The current issue of The American Prospect features a short piece on ebooks and social reading. It mentions in passing that the Bible is the Kindle’s most highlighted book and that the most highlighted verse of all is Philippians 4.6:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
It’s no scientific survey, admittedly, but it seems telling that the most underlined passage in the most underlined book addresses worry, doubt, and disquiet. Maybe we have a problem with anxiety out there. I know I have one in here.
Only half an answer
The passage is a favorite because it offers something for us to do with our worries. We’re directed to take them to the throne of God, and I’m sure that works for some. But the truth is that it’s not a complete answer to our problem.
If we read the simple admonition, it’s easy to see Paul as some sort of Bob Newhart character yelling, “Stop it!” But before you think I’m being flip, let me redirect the blame to the people who first invented our scripture notation system.
Paul obviously did not insert the chapter and verse numbers in his letters as he wrote; scholars in the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries did that. And while this system has its merits, it also creates problems, including accidentally altering the meanings of certain passages — or at least the meanings we take from them.
What we miss
Paul’s statement is not merely a blunt admonition (don’t do it). It actually comes with comes with a rationale (you don’t need to do it because…). But the rationale is one we might miss because of the verse numbering.
If you read commentators before the advent of the numbering system, they do something different with the emphasis and structure of the passage. The end of verse 5 says, “The Lord is at hand.” The start of 6 says, “Have no anxiety about anything. . . .” Ancient commentators like John Chrysostom and Theodoret of Cyrus read these as one verse, not two separate verses. Chrysostom quotes it as, “The Lord is at hand, in nothing be anxious.” Theodoret’s treatment is the same: “The Lord is near. Have no worries.”
Let me repeat that: “The Lord is near. Have no worries.”
That’s what the passage actually says, and what Chrysostom and Theodoret commented on. But the verse numbering causes an unnecessary break and distortion in the meaning, particularly if we read the scripture as granularly as verse-by-verse, expository teaching often leads us to.
The full picture
Read instead as the ancient Christians read it, Paul’s statement is not merely that we should take our anxieties to God, good as that may be. It’s that the judge of the universe is near so we can have confidence that wrong will be set right. It’s not about trying to suppress our worries and trust God, which is for many a necessary but challenging effort that contains within it many of its own worries. That’s the wrong focus. It’s about the realization that God will soon wipe away every reason for worry. It’s a reminder of our real hope.
Our eyes are on the wrong thing if we’re merely praying to have life’s worrisome aspects eliminated so we can carry on stress free. Rather, we have no reason for anxiety because the judge of all the earth is already on his way.
To be clear, it’s easier to write these words than live by them. But if we needed to be convinced of anything, it is not that prayer is a means to reduce our anxieties. It’s that Christ is coming.
“The Lord is near. Have no worries.”