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Paul’s Anxiety Alternative

A sermon preached by Rev. Jay Rowland on Sunday October 15, 2017 at First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN.

 

Paul’s Anxiety Alternative

 

Text: Philippians 4:1-9

 

I admire people who are do it yourself (DIY)-ers–people who do their own home-improvement or car-repair projects.  That’s because I’m one of the only guys I know who ISN’T one … I’m surrounded by them.  Most of the men in my extended family, my brother Greg especially—it’s amazing what he can do; nearly all of the men in my neighborhood–both next-door neighbors but also up and down both sides of the street… my wife Kari.

So when I grow up I want to be a DIY guy just like they all are.  Because I clearly lack the expertise, experience and skill-set) required to be one, but I’m just delusional enough to think I can learn to be one if only someone would teach me (like Kari’s father taught her).  Maybe you can tell I have an inferiority complex about this.  It doesn’t help that Home Depot & Lowe’s run their ads repeatedly during televised football games showing ordinary people happily doing projects large and small, with signature slogans like:

“let’s do this!”

“You can do it, we can help”

“You got this!”    … because, with a little know-how, the right tools (of course), but most of all determination (um free time helps too) you too can Do It Yourself.

Whether or not that’s actually true, I’ve noticed how easily this is applied to “self-improvement” too.  The “self-help” section of every bookstore is ample evidence of a powerful cultural expectation that we are supposed to fix ourselves by ourselves too.

I’m all for self-improvement. My problem is that we tend to confuse self-improvement with self-reliance. I happen to believe that (total) self-reliance makes self-improvement difficult if not impossible.  It seems to me that most of our problems require from us an honest assessment of our limitations as well as our abilities to prevent the problem from getting worse. Whether the problem is something in the house or out in our garage that’s broken, or whether it’s a person or relationship, an honest and realistic assessment of people’s limitations is necessary because there are some problems that no amount of self-reliance or determination can fix.  If we overestimate our abilities and underestimate our limitations, we can do more harm than good.

For example if I’m not satisfied with the electrical wiring of my house I can go to the library, I can read as many DIY books I can about home electrical wiring.  I can go online and watch YouTube videos. And it’s entirely possible that I’ll get the job done all by myself.  But determining ahead of time that I can do this all on my own without any concern about my limitations makes it possible that I also could get electrocuted or risk burning down my house.  It’s important to know our limitations even at the “risk” of not giving ourselves enough credit.

Again I’m all for self-confidence and positive thinking. But sometimes it’s appropriate and sometimes it’s not. I think of all the people I know who feel like they’re supposed to or “should” be able to fix themselves and don’t ask for help. But inevitably there’s a problem, a situation, a troublesome person (and emotions) that will confront us that we cannot handle or “fix” by ourselves.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul’s much loved words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”, can be translated more literally: “in union with Christ who infuses his power into me I am able for anything”*  Preacher Alyce McKenzie offers her own paraphrase of this passage helping explain things a little more fully:

“The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding is guarding your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus right now. Whether you feel this at an emotional level or not, this is the truth. So get in the habit of constant prayer, and you will come more and more into contact with this gift of peace. Don’t beat yourself up when you have anxious thoughts: that’s called being human.  Do not be like the Stoics who teach that you can banish anxiety through self-mastery as if we can become indifferent to the ups and downs of life. Only the Peace of God in Jesus Christ can master your anxieties.” [http://www.patheos.com/progressive-christian/lets-do-this-alyce-mckenzie-10-06-2014.html

*Archibald Hunter, The Layman’s Bible Commentary–Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians p.108.  Hunter adds: “The secret of Paul’s ‘independence’ is dependence on Another!”

Most of us can and often do “psyche ourselves up” whenever we feel intimidated or out-matched by a particular situation.  But when it comes to interior matters, exchanging anxiety for peace, we need God to experience true peace.  Paul’s concern about worry echoes Jesus’ words to his disciples [Matthew 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22].  The difference is that Jesus addresses their worry about basic necessities (food, shelter, clothing) as they leave their lives to follow Jesus.  The worry Paul (in Philippians) addresses is rooted in the hostility and persecution experienced by early Christians.  He names two in particular–Euodia & Syntyche–indicating that they are suffering and struggling.

Immediately after telling us not to worry about anything, Paul tells us that the catch is, it isn’t something we do on our own. It is a gift from God that we access through prayer. Paul isn’t suggesting some ancient form of the “don’t worry be happy” philosophy.  Paul is not telling his friends to bury their heads in the sand and pretend that things aren’t as bad as they seem. This is important for us to recognize as we struggle to process the horrible disasters in our hemisphere and in our nation in recent days.

Paul asserts that peace is possible for us even in the midst of anxiety about current realities.  This peace from God does not eliminate our struggles with anxiety or worry, but it can stand guard over us–literally. Paul uses the military term “sentinel” or “garrison” perhaps to underscore that anxiety is a foe we cannot handle without God’s help.

One scholar notes that Paul is saying, ” freedom from anxiety comes only through prayerful, grateful acknowledgement of one’s dependence on God rather than upon the self. The Philippians can be free from anxiety not through the sheer force of personal will, but because the Lord is near (Phil 4:5)—echoing the Psalm which says “The Lord is near to all … who call upon him …” (Psalm 145:18, Hunter)

Not that Paul does not instruct the Philippians to imitate the peace of Christ, but to accept the gift of that peace being offered to them by the grace of God through the habit of prayer.  Not perfunctory thoughtless prayer but prayer that’s “passionate, needy, specific, and direct about our concerns, and [is willing to] thank God even as we beg for help. Thanking God for past help, for present grace, and for future help coming even as we pray, can disarm our worries but not if we don’t believe that “Jesus is near.”

At the heart of the good news of Jesus is the announcement that God is near. God is not a distant and aloof deity, requiring sacrifice before deigning to draw close to sinful humanity.  Because in Christ Jesus God has come close. Whatever we experience in our lives, relationships, workplace, “the Lord is near.” Even when we struggle to follow Christ Jesus and to witness to his Lordship, “the Lord is near.” This has encouraged and strengthened the resolve of everyone who has ever stepped out on the journey of discipleship.β

β Edward Pillar, Evesham UK, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

It’s tempting to dismiss Paul’s words as naïve and impractical. But Paul wrote these words from prison.  Acts 16 reports that Paul practiced in that prison what he preached to the Philippian Christians. Paul discovers that even in prison with a trial and possible execution ahead of him, it is possible to experience joy and peace, and therefore also to be gentle with others because, Paul explains, Paul was “in Christ Jesus”, that is, Paul takes time in prayer and meditation to be in Jesus who first decided to be in him (and us). Without deep communion with the living Christ by faith, the gospel of his nearness seems and feels like fiction. †

†Stan Mast  – Calvin Seminary, Center for Excellence in Preaching Commentary

Inevitably we exhaust ourselves and our spiritual reservoirs whenever we rely upon our own (limited) inner-resolve.  Paul encourages us to recognize and acknowledge our basic human limitations so that we will call out to the Lord (and to the church) for help sooner rather than later.  To pray with the belief that “Jesus is near” cultivates the peace which comes only from God—a peace different from our earth-bound experiences of peace.

Practicing communion with the Lord in prayer is to experience peace from God which stands like a sentinel over heart and mind, over feelings and thoughts, over the world as it is now, and as it ever will be. In the coming silence, take this opportunity to cast all your anxieties, all your worries, all your struggles upon Him because He cares for you.