When Concern Becomes Crushing

I continue to be struck by the profound real-world spirituality of the Apostle Paul in his little Letter to the Philippians. Whether it's his calm at the prospect of imminent martyrdom (Ch. 1), his refusal to define himself by his resume of accomplishments and pedigree (Ch. 3), or his approach to the problem of anxiety (Ch. 4), Paul's equanimity seems otherworldly--and strangely magnetic--to me.

In particular, I'm interested in Paul's use of a Greek word, merimnao. It's the word used in Chapter 2 to describe the heart-felt concern Paul's protege Timothy exhibits for the Philippian church. "I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned (merimnesei) for you." Here, the word is healthy. However, two chapters later, the word shades into a different meaning. In Chapter 4 Paul writes, "Be anxious (merimnate) in nothing." One word, two differerent nuances. Apparently, with little provocation, healthy concern can overflow its boundaries and rise into a floodtide of anxiety. What constitutes the difference? What is the catalyst for this change from health to disease?

I suspect it has to do with the little phrase Paul uses so often in the letter: "in the Lord." Paul's whole identity (and the identity he urges upon his readers) is "in the Lord." Who they are, what they do, and where they're headed are all determined by this profound little phrase, "in the Lord." When Jesus looms large in our imaginations, when his accomplishments of cross, empty tomb, and certain return are the fixed points of our realities, we are quietly and confidently "in the Lord." We are free to exhibit compassionate concern for loved ones and others; but this concern is kept within bounds. Only the Lord has ultimate control over people and events. When we're "in the Lord" we recognize this and our concern stays put. It's not crushing; it's not an overwhelming flood of anxious emotion. Jesus is in control and we're not and we're okay with that.

Concern becomes crushing when we forget our identity "in the Lord." When we're too wrapped up "in ourselves", our concern overflows. We begin to carry for ourselves the weight of contingencies we cannot control and outcomes which are impossible to manage. These are burdens we were never meant to carry. Anxiety crushes us as a result.

I love how Paul's colleague, the Apostle Peter, also addresses anxiety in his First Letter: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you" (1Peter 5:6-7). "Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God," he writes. In other words, recognize that God is God and you are not! Let God carry those crushing burdens that weigh down your heart and wreck your soul. Step lightly and lovingly, as "in the Lord" you show your concern, but refuse to let it to crush you.

I suspect that anxiety overwhelms me personally when I lose this all-important reference point for my identity. When my roles and responsibilities, when events beyond my control, tempt me to carry them without reference to Jesus and his leadership, I feel the burden begin to crush me. My healthy concerns have morphed into a diseased distress. God help me (and God help us!) to cast our concerns onto the broad shoulders of Jesus!

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