June 18th, 2018

Worry is being pulled apart.  God puts you back together when you pray.

Philippians 4:2-9


What I know

I know something about you that I’m getting ready to tell everyone, and it might feel a little uncomfortable to be exposed like this in a crowd. You had hoped to come to church and keep it hidden under your smile and “Hey, y’all!” but I know about it.

You’ve been worried this week. Am I right? Or did you forget? Just in case you forgot some of them, here are some items you might have worried about this week. Money. Health. Politics. North Korea. Jobs. Rising interest rates. Parents. Children. Grandchildren. Sleeplessness. What people think. Fitness and diet. Wildfires in the west. Volcanoes and tornadoes. The weather. Are you worried that you’re worried? One person told me this week that his life is going so well he’s worried that he’s not worried.

Let’s see, what have I worried about this week? The water in my crawl space, for sure – trying to get rid of that before it does damage. I’m traveling to Moldova this afternoon with a mission team, which includes lots of planes and time zones and details and desires to make an impact. I sometimes worry that I can’t get rid of these extra 10 pounds, so to help with my worry I eat ice cream.

Here are a few facts I learned on the always-reliable internet about worry:

  • Women, on average, worry more than men, and younger people more than older. Two out of five Americans worry every day.
  • 85% of what we worry about never happens. I’m worried about the other 15%.
  • Most people worry most at home, and mostly in the bedroom. No, not about that. We worry at the end of the day when we’re trying to get to sleep. Peak worry times are between 9:00pm and 3:00am.
  • Worrying too much is really a thing. It’s called Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). But don’t worry. It only affects 2-5% of the population.

There’s more we could say about worry, but I only wanted to start you thinking about it so we can turn our attention to the Word of God. I don’t think of my sermons as pop psychology. One of many places the Bible addresses worry is Philippians 4.

What Paul says

We are almost finished with Philippians, a friendship letter the Apostle Paul wrote from prison, probably a prison in Rome, somewhere around AD 62. Philippi was a Roman colony in Macedonia/Greece, primarily populated with retired Roman soldiers. The first convert was Lydia, an importer of fabric, along with her family, and the second was the jailer who witnessed Paul’s character in response to unfair beating and imprisonment. His family also was baptized. Now a decade later Paul is writing in response to reports he’s received about the church in Philippi. He loves these people. They are his “joy and crown,” and his letter oozes with affection.

I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.  

Apparently this is a key part of what prompted Paul to write the letter. He already wrote at length about unity in chapters 1-2, using this same expression to “be of the same mind.” He told them to have the same mind as Jesus, who, though he was God, humbled himself to become human and to die by crucifixion.

We don’t know anything about these women or the nature of their conflict except their names, which roughly translate to “Success” and “Lucky.” It’s possible “Success” was Lydia. Paul asks them specifically to find their common ground “in the Lord,” to focus on the Gospel agenda that is bigger than their differences.

It’s not necessary either to be cynical about the fact that they’re women or to be defensive if you’re a woman. In other letters the troublemakers are men. If anything, this is a support for women leading in the church. If these women hadn’t been in a visible place of influence, it seems unlikely Paul would have called them out so publicly.

Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.

Sometimes we need the help of a peacemaker to work through conflict. Paul identifies someone else in the church who needs to get off the sidelines and initiate some reconciliation with these women. He calls the person “my true companion,” and most Bibles include a footnote that this might be a name, Syzygus. I sort of think it is someone’s name, because Paul names yet another person, Clement (“Merciful”), and closes the verse talking about “names… in the book of life.” It’s rare for him to name names except in the beginning or end of a letter, but he’s on a bit of a name-roll here. On the other hand, this word “companion” appears nowhere else in Greek literature as a proper name. Maybe Paul is one of those guys who calls nicknames when he can’t remember real names – Success, Lucky, Companion, and Merciful.

