I’ve been reading Christmas letters. Most begin by remarking on the strange, uncertain times we live in and then express a hope for better things in 2021. We can all agree with that. Meanwhile, can we learn to live well with things as they are?
The advice I heard on the radio the other day was: get enough physical exercise (which apparently helps us grow new brain cells); get enough sleep; and make to-do lists so that you can tick them off and get a dopamine rush of satisfaction at having achieved something. All good stuff.
Thinking about this I remembered Paul’s words to the church in Philippi. He is writing from prison. He doesn’t know whether he is about to be executed or to be set free. He is dependent on his friends for basic necessities like food (in the ancient world the prison authorities didn’t feed the inmates). So he is worth listening to on how to live in uncertain times.
He begins by talking about prayer: “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God”. The “Don’t worry” bit I’ve heard described as the hardest saying in the whole New Testament. What are we to make of it?
Paul did worry about things. He worried about the condition of the churches he’d founded. Were the new Christians persevering in faith? Were they able to withstand hostility from the authorities and from their neighbours? Were they being undermined by heresy? Were they still open to his teaching and guidance? He also worried about his friends, particularly if they were ill or under pressure. Paul was no Stoic. He needed people. He had a rich emotional life full of love and affection.
What, then, of “Don’t worry about anything”? I think he meant the kind of things Jesus talked about. Jesus also told people not to worry – about food, clothing or any of the necessities of life. He pointed out that worry achieves nothing: it won’t even add an hour to your life. As somebody has said more recently: “Worry is like a rocking chair; it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.” Worry gives us the illusion of being in control of the situation we’re bothered about. We aren’t in control… but worry keeps alive the illusion that we are.
The evidence of the letter to the Philippian church is that Paul didn’t worry about physical provision and he didn’t worry about how long he had to live. He had learnt to trust God about such things. Neither Paul nor Jesus is asking us to become emotional neuters, without feelings or concerns about anything. They are both telling us that God can be trusted to provide for us, and he is ultimately in charge of how long we have to live. He is generous and he is good.
Can we learn to trust God about the necessities of life, and about life itself? Both are significant challenges in the era of Covid-19, whether it’s the loss of livelihood because of the economic effect of successive lockdowns or the ongoing concern about getting the virus.
Paul says prayer should be mixed with thanksgiving. Prayer without thanksgiving can be just another form of worry. Our prayers can go round in an anxious loop just like our worries. Thanksgiving breaks that cycle because it reminds us of what God has done for us and given to us. Worry is a form of delusion. Thanksgiving puts us back in touch with reality.
From prayer Paul moves on to our thought life:
… whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Philippians 4.8).
We need to monitor and control what we feed our minds with – just as we need to do the same with how we feed our bodies. The issue is specially pressing in a time of crisis. Too much news about the pandemic (or Brexit or climate change) can seriously damage our mental health, particularly when the media fight for our attention by selecting what is most shocking and sensational. We’re not to become ostriches, failing to care or to contribute positively to the issues of the day. But we are called to steward our internal resources.
This is not just about the pandemic. Paul’s advice relates to everything we read, listen to, watch on screens, or fill our heads with when we’ve got nothing else to distract us.
In 1934 the BBC governors decided to change the Corporation’s motto to the single word “Quaecunque”, which is Latin for “Whatever things…”. It’s a cryptic reference to Paul’s words in Philippians. However, in 1948 the BBC reverted to its previous motto, based on words from the prophets Isaiah and Micah: “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”. It’s a noble aspiration. But so too is “Quaecunque”. I don’t know why the change was made. And who knows whether the BBC’s output might have been different if “Quaecunque” had been retained?
Paul makes two promises in his final advice to the Philippians. Follow my prescription for prayer, he says, “and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”. And secondly: if you do what I tell you and copy what you see me doing, “the God of peace will be with you”. The peace of God and the God of peace. We all want to know peace. Following Paul’s advice will certainly make us more peaceful people. But even greater than knowing the peace of God is to know that the God of peace is with us. Jesus is “God with us” – not just at Christmas but forever. Our job is to receive him and the peace that he both is and gives.