discomfort God’s prod, prompting you to pay the price of gospel-grounded peacemaking.
Yet the ultimate antidote to anxiety is not to be found in what we do but in what God has done and is doing for us. Appropriately, therefore, we close our survey of God’s antidotes to anxiety by returning to the twin promises about the peace of God and the God of peace in verses 7 and 9.
Antidote #7: Protected by the Peace of God and the God of Peace
Christ our Champion promises the protection of God’s peace through the presence of the God of peace (Phil. 4:7, 9). As we stop wasting energy in futile worry and turn instead to thankful prayer, “the peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The word guard is a military term that often refers to a soldier’s duty to ensure that prisoners do not escape (see 2 Cor. 11:32; Gal. 3:23). (Did Paul glance at the guard sitting next to him and the chain that bound them together?) Another purpose of a military guard was to protect a target of attack, as Roman forces had stepped in to keep an angry mob in the Jerusalem temple from tearing Paul apart (Acts 21:27–36). That is the scenario that Paul paints here. Our hearts and minds are under attack and need God’s protection. The Philippians faced intimidation that threatened their hearts with fear, perhaps by threatening their bodies with harm (Phil. 1:28). So Paul promises that peaceful calm will replace worry when we pray to God with thanks for grace already given.
This peace “surpasses all understanding” because, as one scholar put it, “believers experience it when it is unexpected, in circumstances that make it appear impossible: Paul suffering in prison, the Philippians threatened by quarrels within and by enemies without.”
Paul included “anxiety for all the churches” not in a list of his sins or failures of faith, but rather in an inventory of his sufferings as a servant of Christ (2 Cor. 11:23–28). Do not confuse feeling anxiety with lacking all faith in Christ and his care! The military mission of God’s peace, as it occupies its guard post to protect believers’ hearts and minds, is not to numb us to life’s pains or to blind us to its threats. It is to draw our troubled hearts to the truth that will strengthen us to stand: we are “in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7), and not even the worst that life or death throws at us can sever us from his love (Rom. 8:34–39).
Now, when Paul speaks of “the peace of God,” he has in view not only a mellow state of mind for individuals (as I experienced so wonderfully that afternoon). He also refers to two other dimensions of peace, one deeper and one wider. The deeper peace is God’s reconciling mercy that ended the hostility between us rebels and himself. About this deeper peace Paul writes to the Roman Christians, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Because God has made peace with us through his Son, no danger of the present or threat of the future can separate us from his love (8:35–39). If you think you can achieve lasting peace of mind by mantras or meditation, without receiving peace with your Maker through humble trust in Christ and his cross, you are self-deceived. The peace that lasts through time and into eternity is found only in the peacemaking mission of Jesus the Son of God.
God’s peace also extends wider than my personal peace of mind or yours. Christ’s peacemaking mission to reconcile us to his Father has created a community of peacemakers and peacekeepers. When our hearts and minds are guarded by God’s peace, our motives are ruled by his reconciling, unifying love as we relate to others. This is the oneness to which Paul just called Euodia and Syntyche. Paul instructed believers to bear with “one another and, if one has a complaint against another, [to] forgiv[e] each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (Col. 3:13–15). Patience, forgiveness, love, harmony are all about interpersonal relationships among believers. In this family context, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” means that Christ’s peace, rather than personal self-interest, must set the agenda for our attitudes and interactions. The Philippians, too, need the power of God’s peace to protect their hearts from the self-centered focus that has fed their worries and prolonged their friction, as do we.
Notice the “package” in whom God’s protective peace is delivered: it comes to us “in Christ Jesus.” Paul has kept Jesus in view all along. He is the Lord in whom we rejoice, the Lord who is near, our greatest reason for thanks, the apex of virtue, the theme of Paul’s preaching and practice. Here Paul speaks his name. God’s peace comes to us “in Christ Jesus,” as we rest in his saving work, completed for us, and as we trust in his living person, now praying for us at God’s right hand and present among us by his Spirit. Paul directs our attention toward Christ himself as the ultimate Peacemaker (see Eph. 2:14–19).
In Philippians 4:9, Paul inverts the wording of verse 7, speaking now not of “the peace of God” protecting us but of “the God of peace” present with us. The God of peace is with us now through the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. God’s peace is not a prescription electronically transmitted from a doctor’s office to a pharmacy, to be picked up and self-administered by the invalid. No, this divine Physician of our souls makes house calls! The peace of God guards our hearts because the God of peace comes near us by his Holy Spirit. The Immanuel promise, “God with us,” which we celebrate at Christmas, did not apply only to the thirty-three years that Jesus walked this earth. It is still in force. Before his death, Jesus promised, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). After his resurrection, he assured us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
Admittedly, the troubles in the world are easy to see, whereas God’s presence by his Spirit is invisible. But as Jesus told Nicodemus, though we cannot see the wind or discover its origin, we hear its roar and see trees swaying by its power (John 3:8)! So the unseen Spirit of Christ shows his presence in our lives in many surprising ways, making us calm when we expect to be panicky, and moving us to serve others when we once lavished all care only on ourselves.
The Only Cure
Do you need antidotes to anxiety? There are lots of remedies on the market, I suppose. You could consult your physician, or check the self-help section at your bookstore. But only one cure was designed by the Manufacturer who knows how you are put together from the inside out, the One who knows why your heart is unsettled by the uncontrollable factors of life. To find the peace that you long for, to silence the worries that keep you awake at night, what you need is nothing less than God himself as your Friend and Father, your ever-present Protector.
You need to find your joy in the Lord, whether there are figs on the tree and grapes on the vine or not. Fix your hope on Jesus’ coming, and you will find the strength to react to hostility with gentleness rather than retaliation. Set your heart’s “anxiety alarm” so that when you start wallowing in worry, you know that it is time to rehearse God’s good gifts—especially Jesus, God’s great gift—and then bring the hassles that make you fret to your Father. Instead of exhausting your mental energy on the futile “what if?” treadmill, focus your thoughts on the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy Son of God, who loved you and gave himself for you.