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Doug Van Meter - 4 February 2024

Faithful Anxiety (Philippians 4:6)

Anxiety, worry, and fear are experienced by people of every age, gender, and background. It is no wonder that Philippians 4:6 made the YouVersion’s top ten list of favourite Bible verses in Africa. Some might see this verse as a cure-all: a mantra that, when quoted, causes all worry to depart. Some might assume that to pray when tempted to worry guarantees that all worrisome situations will go away. Others might view this verse as proof that all anxiety is sinful and hence prayer is vital. Still others might view this verse as teaching us that, amid our anxiety, we should pray. That is, some may interpret it as an encouragement to what I want to call faithful anxiety. Let’s learn and live this well-known text.

Scripture References: Philippians 4:6

From Series: "Rightly Handling the Word of Truth"

A series examining some of the most misapplied verses of Scripture.

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I recently read Elyse Fitzpatrick’s Overcoming, Fear, Worry, and Anxiety, which is subtitled Becoming a Woman of Faith and Confidence. I found that the book applies equally to men! Anxiety, worry, and fear are experienced by both sexes. I am fairly certain this is the reason that Philippians 4:6 made YouVersion’s top ten list of favourite Bible verses in Africa.

Perhaps some view this verse as a cure-all: a mantra that, when quoted, causes all worried to depart. Perhaps some assume that to pray when tempted to worry guarantees that all worrisome situations will go away. Still others may view this verse as proof that all anxiety is sinful and hence prayer is vital. Finally, others may view this verse as teaching us that, in the face of anxiety, we should pray. That is, some may interpret it as an encouragement to what I want to call faithful anxiety.

There are two ways to respond to anxiety: faithfully or unfaithfully. Paul wanted the believers in Philippi to respond faithfully. The Lord wants the same for all his children.

Philippians 4:6 is found in Paul’s closing words to the church at Philippi and, in words, Paul displays concern that the church should remain resolved to stand (v. 1), should experience reconciliation (vv. 2–3), should rejoice (v. 4), should be reasonable (v. 5), and should experience rest through requests (vv. 6–7). Finally, Paul exhorts them to reflect on that which is appropriate (vv. 8–9).

We can summarise this passage as instructions concerning mental or emotional health. We need mental and emotional health if we will be resolved to stand. We need mental and emotional health if our relationships will thrive. We need mental and emotional health if we will rejoice (and vice versa). We need mental and emotional health if we will be reasonable (and vice versa). We need mental and emotional health if we will experience rest. We need mental and emotional health if we will rightly reflect (and vice versa).

We don’t have time to dig into all of this, but you can go back to this passage for further study yourself. I have found it particularly and practically helpful. In this study, my aims are more modest: to help us to understand v. 6 as to what it does and does not teach, with a view to experiencing relief from anxiety. We will look at vv. 6–7 under three broad headings:

  1. A Pastoral Imperative (v. 6a)
  2. A Prayerful Imperative (v. 6b)
  3. A Peaceful Outcome (v. 7)

A Pastoral Imperative

First, we find a pastoral imperative: “Do not be anxious about anything” (v. 6).

The fundamental principle that guides this passage is the phrase “the Lord is at hand” (v. 5). This means that he is near—either spatially or chronologically. The latter is the usual context. For example, “My time is at hand” (Matthew 26:18; see also Luke 21:8; Revelation 1:3; 22:10). Here, it would seem to be a spatial reference (likewise Matthew 4:17).

Paul is saying, “You are not alone as you face challenges. The Lord is near. He is here, and this realisation should shape your disposition.” Understanding that the Lord is near will help your resolve (v. 1). It will move you to reconcile (vv. 2–3). It will empower you to rejoice (v. 4). It will make you reasonable (v. 5). It will help you to relax. It will motivate your requests. It will produce rest.

Paul was aware that the Philippians were facing the cares of this world, including living at the centre of a city that was staunchly loyal to Rome. They were surrounded by a culture historically antagonistic to the gospel (see Acts 16:1ff). They were evidently experiencing some kind of economic deprivation (see 2 Corinthians 8:1–5). They were probably burdened for Paul in his imprisonment.

Aware of all this, Paul both exhorts and encourages them with the statement, “Do not be anxious about anything.” The prohibition implies a promise. The command contains an implicit comfort. The exhortation is also an encouragement. Paul could write this imperative not because he is the eternal optimist, a Stoic without any empathy, or because he promoted some kind of a superficial prosperity theology. He could write this because he knew that there was a better way. He knew that, because the Lord is near, his readers could overcome whatever challenges they faced. In other words, he knew that they could live a life not controlled by anxiety. But this raises the vital question, what is anxiety?

Much unnecessary hurt is caused by Christians who assume that feelings of anxiety are necessarily sinful. Many erroneously hold the view that a Christian is sinning if they are concerned about something, if they are burdened about a matter, even to the point of sleeplessness.

Though, of course, one can sinfully worry, faithlessly carry a burden, and wrongly be full of care, we must be careful of lumping all anxiety into this basket. Let me explain.

The word translated “anxious” means to “take thought,” “to have care,” “to be full of care.” It means to be troubled with cares and to worry. Jesus used this very term in the well-known passage in the Sermon on the Mount (6:25, 27, 28, 31, 34) and again in Matthew 10:19.

