Peace for the Anxious Heart
The national average for gas prices right now is $4.27 a gallon. A year ago, it was $2.88. A month ago, it was $3.52. According to the New York Times, “The Consumer Price Index rose by 7.9 percent through February, the fastest pace of annual inflation in 40 years.” There are new variants of COVID being detected around the world with some places like China seeing huge spikes in infection. The war in Ukraine continues with veiled threats of nuclear war from President Putin as his military continues its savage barrage of Ukrainian towns.
When you see these things in the news, do you feel anxious? I know I do. The heart rate goes up a little, my stomach gets that familiar worried pain. My mind fills with “what-ifs.”
There are lots of things to be anxious about, things that could consume us and fill us with dread if we really dwelled on them. The Bible says, in many places, “don’t be anxious.” But it’s not that easy is it. And if you are like me you have experienced guilt for feeling anxiety, you don’t want anyone to know because it is a sign you aren’t a good Christian, you aren’t trusting God enough because you feel anxious. Which makes you more anxious. And the vicious cycle continues, anxiety-guilt-anxiety-guilt. How do we fight against it? How do we obey this command to not be anxious when there is so much to be anxious over?
Well our passage in Philippians gives us some direction in how to find peace for our anxious hearts. Paul tells us here that:
Anxiety is most likely a sign that we need to reorient our hearts and minds in order to experience God’s peace.
And this is good news and bad news in a way. The good news is that there are real answers, lasting peace available to us for our anxious hearts. The bad news, or maybe the hard news, is that this is not a quick fix. This is a whole life change. God is after more than just a silver bullet against anxiety. He wants our whole lives, our hearts and minds. Let’s see what I mean by that.
- What is anxiety?
I suppose that the best place to start, before we get to any ways to fight anxiety, would be to explain what anxiety is and make sure we are all on the same page. I’m sure for many, if not most of us, we don’t need a definition or explanation of what it means to be anxious; it is a very present reality in our hearts and minds. But for some, it may be a foreign concept, you just aren’t an anxious person, you have never really struggled with it, or maybe you have and you don’t realize it. I am always blown away when I hear someone say they never feel anxious. I honestly don’t know what that would be like! For so much of my life, anxiety was or is a constant companion. Can anyone relate to that here?
So, what does Paul mean here when he says, “do not be anxious about anything,” what is he talking about? To be anxious, or to have anxiety means to be worried, fearful or concerned about something. Or, to dig a little deeper, and I am borrowing this definition, anxiety arises within us when something we love and value is perceived to be under threat. Let me say that again, anxiety arises within us when something we love and value is perceived to be under threat.
For example, I feel anxious when gas prices go up. Why? Because I perceive that my ability to pay my bills is under threat. Do you see what I mean? Or another example: I feel anxious when my son rides his bike really fast. Why? Because I perceive that his health and well-being, which I value and want, is under threat; he could get hurt and I don’t want that to happen! A couple of important things to point out here.
The first, and really key, is that anxiety usually comes when we perceive a threat to something we love and we take God out of the equation. My mind wanders when I see inflation rise and I am worried about what may happen. All of the “what-ifs” come out. What if gas goes up to $7 a gallon? What if we can’t afford groceries? What if the church can’t continue to pay us? What if, what if, what if. Most of the time God is left out of these scenarios I dwell on and my mind wanders deeper and deeper and into darker and darker places which breeds more and more fear.
Notice also, in our main point from a moment ago, I stated that anxiety is most likely a sign that we need to reorient. Why most likely? Because anxiety can, in some instances, be a good thing, it can come from pure and loving motives. Do you remember back when we looked at chapter 2 when Paul was writing about Epaphroditus and sending him back to Philippi? Paul said there in verse 28 that he was anxious for the people at Philippi to have Epaphroditus back with them so that they would rejoice with him again. He also talked about his anxiety in 2 Corinthians for all the churches. Was Paul confessing sin in these passages? I don’t think so, I think that his heart truly and purely loved the people at the church in Philippi and elsewhere so much so that his care for them brought about holy anxiety. An anxiety that entrusted the future to the Lord but which led him to have clear perceptions of very real danger facing the churches. His churches were under threat and it motivated him to action. Proper holy, godly action.
Unfortunately, most of the time, our anxieties are not this holy kind, but the “what-if” wandering mind type. It is not pure, but sinful because it leaves God out of the equation. And it motivates us, not to holy, godly actions, but too often to either more worry and fear, or self-protection or escapism. Anxiety, or fear of the what-ifs drive us to drink, or pornography, or over working, or running away from our responsibilities, and on and on.