There’s conflict in this church between two strong leaders, and it has the potential to destroy the church itself. A church (or any organization) can’t get anything done if there’s conflict. I was in a phone conference this past week – not among Corinth people – where tension was evident throughout the call. It was difficult to accomplish any business because it was clear that interpersonal dynamics were in the way of every decision. Paul doesn’t want this to happen with the church in Philippi. The leading combatants need to work it out, but they may need help. Paul affirms all of them as fellow believers (their “names are in the book of life”) and as those who have “contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” This is that same phrase we ran into a few weeks ago when Paul told the church to “athlete together.” They have done this, and even in his strong instruction Paul is treating all of them as his co-workers.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again:  Rejoice!

If there’s an overriding theme in Philippians, it has to be “joy.” The church brings Paul joy when he thinks about them and prays for them, and if he can have joy in prison he wants them to have it too. Borrowing somewhat from John Piper, I’ll define joy as what you feel when you choose to see God’s beauty whatever the situation. In any circumstance God’s beauty is evident – in those who care, in a sunset, in the wonder of being human and being able to feel pain as well as happiness.

Paul’s tone here is forceful and pervasive. It’s present tense, which implies continuous action. “Keep rejoicing in the Lord.” He adds “always.” Then he says, “I’ll say it again:  Keep rejoicing.” Ha! Easy for you to say, Paul! But was it really? Remember, Paul writes this letter as he’s sitting in a Roman prison. That’s why he has been setting them up all along by saying ad nauseam how much joy he has over them. No matter what’s happening, there is always a reason to “keep rejoicing.” It is distinctively Christian to choose joy. Why? Because whatever else is going on, there is always the God-factor. When you deliberately choose misery, you’re forgetting the One who knows you, loves you, and is in charge.

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 

Two things are interesting about this verse. First is the word “gentleness.” It’s also translated “reasonableness,” “consideration,” “moderation,” and “kindness.” The basic idea is keeping “the spirit of the law” as opposed to an overly strict application of rules and punishment. If I were a defense attorney, I would make this my theme word, because it’s about being an advocate for those who are accused. If I were a therapist, I would post this on my desk as a reminder, because it’s about giving someone the gift of being known, about validating their story, about not jumping to conclusions.

Sometimes Christians are prone to be extremely confident about what the Bible says about this or that, and then to enforce those rules with discipline or shunning. Paul asks what’s behind the rule – integrity, truth, wellness. The Message says, “Make it as clear as you can to all you meet that you’re on their side, working with them and not against them.” Don’t just act that way, but let everyone see it. The world needs to see the gentleness and balance of Christians toward the behavior of others.

In this same verse Paul, seemingly randomly, adds “The Lord is near.” Does he mean “near” as in time (he’s coming soon) or space (he’s always close to you)? Maybe he means both. Whatever he means, I don’t think it’s random at all. It’s connected to treating people with gentleness. The Lord is close by and he’s coming soon to judge the living and the dead. Don’t you want him to treat you with grace? Then treat others the way you want to be treated by the Lord when he comes.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Here’s another straightforward and absolute command:  “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation….” Here’s where Paul deals directly with worry. Don’t do it. The literal translation is “keep worrying about nothing.” Paul uses this continuous action verb because he knows we all need a constant reminder on this one. To worry is to be pulled in different directions, to go to pieces. Paul says every time you find yourself distracted by something out of your control, stop it!

But he adds the positive, the strategy. He uses three synonyms for prayer – prayer, petition, and requests. I don’t think there’s a difference between them. He’s just reinforcing to keep taking those worries to the Lord. Yes, they’ll keep coming. Keep praying. Tim Keller says we trust God in our praying because we believe he will do exactly what we would ask him to do if we knew what he knows.

When you pray, Paul says, do it with thanksgiving. Don’t wait until what you’re worried about is resolved. As you pray about it, give thanks – thanks for what God has already done, thanks for the blessings you can name, but mostly thanks for who God is.

This is distinctively Christian. Every form of prayer – praise, thanksgiving, confession, petition – it’s all about the character of God and it’s about the acts of God that are beyond us. So we take to God the things we know are out of our control, and we thank God because we know everything good in life is ultimately because of him.

