Anxiety is extraordinarily high in America right now, a nation that few would have described as “calm” even before 2020. An already anxious populace is now grappling with an ongoing pandemic, civil unrest, economic challenges, and a terribly polarized election. And these are just some of the large-scale stressors, to say nothing of the particular pressures that individuals are experiencing.
In the face of all this, we hear the reassuring, if bewildering, admonition in the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Do not be anxious about anything” (4.6). Paul was no stranger to anxiety-inducing circumstances. Even so, as he goes on to say, he “learned in whatever situation [he was in] to be content” (4.11).
How so, Paul? Well, in that brief passage from Philippians he offers a few antidotes to anxiety. Let me lay them out for you here, in the hopes that if you are dealing with worry you might here find some relief.
1. Rejoice always
Now, I know what you’re thinking: I’ll rejoice after I’m done feeling anxious. And to be sure, such rejoicing is a fruit of the Spirit that flows naturally from a heart to which joy has been restored (Psalm 51.12). But note that Paul makes no caveats here: “rejoice in the Lord always,” he says.
Modern cognitive psychology would echo Paul’s plea. For research has shown that there is a sense in which our internal attitude is affected by our external disposition. For instance, I read a few years back that the simple act of smiling actually improves your mood. So also, by rejoicing in the Lord at all times—especially when our circumstances don’t naturally lend themselves to joyousness—we better inoculate ourselves again anxiety.
2. Offer prayers of thanks
Following from that first antidote, we also have the encouragement to “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4.6)—or in the words of the liturgy, to “give thanks at all times and in all places.” Once again, this is particularly pertinent when your outward situation doesn’t seem to warrant it.
In a trail near my house in Arcadia there’s a quote on a bench along the way that I think captures this beautifully: “Gratitude, I have discovered, is the key to staying in the light. When I feel down, I start listing my many blessings until my heart is overflowing. Happiness is in the heart, not the circumstances.” Such prayers of thanks are like a soothing balm to an anxious heart.
3. Starve the bad
I heard someone recently speak of the importance of “feeding the good and starving the bad” when it comes to our information and entertainment intake. This is just what Paul is talking about here as well: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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” (Philippians 4.8).
There is so much in our world right now that feeds the anxiousness of our souls, not least the media (both in its social and mainstream forms). Starve that stuff. Cut back on your Facebook feed and avoid watching too much TV. Instead, look to the lovely and cling to the commendable. Read uplifting novels. Listen to beautiful music. Take in God’s glorious creation. Feed the good—and don’t just feed it, but…
4. Practice the good
Paul also underscores the need for not only good thoughts but also good actions: “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 4.9). This points up the need for salutary habits, rhythms, and routines that will keep you more in tune with God and His grace rather than the world and its ills.
As we alluded to above as well when it came to rejoicing, it is often easier to act your way into thinking and feeling, rather than the reverse. As an antidote to anxiety, this may mean adopting spiritual disciplines—especially ones that can be wedded with physical disciplines. For instance, take a daily walk while listening to an audio Bible or edifying podcast. Or grab a friend and volunteer together at a food bank. And remember: it’s not about doing these things perfectly. It’s called “practice” for a reason!
The source of all anti-anxiety
Paul concludes the passage by revealing the core of his “secret”: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13). Christ Jesus, the one who bid us to consider the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, is the source from which all anti-anxiety antidotes flow.
And let me conclude by saying this: anxiety is real, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of as a Christian. Don’t think that because you’re a person of faith you won’t ever experience this, or that you need to feel shame about it. We all deal with it to different degrees. But I hope that these antidotes, rooted in the Christ who is our strength, can help to keep you from being overwhelmed by that anxiety. And remember that you’re not alone: your church and your pastor walks with you, in the grace of Christ and the power of the Spirit.
Photo courtesy of Elisa Schulz Photography