Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, 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. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
Philippians is Paul’s most personal letter, and probably one of the last ones written. It appears to have been written during his final imprisonment in Rome, following his final appeal to Caesar. Facing trial before Nero and the possibility of execution, he writes with undisguised, almost jubilant positivity: “I want you to know, beloved, that what has happened to me has actually helped to spread the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ”. He professes that he really doesn’t know whether it is better to live or to die, not our of depression, but out of his confident faith that “to live is Christ, to die is gain”. Paul has come to the conclusion that happiness is not dependent on circumstances: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me”.
It’s interesting to me how much of Paul’s observations and advice make good psychological sense. From a cognitive- behavioral perspective, we are what we think. Unpleasant and undesirable feelings like anxiety, depression, and misdirected anger arise more from the things we say to ourselves about events and circumstances than from events and circumstances themselves. If we change our thought patterns, we can change our feelings. There’s a story about two young children playing in the ocean surf who both get knocked down by the waves. One child runs screaming and terrified to his parents on the shore, while the other bobs up laughing in delight and cries “Do it again!”. The event is the same, but one child thinks “What fun!” while the other thinks “How dangerous!” I think that’s exactly what Paul meant when he said he had learned to be content. From his perspective, being in prison wasn’t awful; it gave him a chance to talk to his guards about his faith. He doesn’t see death as an end, but as a beginning. Paul gives the Philippians several other pieces of sound psychological advice. Don’t keep your worries and concerns to yourself, but talk them out with a trusted friend. (For Paul of course, there was no more trusted friend than God ). Cultivate gratitude by making a list of the things you are thankful for. Spend more time thinking about good things, instead of ruminating on bad things. Practice kindness. Do good to others whenever it is in your power to do so. It’s easier to act yourself into a new way of feeling than to feel yourself into a new way of acting.
We may be living in uncertain times, but so was Paul. Because of his faith and through much practice, he managed to find “the peace that passes understanding” in spite of his circumstances, and assured the Philippians it could be theirs as well. Change your perspective by “putting on the mind of Christ” and you will change your thinking and your actions. Change your thinking and your actions and you will change your feelings. Paul’s advice still works today, and that’s good news to me.