Editor’s Note: This was first delivered as the commencement address at Western Theological Seminary on April 29, 2023.
Words of Paul to the Philippians: ‘Be anxious for nothing [mēden merimnate]’ (Phil. 4. 4-9, at vs. 6)
My sincere thanks for the invitation to address you this afternoon. What a great honour it is to be with you graduands today – both here in person and online – in this, your moment of celebration and triumph at commencement. And so, first, I must say to you with fervour: congratulations! May this be a day of joy-in-Christ, a day of deep satisfaction in your own theological achievements, and a day of great gratitude to the faculty here assembled and to your families and friends, who have supported you along the way.
To graduate this year, however, and from this august seminary in the Reformed tradition, is not only to have completed all your academic and pastoral requirements successfully, but already to have proved your mettle and courage as current and future ministers in a time of unique trial and challenge for the churches and for the world. I need hardly say why. For when, in any of our lifetimes, have we felt so profoundly the combined threats of mortal pandemic illness, economic instability, loss of confidence in democratic processes and the force of “truth,” radical erosion of church attendance and cultural confidence in the historic North American denominations, international threats of global war and ecological meltdown, and – most disturbingly in this country right now, but not only here – newly-stirred racist division and hatred, with its ever-present threat of violence? What a time to be a Christian minister; what a time to enter afresh into that great responsibility of mission that the gospel enjoins on us.
And so I want to speak to you, this afternoon, as you stand on the cusp of new adventures in your own ministerial lives, about what I think is one of the deepest and most pervasive threats we confront at this time, in our own psyches and in our ministry; and that is the threat of anxiety.
We do, of course, have plenty of things to be anxious about: I have just listed them, and one would have to be either super-human or in some kind of denial not to feel their combined force. But perhaps we spend less time than we should in reflecting theologically and spiritually about what anxiety actually is, how it undermines our Christian witness, and how it can be creatively resisted and transformed (not, note, obliterated – that would be super-human) in our own spiritual lives and in our work as ministers. For let me put it to you that so many of our current busy Western strategies for combatting so-called “denominational decline,” can themselves be deeply anxiety-inducing, as if the objective ecclesiastical state of affairs, with its internal divisions, were not already bad enough in itself. Yet let me also put it you that no good mission ever sprang from anxiety, even though no good mission is ever devoid of its threat; and that is why I believe we need to think about this topic afresh today – with Paul, with John Calvin, and with a number of other sage contemporary witnesses along the way. In particular, and in the light of our current turmoil about racism in this country, I shall be drawing especially on the extraordinary spiritual writings of Howard Thurman, himself an Afro-American theologian of the Calvinist tradition, and one whose radical depths of insight – dare I say it – probe to a level much deeper than the politicized divisions on racism that are now afflicting us afresh.
So: taking my inspiration from the extraordinary, but perhaps over-familiar, passage from the end of the Epistle to the Philippians that we have just heard read, let me consider briefly three related themes that Paul here covers in so short a compass, and yet so magisterially: first, the paradoxical relation of anxiety and joy; secondly, the central importance of prayer and meditation in deflecting and metabolizing anxiety; and third, the gift of peace that can thereby interrupt our anxiety and release us, and our mission, back into the incomprehensible depths of divine love and divine power in Christ.
First, then: what is anxiety and how is it related to joy? “Rejoice in the Lord always,” begins Paul in this exordium – he uses here the familiar verb chairete, a word that can mean both ‘be joyous’ but also ‘farewell’ (it’s still a rather old-fashioned way of saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in Greece); and we recall that Paul is writing from his own desperate situation of imprisonment and potentially imminent threat of death. So he repeats the demand, almost as if to convince himself, “Again I say it, chairete – rejoice.” And then from here he immediately enjoins on the Philippians the particular virtue of forbearance or discerning self-control: “let your moderation be known to all,” he insists. So it seems that out of a prior discipline of rejoicing-in-the-Spirit can come a sort of appropriate dispassion, a sitting light to injuries, misfortunes, calumnies, worries. Only in this context can we then understand what Paul means when he next says, “Be anxious for nothing” (mēden merimnate), that is, do not allow yourself to be dissipated by any specific cares and concerns which will distract you from resting joyfully in the Lord (literally, do not let your mind be “split apart”). For the Lord “is [already] near,” he says, closer to us, we might say in the spirit of Augustine, than we are even to ourselves: holding and loving us into being at every moment now, as well as fully expected by us eschatologically. As John Calvin in his own Philippians commentary puts it here, it is thus only a failure in belief in divine providence that fundamentally animates our ever-threatening anxiety. What we need to do, in contrast, as Calvin himself advises, is to “repose unreservedly in his providential care.”
