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I’m Worried about my Level of Anxiety

August 28, 2011

The Text

1Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. 2I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life. 4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice 5Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Philippians 4:1-6 ESV)

A Closer Look at the Text

We tend to think that words like “rejoice” and “don’t be anxious” pertain to emotions. “Don’t be sad.” “Don’t worry about it.” But when we really are sad, or anxious, it doesn’t make sense for someone to tell us not to feel that way. Feelings just are. It’s difficult to “manage” feelings, especially feelings of sadness or anxiety. And when we do try to manage our feeling by toughing them out or by trying to ignore them, we are often frustrated.

In my previous post, I discussed the emotional aspect of the word “rejoice.” This post focuses on the expression “don’t be anxious.” Both sound like the readers are being instructed to change or manage their feelings as such. But just as “rejoice” is more about focusing on the Gospel (and finding both relationship and meaning in the Gospel), the expression “don’t be anxious” is more about choosing what to be concerned about, than whether to be concerned.

The Greek word for “anxious” (merimnaō) carries with it a hint of exaggeration. The NASB’s more literal translation, “be anxious for nothing,” reflects this subtlety. It’s not so much the expression, “don’t ever worry about anything under any conditions,” as it is, “stop being a worry-wart.” Don’t focus on yourself, your own life (Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 12:22-26), on the things of this world (Luke 10:41); , or even how you witness (Matthew 10:19; Luke 12:11). Instead, focus outside of yourself. In particular, be anxious (same word, merimnaō) about the “things of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34) and about one another (1 Corinthians 12:25).

 

In Philippians 2:20-21, Paul commends Timothy for being concerned (worried, merimnaō) about that which concerned (worried, merimnaō) the Philippians; by contrast, others (besides Timothy) sought after their own interests, not those of Christ Jesus. So in the same letter, Paul instructs the Philippians to not be worry-warts (verse 4:6), and yet commends Timothy for worrying about that which made the Philippians anxious (verse 2:20). The message: when we find ourselves worrying, we should worry about (and ask ourselves) whether we are worrying about ourselves and our own lives, or, whether we are instead worrying about the things of the Lord, and about others.

Some Observations about the Text

Anxiety, like joy, only makes sense if it takes the future into account. Worrying is always future-oriented. As G.B. Caird observed, “anxiety is attempting to carry the burden of the future oneself.” And because we imagine our future, we can enlarge that burden as much as we choose.

Try reading the phrases of Philippians 4, verses 5 and 6, backwards: Turn everything over to God; then you won’t have to carry such a large burden-of-the-future; along the way, remember that you are not alone; and then, once you adopt these disciplines, you will naturally and obviously be more relaxed, more gentle, more reasonable, more calm and more content.

Think about the experience of air travel. Some folks are anxious during the entire adventure: When they get to the airport they worry about finding a place to park, because if they cannot find a place to park soon enough they might be late arriving at security. When they get to security, they act as if they are panicked as they approach the conveyor belt, tugging and pulling at shoes, belts, and pockets. Once they go through security they frantically try to reassemble themselves as quickly as possible so that they can hurry off to arrive at the gate at least an hour before the flight is scheduled to leave. Once they are invited onto the plane, they hustle through the jet-way as if the plane were about to take off and leave them dangling at the end of the jet-way. As they stand in line behind other passengers in the aisle of the plane, they earnestly study the row numbers and seat numbers, as if they are worried that their seat was skipped in the numbering of the rows and they would not have a seat on the plane. And all of this worrying and panicking takes place before the plane even takes off.

Other air travelers, usually including those who are more experienced, take into account all of these concerns, but don’t “carry the burden of the future” as they travel. It is enough to carry the luggage of the present. They deal with that which is in their control, which mostly means that they allow plenty of time between connections when they plan their itinerary. Once they plan their itinerary they are sure to arrive at the airport in plenty of time. After that, they tend to focus more on the present than on the “what ifs” of the future: they move through the airport with all deliberation, but they realize that things can always go awry. When things go awry, the confident traveler understands that the are “critical paths” of decision-making that will need to be accomplished: They realize that if they get delayed at security or elsewhere, there is some chance that they would miss their flight. But even then that unlikely event, they would make arrangements for an alternative flight. And in the unlikely event that there are no other flights available (due to storms, the lateness of the day, or otherwise), they understand that they might need to spend the night and get an early flight the next morning. None of these contingencies are likely, and none of them are particularly desirable. Experienced and confident travelers understand all of this, but they don’t dwell on it. Instead, they focus on moving through the airport with calmness and deliberation. They minimize the chances of missing a flight or having some other problem, but they also understand that if something does go wrong there are various options and alternatives that are available. In short, they have faith that even if there are some delays or discomforts, they will ultimately arrived at their destination.

Have you ever traveled with a more experienced traveler? Have you noticed what a difference this makes? The experienced traveler knows what to expect at every turn, and understands the system. She knows what is likely to happen, and when, and why. You can ask any question you like and she will be able to give a reassuring answer. The experienced traveling companion does not change the possibilities of problems, surprises, canceled flights, or other contingencies. But the inexperienced traveler’s anxieties are calmed by her presence.

Immediately before Paul exhorts us not to worry (verse 6), he reminds us at the end of verse 5 that “the Lord is at hand” (eggys). He is right here, right now, and He is accessible. Immediately after Paul exhorts us not to worry, he reminds us to place our petitions before the Lord. He is not only right here right now, but He wants to hear from us. No matter what happens on this journey, we are not alone; we have the ultimate traveling companion.

Gospel Apologetics

This passage (Philippians 4:1-6) offers two “demeanor diagnostics” that are ultimately directed toward the Gospel witness of the church. Paul’s first exhortation is to “stand firm in the Lord.” The church cannot offer a strong, bold, united and zealous witness to the Gospel if there is dissension and disunity. So the first diagnostic is to identify and deal with any dissension, for the sake of the Gospel. Paul invites us to ask ourselves, “what is the demeanor of my church (or my adult Bible fellowship class, or my small group, or my prayer group, etc.)?” If our diagnostic analysis reveals dissension, that demeanor does not reflect the spirit of Christ, we are challenged to humbly and prayerfully fix it and, more importantly, pray about the lack of focus on God’s mission that led to the dissension in the first place.

The second demeanor diagnostic is more individual. Paul’s second exhortation is to have a joyful, gentle, reasonable and grateful demeanor that is “known to everyone.” We cannot pretend to have the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. We can’t fake it. We either have it or we don’t, and people in our lives (believers and nonbelievers alike) know the difference. One way to discover for ourselves our Gospel demeanor, is to seriously and rigorously assess our own anxieties. We need to be concerned (in a sense, worried) about our anxieties because our anxieties signal the extent to which we have surrendered our present and our future into the hands of God, and they also signal the extent to which we believe and appreciate that God is nearby at all times (i.e., that “the Lord is at hand”). If our diagnostic analysis reveals anxiety, that demeanor does not reflect the peace of Christ and the confidence we ought to have (and believe we have) in Him. We are challenged to humbly and prayerfully fix our anxiety problem and, more importantly, pray about the lack of reliance on God that led to the anxiety in the first place. We should be concerned, if not necessarily worried, about our level of anxiety, and yet the Biblical “fix” is always the same: remember that the Lord is at hand (in other words, remember the Gospel and the Person of Jesus Christ), and, pray about it.

Whether our
joyful, gentle, peaceful demeanor is “known to everyone,” can be diagnosed another way: how often, or how recently, have we been asked for an explanation regarding reason for the hope that is in us (1 Peter 3:13-17)?

Audio MP3 Discussion of this post is available here.

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