“Whatever is Commendable”
Reading the Bible is a bit like eavesdropping. No matter which book of the Bible you pick up, you’re listening to a conversation that was being had hundreds or thousands of years ago. We read the Bible because for hundreds and thousands of years people have heard God speaking through it, and we believe that God has something to say to us too. But it is always good to keep in mind that we’re the third wheels here. We’re reading things that were written for someone else to read a long time ago. Never is this more evident than when we read the letters of Paul. Every one of Paul’s letters addresses a distinct community, and gives specific advice to that community, and to the situation at hand. And like any eavesdropped conversation, you have a better understanding of what people mean when you know what the conversation is about.
The letter of Paul to the Philippians is no different. In fact, it is even more important to understand the context, because Paul’s relationship with the Philippians is so intimate. The church at Philippi was a church that Paul founded. And it was the only church that Paul was willing to receive regular financial assistance from. He refused it from all other churches. What this tells us is that Paul really saw the church at Philippi as a partner in ministry. Not a community that he served, but a community that served alongside him. And because of this level of intimacy, Paul is willing to revel his own inner thoughts in a way that isn’t common in Paul’s letters.
In the letter, Paul talks directly about his present situation in a way that he rarely does. Paul is in jail at the time the letter is written. The Romans didn’t have a penal system the way we do. Imprisonment was used primarily to hold someone while they awaited execution, or sometimes a trial. So while he was writing this letter, his life hung in the balance. Either he was awaiting trial, or he was awaiting execution. And Paul writes quite openly about his feelings about his future. He tells the Philippians that he is unsure if he would prefer life or death. He writes in Chapter 1 verse 21, “For me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” and in verse 23, “I am hard pressed between the two.” It is clear that Paul has had ample time to think about life and death while he awaits news of his fate.
And yet throughout the book, Paul describes himself as confident and hopeful, and over and over again he tells the Philippians to rejoice. The first thing he tells the Philippians after his opening prayer is that his arrest has meant that the Gospel is being spread among his jailers. It makes me wonder if he is being sarcastic. This is the darkest of bright sides, the cloudiest of silver linings. But it seems that Paul is truly genuine in his joy. He writes that others have been emboldened through his imprisonment, to preach and proclaim, and for that he gives thanks. Though he is awaiting trial or execution, he tells the Philippians to rejoice over and over again in the book. And in the passage for today, he tells the Philippians not to worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Did you know that this is the most underlined passage in the Bible? A few years ago, Amazon released data from Kindles on what people underline the most in various books, the Bible included. And this passage, Philippians 4:6-7, is the most underlined passage in the whole Bible. “Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. “ Does that tell you something? The thing that the most people think we need to remember and the thing that we think we need to hear the most is not to worry. It reveals, I think, how prevalent anxiety is in our society.
We worry about a lot of things. Some of our fears aren’t particularly justified. Shark attacks for example, aren’t very common. But most of our worries are very real. We worry about money—will there be enough? Will our children be able to have good lives? Will our jobs still support us? We worry about our health. How do we find the motivation to eat better, to exercise more, and to take better care of ourselves? How do we deal with changes in our bodies or changes minds? And we worry about our world. So much seems to be going wrong, and we feel so powerless to do anything about it.
So what does Paul know that we don’t? What is it that makes him so joyful while in jail? How is he so confident when his situation is so tenuous?
I think some of it is in these final instructions that he gave the Philippians: “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.” (Phil. 4:8-9).
Paul is offering himself up as an example to the Philippians as to how they should act as they run into the adversity that they will no doubt face. And what is Paul’s example? Paul is a world-changing preacher, who traveled the Greek-speaking world in sharing the good news and building communities of followers of Christ. It must have driven him nuts to be stuck in a jail cell. But that doesn’t matter to Paul. Because wherever he is, he has the opportunity to share the good news. So while he’s in prison, he is proclaiming Jesus to the imperial guards. It’s a little bit like the old hymn, Brighten the Corner Where You Are.
Paul has found, in his own small way, in his own stuck place, a chance to do something of value. He is not focused on the negative, he offers no complaints about his jailed status or prison food. He is focused on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just—excellence and anything worthy of praise. This isn’t about the power of positive thinking. That’s nice and all, but there are some things you can’t think your way out of. This is about the power of positive doing. It is about finding something, no matter where you are or what situation you are in, that is commendable, that is excellent, that is worth doing. Paul is able to be joyous in his situation because he is doing what he can in his particular place and time, and he has given everything else to God.
There are things in life that are worth doing. Things that are beautiful, things that are honorable, things that sustain or build or create something that gives lives life. Things that live up to the virtues Paul told the Philippians to think about. They aren’t always easy, like choosing to be honorable when those around us are not. And they can get us in trouble, like speaking out for justice in an unjust world. But if we’re going to survive in our anxiety-ridden world, those are the things we’ll do.
Some of them might not seem particularly godly at first, like watching the sunset, or reading a book that’s so good it will make you cry. Others will be right there in the good book, like volunteering at our Food Pantry to make sure that people have enough to eat, or walking in the Crop Walk this afternoon. Others might be things that we do unconsciously and have never really thought about, like being a sympathetic listener for everyone in the office. But all of them will involve doing something, in our own small way, to pursue what is good and just and right. In the face of an anxiety-ridden world, our solution must be to build a better one, wherever we are, using whatever materials we have available. What Paul has done, and what he is teaching us to do, is to do something that matters, even when everything else is out of our control. The solution to living in an anxiety-ridden world is not to rid ourselves of or avoid all sources of anxiety. That will never happen, and it will render us increasingly unable to cope with stress. It is to find the sometimes-small and sometimes-large ways that we can bring light into the world. When Paul says, “Don’t worry,” he’s not saying not to worry because nothing will happen. He’s saying all sorts of things will happen to you, and already have. But in the midst of that worry find the places where God is working and partner with God in work that proclaims that the Kingdom of God is near. This is what Paul is doing in jail, and this is what he is teaching the Philippians. There is nowhere that you cannot find something meaningful and beautiful and commendable to do. And wherever you do those things, the Lord will be near. Focus on reaping a harvest, creating something, protecting something, building something good. And in the midst of the harvest, you will find God’s peace with you.
 Bassler, Jouette. “The Letter of Paul to the Philippians” in The New Interpreters Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (eds. Walter J. Harrelson et al.; Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2003), 2106.