Many Christians have a favorite verse. They have a verse that forms them, or warms them, or met them with light in a dark valley. I, of course, have my favorite verse, but this article isn’t about my favorite verse. It’s about what, for a long time, were my least favorite two verses.
My least favorite verses have long been Philippians 4:4 and 6. These verses are two simple imperatives: “Rejoice in the Lord always…Do not be anxious about anything.”
You may find nothing offensive in them, but I have often been offended by the challenge their simplicity put to me. Shortly after I began pastoring, I began suffering anxiety attacks. At first, I didn’t understand them. I thought I had a chronic stomach disease. I spent a couple years going to doctors, seeking a diagnosis. They found nothing wrong with my body, but multiple times a week I would get sick. It wasn’t until my wife noticed patterns that I understood my issue wasn’t biological. I would get sick on Saturday nights, before big meetings and in moments I felt like failure was imminent.
When I finally understood I was experiencing anxiety attacks, I couldn’t reconcile my experience with these two verses. Beset by fear and anxiety, how could I simply stop it? I wanted to, but I couldn’t. The commands in Philippians only seemed to reinforce my own brokenness. The pastor, of all people, couldn’t even obey a straightforward command from God. Instead of lifting my eyes to a good savior, these verses cast me more deeply into despair. Why could I not rejoice? What was wrong with me? Did I not truly believe Jesus was Lord of his Church and sovereign over my circumstances?
Philippians 4:4 & 6 simply felt like another burden for my already-crushed soul to carry, until God made a connection for me while I was reading them a couple years ago. Between verses 4 and 6 sits verse 5, “Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” The word translated gentleness is not common among NT writers. The ESV translates it “reasonableness”. It has a sense of balance or equanimity, and that’s just Paul’s point as he writes this prison epistle. There is a root that holds our lives secure when the winds of anxiety seek to rip them from the ground. That root is the presence of Christ.
Paul does not clearly draw out how Christ’s presence anchors the believer’s soul in verse 5, and it is easy to read over the two statements of verse 5 as disconnected. However, doing so does not give the apostle or the Spirit sufficient credit for the composition of this letter. Philippians is not a disconnected set of sayings. It is a letter of gratitude and counsel, and the phrases flow into a coherent argument.
Prompted by the care and concern the Philippians show him in sending him a gift during his imprisonment, Paul writes to them. In the letter, Paul shows his concern over the Philippians’ concern for him (Php. 1:12), and for their perseverance through their own trials and temptations (Php. 3:17–19). The answer he consistently offers to these concerns is the surpassing worth of the glory of Christ (Php. 1:18–26 & 3:20–21).
Philippians looks backwards and forwards to provide hope in the present. Paul is confident “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Php. 1:6) That work is the Philippians’ salvation, which is producing the fruit of care for Paul’s gospel mission. Because God has saved the Philippians, and is holding them fast, they can continue in humble obedience through every trial, confident that their end is eternal life with Christ in God. Their final vindication is Christ gives the Philippians the courage to imitate Christ’s humility, valuing “others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Php. 2:4) They don’t need to defend themselves, because just as God vindicated Jesus, so will he glorify everyone adopted in him.
If our ultimate destination is unity with Jesus, the end of every tear and the joy of eternal fellowship with God, we have an enduring hope through any and every circumstance. It is a hope that cannot be defeated, because the worst end for our physical bodies, death, results in the fulfillment of our greatest hope (Php. 1:21). For Paul, and for his Philippian readers, they are able to endure every trial, because they have ahead of them the goal of the prize of the upward call of God in Christ (Php. 3:14).
Endurance, however, is different than joy, and Paul’s hope for his dear friends is that they would not simply persevere unto eternity. He wants the joy of the promise of eternity to become real in the material lives they live. In chapter 4, Paul makes a transition to a concluding list of concerns. There he moves from the high theology of chapters 2 and 3 to practical, messy lives full of disappointment and trial as well as abundance and joy.