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Prayer is the way to peace, which is the opposite of anxiety. Peace in this sense is also a distinctively Christian idea. If I don’t believe in God, then it’s all up to me to fix the mess. If I ultimately believe God is good and in charge, whether or not I can understand it at the moment, I can let go of my need to manage outcomes. This “transcends all understanding.” It makes no sense if you’re not a believer.

This “peace of God,” Paul says, “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” The verb “guard” is a military word. The Roman colony of Philippi would have had their equivalent to a contingent of Marines at a U.S. embassy overseas. The citizens in Philippi knew they were safe because of the guards. Prayer does that for your heart and mind. God’s peace guards you when you pray.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

If peace and joy are distinctively Christian responses to hard situations, verse 8 presents a response that is not. There’s nothing in verse 8 that you can’t use at work or in the military or even in a public school. These values would have been familiar to Paul’s Greco-Roman readers even before they came to Christ. If you Google “Five Ways to Worry Less” or “Mindfulness reduces worry” you’ll find these same concepts on non-Christian web sites. Don’t automatically reject wisdom outside the Bible. Filter it.

Paul is saying what others outside the church would say:  Choose to think. This is the verb form of the word “logic.” “Reckon” is the King James Version of the same verb in Romans. As you face life, reason through it. If you’re having trouble with the God-factor at the moment, and we all do from time to time, dwell on virtues and possibilities that keep you going. The Message again:  “the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse.”

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Again, this principle is not necessarily distinctively Christian. As a Christian, I want my mentors and role models to be strong believers, but the idea of looking past yourself to learn from others is common knowledge. Paul says the Philippians should remember what he said or did, the heart of the Gospel he passed on to them.

When they hold on to who God is and what Christ has done for them, not just “the peace of God,” but “the God of peace,” will be with them. “Peace” here in Greek is the equivalent of the Hebrew “shalom,” which means wholeness or wellness. Paul is saying when worry pulls you apart, as you pray with thanksgiving, God will pull you together and make you whole again.

What to do with it

Notice that I didn’t title this sermon, “How to Eliminate Worry” or “How to Live Worry Free.” I’m a little more realistic than that. And I think Paul is too. He knows that worry is your default setting, especially at the end of your day in a busy life. Scripture deals with this so often because it’s so common. Even if you’re not worried now, you will be at some point. When you find yourself distracted or immobilized by worry, come back to Philippians 4:2-9.

I can summarize what Paul says to do with your worry in three words for this text:  act, pray, and think.

Act:  Paul tells Euodia and Syntyche to find common ground. Just do it. He tells Syzygus to help them. If they can’t get along on their own, get involved. Don’t wait. He tells the whole church to keep rejoicing. That’s an action. Think about the reasons you have to rejoice and do it. Oh, and treat people with gentleness, because they’re watching how Christ has changed you and because he is near. Sometimes you need to act. If you believe there’s a biochemical basis for your worry (GAD), see your doctor or counselor. Do something. Act.

Pray:  Prayer is not primarily about getting results, though in one of faith’s great mysteries, God does change things in response to prayer. Prayer is primarily about releasing control to God. If you make prayer about fixing things, you’ll constantly be frustrated. If you make it about releasing things to God, you’ll keep rediscovering peace.

Think:  Make your pro and con list when you have a decision. Choose to embrace the possible; dwell on what is lovely and admirable. Think through what is pure and right and true.

Men and women generally think differently. One’s not better than the other, but you need to know how you think best. Men compartmentalize, which may be one reason we worry less. Sometimes it’s because we’re not thinking about all the implications and possibilities. Women integrate better, which means they have more to worry about because everything’s interconnected. Use your way of thinking as a strength. But be intentional about thinking through what has you worried.

Some of you want to know which comes first – act, pray, or think? Do I think through it, then pray, then act? Or do I jump in and act decisively, but keep praying and processing? Maybe I should always start by praying before I think or act?

Trying to answer that is too formulaic. I hope you never come away from one of my sermons, especially one on a subject like worry, with three simple steps to solve the problem. What I would do is consciously think through these responses when worry starts to take control. What’s the next thing? Act, pray, or think? When you submit the worry to the Holy Spirit, he will help you. Amen.


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