“Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” – Philippians 4:6-7 (NET)
There are many profound verses in God’s Holy Word but none offer more comfort than these two from the pen of the Apostle Paul. They encapsulate what the entire Epistle is about, that being the happiness and joy (or the lack thereof as the case may have been) of the believers in Philippi. In verse 4 he urged them twice to “rejoice in the Lord always,” thereby stressing the importance of maintaining an attitude of gratitude essential to warding off the Christian blues. Since he was writing this letter while imprisoned he was showing them by example how to praise God even when it would be easier, not to mention completely understandable, to grumble and complain about things not going the way he would’ve preferred. In the opening chapter he professes that the only thing that matters to him is “Christ being proclaimed, and in this I rejoice.” He’s asking the comparatively comfortable members of the church then and now to have the same agenda. What he’s trying to expose is the spiritual depression that’s brought on by what can be termed the tyranny of circumstances that affect each one of us sooner or later. To an extent this subject is dealt with in every New Testament book because we Christians inevitably have to suffer through and endure hardships in our lives and God made sure that the authors taught us how to overcome them. It’s also addressed frequently in the Old Testament. The Psalmist wrote of being surrounded by enemies and constantly tormented by various trials of the spirit but, due to his unwavering trust in the Lord, he could still “lie down and sleep peacefully, for you, Lord, make me safe and secure.” (Psalm 4:8) The question is, how can we have that kind of calm-producing reassurance in our own life?
Peace in the midst of turmoil. There may be no other treasure more sought after and perhaps that’s why the subject comes up so often in the pages of the Bible. It’s one thing to avow adherence to and faith in the doctrines espoused by the Holy Word and quite another to find solace in them when your whole world has been rattled to its core. A personal tragedy that fosters deep despair can put you in a hole where you’re surrounded by nothing but stark naked, harsh reality. In that situation you may well wonder if the faith you’ve cultivated so diligently has any worth at all and if, at that moment, you’re any different than folks who have no faith. To say that this is a crucial matter is a gross understatement. If disciples of Christ can demonstrate to non-believers peace in the midst of turmoil they’ll seek it out for themselves with vigor. They’ll want what we have. They might listen to us and be more receptive to what we can tell them about our Savior. Therefore what Paul imparts to us about how to handle the tyranny of circumstances that come our way is priceless. He tells us to avoid being anxious, becoming overly concerned or brooding over things beyond our control. Jesus himself told us in the Sermon on the Mount “Therefore I tell you do not worry about your life.” It’s important to note that He didn’t tell us to neglect procuring our basic needs like food and shelter or not to use common sense. Laziness has never been encouraged. But let’s get back to our featured passage. Paul veers into the realm of human psychology and indicates that anxiety is due to the workings of the heart and mind. He’s saying that while we have some control over certain things in our lives we have virtually no control over our own heart and mind. If you’ve ever experienced insomnia you know what he’s talking about. You toss and turn but sleep doesn’t come because your runaway brain and heart won’t leave you alone. Paul’s being real here. He’s telling us how it is. The heart is not only the cradle of emotions, it’s the hub of our personality. And our mind is the fountain of thoughts. For instance, when our heart cares for someone it generates anxiety about their wellbeing and, in turn, it fuels the mind’s imagination that tends to run amok. The next thing you know you start pondering the “what if’s.” What if his car breaks down? What if they find out she has cancer? What if this? What if that? That freight train has no brakes and before you realize it you’ve remained awake all night.
If it stopped there it’d be bad enough! But to complicate things further the mind takes projecting to a whole new level as it constructs elaborate scenarios and gets you thinking about solutions to problems that don’t even exist yet. You muse, “If that happens then I’ll have to do this and if that fails I’ll have to try this.” You get the picture. The heart and mind are in the driver’s seat and you’re the helpless passenger. It’s a dangerous place to be and that’s why Paul urges us to avoid getting caught up in that cycle. When we’re in that state we’re of no use to God and depression is sure to follow. So what’re we to do? Paul offers some practical advice. Yet his answer creates a rift between the Christian way to deal with anxiety and the psychological way or what would appear to be the sensible way. I’m not anti-psychology but in this context what some folks may consider their unwavering faith in Christ is nothing more than a paper-thin coping mechanism that’ll fail them in a crisis. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “We do not preach psychology, we preach the Christian faith.” Allow me to elaborate. When anxiety overtakes us Paul doesn’t say to simply stop worrying. Some analysts would, though, and then add “You gotta pull it together, Bucko!” The Apostle doesn’t go there because he knows it’s futile. It’s also bad psychology because it eventually creates repression in the individual. That’s when a person buries their worries in their subconscious. Those worries don’t stop doing their thing but they do disappear from sight. That, my friends, is called repression and it’s ten times worse than anxiety. So telling a worrier to simply cease doing so is a waste of breath because you can’t guarantee that what they’ve envisioned won’t happen. Nowhere in scripture does it implore us to go around singing “Don’t worry, Be happy.” It’s also ineffective to try to make a person feel guilty over their anxiety. Saying that worrying is a sin or an utter waste of time won’t change the fact that what they’ve mentally projected could, indeed, come to pass whether it’s far-fetched or not. They may even agree with your admonition but it doesn’t change anything because their heart and mind are in the front seat of the buggy and they aren’t about to hand over the reins.
