“Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4: 6-9)
A father hears his daughter screaming with fear in her darkened bedroom and rushes to the door, “Don’t be afraid, sweetie, Daddy’s right here”. That is Paul’s message in a nutshell. In fact, if we add the four words immediately preceding our text in scripture our passage reads, “The Lord is near! Have no anxiety at all”. I know that some interpret “The Lord is near” as a reference to the second coming, but in this context it makes most sense as an affirmation of his actual closeness (as in Psalm 145: “The Lord is near to all who call upon him” v 18) and of the fulfillment of his promise , “Lo, I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20)
Of course most fathers make many trips to their child’s room before she sleeps, and we too will probably find laying down our anxieties, even in the face of strong assurance, much easier said than done. Paul himself must understand this since he frequently speaks honestly of his own anxieties. In II Corinthians alone he speaks of them at least three times, all three of which are worth noting: 1. “When I came to Troas … my mind could not rest because I did not find my brother Titus there.” (2:12) 2. “When we came to Macedonia, our bodies had no rest but we were afflicted at every turn – fighting without and fear within.” (7:5) 3. “And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (11:28) Certainly Paul does not seem to have much worry about himself, but his concern for and anxiety about others was real and persistent.
Perhaps it is because of his own struggle that Paul is able to give, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the good and practical advice for handling anxiety that follows his exhortation. These perhaps are the three things he himself does. They are the witness of a fellow climber who has been this way before and knows where to gain a foothold.
- First, Paul says, in every circumstance, from the biggest to the smallest, take your mind off the circumstance and focus it on the God who loves you and has promised to meet every need. Ask for his help, always remembering, “there is nothing too great for God’s power and nothing too small for his fatherly care”. There is a form of prayer that is merely the expression of our fear and anxiety. That is not what Paul recommends. Rather it is prayer that is an exercise in trust and confidence in the love, care, and power of God. Just as Peter got out of the boat and walked on water as long as his eye was focused on Jesus, but sank into the waves when his focus became the raging sea, so in believing prayer we learn the truth of the verse: “Thou dost keep him in perfect peace whose mind is staid on thee.” (Isaiah 26:3)
- Second, we are to pray with thanksgiving. In thanksgiving we call to mind with appreciation all that God has done before, and in so remembering the past, grow confident for the future. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “All that I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen.” A life of thanksgiving is a great antidote to a life of anxiety. But such thanksgiving cannot be sporadic; it must become habitual. Nor can it only be offered in the good times only, but rather in all circumstances:
“One act of thanksgiving when things go wrong with us, is worth a thousand thanks when things are agreeable to our inclinations” (St John of Avila)
- Third, when we look at the world around us we need to look for the good, the true, and the beautiful rather than be transfixed by the evil, the false and the ugly. This is not easy, for it cuts against the grain of modern life and “the habits of mind instilled by the modern media” (N T Wright, Phillipians for Everyone p 131). But it must be done. Our task is not to sink into the cynical and an dark but instead to “fill our minds with all the things God has given us to be legitimately pleased with, and to enjoy and celebrate” (Wright p 132)
Our Lord has said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27) We all thirst for that peace but as Pierre de Caussade wrote, “When one is thirsty one quenches one’s thirst by drinking, not by reading books that treat of this condition”. Here St. Paul has given us three wonderful cups of water which, if drunk, can assist us in experiencing the peace our Lord has promised and has already provided. But –and this is the key–they must be drunk. Let us, then, strive to go about the rest of our week doing precisely this, by taking our mind off of the causes of our anxiety and focussing them instead and the good, the true and the beautiful, indeed on God himself. And may we cultivate a heart of gratitude in all circumstances in all the ways in which the Lord has proven more than faithful in our lives.
Fred Durham is the President of Alighieri Press and serves as an author and speaker.