Discipleship-green

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Philippians 4:6-7, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

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

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. 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Next post: Three Antidotes to Anxiety.