Passage – Philippians 4:2-9
2 I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, 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.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let 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. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
For many people, this passage is like an actor who starred as “that character” in a great movie. Even though the actor may have roles in other movies, he will always be Forrest Gump… I mean “that character.” For many of us who grew up in church or are part of the biblical counseling movement, Philippians 4 is the anxiety passage, and its primary message is “stop it.” That reputation can unfortunately impede our ability to glean other truths from this passage and shape how we receive Paul’s pastoral care for anxiety.
As we explore these verses, we will discuss verse 6, “Do not be anxious for anything,” but we won’t centralize that command in a way that implies that emotional tranquility was Paul’s primary concern. After all, throughout the book of Philippians we’ve seen Paul display and affirm a wide variety of emotional expressions, some pleasant and some unpleasant. Our goal is to understand the role anxiety plays in this passage to better understand Paul’s primary concerns.
Conflict Between Genuine Believers (v. 2-3)
I am so glad garden-variety conflict between believers made it into the New Testament. Otherwise, we might think that every conflict in the church means one side must be on the brink of heresy. Without examples like this, that wouldn’t be an extreme assumption. Most conflicts that merited New Testament attention, were heresy-level concerns. We need an example like this to balance out the sampling bias, so God provided it.
As we notice the intensity of debates between Christians on everything from politics to theology to the trending social media debate of the day, we need to be reminded not all of these are heresy level concerns. We need a category, like Paul had, that says, “While two people intensely disagree, both are still true companions who labor for the gospel and whose names are in the book of life.” If we lose this perspective, we won’t be very effective at helping them resolve their differences, which is what Paul is inviting the believers around Euodia and Syntyche to do.
In this passage, Paul is modeling the impact of a theological triage system. What are the things we must believe to be a Christian? What are things that we need to agree on to fellowship in the same church, but may have great, mutually edifying friends from another church that disagree with us? What are things that we can disagree on and be great friends within the same church? These questions provide the basis for a three-tiered theological triage model.
- Tier one concerns are those beliefs that are essential to being a Christian; things like the deity of Christ, that Jesus died for our sin, and that the Bible is a divinely inspired account of God’s plan for salvation.
- Tier two concerns are beliefs that vary between evangelical denominations. Believers who disagree on these things may rightly choose not to be part of the same church but should be able to have rich friendships and affirm each other’s salvation.
- Tier three concerns are beliefs or convictions about which believers in the same church can, and frequently do, disagree.
Based on how Paul approaches this situation, Euodia and Syntyche were having a tier three disagreement that was starting to reach tier one emotional intensity. Paul had heard the details, the topic wasn’t as important as the relationship (hence, he doesn’t mention their topic of disagreement), and was inviting others in the church to help them navigate their differences. While not directly stated, it appears Paul’s instruction is to help them live peaceably in light of their disagreement, not agree on the same answer.
Healthy Christians not only acknowledge that all three tiers exist but are able to divide conflicts into these three categories. Unhealthy Christians make everything tier one (i.e., questioning the orthodoxy of everyone who disagrees with them) or tier three (i.e., equating the sincerity with which a belief is held with that belief’s biblical faithfulness). If you are going to be helpful to the Euodia and Syntyche’s in your life, you must be a three-tier Christian.
Don’t Let Anxiety Rob Your Joy (v. 4-7)
Conflict made for a natural segue into a discussion about anxiety. There’s nothing like having close friends fuss to disrupt our sense of well-being. To walk into these verses well, it is important to realize Paul is caring for those he asked to help these two women. The “helpers” are distressed about these ladies’ conflict and Paul is helping them settle their hearts so they can be more effective peacemakers.
Here is Paul’s point: the current part of your story can be tense and the whole of your story still be good. Paul isn’t saying that your emotions should always remain as tranquil. Paul is saying that when something upsets you, like two friends feuding, don’t let this change the overarching narrative of your life. Good books still have dark chapters.The current part of your story can be tense and the whole of your story still be good. Good books still have dark chapters. Click To Tweet
We can tell this is what Paul is doing by the two ways he introduces the command not to be anxious about anything. First, Paul says, “let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (v. 5). In a chaos story, freaking out fits. In a good story with an occasion of chaos, reasonableness fits. Paul is saying, don’t let this moment define the story, remember God is in control.
Notice, this doesn’t downplay the problem. It doesn’t ask you to be unmoved. It does call you to remember that you are in a good story being written by a good author. Paul isn’t asking Christians to pretend bad and hard things don’t exist. That’s denial, not faith.
Second, Paul frames the command with, “The Lord is at hand” (v. 6). Amid this conflict, members at the First Church of Philippi would have been thinking, “Euodia has done lost her mind,” or “Syntyche may be right, but she didn’t have to be nasty about it.” Do you notice who the central characters are in both statements? Not God. The story, and subsequently our emotions, destabilizes because it’s lost its anchor.
That begs the question: how do we stay narratively and emotionally anchored? That’s what Paul addresses next. His answer is to stay conversationally connected with God. Pray. While that may sound trite, let’s flesh it out with a story.
