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Paul’s Prescription for Political Anxiety in 2024

The 2024 election is less than a year away, and we’re preparing for a deluge of desperate pleas, dire warnings, and delicious rumors. Along with the breathtaking boasts and cheap-shot slander, the sense of panic will heighten as we’re told, once again, that this is the most important election of our lifetimes. The result will be a national case of political anxiety.

The anxiety in churches is partly fueled by Christianity’s declining influence in America. The church at Philippi knew something about living in a spiritually hostile environment. Yet Paul’s letter to them is optimistic and joyful, containing some of our favorite verses, such as Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything.”

Anything. Even politics.

The answer to political anxiety isn’t political surrender. Christians should engage in the political process for the common good, but under the condition found in the immediately preceding (and lesser-known) verse: “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (v. 5). Political anxiety in the church declines in response to the rise of reasonableness. More reasonableness, less anxiety.

“Reasonableness” is the fair, equitable, and impartial thinking required of a good and wise judge. It was originally an expression for a “balanced, intelligent, decent outlook . . . a considerate, thoughtful, attitude in legal relationships.” A reasonable person is judicious—not given to extreme opinions, carried away by passions, abusive in leadership, harsh in speech, or reactionary to personal insults. If anxiety is the disease, reasonableness is the cure.

If anxiety is the disease, reasonableness is the cure.

This trait is essential for church unity (v. 2), but it’s also essential for managing the mountains of divisive political messages assailing us every election cycle. Here are four traits of reasonableness from Philippians.

1. Reasonable people do the right thing and trust God with the outcome.

Only in Philippians does Paul exhort believers to live “worthy of the gospel [politeuesthe]” since “our citizenship [politeuma] is in heaven” (1:27; 3:20). These words, unique in Paul’s letters, convey political overtones. Caesar is lord, but Jesus is Lord of lords. Caesar will soon judge Paul, but Jesus will soon judge Caesar. Many knees bow to Caesar now, but every knee will bow to Jesus then. Knowing he’ll share Christ’s future victory motivates Paul to share Christ’s present sufferings (3:10).

Throughout Scripture, success is doing the right thing and trusting God with the outcome. The outcome may not impress the world: Joseph went to prison, Daniel to the lions, Shadrach to the furnace, and Stephen to his death for doing the right thing. Paul did the right thing and became a penniless political prisoner. At the time, all were losers by the world’s standards.

Our nation’s current political turmoil might tempt us to compromise our ethics to win. If “they” lie, insult, slander, boast, break oaths, and cheat, so will we. Instead of trusting God, we’ll trust in political expediency. The circumstances are so dire—doesn’t a good end justify evil means? With so much at stake, can’t we practice consequentialism for a season?

We’re enticed by doctrinal compromise. Pastors, whose primary calling is the ministry of the Word, may be persuaded to enter political alliances with false prophets to increase access to political power. Is it reasonable to break the commands of Christ with the goal of shaping a government that makes it easier to keep them?

Writing in a period of intense political anxiety 1,600 years ago, Augustine asked,

There’s some bad person you don’t like? Don’t let there be two. You criticize him and you join him. You swell the ranks that you’re condemning. Are you trying to overcome evil with evil? To overcome hatred with hatred? Can’t you hear the advice your Lord gave the apostle Paul? “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”?

2. Reasonable people accept the outcome as God’s sovereign plan.

The angry mob that attacked Paul in Philippi with the sanction of the magistrates exemplifies what our nation’s founders tried to avoid (Acts 16:22). Momentary passions like anger, fear, greed, and lust compel us to justify the action we prefer—even when it goes against reason, justice, and truth. James Madison understood the danger of passion-driven politics, arguing that the Constitution tends to guard citizens from the “tyranny of their own passions.” Unreasonable people ruled by emotion take the short view.

Paul warns against the moral reasoning of people whose “god is their belly” (Phil. 3:19). Reasonable people won’t trust their gut on any issue—ethical, theological, or political. Rather, they let the apostles’ teaching inform their moral choices while taking the long view.

That’s why reasonable people see God’s hand in adversity. He daily permits what doesn’t please him, even the passion-driven sin of our political opponents. He causes our present losses to contribute to our ultimate joy. Yes, by doing the right thing, Paul ended up in prison. But because prison prevented a personal visit then, we have the book of Philippians now. And becoming a loser in the world’s eyes “served to advance the gospel” as he shared the good news with Caesar’s household (1:12; 4:22). People went to heaven because Paul went to prison.

Reasonable people see God’s hand in adversity.

Maybe the upcoming election will go the way you want. But even if it doesn’t, “our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases” (Ps. 115:3). This doesn’t mean we give up on the political process. But it does mean we play by the rules, even if that loses votes. No matter the outcome, we “rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4)—and thereby show our neighbors the true object of our worship.

3. Reasonable people check facts.

Paul’s world was fraught with political propaganda. Commissioned monuments served as billboards. Plays, gladiator games, coins, the imperial cult, and poetry sent the same message: “Thanks to the leadership of the emperor, we can all go safely about our business and prosper.” Roman roads were the information highway, and by controlling the cursus publicus, Caesar put his spin on news flowing to citizens.

Paul’s letter traveled the same roads with a competing message. At 50 miles a day, the average for the cursus publicus, it would’ve taken more than 16 days for Paul’s letter to travel from Rome to Philippi on the Ignatian Way. But how could they know the letter was genuine? There were trolls and frauds on this imperial internet. Many “enemies of the cross,” the couriers of heresy, traveled these roads slandering God, forging letters in Paul’s name, and frightening believers (Phil. 1:28; 3:18; 2 Thess. 2:2). There’s nothing new about fake news.

So Paul warned them to check the facts as they consumed the news. Since Eden, falsehood has increased anxiety by fostering division. To experience the peace of God, we should consistently think about “whatever is true” (Phil. 4:8), and this assumes we work to discern the truth.

For example, to test the genuineness of the letter, the Philippians can ask two questions. First, does Paul write like this? Second, can a trusted source confirm the letter? They had that source in Epaphroditus, one of their own, who delivered the letter himself (2 Thess. 3:17; Phil. 2:25). Today, breaking news and political ads travel at 50 miles a millisecond. But the duty to check facts remains. We’ll need a new skill set. And reasonable people will wisely judge the information they receive.

Breaking news and political ads travel at 50 miles a millisecond. But the duty to check facts remains.

4. Reasonable people pray.

Paul urges us to replace anxiety with prayer (Phil. 4:6). Before God’s throne, we ought to intercede “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim. 2:1–2). In effect, that life describes the religious freedom protected by the First Amendment, and we pray that our freedoms endure.

But consider the apostles receiving those final instructions from the Lord to carry his message from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Here is the grand reversal of the Roman Empire’s information highway. For years, couriers carried decrees from the lord in Rome to Jerusalem. Now, couriers will carry the decrees from the Lord in Jerusalem to Rome. The Roman roads of the proud Caesars are sovereignly seized by the humble Christ.

For years, couriers carried decrees from the lord in Rome to Jerusalem. Now, couriers will carry the decrees from the Lord in Jerusalem to Rome.

To keep the information highway open for the gospel, God may choose to work through our principled political persuasion, honorable nonviolent protest, and well-reasoned argument in the public square (Acts 16:37). But in the end, the peaceful lives we rightly desire will come about only by the power of a gracious God.

Yes, Paul exhorts you to be famous on earth for your reasonableness. But in heaven, you must be famous for your requests. Then “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).


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