What Paul does say to do is this: “Tell your requests to God.” Some may consider that a cop out answer and retort that they tried that already and it didn’t work. Yet Paul was no dummy. He anticipated that response so he goes into detail about what he means. “Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God.” Was the Apostle merely spewing rhetoric or was he being constructive? A closer study will reveal that it was the latter. He was showing us how to get our requests for help to God’s inbox. Notice he differentiates between prayer, petition and thanksgiving. Let’s look at prayer first. Prayer means worship and adoration so when you’re in a state of sensory overload and you get on your knees in desperation do not begin with pleas for rescue. You’re approaching the creator of the universe! Show Him the respect He’s due by laying aside your troubles for a moment in order to give Him praise and love. Realize who you’re face to face with and humble yourself accordingly. Once you’ve done that then you can bring up your petition. The Bible doesn’t forbid us from asking for God’s help. On the contrary, it specifically says we should do so. Our Heavenly Father desires that we bring our concerns directly to Him. But Paul adds “with thanksgiving” to the deal and it’s vital that we follow his instructions to the letter. He’s not talking about some kind of formal, by-the-numbers recital of dogma, he means an honest, sincere outpouring of heartfelt gratitude for God’s many blessings that we so often take for granted, especially in times of trial. If we pray to God because we feel He’s our last resort or if we harbor a grudge against Him for letting us get in the mess we’re in then we might as well consult a fortune-teller. Giving thanks isn’t just a nice thing to do, it’s essential. Else Paul wouldn’t have mentioned it.
Showing appreciation for God’s blessings ain’t easy when you’re worried sick. Paul knew that firsthand. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him to sing hymns while sitting in a dark, filthy cell but he made himself do it and that’s what he urges us to do. In spite of our anxiety we can always thank God for sending His Son, who was sinless, to suffer the punishment for our sins and die so we might be spared eternal separation from our Heavenly Father. Thanking God for creating us, for giving us the freedom to make our own choices and for leading us to a saving knowledge of and an abiding faith in Jesus Christ shouldn’t be akin to pulling teeth. If we fill ourselves with the light of those glorious truths we won’t be able to keep from expressing genuine gratefulness. Paul is advocating that we not come before God in a panicky or despondent mood to pitifully beg for favors but with adoration for our loving, merciful Father who’s not only gracious but always wants what’s best for us. Ravi Zacharias wrote, “To focus only on the reality of pain and suffering and ignore the parallel reality of goodness and the basis for doing good is to render the world incoherent.” Now that we’ve seen what we should do and how to do it properly we come to what God has promised to those who follow the Apostle’s teaching. It’s interesting to note that the things so worrisome they drove you to your knees aren’t even mentioned. Paul didn’t imply that by “telling your requests to God” He’d make your particular problems vanish. Not at all. The fact is that God’s concern is for us, not our circumstances. No matter the quagmire we may’ve stepped in our relationship with our Father can always be restored and strengthened. God may answer our prayer the way we’d like or He may not but rest assured that He will never let go of us. We’ll still be His regardless of the outcome. That is the great message Paul delivers here. We’re harassed by life’s vicissitudes because we’ve attached ourselves to them. Therefore we yearn for them to be corralled and controlled but that’s not how the Bible says to deal with them. It tells us to take our anxieties to God “and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” In other words, the Father in heaven will grant you peace in spite of your woes.
Prayer in and of itself will not necessarily make us feel better. We should never bow before God in anticipation that He’ll be obligated to brighten our outlook. It doesn’t work that way even though a counselor may disagree and insist that prayer for prayer’s sake will do us good. Of this Lloyd-Jones wrote, “Very good psychology, thoroughly bad Christianity. Prayer is not auto-suggestion.” Paul also doesn’t say prayer will take your mind off your troubles and give you temporary relief. Neither does he say that filling your brain with spiritual thoughts will crowd out your worries, that everything will change because of your prayer. That’s not faith, that’s denial. Dr. Larry Crabb wrote, “Everyone whose head is in the sand can join in a fellowship of contrived contentment. But that sort of peace is entirely different from the peace of God.” What Paul does teach is that if you take your pleas before God He will do something and it won’t be because of anything you did. God’s in control, not us. Keep in mind that the peace God grants “surpasses all understanding.” Crabb added, “God’s peace can keep our hearts and minds intact while we face whatever may be true, about us or about our world.” The world may besiege our castle but God will not let it overtake us. We’ll find we have a peace inside us that defies description or rationale but it’s nonetheless real. You won’t be able to explain it but you’ll know it as authentic. It’s God’s peace through Jesus Christ. What’s that mean? Go to the book of Romans. In chapter 5 you’ll read “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life?” In chapter 8 you’ll see that “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,” and “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, freely give us all things?” Further on you’ll find “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor heavenly rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The gist of all this, considering the fact that God made salvation available to us by having His Son endure the horror of the cross, is that He will not forsake His children. Ever.
“Do not be anxious about anything.” That means any thing. The Holy Word is telling us that there’s nothing we can’t place at the foot of the cross. Whatever it is that’s bringing on bouts of depression in you, take it to your Heavenly Father as Paul taught us and God will give you a peace in the midst of turmoil that “surpasses all understanding.” This isn’t a fairy tale or a made-up bedtime story. Two thousand years of the Christian church’s history proclaims it to be the truth. Take the time to investigate the tragic story behind Horatio Spafford’s composing of the words to the inspiring hymn, “It Is Well With My Soul,” and you’ll see what peace that “surpasses all understanding” looks like. I myself have felt it and whenever I’ve tried to explain it to another person they intimate that I’ve been bamboozled, that I’m not dealing with the gravity of the situation. Yet God’s peace in the midst of turmoil is something they can’t rob me of and I have no one to thank but my Father in heaven for that. I can’t explain why I have inner peace. It’s beyond my capacity to do so. But God is also beyond my feeble attempts to describe Him and I know as well that nothing’s impossible to God. I don’t know much but I do know this to be true. “In every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God. And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” That’s a fact, Jack. Bank on it.
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)