Philippians is among the last letters written by Paul. We know that he was in captivity, though it is difficult to date it more precisely. And here, he tells the Philippians, who are going through serious hardships, to not ‘have any anxiety at all’. What could Paul have meant by having no anxiety? Paul was no stranger to suffering. He lists some of them in his letters (1 Cor 4:9-13, 11:23-29), his work having taken him often into the jaws of death, several times. Even as he writes, he is imprisoned in the dungeons. Paul was familiar with fears associated with suffering. Through it all though, he speaks of anxiety, but not for himself but only for the churches he has planted – whether these new Christians would be safe and flourish or be exposed to all kinds of false teachers and other spiritual dangers. How could one be in constant danger, yet not think of themselves but of others and find themselves at peace, as Paul promises?
Part of the answer is there in what Paul says, just before this verse: “Rejoice in the Lord always….the Lord is near” (4:5). The knowledge of the nearness of Christ was what made Paul rejoice, whether he was in chains in the dungeons or free, preaching the gospel. Paul, somehow, had found his way to a world where, with God at the center, he could be at peace and rejoice, in the midst of all that might come his way.
One person who embodies what Paul probably meant is the saint, whose feast we celebrated this week, Therese of Lisieux. She died when she was only 24 years of age. She died at the end of the nineteenth century (1897). When she was canonised, Pope Pius X called her “the greatest saint of modern times” – a prophecy that would prove itself over and over in the life of the Church. Without ever leaving her cloistered life in Carmel, she attained a sanctity which would influence and reinvigorate the Church all across the world, right down to our time. Therese’s image of the spiritual life was “…that of a little child who, full of trust, falls asleep in its father’s arms.” She spoke of this as what Jesus had shown her, the way that leads to the furnace of divine love.
But she did not find this immediately. Therese was determined to be a saint and even wished to be a martyr. But a few years in Carmel made her realise the limitations of her own efforts. It was in this crisis of her own limitations and insignificance that she found God’s help. It was a way of holiness which would make her a doctor of the Church. In reading Isaiah, she found the verse which says “you shall be carried at the breasts, and upon the knees they shall caress you. As one whom the mother caresseth, so will I comfort you.” (Isa 66:12-13).
Therese concluded: I will seek out a means of getting to Heaven by a little way—very short and very straight little way that is wholly new. We live in an age of inventions; nowadays the rich need not trouble to climb the stairs, they have lifts instead. Well, I mean to try and find a lift by which I may be raised unto God, for I am too tiny to climb the steep stairway of perfection. […] Thine Arms, then, O Jesus, are the lift which must raise me up even unto Heaven. To get there I need not grow. On the contrary, I must remain little, I must become still less. She would write to another priest: My way is all confidence and love. In discovering her own littleness, she had also found a place for herself near the heart of Jesus, and the quickest way to sanctity.
Therese died of Tuberculosis, suffering intense pain and at the same time, experiencing a lot of darkness in her spirit. But in all this, she never left the heart of Jesus as a child upon his breast. Here, she knew his love. Here, she was safe. We can all understand Therese’s image immediately. But is there a way of ‘climbing up’ to this level of trust? Maybe we have never experienced the closeness of God in this way.
Paul’s instructions, again, come to our help. He tells us three things – Imitate those who follow Christ (4:9); fill your mind with what is commendable, good and beautiful (4:8). But before that, between his command to not be anxious and the promise that the peace of God will be in our hearts, much as Therese experienced it, he gives us another instruction: “…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.” (4:6-7). Let me focus briefly on this aspect of thanksgiving.
We do not often realise the importance Scripture gives to the practice of giving thanks. The Psalms are full of this. Ps 100:4 for example, says, “Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise”. The gates and the courts, of course, refer to the Temple. Thanksgiving was what brought one into the presence of God, even as much as the gates of the Temple did. Equally, without a grateful heart, one finds themselves outside God’s presence.
The word ‘thank’ comes from the same old English root as ‘think’. This is beautiful. It means we are called to remember our life with thanksgiving. Being grateful makes us look at our life in a particular way, it orders our history. It makes us realise that God has been present in our life; he continues to be present, and good towards us. It is not because God is some kind of ego-maniac that he wants us to give thanks but rather, works for our benefit. Thanksgiving acknowledges God at the center of the world in which we live and gives God responsibility for everything that happens in our lives, both good and bad. It makes us part of a theo-drama, of God’s unfolding plan in his world. The alternative is to live in an ego-drama, as if we were at the center of everything, making us invariably, ridden with anxiety. Everything becomes an act of self-accomplishment. It is a world in which no gifts are given, no wonders occur, and no transformations are noticed. Such a life is that of ‘the fool’ in the Scriptures, who never notices God’s action and gifts in his life, like the rich man Jesus speaks of in his parable (Luke 12:13-21).
The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.
Not all of us might wake up in the morning, full of gratitude and beaming with joy. But thanksgiving can be learnt. It is a spiritual discipline and we learn by doing. We don’t need to feel like giving thanks; but we can still give thanks, even if it’s a few minutes a day. There’s always something for which we can be grateful. In doing so, thanksgiving brings about what it promises. It changes our perspective. It starts making our life God-centered. We start to see that we have a Father in heaven who cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). We can place our petitions to him without fear. Like Paul, we will find that even when we are ‘afflicted in every way, [we are] not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed’ (2 Cor 4:8-9). And we can trust, like Therese, letting God work out his plans, even as we fall asleep in his arms.