What Does Philippians Say about Anxiety?
You’ve heard it.
The most commonly cited verse about anxiety is Philippians 4:6:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Dr. Dan Allender, professor of counseling psychology at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, cautions the use of this verse in addressing anxiety. He says Philippians 4:6 can often be used by those who aren’t experiencing anxiety as a means of “‘clobbering’ those who are anxious.” Dr. Allender warns against “the idea of hearing Philippians 4 and assuming ‘my anxiety goes away.’”
I happen to like Philippians 4:6, but I also don’t like how it is used as a “clobber verse” to make anxious people feel like they’re doing something wrong or, even worse, that there is something wrong about them. As with most clobber verses, in this situation it is being used out of context.
The Theological Framework
To understand the verses in Philippians 4, you have to grasp the teachings of the previous chapter, which presents the theological core of the entire letter. Philippians 3 sets the overall context for Paul’s words in 4:6 about anxiety and, in fact, establishes a key framework for how Christians should understand all aspects of their life.
The framework of Philippians 3 is that Christians live as “Now and Not Yet” people. This is sadly undertaught in Christian circles, which is why anxiety is so often misunderstood and why many clobber verses are misused.
What is a “Now and Not Yet” person? This person is summarized by Philippians 3:21, which declares that
our current lowly bodies are being transformed to the body of Christ’s glory.
- The Now and Not Yet life is defined by the life goal of becoming like Jesus.
This is the amazing promise of the gospel: God is at work to transform every bit of ourselves to conform to Jesus, the one who will give us His “glory.”
Glory is the biblical term describing the amazingly good way of life when we fully reflect God’s intentions for us. Jesus obtained His glory because He fully reflected God’s intentions in His life. Philippians 3:21 promises that as we become like Jesus, we will share in that same “glory.”
However, the same verse assumes that this glorious destiny requires an understanding of spiritual growth that allows for the struggles of our current “lowly bodies.” Note that lowly in Paul’s usage here means “incomplete” (it does not mean “sinful”). He is emphasizing that the full completion of our transformation awaits the future, the Not Yet when Jesus returns (Philippians 3:10).
In the Now, we will still struggle with experiences like complex physical and neurological misfirings. My current “lowly body” will still fall quite short of “glory.” Nevertheless, the Now and Not Yet are organically connected. This is what it means that our current lowly bodies are being transformed to the body of Christ’s glory. Our Not Yet body of glory grows out of our Now body of struggle.
Paul isn’t making up this Now and Not Yet dynamic. He gets it straight from Jesus. Jesus often used agricultural metaphors to convey this dynamic of spiritual growth. His favorite metaphor was to point to how a seed of some plant is growing in the present Now and still is on its way to becoming its fully completed self in the future Not Yet (see, for example, Matthew 13:3–8, 19–23; Mark 4:3–9, 14–32; Luke 8:4–8, 11–15; and more).
Because this is such a complex and crucial truth, Paul often adds to Jesus’ agricultural metaphors for the Now and Not Yet. In Philippians 3, for example, Paul draws on the metaphor of a runner in the middle of a race, who is “straining toward what is ahead” (3:13) at the finish line. He switches to the metaphor of dual citizenship to capture the duality of the two time frames — living as citizens of the present earthly reality while awaiting the future arrival of a heavenly citizenship (3:20).
Is Anxiety a Sin?
This overall “Now and Not Yet” framework is critical to understanding why Philippians 4:6 should not be wielded as a clobber verse that defines anxiety as a sin.
Anxiety is an intrinsic and unavoidable feature of our Now and Not Yet incompleteness and should not be conflated with moral failure. Incompleteness is not the same as sin.
We would be mistaken if we morally blamed an eight-year-old for being small or not knowing calculus... or for being racked with worry about their parents coming home.
In Paul’s letters, he is not shy about calling out actions rightly labeled as sin and disobedience. But he’s not using such moral categories in Philippians 3 and 4. For instance, the encouragement right before 4:6 is to
celebrate joyfully in the Lord, all the time. — 4:4 NTE
But no one actually stays at this elevated spiritual state “all the time.” We all regularly slip back down into more “lowly” moods.
Continual celebration is an aspirational description of the final transformation of our emotional self. While Christians are invited to taste more and more of those celebratory emotions here and now, I do not fall into sin when I stop celebrating joyfully in the Lord and, for example, lament the awful pitching of the Chicago Cubs. Paul describes periods when he is decidedly not in a celebratory mood but is instead struggling with deep despair (see 2 Corinthians 1:8, for example). He never labels those negative emotional experiences as sin.
Similarly, the encouragement right after Philippians 4:6 is to think only about holy, upright, virtuous things (4:8 NTE). Again, our minds will one day be transformed by the resurrection so we’ll be able to accomplish this constant mental focus. In the meantime, we only sometimes experience periods of such a pure mindset, though we should aspire to have more of it.
When our minds wander to, say, the latest celebrity gossip news, we have not committed wrong. Paul reveals how his own mind occasionally wanders to some fairly uncharitable (and crass) thoughts about his enemies. Galatians 5:12 includes some trash talking that would make a National Basketball Association player blush. Paul seems to accept these thoughts as part of his life in the Now.
In fact, those who wield Philippians 4:6 as a clobber verse to condemn anxiety as a sin neglect an important detail. Earlier in the letter, Paul describes his own anxiety for the Philippian church. Worry surrounded his decision to send his colleague Epaphroditus back to them.
This has made me all the more eager to send him, so that you’ll see him again and be glad, he writes, adding, and my own anxieties will be laid to rest. — Philippians 2:28 NTE
Having freely admitted his own anxiety — without a trace of self-condemnation — it would be bizarre for Paul to intend his words “do not be anxious” in Philippians 4:6 to be taken as an expectation that Christians would — or should — never feel anxious.
Therefore, in context, “do not be anxious” in Philippians 4:6 is not meant as condemnation; it is encouragement to experience anxiety within the larger “Now and Not Yet” dynamic of spiritual growth where our current lowly bodies are being transformed to the glory of Christ’s body. Even as we aspire to more freedom from anxiety — an aspiration that will be met completely only in the Not Yet — we simultaneously should expect anxiety to always be part of our current life in the Now.
We should no more expect Christians to be free of anxiety than we should expect Christians to be free of colds, mosquito bites, flat tires, sadness, or mental distraction. Paul brings up anxiety in Philippians 4:6 precisely because he expects it to be a persistent problem for his audience.
Adapted from The Anxiety Opportunity: How Worry Is the Doorway to Your Best Self by Curtis Chang.
* * *
Do you feel guilty about being anxious or worried? You don’t need to! Anxiety is not a sin and God isn’t disappointed in you or angry at you for suffering from anxiety! We’re still in the Now and leaning forward toward the Not Yet. God knows that we’re still growing. Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you. ~ Devotionals Daily