It is in those trials, disappointments, bounties and joys that Philippians 4:5 makes sense. In those moments where the love of earthly things or the fear of losing them creates soul-shaking anxiety, we are restored to balance when we remember the nearness of him who loves us, who was vindicated by his trust in the Father, and is advocating on our behalf in heaven.
Think of it this way. Would you react differently to a cancer diagnosis if, looking over the doctor’s shoulder you saw Jesus standing there? If you walked out of your boss’s office after getting fired, and were embraced in the pierced bosom of your resurrected savior, how would it change your day? In those moments of anxiety and fear, would your perspective change if Jesus were in the room?
Paul in this moment is reminding the Philippians that the promise of God’s presence is not just for the moment we die, as marvelous as that will be. He is reminding them that God is there in their daily mess as well. It is the truth of his name, Immanuel, God with us. It is the promise of his Spirit that we would not be left as orphans (Jhn. 14:18). In Jesus the glory of God came to dwell with us, and in the Spirit, he has not left us.
In Philippians 4, Paul transitions to application. Paul is applying a theology of God’s presence to the Philippians’ present concerns and anxieties. As we read his words today, we are encouraged to do the same. Dealing with anxiety begins with holding on to a simple truth: the Lord is near.
Oftentimes, we drift through life, forgetting this simple truth. Our circumstances become more real to us than the presence of Jesus. So Paul offers a prescription of rejoicing. We rejoice in Christ’s love. We rejoice in his salvation. We rejoice in his presence. In a life full of rejoicing, anxiety fades. When the party is big enough and good enough, it is difficult to remember why we were sad in the first place.
In my battle with anxiety, this shift in focus was an essential turning point. Before, in the worst season of my anxiety attacks, I only found relief by asserting control over my environment. I needed to be in one place, in one position, with one medicine at hand, with complete silence. When I could achieve that, the nausea would pass, my heart would slow and eventually I would find rest.
The problem with that coping is that it was crippling. I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t enjoy time with friends and family. I couldn’t appreciate laughter and life, because it was all a threat. I could control my anxiety by my efforts, but that control robbed me of joy.
In light of Philippians 4, the battle has changed. Now, I don’t battle to assert control over my environment, but rather to daily surrender control to my Savior. My medication, chair and silence have been replaced by Sabbath, prayer and Scripture meditation, and I never want to go back.
In my need for God, I found him in new ways. My engagement with Scripture grew into written prayers and poetry, pouring out my desperation before my heavenly Father. Wrestling with God’s Word intersecting my limits, I rediscovered active faith. I realized that God was not asking me to do things I cannot do. Rather, God had brought me to a place I could not succeed on my own to teach me to trust his power over my abilities.
The pangs of anxiety still strike every now and then, but it’s different now. They are tremors, not earthquakes. I’m guarded by his peace.
Where do you find yourself? Your anxiety-induced impairments may be less extreme than mine were, but if you are controlling anxiety without Christ, I am guessing you are finding your own impairments: a short temper, justifying “little” sins, controlling others. These impairments can indicate a root of anxiety.
If you are anxious and looking for a path out, you can start walking where I did, with an assignment I received in a Spiritual Formation class. If we are to rejoice, we must remember he is with us, as Paul reminded his readers in verse 5. To remember, we need to slow down. This assignment slowed me down to abide in Jesus’s peace. Set a goal to read a new Psalm five days a week (A little bit of grace helps the anxiety!). After reading, go through 4 steps:
- Write your personal reflections. What resonated as you read?
- Write an expression of personal worship. Express the worship of the Psalm in your own language.
- Write a prayer based on the passage. Let God’s Word shape your expressions of gratitude, worship, confession and need.
- Write an assessment of your personal situation. What is happening in your life, and what feelings are those events prompting?
In this slowness, we are re-oriented toward hope in Jesus. Abide in his peace, Jesus is in the room.