Jesus taught his disciples that they did not ultimately need to be concerned about their material needs because their Father knew all about those needs and would care for them. This does not mean that Christians should not plan for the future. Jesus meant that, ultimately, our future is in the hands of our caring God. In other words, he cares and so we don’t need to! Jesus was shaping and sharpening the perspective of the disciples into an eternal perspective. In a sense, Paul repeats that teaching here.

The word is also used to describe busy Martha, who was “anxious and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41). Was she sinning by serving the Lord? No, but her perspective needed refinement. After all, Jesus had recently fed five thousand men with a few scones and sardines. He was not going to die of hunger.

In 2:20, Paul uses this word when he writes, of Timothy, “I have no one like him who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare.” He does not rebuke Timothy for his anxiety but rather commends him.

In 2:28, he writes of sending Epaphroditus to the church at Philippi so that he “will be less anxious” about their welfare.

Along these lines, in 2 Corinthians 11:28, while enumerating his sufferings for Christ, Paul mentions “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” Perhaps we should say to Paul, “Take your own advice! You tell us to not be anxious about anything and yet you have twice told us, in this letter, that you and Timothy are anxious. Come on Paul: You and Timothy should practice what you preach!” Paul’s response would have been, “I am.”

Paul did not say that he and Timothy remained in a condition of anxiety. He admitted that they carried concerns, but here we see how they handled it. They refused to be controlled by it. They refused to be characterised by it. Realising the Lord was near, they could both practice and proclaim this prohibition.

This needs to be our response when we are anxious about a matter. Paul was not being flippant. He knew, as we have seen, what it means to be anxious about a matter. Pastorally, he was encouraging his readers that, just as he was not alone in his prison cell, neither were they in their predicaments. And just as the Lord could care for his church, with or without Paul or Timothy, so the Lord cared for them. He was neither unaware nor unmoved by their trials. We need this reminder.

As we deal with one another in our anxieties, be patient, be sensitive, and beware of being like Job’s friends. Anxiety is not always sinful.

A Prayerful Imperative

Second, we find a prayerful imperative: “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (v. 6).

How should we respond to anxious thoughts? When the cares of the world assault us, how does the Lord expect us to handle them? When legitimate burdens, including awful ones (loss of employment, destroyed relationship, death of a loved one, disabling or terminal illness, etc.) come our way, and our minds are deeply and legitimately concerned about the way forward, what does Scripture teach regarding a reverent, responsible response?

Paul tells us an initial and essential response: “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In other words, the Lord requires a faithful response expressed by prayer. This is why I have titled these verses “faithful anxiety.” Unfaithful, unbelieving anxiety is a wrong, even sinful, response, while faithful anxiety is a righteous response. As we will see in the next verse, it is also a rewarded response. When we are moved to be anxious, we should go to prayer.

The word translated “prayer” speaks of obeisance. It connotes bending the knee towards God. It is an act of worship. The best way to overcome worry is through worship. Worship provides perspective as we remember and reflect upon the character of God.

When we pray, we should do so seriously, even at times strenuously, which explains the word “supplications.” This speaks of intense requesting. Think of Jesus in Gethsemane (Hebrews 5:7). The more intent we are in prayer, the less intent we are concerning our concerns! Our supplications are to be accompanied by thanksgiving.

As we reflect on who God is and on what he has done, our faith will be increased and our anxiety decreased.

Finally, in all our praying, supplicating, and thanksgiving, we should stay focused on the one to whom you bring your requests: God.

We need to know God. This is largely Paul’s concern. To the degree we know him, we will trust him and our worries will be put into perspective. Like a good Aussie, the Christian should be able to get up off her knees and say, “No worries.”

A Peaceful Outcome

Finally, we learn about a peaceful outcome: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7).

This verse concludes this section and provides an encouraging motivation for handling anxiety faithfully. Here, we have the promise of peace when we respond to anxiety with faithful prayer.

The “peace of God” in the new covenant is akin to the shalom of the old covenant. It is the disposition of well-being. It does not necessarily imply the absence of conflict but the presence of contentment. Rather than being distracted by worry, the Christian who seeks the Lord in prayer and supplication will find him- or herself settled in heart and mind. The peace of God will “guard” his or her heart and mind. This can be paraphrased, “The shalom of God will hold your disposition captive.”

But be careful. This is not a promise that all will be well. You might lose your job; you might receive a terrible diagnosis; your loved one might break your heart; your friend might abandon you; and a terrible crime may overtake you or your family. This verse is not a talisman to hang around your life guarding your life, like a Psalm 91 bumper sticker on your car! These verses offer something better than that. They promise us that, despite the cares of this world, we can experience the greatest gift and can say, “It is well with my soul.”

Of course, this all hinges on whether one has a saving relationship with God. It can only be well with your soul if you have been saved from your sins. Jesus said that there is one thing over which we should be truly anxious, one thing that should cost us sleep, one thing that should bring about fear: facing the wrath of God. “Fear him who is able to cast soul and body into hell” (Matthew 10:28).

How can you escape that fear? By faithfully calling upon the name of the Lord repenting of your sins. Those who do will be delivered into the gracious captivity of the peace of God which, to the world, makes no sense. Will you pray and seek him today?