Easier said than done, of course. But we are now beginning to see what Paul means by “anxiety” in the first place: this is not clinical depression (something that today we know is a serious illness and often needs urgent medical care), but rather a sort of paralysing dissipation of the mind in every direction, a restless incapacity to trust, to hope, to lean into the ever-inviting divine joyousness that always and already undergirds all our being and doing. And that is why anxiety and joy have the strangely polar relation that Paul is charting here: only by first disposing ourselves to the joy of the Spirit that is ever on offer can we resist the crippling anxiety that otherwise cramps all our attempts at mission and witness. This doesn’t mean, of course, that our anxiety will go away completely (I don’t think Paul promises that); rather, we just mustn’t let it “stick” on any particular concern (“be anxious for nothing,” that is, in particular). As our greatest Afro-American spiritual guide of the 20th century, Howard Thurman, puts it in one of his meditations: “I must take a positive attitude toward the [very] thing that is the source of my disturbance. [For] I recognize that I am never alone … God is with me. He is present in the midst of my anxiety, as insight, as courage, as confidence. … [Whereas, in contrast, as Thurman goes on] Worry is against life. It is anti-vitality and anti-God” (Deep is the Hunger, 196, 197).
So far so good, difficult as this teaching is. But what then, secondly, is the means by which we may keep our anxiety at bay, or at least in some sort of proper perspective? Here Paul is again unambiguous: it is by ceaseless prayer, petition and praise that anxiety can indeed be transformed and tip over into joy: “in everything,” he says, “by prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known unto God.” Just as anxiety should be for nothing, then, so, inversely, prayer should be for everything. By laying out all our concerns and anxieties before God, all day, every day, we dispose ourselves once more into his providence. And from there, says Calvin too, thankfulness naturally emerges; for as our many petitions merge into giving thanks, which lies at the base of all prayer, “Gratitude [says Calvin] will have this effect on us – that the will of God will be the grand sum of our desires.” It is revealing that, outside of his Commentary on the Philippians itself, all the quotations from our passage in Philippians 4 in Calvin’s Institutes come in the one largest section in that work where he discusses prayer, and especially the Lord’s prayer, that is, in Institutes Book III, XX. There Calvin fuses his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer with Paul’s insistence here in Philippians 4 that prayer is fundamentally a matter that both responds to anxiety and teaches us to lay anxiety aside: here, Calvin says, “By this elementary instruction Paul prepares us to pray properly” (Book III, XX, 40, p. 903). And without this insight, he avers, we cannot even begin to see what it is to pray the “Our Father” aright, indeed we cannot understand what it is rightly to call God “Father” in the first place.
But we all know that, in a busy life of ministry, such a demand for ceaseless prayer and praise is a habit not only difficult to inculcate in the first place but all too easily lost under pressure. If, however, it is the very clue to a ministry beyond anxiety, as Paul insists, what is at stake practically for us? Once again, I know of no better spiritual guide in the modern period in this matter than Howard Thurman, a teacher and preacher who struggled throughout his life with the agony of living under the conditions of racism and division, and the yet greater personal challenge of refusing to allow anger and resentment to consume and destroy him. And he was a great pray-er. Here is what he has to say about the first and highly practical issue of the discipline of daily prayer, of referring everything to “prayer and supplication”:
“We must find sources of strength and renewal for our own spirits, lest we perish. … It is very much in order to make certain concrete suggestions in this regard. First, we must learn to be quiet, to settle down in one spot for a spell. Sometime during each day, everything should stop and the art of being still must be practiced. For some temperaments, it will not be easy because the entire nervous system and body have been geared over the years to activity, to overt and tense functions. Nevertheless, the art of being still must be practiced until development and habit are sure. … Such periods may be snatched from the greedy demands of one’s day’s work; they may be islanded in a sea of other human beings; they may come only at the end of the day, or in the quiet hush of the early morning. [But] We must, each one of us, find his own time and develop his own peculiar art of being quiet …. Physical and mental cessation from churning. This is not all, but it is the point at which we begin [sc. for in this space the Spirit meets us]” (Deep is the Hunger, 175-76).