Imagine this scene. My family is having dinner at a restaurant. A feud breaks out that is loud and intimidating our two young sons. What is the best thing for my sons to do? This is the big question of Philippians 4. Answer: talk with Papa. Ask, “What’s going on?” Come close in the booth.
As we talk, my calmness and assessment of the situation becomes more central than the people who are yelling. My boys can ask me anything they want. I’m there for them. That changes the story. Our engagement, in effect, “guards their hearts and minds” (v. 7). When we read this passage as a theological treatise on emotions – what to do and not do – we miss the relational imagery Paul is cultivating.
Paul is reminding us that even amid troubling circumstances (which he doesn’t ask us to downplay) staying conversationally connected to God stabilizes our emotions by reminding of the larger, good story of which this dark, scary chapter is a part. In that sense, our real fears forge a bond between us and God; like my sons feel closer to me as their father when I help them navigate a scary situation.
Be Intentional with Distressing Thoughts (v. 8-9)
Next, Paul seeks to resolve one of the more pernicious aspects of anxiety – rumination. Doubtless, you know the experience. Something alarms you (i.e., a deadline, a budget concern, a test). That concern becomes narratively central for you and anxiety becomes thick. Now, you can’t seem to think about anything else. Even when you remind yourself, “God’s got this,” anxiety remains sticky as you ruminate.
Paul’s advice reveals that replacement is a better strategy than just telling ourselves, “Stop it!” So, he gives a list of replacement prompts: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (v. 8). Paul doesn’t seem to have a favorite prompt. Whichever one works for you and fits your situation is fine with Paul.
But Paul doesn’t stop there. He personalizes his instructions. Verse 9 is Paul, in effect, saying, “You remember the time I spent in Philippi. Those were stressful days. You saw me wrestle with anxiety. You’ve heard me wrestle with anxiety in this letter. So, please, don’t be self-conscious about your struggle with anxiety. Recall my example to stifle the sense of stigma that often accompanies anxiety and do the kinds of things you saw me do.”
In this, we see something vitally important, but easily overlooked, about unpleasant emotions. Hiding them only makes them worse. It is easy to miss, because it’s taught by Paul’s example rather than by prescription in the passage. It’s in the text, but not as “don’t hide your unpleasant emotions.” Instead, it’s in the text via the example of Paul’s vulnerable testimony. We follow in the footsteps of this passage whenever, like Paul, we’re willing to say, “I struggle too.”
Doubtless, our mind drifts to other questions, “Is this a way the Bible advises Christians to resolve their anxiety or is this the way it should be done? What about biblical truths relevant to anxiety that Paul didn’t mention? What about other cognitive practices like meditation or distraction? What about practices to calm the body to help settle the mind? What about medications to decrease anxiety? What would Paul say about these?”
Those are important questions. They’re also tier three questions. Questions can be important and tier three. Believers can disagree about the best approach to struggles like anxiety. Don’t be offended if someone doesn’t engage your preferred approach. Don’t judge someone who manages their anxiety differently. Don’t assume what works best for you is God’s ordained remedy for everyone else.
Based on how Paul approached this question in Philippi, I believe he would say:
“The important thing is that God remains central to your life story. If anxiety is disrupting your life, talk with God. He cares. Amid anxiety, God’s primary concern is that you do not begin to view him as distant and disinterested towards your pain. How you manage cognitive and physical disruptions of anxiety, as long as it’s not sinful, is fine. In heaven, there will be no need for bonus points (in contrast to how we often think God will be more pleased if we overcome with only faith and willpower), so do what’s most effective for you to manage your anxiety as you keep God central.”
For some of us, that means consistent exercise will be most effective for curbing the physical effects of anxiety. For others, times of silence and meditating on key truths of Scripture will be most effective. For still others, managing our day-to-day lives to limit surprises will provide the most relief. For some, medication will be an important component. Other Christians will struggle with the temptations of being too cavalier rather than anxious, so for them this entire discussion is more about caring for others.
Wherever you fit on this list of possibilities the main thing to take from this passage is remain conversationally connected with God so that as hardships come (and they will) and your emotions get disrupted (and they will) God remains central to your life. It is when we interpret our circumstances to mean that God is absent that we transition from distress to despair. Within these guiding principles do the things that help you steward your body and emotions best.
- Who is the actor or actress that, although they’re in many movies, every time you see them you think of “that one character” they played?
- If it has been your experience that this passage has been taught as a “just stop it” passage on anxiety, describe the impact that has had on you?
- Use the three-tier theological triage system and name the kind of beliefs that belong in each category?
- How does having a multi-tier triage model helps with relational unity and emotional regulation in the church?
- For you, which fears when present, tend to become central to your life story?
- What does “reasonableness” and remembering “the Lord is at hand” help decentralize these fears from your life story?
- How much does rumination contribute to the stickiness of your experience of anxiety?
- When and how have you heard Christians elevate various ways of alleviating anxiety to tier one concerns? What impact did this have on you?
- From the examples listed or others, which approaches to managing anxiety are most effective for you?
* * * This article is part of a series entitled A Counseling Commentary on Philippians.