At the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we see him give some instructions to the community as per his usual custom in his epistles. One of the things he instructs the Philippians:
Worry about nothing. Instead, in all things makes your requests known to God in prayer and urgent appeals with thanksgiving and God’s peace, which surpasses all thinking, will guard your hearts and minds in Jesus Christ.
It is in these parts of Paul’s letters that we are apt to find some sort of ethical principle that we seek to apply to our lives in a universal sort of way. This passage is no exception. In addition to Jesus words about worrying in the Sermon on the Mount, these words are oft-quoted as a source of direction for how we should deal with our own, modern-day mental afflictions. With the rise of awareness of various forms of anxiety disorders, it is routine to see the application of Jesus and PAul’s language about worrying to what we label in the modern-day as anxiety.
Now, as a follower Jesus, I certainly believe we should seek to apply what Paul said to our lives. However, the way we are Christians try to address modern understanding of anxiety is far off the target for what Paul was addressing. We may sometimes hear social media posts and sermons about how people with anxiety do not have faith. Yet, the specific things that Jesus and Paul were addressing in their exhortations to not worry are significantly different. This is exacerbated by two problems we consistently have in interpretation: (1) ignoring the relationship between moral exhortation and the specific circumstances and (2) translations making us unaware of the significant differences between ancient and modern concepts.
In regards to the first problem, Paul’s exhortation to not worry is not offered as a general, universal prohibition against any sort of mental activity that could have been labeled as worrying. Paul uses the very same word (μεριμνάω) to describe the worry that spouses should have for other people’s well-being (1 Cor. 7.32-34) and also the concern one person may have for other people’s welfare (1 Cor. 12.25; Php. 2.20). Rather, Paul is targetting the specific causes for worry that the Philippians would have: two themes persistently come up in Paul’s epistle: (1) questions about Paul’s well-being and (2) concerns about false teachers. What is happening is that Paul’s persecution is being furthered by Paul’s opposition. Because the Philippians identified with Paul, they Phillipians themselves would begin to be worried because they could imagine that whatever is threatening their beloved teacher could become a threat to them. It is in this context that Paul (a) encourages the Philippians to humbly love one another (2.1-11) and (b) describes his own attitude in being conformed to Christ’s death (3.7-14) and resurrection that he then encourages the Philippians to imitate him in the face of those who would be hostile to them (3.15-19).
When feeling an existential threat, which Paul’s own persecution represented for the Philippians, people can become inclined to living and acting out of fear and becoming hostile. As a consequence, Paul encourages the Philippians to continue to rejoice and to be demonstrably gentle towards others (Php. 4.4-5). They do not need to let the threat to Paul overturn their life together. So, when Paul tells them not to worry in 4.6, Paul is addressing a third consequence of this existential threat: worrying about what might happen. As such, the Greek words indicating the scope of worry and of thanksgiving, μηδὲν (“nothing”) and παντὶ (“all things”), are not intended as some floating reference to anything within the scope of possible within all human life, but rather is addressed within the context of the Phillipians’ specific circumstance: continuing to be faithful and grow in the face of an existential threat. There is nothing in their present situation they should be worried about, even though there is something very real and tough going on in the life of their beloved teacher. Instead, everything they may be concerned about should be brought to God.
One of the concerns that may come up is the future of the Phillipians own life. If their teacher is gone and unable to ever address them again, what will they be able to do? This concern is represented in Paul emphasizing imitating Christ and then Paul who is seeking to be conformed to Christ: in that way, they will continue to work out their own salvation, rather than having to rely upon the instruction of Paul. Likewise, by bringing their concerns to God in everything, they will continue to be protected in Jesus Christ (Php. 4.7). Paul then gives himself as an example of this in Philippians 4.10-14.
The point of this: it isn’t that worry is somehow antithetical to being Christian or having faith. Rather, overcoming worry is about believers become mature and taking their own spiritual well-being in their own hands. How we deal with the situations that worry us is not the dividing line between those with and without faith. Rather, learning how to deal with our concerns and worries through appealing to God is how we mature and become a spiritual adult in Jesus Christ. Worry is where we can learn to deepen our faith.
However, leading to the second reason why we misread passages like these, worry is not the same thing that we today refer to as anxiety. To be clear, there is a relationship between worry and anxiety. People who are anxious can worry. But not all people who have anxiety do worry.
When we talk about anxiety today in modern psychology, we are referring to our physiological and cognitive preparation to pay attention to and respond to potential threats that are not immediately apparent or understood. It is a little bit different from fear in that with fear, we have a specific threat in mind that we figure out how to respond to. With anxiety, however, the lack of specificity to the threat means that when we experience anxiety, we are prepared to act to prevent or head off any potential threat, even if we are not even consciously aware of what different outcomes we fear. A person with social anxiety would experience a mildly uncomfortable state when it came to experiencing social interactions, but they may or may not be aware of any specific fears, such as a fear of being rejected, being harmed, hurting someone’s feelings, etc. The thing about anxiety is the uncertainty of the potential threat, whereas fear operates more with a more clearly understood threat.