How evocative is Thurman’s use of the metaphor of “churning” here, for is that not precisely how anxiety afflicts us – turning and dividing and dissipating our God-given energies, a veritable sign that the devil has got into the cracks in the mix? But not only must we learn to be still enough, as Thurman insists, to allow prayer and supplication to happen; we must also discipline ourselves, as Paul goes on to propose, by the right focus for our meditations and prayers. Instead of “churning” over the problems that constantly come at us, we should make it a priority to reflect on the good that is emerging within these anxieties: whatever is “true,” “honourable,” “just,” “pure,” “pleasing,” “commendable,” if there is any “excellence” or anything “worthy of praise,” says Paul, we should “think about these things” (Phil 4. 8). And as many commentators have noted, including Calvin, these are not specifically biblical virtues that Paul lists here but more obviously pagan philosophical and ethical ones: this is surprising, perhaps, but an indication that Paul’s perspective and vision on divine joy and goodness spills out into the world at large, just as his view of natural evil and natural law is also cosmic, as witnessed in his famous discussion of them in Romans ch. 1. In other words, if we train our eyes to look for the good in all, even in those who reject the gospel or who animate resistance to us, we shall not so easily be “churned” into anxiety, but held safely in God’s divine joy and providence for us all, and even for our enemies.
And so, thirdly and lastly, and in climax, we come to Paul’s great promise of a celestial divine peace for us (vs 7, 9), one which indeed flows out of this prayer and praise and meditation, and yet fully transcends our human “understanding”; for what it does is to guard both our hearts and minds “in Christ Jesus,” gently drawing us back into the safe harbour of his own life, death, and resurrection. Moreover, Paul’s language here of the “peace of God” in vs. 7 tips over into the unique appellation (here only in the New Testament) of God as himself “the God of peace” (in vs 9). As Calvin underlines, noticing this, “Here Paul speaks of the peace of God; but now more pointedly confirms what he has said by promising that God himself, the Author of peace, will be with [his disciples]. For the [very] presence of God brings us every kind of blessing.” Howard Thurman, however, still continues to struggle with this mystery of divine peace, and surely he takes our own ongoing concerns with him when he pointedly asks what truly is this “peace of God” coming from the “God of peace.” He writes, specifically on this great passage from Paul:
“There are feelings, untamed and unmanageable in my heart:
The bitterness of a great hatred, not yet absorbed;
The moving light of love, unrequited or unfulfilled,
Casting its shafts down all the corridors of my days;
The unnamed anxiety brought on by nothing in particular,
Some strange forboding [sic] of coming disaster that does not yet appear;
The overwhelming hunger for God that underscores all the ambitions, dreams and restlessness of my churning spirit.
Hold them, O peace of God, until Thy perfect work is in them fulfilled.
The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall guard my heart and thoughts.
Into God’s keeping do I yield my heart and my thoughts, yea my life –
With its strength and weakness,
Its failure and success,
Its shame and purity.
O Peace of God, settle over me and within me
So that I cannot tell mine from thine
And thine from mine” (Deep is the Hunger, 209).
We cannot then grab at the mystery of divine Peace, Thurman is telling us; we can only turn over our “hearts and minds,” anxious and imperfect though they may be, into “God’s keeping,” such that they may be infused by the peace which we cannot even understand, but which we must continue, most earnestly, to ask for, and to believe is ours-in-God.
What, then, can we say, in closing, about the seemingly all-consuming anxieties of today’s church and its mission, which all of you graduands face in your different contexts, and about which Paul in his letter to the Philippians had such profound yet elusive wisdom to offer? Can we shield ourselves from these anxieties altogether – I think not: Paul most certainly does not promise us a quiet life, any more than our beloved Lord Jesus does. But the transformation of anxiety through prayer, and its mysterious enfolding in the joy and peace of the Trinitarian life, though the Spirit and in Christ: this is indeed our Pauline heritage and we must urgently reclaim it to be effective ambassadors of the gospel at all. As Gordon Fee puts it in his own commentary on Philippians 4: “Joy, prayer, thanksgiving, peace – these identify Pauline spirituality. Such lives are further marked by general forbearance and [resistance to] anxiety. …. In a post-Christian, post-modern world,” Fee goes on, “which has generally lost its bearings because it has generally abandoned its God, such spirituality is … the key to effective evangelism” (Commentary on Philippians, 412, my emphasis).
