by Monica A. Coleman
When I was in college, I was active in Christian Impact, my school’s local chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ. It was a wonderful experience where I bonded with others, learned new songs, and experienced discipleship and spiritual accountability for the first time. One of the core activities of this student organization was leading first-year students in Bible study. We always used the book of Philippians.
Philippians is a great choice. In this New Testament book, Paul compassionately reaches out to the churches at Philippi sharing both succinct morsels of his understanding of the gospel, and the kinds of words of encouragement that are meaningful for a young college student or mature Christian. Teaching Philippians played a crucial role in my love affair with the Bible.
There are tons of great verses. Some of my favorites include:
“I thank my God upon every remembrance of you” (1:3)
This one was great for the beginnings of letters I wrote friends back home.
Or for humility and commitment to Jesus,
“For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (1:21)
“What things were gain for me, those I counted loss for Christ” (3:7)
To dissipate the petty arguments that always arise between college roommates:
“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every [one] on [one’s] things, but every one also on the things of others.” (2:3-4)
Then there are the verses that invoked my favorite songs:
“That at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God (2:9-10)”
This inspired “How Excellent” performed by Walt Whitman and the Soul Children and many a gospel choir.
“The peace of God which passes all understanding shall guard your hearts and mind through Christ Jesus” (4:7) which gives us Fred Hammond’s wonderful gospel track.
For a purpose-driven life:
“Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (3:13b-14)”
And then one that’s just nice to memorize:
“Finally, brothers [and sisters] whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things (4:8)”
The promises that clergy love to cite when preaching:
“My God shall supply all your needs according to God’s riches in glory (4:19)”
“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me (4:13)”
In the midst of all these inspiring verses, my favorite was Philippians 4:6:
“Be anxious for nothing, but in every thing by prayers and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”
This verse reminded me to stop stressing about little things. It encouraged me to take my hopes and desires to God. It made me feel like God cares about my daily life. It urged me to develop my prayer life.“Be anxious for nothing, but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”
It’s a beautiful verse. It brought me a lot of peace.
Until I experienced the kind of anxiety that can accompany depression.
- It’s a nightmare during the day, but worse.
- It’s a phobia of snakes or spiders even though there are no creepy crawly things in the room.
- It’s trying to crawl out of your skin.
- It’s hearing the refrigerator hum like someone breaking in.
- It’s insomnia and hyperventilating.
At least that’s what anxiety is like for me.
I couldn’t pray it away. I couldn’t wish it away.
A paper bag and affirmations about God and love did nothing for me.
I knew it then: Paul didn’t know diddly about the reality of anxiety in the context of a mental health challenge. I took my irreligious restless self to my local psychiatrist.
Years later, I wonder why a verse that served me so well in one phase of my life proved so futile during another. Although I have committed most Bible verses to memory in the King James version (blame it on my upbringing), other translations are not much better. These versions either maintain the language of “don’t be anxious” or they read, “don’t worry.” I was filled with questions:
- Is the Bible this contextual?
- Could the verses that once brought me closer to God now make me feel faithless?
- Were the writers of the Bible that clueless about mental health challenges?
- Is it possible that Paul wasn’t even talking to me and my anxieties?
- Was I going to have to find new sources of inspiration?
I honestly think that the answer to all these questions is “Yes,” but that doesn’t mean I have to abandon my love of this biblical book, which is so well read and marked up that the pages are falling out of my Bible. It doesn’t mean that God abandoned me in my time of need. There is still value in the lessons I learned in college Bible study: stop sweating the small stuff and talk to God.
It just means that I should take my anxiety-ridden moments to a different section of the Bible. Like one of the three places where God promises never to leave us or forsake us. The fact that this message is given to Moses (Deut 31:6), Joshua (1:5) and in the book of Hebrews (13:5) suggests to me that it might be fairly common to feel terrified and alone (i.e., anxious).
And God wants us to remember that terrors may come, but we’re not out here on our own.
Monica Coleman is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions at Claremont School of Theology and blogs at Beautiful Mind Blog.