While anxiety can show a good thing and lead to godly actions, most of the time anxiety is a sign that we need to reorient our hearts and minds because it is showing us an idol that we have made in something like money, or health, or people’s opinions about us. Or because we have left God out of the picture and are creating a world in which he is not there, not good, not helping us and we have to go at it alone. Whatever the case may be, we need a change, we need peace, and we can find it through reorienting our hearts and minds in four ways as seen in this passage.
- Reorienting our hearts and minds
Before I get into these four things, let me explain what I mean by “reorienting our hearts and minds.” Again, thinking about our understanding of anxiety. We create a world in our thinking that either takes God out of the picture or forgets who he is and what he is like: that he is good, loving, gracious, merciful, kind, all-powerful and in control of all things. We make God less than God in our “what-ifs.” And we cannot do that in anything, at any time. That is not only sinful and dangerous to do, it is also hurtful to us. We rob ourselves of hope and joy in the Lord by draining him of his goodness, of who he is. So, Paul says do not be anxious about anything, and then, but in everything do the following. This is a whole life change. This is so much more than a quick fix, just pray the anxiety away approach. Those who have struggled with anxiety know that it is not something that will necessarily go away as soon as I pray. It may; God, in his sovereignty, may give that blessing and bring instant peace and I have experienced those times. But many times, that doesn’t happen. Why? Is it because God isn’t there, or listening or doesn’t care in those moments? No, it is because God is after all of our life, he wants to completely uproot the sinful and harmful ways of thinking in order to completely reorient our lives in everything; in every moment, in every fear, in every day. He wants us to pursue him and know him and experience him more and more deeply and not just run to him when we feel afraid or anxious. He is after our hearts and minds in everything and it is there that we find peace.
So, while there are these four things we are commanded to do in the face of anxiety, don’t misunderstand the point. This is a life change, a process, that takes time and growth and a complete reordering of our hearts and minds. And when we follow God’s prescription, we will find the hope and the peace we are after. Maybe little by little, maybe sometimes with much more immediate relief than others, but the calling is to continue to pursue the God of peace and to find hope in him in everything.
What then are the things we are called to do in order to have this reorientation of our hearts and minds?
Starting in verse 6, we see the first thing is prayer. Paul uses three words here to describe prayer: prayer, supplication or petition, and let your requests be made known to God. It doesn’t seem that he is trying to focus on different aspects of prayer by using so many different words, but instead is restating and reinforcing his point that prayer is central to reorienting our hearts and minds. Why? Because prayer grounds us back to the reality that it is God who is in control and it reminds us of who he is; good, loving, just, trustworthy and gracious. Again, anxiety, fear, all of the what-ifs, take God out of it, but prayer brings him back and puts him back on the throne of our hearts. Prayer, bringing our requests to God, puts him in his rightful place as the sovereign creator and ruler and puts us, his creatures back in our rightful place under his loving, fatherly care.
I love the simplicity and the affection that comes through those words, “let your requests be made known to God.” Tell God your heart, open up to him about what is troubling you, bring it to him, lay it at his feet, entrust your heart to his heart. It is similar to what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 5:7, cast all your anxieties on him, God, because, why? He cares for you. God cares for you. The creator of the universe, the almighty, all-powerful, all-knowing King over all things loves you. And he knows you; he sees you and he wants you to unburden yourself of your cares, your worries, your fears, your anxieties. He wants you to reorient yourself away from your idols, away from the what-ifs and into his loving arms by opening your heart to him through prayer in everything. And he wants us to pray so that we remember he is God and we are not. He is in control; we can rest all of our cares in his powerful arms. We don’t need to try and take control, we don’t need to worry, we need to rest in God being God.
And prayer, very practically, helps us do that. Maybe those bad things I am worried about happening will come to pass. Most of the time they dont. But if they do, If I am controlled by my anxiety and fears, I will be totally lost, a ship without a captain, being smashed on the rocks of this world.
But if through prayer in everything I am continually reminded who God is, the one in control of all things, the one who is a loving father with a good plan, then I will find the grace to meet anything that may come because I am at rest in him.
Again, this is so much more than just praying the anxiety away. This is much bigger than just a call to pray when you feel anxious. It certainly includes that, but this is a call to reorient your heart and mind in all things through prayer. Make all of your requests made known to God, the ones that come from anxiety and the ones that don’t! Bring it all to him. Pray without ceasing.
And let me give you this exhortation: while prayer may not take away your anxiety in that moment, not praying will never lead to peace. A withered or non-existent prayer life will never bring hope, will never lead to relief from the cares of this life. Instead we must seek to grow in prayer, continue in it as a discipline, as something that is a part of our lives in everything so that we can grow in knowing and experiencing freedom from and victory over our anxious hearts.
