Commentary on Philippians 4:1-9
A Quiet Mind and a Hopeful Heart
In the lesson for last Sunday, Paul uses the image of a race to picture the Christian life as one of constant movement into God’s future.
Here, he begins his final exhortation to the Philippians quite differently: “Stand firm in the Lord!” Pressing forward and standing firm in one place — how are these images to be reconciled?
I think the answer is in the prepositional clause, “in the Lord.” In the Lord, our forward movement is like our constant movement on the surface of the earth; we are held fast by gravity at the center yet simultaneously spinning at tremendous speed, constantly in motion yet constantly at rest. Without this center of gravity, this grounding in the settled presence of Christ among us, the depiction of the life of faith as a race quickly becomes frenetic and destructive.
Indeed, given the pace of most contemporary life, we certainly do not need more frantic activity. We need, rather, to rest in Christ’s presence at each moment, neither nostalgic for the past nor fantasizing about a future we cannot yet see. When we do so, we find that Christ carries us forward very quickly indeed, yet at the same time there is always enough time for what truly needs to be done.
What needs to be done, in Paul’s view, is to live by the promise that Christ will transform us, and will subject all things to himself (Philippians 3:21). This promise has quite specific effects in the present. It issues in a call to reconciliation between warring church members (4:2-3). It nurtures habits of the heart (4:4-7) and habits of the mind (4:8-9) that open us to the peace of God (4:7), which is indeed the presence of the God of peace (4:9).
First, Paul pleads with two women leaders at Philippi who apparently are at odds with each other. We know nothing else about them, nor about the “loyal companion” whom Paul asks to help. What we do know is that they were valued fellow missionaries who had shared Paul’s struggles. They thus provide evidence for the leadership roles of women in Paul’s churches.
We also know that Paul’s plea for reconciliation draws on his earlier depiction of “the mind of Christ,” in Philippians 2:1-5. Just as Paul generally exhorted the Philippians to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” so now he brings it home in a specific situation of discord. He also lists Euodia and Syntyche among those “whose names are in the book of life.” This is an unusual expression in Paul’s letters, but its appearance here causes us to ponder the way the hope of eternal life encourages us to be reconciled to our fellow Christians. We will be spending a long time with them!
Second, Paul commands us to rejoice! Again, how surprising this is, coming from the horrors of a Roman prison. The reason is not difficult to find: “The Lord is near.” Paul expects the imminent return of Christ, who will put all things right. But as we have seen throughout the letter, Paul also experiences the nearness of God in Christ, even in his present captivity. So he commands us to rejoice.
And since we are beset with anxieties that get in the way of rejoicing, he tells us to pray in everything, bringing everything, no matter how trivial or how insurmountable, to the God who loves us. We cannot generate freedom from anxiety by our own efforts; the attempt only pushes the anxiety underground, where it festers and leads to secret despair. But Christ will meet us at the place of worry, because Christ has descended to the depths of human despair. Therefore God has become for us the God whose peace “guards” our minds and hearts.
Third, Paul tells us to focus our minds on what is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, excellent and worthy of praise. Is this just an exercise in positive thinking? Is it a Pollyanna denial of reality? Apart from the resurrection, such would indeed be the case. But Paul is holding two realities in view at the same time.
Yes, there is the immediate reality of a world in which human beings are constantly at war somewhere, betraying one another, brutally suppressing each other in order to get ahead, and so forth. This was true of the Roman Empire, and it is true today. Every day we hear and see a culture that focuses on what is false, dishonorable, unjust, impure, and shameful. We begin to think that to act hopefully in such a world is unrealistic.
But Paul also sees another reality, and it is the reality that holds the future. That is the reality of God’s redemption, already here and still drawing near. Training our minds to think of this reality, and thereby to act with hope, is a daily mental discipline. For such a discipline, we need to experience the counter reality of God’s rule in the midst of tangible human relationships. Paul offers his own relationship with the Philippians as just such a tangible counterweight to the temptation of despair and futile thinking.
Finally, once again Paul promises that the outcome of these habits of heart and mind is “peace that surpasses all understanding.” Written from jail, by a man under threat of capital punishment at the hands of a brutal and corrupt regime, these are extraordinary promises. Rome was always at war somewhere on its borders. The so-called Pax Romana was anything but for Rome’s subject peoples; Tacitus, a Roman senator who served in Rome’s far-flung provinces, wrote bitterly, “They make a desolation and call it peace.”
But Paul sees a different reality alongside the violence and duplicity of Rome. The small and struggling Christian congregation in the Roman colony of Philippi is itself a kind of “colony,” a separate polis with a more powerful Lord who alone has defeated death. Confident, therefore, in the ultimate victory of the God of peace, he encourages us to have quiet minds and hopeful hearts.