When I was a child and younger adult, I struggled with anxiety a lot. Being a pastor didn’t help (Haha!). A wonderful wife, a few good friends and some occasional therapy helped me thrive in those dynamic years up in Washington. Of course, my counselors pointed me to the Scriptures, and Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi has become a balm for my soul. I especially turn to chapter four in challenging times. And if I might be so bold: these are those times — for all of us. We need to hear once again the inspired words and thoughts of our dear brother.
After unpacking what ‘to live is Christ’ means throughout the letter, Paul finishes his correspondence by exhorting those precious believers to ‘stand firm in the Lord.’ The term means to persevere, persist, keep one’s standing or place. This is a concept we can imagine several of those church members knew all too well as military retirees, a large part of the population of that important city. The Roman army was renowned for the ability to stand its ground against overwhelming opposition.
While the church there was not at war as the Roman army often was, they were needing to stand against the spiritually hostile environment of the first century Roman empire. Among the many opponents the church faced, Paul unveils four in his closing remarks. He charges his brethren to stand firm against division, despair, depravity, and disinterest. I’m thinking we could benefit from pondering at least the first two during this pandemic — division and despair.
If I’ve been hearing anything from pastors over the last year, it is the grief of seeing their churches and other ministries struggle with division and despair. And that includes broken friendships and estranged families. Do we meet or do we not? Wear masks or not? Talk politics or leave it alone? Send kids back to schools when they open or not? Vaccinate or not? Yes, it’s been an interesting year, folks! Here is part of what Paul would counsel us to do.
Stand Firm Against Division — Live in Unity (4:1-3)
Through his inspired words he reminds the church they are a family (my brothers [and sisters]). The members are all precious (whom I love and long for, my joy and crown … dear friends). And others must join in to help those who are in discord (Euodia and Syntyche). These notable women had a significant place in the fellowship and were having ‘issues.’ Paul pleads with them and the leadership to work out their differences in love.
We don’t know if they were able to mend their fences. Indeed, some Christians do not, and I have heard of several instances in this pandemic year where individuals and groups have left churches because of differences over masks, distancing, national politics and other related issues. Deeply saddened by this, I contend that God’s glory has been tarnished and many unbelievers have been further hardened in their resistance to the Spirit. Families should act better, Paul asserts. I agree.
Stand Firm Against Despair — Live in Peace (4:4-7)
The first century Roman world was one of instability, war, political crises and persecution. These were troubled times for believers. Paul encourages his beloved to stand firm against the despair that often comes in the midst of such times by issuing three directives:
- Rejoice in the Lord always. He is emphatic here. Nothing is beyond the Lord’s help and provision. (To live is Christ, and die is gain” - 1:21). It is our privileged task to keep our focus on him and him alone.
- Be gentle (let your forbearing spirit be known to all men). Believers are to be equitable, fair, mild, moderate and patient, because (the Lord is at hand). He will come as judge, and ever demonstrates these graces toward us. So we must reflect this grace in our dealings with one another.
- Do not be anxious about anything, but... This entire passage echoes Jesus’ beautiful exhortation recorded in Matthew 6:25-34, in which he leaves us no room to feel hopeless about our physical problems, clothing, food, drink, and whatever the future may or may not bring. Instead of worrying, we are to request, seek, ask, open our hearts to Him, with thanksgiving. Then, his peace falls upon us such as is incomprehensible to human understanding or logic.
Returning to military language, Paul impresses that this peace from God will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. This peace will protect from hostile invasion and keep our worries from invading our souls.
Back in my farm boy days, Dad took me aside during one particular anxiety episode. He told me, “Mick, 80% of what we worry about will never happen, and the other 20% won’t turn out the way we imagined, anyway.” Then he prayed for me. That was 60 years ago. I still remember standing in the yard with him, his arm over my shoulder. I invite you all to share a bit of comfort from the apostle Paul, and my dad’s wise words and loving heart. Division and despair need not be hallmarks of COVID-19. God bless you all as you keep your eyes on Him!