I’ve misunderstood these verses for years:
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. — Philippians 4:6-7, NASB.
I used to parse this passage as a twofold condition followed by a promise. The condition has a negative part (be anxious for nothing) and a positive part (pray about everything), sort of like those “put off … put on” passages elsewhere in Scripture. Put off worry and put on a good prayer life. The promise is that the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds.
The problem with this interpretation is simply that, if the condition is to stop worrying, then what is the peace of God guarding our hearts and minds from? We’ve already become free from worry by our own will power. As a result, I used to have this complicated scheme for distinguishing between anxiety, which we were responsible to set aside, and fear, against which God’s peace would guard us.
Now I think a more natural way to read it is to assume there is a command/invitation to live free from worry, followed by a two-fold explanation of how to do so. Our part is to bring everything to God in prayer. God’s part is to give us a peace beyond understanding. By our prayers and God’s peace we can live free from anxiety.
I’m pretty sure people have tried to tell me this before, and I just didn’t get it.
I was trying to figure out how I ever got started distinguishing between “be anxious for nothing” and “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds” in the first place, and I remembered why. It was because, for several years, this verse didn’t really seem to work for me. I would feel anxious, pray through everything that was worrying me, and feel more worried than ever afterwards. Since the peace of God seemed clearly not to be guarding much, I figured I must be misinterpreting the verse, and cast about for another way to look at it.
So what was going on? Why did praying through the things that were worrying me not work?
One answer I considered early on was the two little words “with thanksgiving”. I think if we pray about all our worries but do so with a complaining heart, we can’t expect to be freed from anxiety. The “with thanksgiving” part of the verse is what ensures we are praying in genuine faith.
A second answer I considered was that perhaps I wasn’t being completely open about what I was really worried about. Often we hide our strongest fears from ourselves, and worry about everything else instead. Though we pray about what we say we are afraid of, we don’t honestly deal with the real worry. I think sometimes we don’t feel peace when we pray because we haven’t let God know our requests “in everything”; in particular, not in the thing that was truly weighing us down.
Third, I don’t mean to suggest that we can use these verses like a magic formula. It’s a little funny to speak of a verse “working” for us at all, as though we were just plugging a technique into our lives and expecting an answer to pop out. God is not a vending machine, obliged to dispense peace when we put in the coin of petition + thanksgiving. We can depend on God to keep His promises, but we cannot dictate to Him how and when He will do so. I don’t think it is dishonoring to God, though, to expect that Scriptural promises will find real fulfillment in our lives. I think trying to work out what was going on was a way of my trying to take what God said seriously.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think can explain now what was going on for me. The key, actually, is that I was trying too hard to bring my requests to God “in everything”.
Since in praying I was supposed to bring my requests to God, when I was worried I would work out what my requests were. I would ask, “What am I worried about? What could go wrong?” Then whatever I thought of I would pray about. Then I would ask again, “What else could go wrong?” and pray about that. The problem is, I have an almost infinite capacity to think of things that can go wrong, so after a few minutes of praying this way, I had a lot more to worry about than when I began.
No wonder I felt less peace after praying, rather than more! I’d spent all that time working up more and more reasons to be afraid!
It was even worse when my anxiety was not attached to anything specific. Some days I experience a strong sense of foreboding, a kind of generalized worry about everything. Now the question became “What could possibly go wrong today with anything?”, which, obviously, has a lot of potential answers! I would have said I was analyzing my anxiety and discovering its true causes, but probably I was just inventing as many things to worry about as possible.
It added to my anxiety that I held this vague belief that somehow I was responsible to break down for God all the things He would have to remember in answering my need. If I forgot to mention something that could go wrong, somehow I’d left myself open to it, as though God could only answer prayers for the specific things I analyzed.
I’m a lot better these days 🙂
The chief thing I’ve learned is to dig no deeper than I need to. I’ve learned to simply say, “I’m worried about such and such tomorrow. I’m not sure why, or what could go wrong, and I don’t want to even think about it right now but I hand the whole package over to you. Would you just cover for the things I’ve forgotten and walk through it with me? Would you just see what could go wrong and take care of it in advance?” Then I stop worrying about it and leave it in his hands.
At first this was hard. I felt so out of control.
It makes sense, though, out of the phrase in verse 7, “the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension“. When I try to carve out my own peace, it is based on comprehension. I try to analyze the situation enough that I feel I completely understand it, and with that understanding comes a sense of being able to manage it. The anxiety subsides, for a while. The peace of God is different. The point is that I don’t try to understand all the ins and outs of the situation. I don’t have to understand what could go wrong and what to do about it all. I just leave it in God’s hands.
I still struggle with fear and worry, but Philippians 4:6-7 makes a lot more sense to me now.