“The key to effective evangelism”: I believe Fee is right, but I wonder if you do too? There is so much to be done in our churches’ frantic lives (no less in Episcopalianism than in the RCA, I assure you!), and so much at stake in our current sense of loss and grief over our lamentably shrunken congregations, that what I have spoken of today would surely come way down the list of most ecclesiastical leaders’ views of priorities. But it was not for nothing that Paul spoke these words at a moment of vivid crisis in his own mission, and not for nothing that he asked the Philippians too to imitate his example as a personal manifestor of this spirit of joy, thanksgiving, and peace. For we need vivid examples of such holiness and prayerfulness and joy, in order to follow them; and in an era when brash certainties, deceit, and lies are newly fashionable, and despair and depression and anxiety all around us, especially in the young, it is worth considering the extraordinary impact of those who, like Howard Thurman, found their Christ-like way, amidst extraordinary anxiety, into the mystery of peace and joy of which Paul speaks so unforgettably.
I wish you all, then, in all your ministerial endeavours to come, a profound share in that peace that only God can give, that you may be shining examples of this mystery of prayer and joy in your own work and vocation, even as anxiety is always and everywhere around you. “Be anxious for no-thing,” then; and “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Amen.
Billings, J. Todd, Calvin, Participation and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford, O.U.P., 2007)
Calvin, John, tr. and ed. John Pringle, Commentary on Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians (orig., 1851, Grand Rapids, MI, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1957, available online)
__________, tr. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, Library of Christian Classics, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1960)
Chang, Curtis, The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry is the Doorway to your Best Self (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 2023)
Edwards, Mark J. ed., Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians – Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT vol. 8 (Westmont, IL, IVP Academic, 2005)
Fee, Gordon D., Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI, Eerdmans, 1995)
Holloway, Paul A., Philippians: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MI, Fortress Press, 2017)
Hunsinger, George, Philippians (Grand Rapids, MI, Brazos Press, 2020)
King, Martin Luther, Jr., ed. James M. Washington, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King (New York, Harper, 1986)
Thurman, Howard, Deep is the Hunger : Meditations for Apostles of Sensitiveness (New York, Harper, 1951)
Thurston, Bonnie B., and Judith M. Ryan, Philippians and Philemon, Sacra Pagina Series, vol. 10 (Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press, 2005)
 J. Todd Billings, Calvin, Participation, and the Gift, expounds this theme in Calvin, via his Commentary on the Romans, ch. 8, with particular verve and insight, pointing out that Calvin himself insists that our falsely punitive idolatry in relation to the nature of the ‘Father’ can only be overcome in the Spirit and in prayer. See Calvin, Participation, and the Gift: The Activity of Believers in Union with Christ (Oxford University Press, 2007) 76-84, 106-116.
 It is instructive to compare Thurman’s profoundly spiritual meditation on Phil 4 here with the thoughts of his erstwhile mentee at Boston University, Martin Luther King, Jr., who also reflected on the mystery of God’s peace, but in a way much more affected by modern psychiatry and existentialist (perhaps Tillichian?) theology: ‘Abnormal fears and phobias that are expressed in neurotic anxiety may be cured by psychiatry; but the fear of death, nonbeing, and nothingness, expressed in existential anxiety, may be cured only by a positive religious faith. A positive religious faith does not offer an illusion that we shall be exempt from pain and suffering, nor does it imbue us with the idea that life is a drama of unalloyed comfort and untroubled ease. Rather, it instills us with the inner equilibrium needed to face strains, burdens, and fears that inevitably come, and assures us that the universe is trustworthy and that God is concerned’ (King, ‘The Strength to Love’, in Testament of Hope, 515, cited in Hunsinger, Philippians, 130-131).
 Since this address was given at Western Theological Seminary (on April 29, 2023), Curtis Chang has published his new book on The Anxiety Opportunity, which was discussed on The Trinity Forum, May 12, 2023. Chang approaches Phil 4 via a psychological as well as biblical/theological axis, arguing that anxiety is natural to the human, when confronted with the perennial fear of loss, and especially in false isolation from others – who may help us place our fears in a shared and compassionate context. His book includes a short analysis of Phil 4. 6, arguing strongly that Paul is not requiring his followers to try to avoid anxiety (let alone to repress it through prayer), but rather to confront it in the light of Christ’s suffering and victory. By the same token, Paul is not asking the Philippians to pray anxiety away (i.e., once more to repress it), but to confront it healthily. As is obvious, Chang’s approach is informed by modern psychological and therapeutic insight, but is not fundamentally at odds with the Scriptural and theological rendition of the text I am essaying here.