Along with that, in verse 6, we reorient our hearts and minds through thanksgiving. This is connected with prayer in Paul’s words but I wanted to separate it for us to think about. Thanksgiving is a type of prayer, in the sense that it is expressing gratitude and thankfulness for things that God has given us. Do you see how this is a reorientation away from anxiety and fear? Worry says, “what-if.” It is concerned about the uncertain future, right? But thanksgiving takes hold of the present reality and sees all the goodness of God’s blessings here and now. Thanksgiving is a heart attitude grounded in the good gifts of God; it is centered on him as the gift-giver. To be thankful means you are enjoying the gifts and blessings of God and going back to him with praise. I can’t be thankful if my mind and heart are focused on what could happen, on things I don’t want to take place, on what I fear losing. It is just not possible. Instead, I need to look around me now, and also reflect on what has come to pass and where I can see God’s goodness displayed and be thankful, express gratitude to him. Praise and glorify him for all that he has given me. And this can be anything, right? From spiritual blessings, of course, like our salvation in Christ, our life in him, the church, the Bible. This can also be physical blessings like food that we enjoy, our homes, our families, sunshine, a delicious meal. Whatever the case may be, we are called to reorient our hearts and minds away from and off of our fears and onto our blessings and to take that back to the one who gave them to us.
And that sounds simple, but that can be so hard. When you are in that darkness, in that deep pit of despair that anxiety pulls you down into, everything is gray. I have been there many times; I have felt it and I know how easy it is to go there. But again, this is so much more than a quick fix, this is so much more than just “list 5 things you’re thankful for and you will be free from anxiety.” This is a process, a total uprooting and changing of the way we normally think and feel, and re-centering it on God. This is seeing God and his goodness all around us, in all of the blessings he so graciously and abundantly gives us. There may be days you have to fight to find something you are thankful for because of where you are at in your mind and heart. But fight we must. Or we will never experience the freedom we so desperately want.
It’s interesting, if you have ever thought about this. But have you ever noticed that you get more enjoyment and more thankfulness out of something when you express that you are thankful for it? If you have ever felt just really happy with something and you express that, it actually increases the feelings of thankfulness and joy. That is how God has wired us and that is why he wants us to give him thanks! He wants us to feel more and more gratitude and joy in his blessings, that is why he has given them to us. So, give thanks for everything and you will find more joy and less fear as you are reoriented to our gracious gift-giver.
In verse 8 we find the next thing we must do to reorient our hearts and minds and that is meditation. Now, before you get the wrong idea, I have not gone into heresy and brought in eastern religion from one of the Buddhist monks up the road at the peace pagoda. Meditation from that perspective is emptying your mind whereas meditation from a biblical perspective is the opposite, it is filling our minds with truth, with good things.
That is clear here as Paul gives this long list of things to “think about.” Meaning to dwell on, to fill your mind with, to consider deeply, over and over again in your heart and mind. And the list is huge, the possibilities of what we could dwell on, meditate on are endless right? As Paul says here, anything that is true and honorable and lovely, anything worthy of praise, focus on that. Reorient your mind and your thinking off of the uncertainty of the future, off of what could happen and backfill it with goodness. Dont empty your mind, fill your mind and heart with anything that is excellent and let it push out anything that is not.
Biblical meditation is a spiritual discipline like Bible reading and prayer. And like those things it takes work, it takes effort, we have to do it on purpose, because our minds wander and so easily fill up with things that are not good, not lovely, not honorable. We have to be intentional to do it in the moment of our anxiety and fear yes, but again, this is so much more than an in the moment fix. This is a lifestyle change; this is a total reorientation of the mind that becomes quick to fill itself with good things and slow to wander into fear.
And I think the beauty of Christian meditation is in its simplicity. It is literally just thinking about anything that fits into these “whatevers.” Heaven, salvation, creation, God’s love, his blessings and good gifts, you name it. We think about them from a godly and biblical perspective, we dwell on them, which gives us hearts of thankfulness, and prayerfulness. These three things are interconnected. And because it is so simple it can be done anywhere, anytime: while driving, while working, while falling asleep, while mowing the lawn, while eating dinner, anytime your mind can wander is a time for meditation. And instead of letting it wander into whatever it wants, we are intentional to fill it with things that are excellent, things of God which will reorient our minds and hearts on him and away from our fears and the uncertainty of tomorrow. As one author explains it, through meditation, “the Spirit slows down a worrying mind and restores order to the soul of His creatures.”
These first three ways we are to reorient our hearts and minds, prayer, thankfulness, meditation, roll into the last one, which is through sanctification. Sanctification is the theological word for our growth in Christlikeness; becoming more like Jesus in all the parts of our lives. And Paul says here in verse 9, as he has said elsewhere, we are to put into practice, everything we have learned from him and about how he lives. Follow him as he follows Christ, he says in another letter.
