27th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Philippians 4:6-9
“Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-7
“Paranoia strikes deep; into your life it will creep. It starts when you’re always afraid. Step out of line, the man come, and take you away” – from the song For What It’s Worth by Stephen Stills
“And any time you feel the pain, hey Jude, refrain; Don’t carry the world upon your shoulder. For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little colder.” – from the song Hey Jude by John Lennon & Paul McCartney
Do a little research, and you may be surprised at how many people struggle with anxieties in their lives. It is estimated that three out of ten Americans have some form of anxiety disorder. In one survey, 41% of all employees from a variety of industries reported high levels of anxiety in the workplace. Another survey showed that over half of all college students have sought help for their anxiety challenges. 43% of Americans take mood-altering prescriptions on a daily basis. That last statistic doesn’t include the many and varied ways that people try to self-medicate for anxiety: alcohol, other drugs, food, exercise, sex, meditation techniques, and so on. Besides this, intense anxieties tend to close people in on themselves and make them less willing to trust others. This affects not only individuals, but also families and communities of all kinds, and our nation as a whole. Anxiety, and the issues that flow from it, has become a significant epidemic in our culture.
Anxiety is obviously a very relevant issue for people today. Coping with anxiety is, just as obviously, one of the greatest challenges that we face.
For me, anxiety is not one of those challenges that I can sit back and observe in others. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I am generously endowed with it. (Perhaps too generously!) Throw anything unexpected at me. Even though I may seem placid enough on the surface, things start going south very quickly inside of me. I had one funeral two days ago. I still feel sick from the anxieties generated by that. Sharing such things is a way to say that I’ve “been there and done that” – in fact, I am there and I am doing that, and a lot more than I’d like! (Besides, anti-anxiety pills don’t play nice with my autistic wiring.) It’s no joke. When I’m in the middle of an anxiety wave, it feels like a dozen people have pointed their guns at me. At that moment, everything feels impossible. It takes a considerable act of faith and will to keep going.
So, then, what does our faith have to add to the anxiety conversation? At first glance, this reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians seems unhelpful at best. Have no anxiety. Suck it up, as some might say today. Snap out of it. Grow up. (If it were that easy…) However, Paul himself uses the word that is translated “anxiety” in a number of ways, some of which he commends. So, let’s look at “anxiety” from Paul’s perspective and see what we might find.
When Paul tells us to “have no anxiety at all”, what does he mean?
First of all, Paul isn’t thinking about anything we would now call a disorder. He is speaking of something over which we have some kind of a choice. If you are wired differently, like I am, or have some kind of chemical or hormonal imbalance, you have little choice but to feel anxieties, even intense ones, from time to time. (Nevertheless, what Paul will recommend as a ‘coping strategy’ is also immensely helpful to people affected with any kind of anxiety-producing disorder, as we shall see.) Besides this, simply keeping up with the news can be more than enough to stir up anxieties in all but the most oblivious of folks!
Paul isn’t thinking about what he would consider a good or even a healthy form of ‘anxiety’. In Greek, the same word that in translated as ‘anxiety’ is also translated in other contexts as ‘intense concern’ for someone or something. For example, Paul writes this to the community in Corinth: “But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another”. (1 Cor 12:24-25) Here, “concern” in Greek is the same word as “anxiety” in our Philippians passage. Paul speaks of his “anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28) and Timothy’s “concern” for the welfare of the Philippians (Php 2:20).
So, then, there is a good and healthy form of “anxiety”, if you will. We see it the deep concern that a parent has for a child’s welfare. We see it in the concern that an older couple show for one another as they age. We see it in the commitment of anyone to their ministry for the Church community. A healthy “anxiety”, so to speak, pulls us out of our own heads and opens up to the needs of others.
But this healthy ‘anxiety’ is more than this – rather, it’s deeper than this. If its focus were only on the welfare of others – as good as that is – it can easily slide into the trap where we feel that the welfare of others is totally dependent on what we do for them. No, a healthy ‘anxiety’ is rooted, first and foremost, on our deep concern to be open to the Lord. We are ‘anxious’ to learn the Lord’s ways and to follow his teachings. This will mean, of course, that we will be drawn out of ourselves and into ministry for others. But it may mean that the specific call that you or I have might not look ‘other-centered’ at times because it may be less ‘active’. This may be especially true of people who are older, are disabled in some way, or who have a call to a more solitary way of life. Nevertheless, it is indeed open to others by necessity, if it is truly the call of the Lord.
What, then, is the unhealthy anxiety that Paul wants us not to have?
We get a strong hint of it from the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which use the same word for “anxiety” that Paul uses. Jesus says: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? … 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 give you besides”. (Matt 6:25, 32-33)
Combine this with the context of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul himself is about to be put on trial (once again), and he does not know what will happen to him. Still, he is convinced that, whatever may come, the Lord will work through it to further the proclamation of the Gospel. Paul knows that whether he lives or dies, his “yes” of faith in the Lord will be the means through which the Lord’s grace will touch the hearts of others in profound ways. Moreover, Paul knows that physical death is not the last word. He has seen the Risen Lord. He knows that the worst threats that people can make cannot take the life of the Holy Spirit from him: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39)
Anxiety – at least the ‘unhealthy’ anxiety Paul is talking about – is based on fear: the fear that something essential can be taken away from us, and, even more, the fear that we might fail or utterly perish. Paul knows, by faith, that this fear is groundless. The Lord upholds the lives of all who trust in him. The Lord gives us all what we truly need. Nothing can separate us from this infinite love – nothing, that is, except our own “no” based on doubt, fear or anxiety. Paul can face life or death, confident that God can work great things through either. And so it is with us.
Therefore, Paul offers the Philippians (and us) a spiritual ‘anxiety therapy’. “But, in everything”, he affirms, “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.
This therapy is good for whatever anxiety afflicts us, be it one we can choose or one we cannot. We turn to the Lord in utter trust, like little children who totally trust their parents. We pray, asking the Lord to give us what we need. We offer thanks, not only for what the Lord has already done for us, but for how he is answering our prayers even now – whether we perceive the answer or not. Often, the thing we believe we need (at first) is not what we most need. We trust that God will give us – and is already giving us – what we truly need. Even more importantly, we offer thanks for the victory that the Lord has already won for us by his cross and resurrection. No earthly threat can thwart that Holy Spirit. Whatever may come to us on the outside, the Lord can plant seeds through us that will bear fruit. Besides all this, we are always in the palm of God’s hand, so to speak. He has redeemed us from sin and death. In life or death, we are the Lord’s. Nothing can snatch us from his hand. Suffering, loss, fear, anxiety, and death do not have the last word. They want us to believe that they do. Only One is truly Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. Indeed, being the Lord’s, we cannot die. He preserves us through death and beyond it. What, then, need we fear? Life is like going to the dentist’s office for some treatment. Some of it is unpleasant, but it will end, and we will emerge from the chair once again. It is the same with our life in the Lord.
There are times when we need some anti-anxiety medication to help us with daily life. There are times when we may need meditation or exercise or quiet to help us cope. There may be times, at least for some of us, when we will still feel anxious no matter what we do. Think of that scene in the Gospels where the apostles are in a boat at night, beset by wind and wave. They fear for their lives. Jesus, on the other hand, is asleep in the boat. Not because he doesn’t care, or because he is oblivious to the danger. No. He knows that his Father can bring good out of anything and everything, and that he is always in the Father’s presence (as are all his friends). No need to give in to the fears and anxieties of the moment. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.