Life is hard. This is not a new concept to anyone. However, the more life I have lived, the more I have learned that this is true. Indeed, life is filled with pain – both physical and emotional. Through life we each have to deal with losses, both big and not so big. We deal with traumatic events, personal struggles, disappointments and strained and broken relationships. We are hurt by illness, injury, betrayal, anger, abuse, addiction, depression, and on and on. I don’t really need to enumerate all the things that hurt us because you know them too well.
When we experience difficulty and hurt, we each respond in a variety of ways. We want to avoid feeling the pain of loss, so we try not to get too close to people. We want to avoid disappointment, so we avoid letting people get too close to us. We have difficulty trusting, so we are always looking for ways that others are trying to take advantage of us. When we are hurt by someone, we may try to hurt them back. When we have suffered great loss or other great pain, we may try to just numb the pain through frantic activities or the use of alcohol or other drugs. In short, we focus on what has happened, we worry about what might happen and we try to control the outcome or consequences. The result is a disconnect from ourselves, a distance in our relationships, and a loss of who God is. We construct a God who will help us maintain our defenses and give us the means to be safe rather than connecting with God who calls us to abundant life and the adventure of deep connection.
In Philippians 4, Paul writes the following words from prison to the church at Philippi: 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.
We may read this and think that Paul does not understand how bad things can be in our lives, but notice that Paul does not say, “Be happy no matter what and again, I say be happy about everything.” No, Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord”, which seems to be something altogether different. Too many times we as Christians reduce these words to some kind of syrupy superficial expression of happiness that we put on no matter what is going on in our life. We go through a terrible experience, but somehow show up to church on a Sunday morning, slap a smile on our face, pretend like we are doing fine and think we are living up to Paul’s encouragement to rejoice all the time. This cannot be what Paul is encouraging us to do because what follows seems to be direction on how to live more authentically and to pretend things are okay when they are not accomplishes just the opposite.
One of the first things that Paul says is, “The Lord is near.” While there may be more than one understanding of what this means, it most definitely includes the idea that God is near to us and God cares for us. Paul then says, “Do not worry about anything.” Again, this is an idea that we have abused as Christians. It is normal to worry. When we don’t know what is going to happen or how things are going to turn out, it is normal to have concern, but I have known people who are going through difficulty who cannot say that they are concerned about an outcome because they fear it is a sin to worry. This passage does not say it is a sin to worry. Paul is encouraging the people of Philippi (and us), not to worry, but he gives us a different strategy. Rather than worrying about what will happen in any given situation, Paul suggests that we let our requests be known to God with prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. Prayer is simply the act of addressing God. Our prayers need not have particular words or be in a particular place. Anything we do or say in our lives that we intend to be a communication with God can be a prayer. When we are worried, our prayers should contain supplication, which literally is just asking for something.
When we worry, we are generally afraid of a particular outcome. We are worried about being adequate. We are worried about what we cannot yet see. We are focused on what has not yet happened. For us to step outside of our worry and to make an honest assessment of what we really need, takes perspective. It involves setting aside our need to be in control or try to manipulate the outcome we think is best. Being able to report to God our needs is an opening of ourselves to the reality that we, in and of ourselves, are not sufficient to control anything. For us to try to control something is to suggest that God cannot handle what is going to happen or that God cannot bring about something that will bless us in the midst of struggle. Admitting to God that we have needs is to admit that we are not complete in ourselves and we are in need of God. To admit we have needs is a stance of humility.
Paul also says we should offer these prayers with a perspective of Thanksgiving. An attitude of Thanksgiving turns our focus from the struggle currently before us and the fear of what might be to a focus on the good that is present and the blessings that we have received. Several years ago, I was suffering from a short-sighted way of living life in which I wanted things in my life to be a certain way. I got frustrated when things were not the way I thought they should be. I suffered from the idea that I somehow deserved to have the outcome I wanted in things. I was often frustrated that life was not what I thought it was supposed to be and what I thought I deserved. One day I had an epiphany that I did not deserve anything. I realized that my expectations were killing my ability to enjoy and appreciate what I had. I made a conscious decision to seek to be more grateful. I began to thank my wife for doing things that she was already doing around the house because I realized that she didn’t “have to” do those things for me. I tried to expect less from others which on the surface, sounds bad, but I realized that if I expected nothing, then when others offered to do anything with me or for me, I felt genuinely grateful rather than my being angry or disappointed that what I got was not what I expected or thought I should get.
If you are a person who struggles with worry, you are not living in sin. In fact, there may actually be some biological reasons for excessive worry and there are medications and talk therapy that can help (I have utilized these things myself), but everyone worries in some way. We are, however, called to make an honest assessment of ourselves. We are encouraged to share our need with God, not because God needs to hear it or God needs us to beg, but because sharing our needs with God opens us up to looking for God at work in our lives. Sharing our need with God reminds us that we do not and cannot control every outcome, but that when we look for God at work and let go of trying to make things happen the way we want, we open ourselves to the peace of God that does not make sense and goes beyond understanding.
Pastoral Counselor at Belle Meade Counseling Center