Now, when we experience anxiety, there are many behavioral and cognitive strategies we can employ to address such anxiety. One response might be to try to learn a little bit about what it is that is bothering you. A person who has anxiety about public speaking can learn about it and use that knowledge to help them when they are prepare to speak publicly. Or, sometimes, there is little one can do about the anxiety but take one’s mind off it is, so we might seek to distract ourselves by spending time with friends, watching a movie, eating a delicious snack, etc.
In other cases, we feel the discomfort of such unspecified threat, and so we seek to figure out more specifically what the threat is and try to figure out what might happen and what we need to do in response. We much prefer the clarity of a known fear than the ambiguity of a vague threat because we can learn how to respond to what we believe to be true. In some cases, this can be healthy as it allow us to hone our fears. But there are two potential pitfalls to this strategy.
Firstly, because some people deal with anxiety by avoiding the situation, they are apt to ‘learn’ about what makes them anxious by imagining and ruminating on it, rather than actually engaging what evokes anxiety within us. And, sometimes, we are not afforded the opportunity to learn directly, so we substitute ruminative reflection in its place. In such a condition, people can become isolated from the actual world and caught in their imaginations that bear little resemblance to reality.
Secondly, sometimes our anxieties do not abate with identify a specific fear. This is often the case with social anxiety, as a person can simultaneously have an unconscious fear of rejection, of being harmed, and of hurting other people’s feelings. Ruminating on one of these possible fears may not actually address the various reasons a person experiences social anxiety, leaving the person feeling unsettled beyond just that fear. In that case, the feeling of fear can then heighten the feelings of anxiety.
When we don’t actually learn through experience about the cause of our anxiety and we are constantly going back and forth between anxiety and fear, we engage in the process of anxiety-based worrying. We constantly visit and revisit the problem that we are either unwilling or unable to figure out and address. And this could typify the circumstances the Philippians were facing. Their concern for Paul would have president a general, existential threat to their own well-being, but they themselves were not facing any immediate, specific threat. It was only a general anxiety about their future given their status as followers of Jesus Christ. They might lose Paul as their teacher. They might have to engage with false teachers. They might themselves get persecuted. On and on the possibilities could go, but in the end, they were experiencing an existential threat to their well-being.
Paul’s call for them to no worry was not a statement against anxiety as a general sense of preparation for a vague, unclear sense of threat. Even though Paul would not have been familiar with the modern understanding about anxiety, Paul along with others would have been familiar with the effectiveness that comes by changing the strategies we use to face certain anxiety-provoking situations. What Paul gives in Philippians 4.6-7 is a strategy for dealing with the anxiety that would be provoked by the specific situation by not engaging in worrying, but substituting it with thanksgiving and appeals to God. To that end, Paul is not that much different from modern therapists who employ cognitive-behavioral therapy. In fact, Paul’s understanding of worry would likely have been influenced by the Stoics of the Roman era like Seneca and Epictetus, who were philosophers that acted more like modern-day therapists and were concerned with helping people overcome emotions such as fear and worrying about things they can not control that plagued people’s lives. However, Paul’s response to anxiety has a distinctly Christ-o-centric emphasis in recognizing that God does something in the believers through Christ that ensures their continuing mental wellbeing and spiritual progress in the midst of their appeals and thanksgiving.
Nevertheless, Paul is not saying that people should not experience anxiety. His words do not directly address the realities of the struggles with anxiety and anxiety disorders that various people face. Paul, along with the Stoics who would have been an influence in Paul’s understanding of psychology, were focused on the type of thinking that people feeling a general threat might engage in.
With that in mind, I would put forward it is best to hear the words of Paul in Philippians 4.6-7 as a word for how Christians who experience anxiety can learn to mature in their Christian faith: instead of trying to address anxiety through worry, instead in one’s anxiety learn to making one’s worries and struggles known to God while one also gives thanksgiving to God. To that end, Paul is essentially prescribing the general pattern given in the lament Psalms, where complaints which are brought to God are followed up with an expression of trust.
Anxieties will happen in life because the world can be a dangerous place and because some of us are more sensitive to these dangers than others. Yet, Paul does not condemn anxiety, but rather Paul took a situation that promoted anxiety in those who depended upon him and encouraged them to grow by handling it in a different way than the common pattern of fear, hostility, and worry that feelings of indirect, existential threats can cause. All of us, whether sensitive to feeling anxiety or not, are capable of learning how to act out of our anxiety in different ways, including ways that will reinforce our faith and life in Jesus Christ.
To conclude, I would say something similar about Jesus’ words about worry in the Sermon on the Mount as given in Matthew 6. It is a little different in that Jesus is not telling people “never worry,” but rather getting them to prioritize their concerns to those things that need their immediate attention and trust God to handle those things one has no power to address at the present time. In a similar fashion, worry is being preoccupied with a general sense of concern of one’s own survival but far removed from the present situation. There are challenges and threats we are capable of addressing at specific points of time which we are capable of facing in a way that seeks God’s kingdom and His righteousness, and to those Jesus is not condemning people experiencing any feeling of concern, anxiety, or worry. However, much like the Stoics found worrying about things one has no control over to be irrational, in a similar but somewhat different manner, Jesus preaches to people that there is no need to worry about what God has in His power and is not given to them to address at the present time.