by Dr. Bruce G. Epperly, pastor, professor, and author of Philippians: A Participatory Study Guide, Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job, Jonah: When God Changes, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God and more!
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. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. – Philippians 4:4-9 (NRSV)
Recently, I coined the term “theospirituality” to describe the interplay of our theological visions and our spiritual practices. I believe that the apostle Paul is a master of theospirituality, especially in his Letter to the Philippians. He makes the following assertions in the course of the text:
- God will bring the good work God has begun in our lives to fulfillment and it will be abundant. (1:3-11)
- Christ’s mind dwells in us. (Philippians 2:5-11)
- Christ’s mind is relational and affirmative, and grounded in love and not fear. (2:5-11)
- Our salvation or wholeness is a matter of God’s grace and our agency. (2:12)
- God is intimate. (4:5)
- God empowers is to respond to every situation. “I can do all things.” (4:13)
- God will provide for our every need. (4:19)
Paul’s Philippian vision is grounded in his belief that God is with us, moving in our lives, providing us with wisdom and energy, and inviting us to be God’s partners in bringing beauty to the world.
Paul also provides us with a way to experience his vision of reality that involves an integration of practice and action. As a matter of fact for Paul everything we do is a spiritual practice. Central to Paul’s spiritual formation is a life of constant prayer. For Paul prayer is a state of mind, transcending mere words. Pray about everything, small and large. Ask God for what you need and give thanks for your blessings. Don’t worry, but place everything in God’s hands. Make a commitment to live joyfully. This was good news in Philippi; it is good news today!
Perhaps, more telling for our time is Paul’s counsel to “think about these things,” to live affirmatively rather than negatively. This is a challenge these days: we are constantly surrounded by negativity. Politicians bully, insult each other, and tell us to be very afraid. The 24/7 news cycle gives us language of doom and gloom, and imagines a dystopian future for all of us. Even weather reports on sunny days speak of news from the “storm desk” and see a drop of rain as a potential crisis.
We can’t escape the realities of negativity, but we need not be ruled by them. In a world, shaped by negativity, Paul counsels us to live affirmatively, guarding our minds by positive thinking: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable.” This is the power of affirmative faith that transforms our minds, and opens us to God’s presence in our lives.
For Paul, the Christian life is joyful. But, joy is not an accident, but a matter of intentionality. God’s grace permeates all things, and we can, by our openness, awaken to that grace in every moment of our lives.