This is another way in which we grow away from anxiety and fear, by becoming more like Jesus. The more closely we follow Christ’s teaching as found in Scripture the more we will find freedom from worry and fear. The more like Jesus we are in our hearts, minds, thinking, feeling, acting, speech, the less like the world we will be, the less room we will have for anxiety inside of us. The more we desire to know Christ, the less we will idolize and place our hope in the uncertain things of this world. The more that Christ is our rock, our refuge, our place of comfort, the less we will be moved by the ever-shifting sands around us.
And just as with the other things, this is not a quick fix. This is a whole life reorientation away from self, away from the world, and centered on God. This is a growing change, a process, a practice, a daily walk with the Lord, a continual submission to him and his calling on our lives in how we are to live and think and feel and act in all respects. And the more we grow in Christ, the more we will find that our worries and cares fade away.
- Resulting in Peace
Prayer, thankfulness, meditation and sanctification are a reorientation of our entire lives, our hearts and minds to bring us peace.
Paul mentions this result, this peace, in two places. The first is verse 7, “the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” And this is a neat word picture that Paul is using. He is saying that peace will act like a guard, it will stand watch over our hearts and minds. In other words, the more we practice these things, prayer, thankfulness, meditation and sanctification, the more growth we have in them the more that peace will find a home in our hearts and minds. And so much more than just a home, peace will set up a fortress, a watch tower and the peace of God, the peace he will give to us will set a watch and fight off any fear that tries to creep in undetected and steal away our hearts and minds. The peace of God will defend us the more we are centered, grounded and founded on him.
And he mentions peace again in verse 9, saying that “the God of peace will be with you.” So, first the peace of God and now the God of peace will be with you. Now, you may be thinking, isn’t God everywhere? Isn’t he always with us? What does Paul mean that he will be with us when we do these things? Great question.
Paul is not saying that God is not with you but then he will be with you. Like you asked, God is everywhere; nothing can escape his presence. But, when we are given over to fear, worry, doubt, despondency, all of the what-ifs, we do not experience his presence. We have shut ourselves off to the God of peace, turned our backs on him, when we are filled with anxiety. God hasn’t gone anywhere; it is us that are blinded to him. But, when we reorient our hearts and minds, when we grow in putting him at the center of our hearts through prayer, thanksgiving, meditation and sanctification, we once again feel and experience the presence of the God of peace. He never left, but now the blinders come off our eyes and we see him once again, spiritually speaking.
Now, that sounds nice, I hope, but what does that mean really?
If you struggle with anxiety like I do, you now that there are some people who help you and some that don’t. There are just some people that their very presence can calm your anxious heart and mind. And there are some that are just too much, let’s be honest. I remember one situation over 10 years ago now where I had a really bad spell of anxiety. I had some medication that gave me wicked side-effects, one of them being just pouring gasoline on my anxiety. I couldn’t sleep, eat, rest, nothing. I was in a bad place. At the time we didn’t have any kids, my wife was working and I was home and I had to call her and ask her to come home. I just needed her to be with me because I could not calm myself down. She was a calming presence, someone that brought peace just by being with me.
Here, Paul is saying that is like God; God is that friend, that spouse, who is a peaceful, calming presence by your side. And unlike our friends and family, God is always with us. He never leaves us, never forsakes us, never sleeps, never has to go to work or go see someone else. He is always there, ready, willing and eager to give you his peace. But we have to reorient our hearts and minds to see his presence. We have to turn away from our anxiety and fears and in everything go to him. To see him everywhere.
It is then that we feel his peace, the peace that surpasses all understanding, that is not of this world, that is not something I can manufacture on my own by fretting and running around trying to cover for all of the possible outcomes for this or that situation. No, this is true peace, true rest, from God himself. From the creator and sustainer of the universe, from the one who knows exactly what tomorrow will bring because he holds it all in the palm of his hands. He is not worried; he is the God of peace and we will experience him and his peaceful presence as we grow in Christlike obedience to him in all things.
There is an interesting idiom, a turn of phrase that people in Paul’s day would use to describe this peace. They would say, “to sit down in the heart.” I really like that image. When we look at everything happening in the world, in our lives, the potential for loss, all of the what-ifs, most of us can probably feel our blood pressure rising; everything in us stands up, so to speak. It all gets worked up into a flurry; we begin to fret and run around to try and solve all the problems of what may come.
But God is offering us his peaceful presence so that we would sit down in our hearts. Let us not give into our anxious thoughts but press on to reorient our hearts and minds to find the peace of God and truly know what it means to rest in him