Paul, an Anxious Apostle, and his Framework for Peace
‘Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don't agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ’ C.S. Lewis.
I am a Church leader who is currently in counseling for panic attacks and agoraphobia. As someone who has battled with anxiety throughout their life, I used to read Paul’s command ‘do not be anxious about anything’ with a great sense of internal defeat - for me it had never been quite that simple.
And yet, the more I learn about Paul, the more I identify with him. Paul himself knew deep first-hand anxiety, mainly surrounding ministry. He describes a daily pressure weighing him down as he carried a burden for the Churches under his care (2 Cor. 11:28). A lack of peace left him unable to preach in Troas despite it being a miraculous God given opportunity (2 Cor. 2:12-13). We see him nervous to speak to the Corinthians ‘I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling’ which some scholars have linked with potential stage fright or the fear of not sounding eloquent (1 Cor. 2:3-5). His fear of public speaking could potentially be the ‘thorn in my flesh’ that Paul writes about in his second letter to the Corinthians.
Paul’s disclosure of anxiety was not intended as some sort of sin confession; I think he was simply showing he was just human like the rest of us. In 2 Cor. 7:6 we see God comfort Paul in the midst of some anxious circumstances, Paul describes God as comforting the downcast. While the context here is the sad or the humble, I find it interesting that downcast as an adjective reflects anxious body language. I believe that God also comforts those who are afraid to look up and be seen; he comforts those whose anxiety has caused them unnecessary shame.
In Philippians, Paul’s ‘do not be anxious’ statement is not motivated by condemnation but rather provides us with an alternative direction to redirect our attention when anxiety hits. Paul’s access to God’s comfort was activated through his prayer life. He offers us a model of prayer to access this same peace. In the Greek, Paul uses these four different words for prayer:
Proseuchomai (to approach God face to face) - this prayer enables us to personally ask God continually to meet our needs.
Deesis (supplication) - to ask for something or make a petition, this prayer demonstrates a need for God in times of great personal need.
Eucharistia (thanksgiving) - the root of this word is Charis (grace), this prayer centres on thanksgiving by God’s grace.
Aiteo (request) – This is a word used for petitions when the petition is made to someone who is superior to the petitioner.
Paul’s understanding of prayer teaches us that when anxiety comes, if we will personally approach God, ask Him to meet our needs and desires, and give Him thanks for His grace and provision, then we will receive His peace that surpasses our own understanding. ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ (Phil. 4:6-7)
The peace on offer to us is not just any peace, it is a supernatural gift that protects our hearts and minds. The word for guard used here by Paul refers to a garrison, a group of troops stationed in a town to defend it. When the guards have been posted the town remains safe even when attack strikes.
When the peace of God guards our hearts and minds, in him we can find rest for our souls even in the midst of life’s anxious circumstances.
Joy Hunter, 14/05/2023