Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.
I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have laboured 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.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, 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. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4:1-9)
If you were to try and conjure up a sentence to describe our current day, I suspect that words such as ‘peaceful’, ’stress-free’ and ‘joyful’ would not instantly come to mind. It is all too common to hear news reports about increasing levels of anxiety, and that was before all this business with the coronavirus.
It is easy to think of this as a modern phenomenon, as if the current age has some sort of monopoly on worry. We can look back to the sit-coms of the 1960s - all Formica and white teeth - and think it was a golden age, but the Cold War brought it’s own stresses. Go back to earlier ‘golden ages’, and you find starvation, infant mortality, war and disease stalking the streets.
So far, so bad. Why all this misery? What can be done?
In this passage, Paul gives to the church in Philippi three different pieces of advice which - taken together - can bring joy and peace even in times of great tension. He begins by looking at the horizontal aspect, the way we relate to each other.
It is clear that there are two women in the church who have fallen out. We don’t know that the disagreement was about, but Euodia and Syntyche simply could not agree. Paul’s instinct here is not to leave them to sort it out, or to wait until one, other or both leave the church. He urges reconciliation. More than that, he urges the church to help them find reconciliation.
Harboured grudges are toxic things. They eat away at our happiness, and consume our joy. Better to allow the grace and forgiveness you have received from God flow out to others. A reflex of grace will bring with it a peaceful heart. “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone”!
Paul’s next point is vertical, and is to do with prayer. The Apostle is not so naive as to think that Christians are never anxious. Like anyone else, there are times when the heart races and the emotions bubble up. What he does suggest, though, is that we have somewhere to take this anxiety. Rather than simply sitting and stewing, we can take some action and bring the whole matter to God.
If you spend some time considering quite who you believe God to be, you can see the logic of Paul’s point. Sunday by Sunday, in the Creed, we speak of God as the “Creator of heaven and earth”, and Jesus reminds us that “with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). When you bring your troubles to a friend often all they can do is listen and nod. When you bring your troubles to God you are speaking to someone who can always do something about it. There is more than that, too. When you say the Lord’s Prayer you begin with the words “Our Father”. Fundamental to our understanding is that God relates to us as a loving father relates to a child.
When you put these two things together then you can realise that we have a God who not only desires our best interests, but also has the power to act. No wonder that elsewhere Paul could write: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28)!
This is why prayer can be an antidote to anxiety, and why Paul urges the Philippians to take everything to God in prayer. If you can trust God with his answer - even if that answer is no - then you will experience that “peace of God which surpasses all understanding.” This knowledge will “guard you hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”, even in the midst of terrible circumstances.
Paul’s final point is internal, it is to do with the heart. Since anxiety is mainly an internal matter, Paul urges that minds are focussed on “whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable”. You do have a choice in what you watch, hear or read, and there are things which - as you will know - can wreck your peace of mind. I’m afraid that fear is a powerful tool in the hands of those who seek to grab our attention on the airwaves, or encourage us to click on a link. It isn’t a bad idea to ask yourself, before you click the button, is this honourable, just, pure….
This isn’t to say that the you have to live in ignorance, but rather that you can bring concerns to God. And then leave them with him. The more you focus on “excellence” or things “worthy of praise”, the more you find your mind becomes a happier place!
Above all, stresses Paul, “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things”. Although we talk about Christian beliefs, these should inevitably lead to Christian acts.
Peace then, for Paul, is not simply an absence of war but is a deep, enduring calmness in the midst of any circumstance. It is the emotion which strengthened so many Christians through persecution, and brings serenity as we face difficult times. It is not wishful thinking, but is a right view of things. It is putting your Christian belief into practice, and acting out your faith in God.
And above all it “passes all understanding”. The wider world is very short on things which bring happiness and contentment, but a relationship with God is the foundation of deep inner peace. Those around us might not understand, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
When you are anxious, do follow Paul’s advice: restore your horizontal relationships with others; trust in your vertical relationship with God; and spend your time dwelling on what is good. Then you will experience all that Paul promises. Be more ready to grab a Bible than the newspaper, trust in God more than any government, and let go of grudges. Therein lies peace.