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The Book of Philippians and the Battle Against Anxiety


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

By Pastor Aaron Syvertsen

We recently began a new sermon series in the book of Philippians, where we’ll take nine weeks to work our way through four chapters and our hope in it is that our “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that we may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (1:9-10).

People often ask me how I go about choosing what books of the Bible we preach through at Grace Church. Part of the thought process is practical, where I want to go back and forth between Old Testament and New Testament books, as well as a cross-section of literary genres (historical narrative, letter, poetry, prophecy, etc.). Beyond that, I pray over various themes that emerge from different books, seeking to choose books that will address specific needs that are prevalent amongst our congregation that I observe day in and week out. To be clear, our aim in preaching every week is to reveal the character and nature of God, to make much of Him and see Jesus high and lifted up on the throne, but there are countless themes and roads that flow into and out of that mountain peak.

So, why Philippians? One of the major reasons is because this little, jam-packed letter provides the assurance that so many are thirsting for in an anxious age. The most powerful verse in the letter, in my opinion, is found in Paul’s introduction:

Philippians 1:6 “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

This is a verse of perseverance. A verse for those who are struggling. A verse for those who can’t thrive under the weight and pressure of an unknown future. This is a verse for the anxious.

A Big Problem

As a pastor in a suburban context, anxiety has been far and away the number one struggle that I have seen in my role of shepherding, leading, and encouraging people in the church.  And my biggest takeaway is that there is no stereotype for the typical “anxious person”.  It cuts across every demographic you can think of.  It’s in the old and the young, I’ve seen it occur in 3rd graders, and in people who have grandkids who are 3rd graders.  It occurs in males and females, corporate executives and stay-at-home moms, extroverts and introverts, and every other demographic you can think of.  The point?  There is no type of person who gets anxious.  It’s everywhere.

Beyond that, “anxiety” is not the same in different people, and the word itself can lend itself to wildly different causes and manifestations.  When someone says, “I struggle with anxiety”, we don’t really know what that means until we learn more.  Joe Carter in his article, Is Anxiety a Sin?, breaks anxiety down into 4 possible categories:

  • A God-given emotional response for our benefit
  • A disordered physiological response that is not sinful
  • A natural consequence of sin
  • Sinful response to God’s providential care

So is anxiety a sin?  Maybe, but not necessarily.  I know, this is part of why it’s a big problem. Anxiety is complex.  But it’s not just a growing problem I’m noticing, it’s becoming well documented that anxiety levels are spiking across the country to the point, especially in young people, to the point where this is quickly becoming known as the Age of Anxiety.  I’ll leave it to those far more qualified than me to discuss why this is the case, but it doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

A Bigger Solution

If we’re not careful, the rise of anxiety in our country and churches will make us even more anxious.  Here is where we need to dial in to a simple truth: the only antidote to anxiety is assurance, and the deepest assurance we can have is found in the finished work of Jesus Christ.

When we’re anxious about something, or someone, we need assurance.  In a simple example, if the parent of a teenager is anxious over their son or daughter going away on a camping trip with their friends for the weekend, the assurance they need is their car pulling back into the driveway safe and sound.  Bottom line, where anxiety exists, assurance is needed.

Here is where the world gets exposed.  It can only offer us so much assurance, and in many cases, it’s not that much.  This world is fallen, and this is a place where illness strikes, hurricanes hit, and tragedy in any number of ways truly is possible, even if not probable.

So we get to this weird place where we know we can’t be anxious over everything, but we have to be honest with ourselves and concede “anxiety-driven” events can and do happen.  So how can you handle this tension?  You build a foundation, and, as a wise man once said, you can either build you house on the rock or the sand (Matthew 7:24-27).  A house built on the sand rests on the insufficient assurance this world provides, the assurance that says yes things can happen but they probably won’t.  This is the kind of shifty foundation that cannot truly solve the problem of anxiety.

As believers, by the power of the Holy Spirit within us, can build our house upon the rock.  The rock-base provides the assurance that while this fallen world can take our happiness, it cannot have our joy.  The foundation will not be moved, and at the bottommost area of our hearts, joy abounds, because it’s built into the rock of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ defeated death when he said the words, “It is Finished” (John 19:28-30).  Jesus Christ was vindicated when the Father rose him from the dead, proving he really is the Son of God, and he really did make the payment for sin in full, because when a debt is paid, the prisoner goes free.  Jesus was freed from the grave, and we are freed from the power of sin over our lives.

This is the good news.  This is the rock of assurance.  Not that everything in our live will be care-free and that we’ll never face anxious moments, but that we have the guarantee that the same grace which saved us, will sustain us, and that salvation belongs to the Lord.  Not only that, but we are also assured that the same power which rose Christ from the grave now exists within us (Romans 8:11).

He will keep you.  He won’t let go.  He will see you through to the end, and you will make it. This doesn’t mean that we need to feel ashamed about the reality of anxiety in our lives, but rather it empowers us to admit the struggle.  Being honest about struggling with anxiety doesn’t mean you’re weak, it shows you’re strong enough to seek help.  Perhaps the anxiety you or loved ones around you face is situational, or relational, or physiological, but the bottommost weapon to battle against it will be the promises of Jesus Christ manifested in the Spirit of Christ within you.  Note that I didn’t say the ONLY weapon, because the Spirit often utilizes various means of common grace to accomplish this – including but not limited to things like church community, spiritual disciplines, exercise, professional therapy and medication that serves as a common grace for the people of God.

Final Word

Are you feeling anxious?  Are you looking for assurance?  Well, that brings us back to Philippians, “And I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Paul is sure of it.  This is the only assurance that can stand against the whipping winds of anxiety.  So if there’s a verse that you should wake up to every day, it’s this one.  This is a verse of perseverance.  This sustains, this sparks hope even in the darkest of days.  Your victory is not contingent on the strength of your faith, it’s secured in the strength of your God.  This is the key to victory, this is how you will win this next day, this next hour, this next minute.

Brothers and sisters, don’t give up.  Your house is built on the Rock.

Aaron Syvertsen is the senior pastor at Grace Church in Ridgewood, NJ. This column was reprinted with permission from the church’s blog