Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. 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.
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
This week, I had the pleasure of listening to an excellent sermon on the above passage, and like all excellent sermons, it forced me to think.
I memorized this passage in Awana as a kid. It’s one of those universally-loved sets of verses that frequents Christian greeting cards, bookmarks, and journal covers, to the point of becoming so commonplace that we could easily - tragically - miss its riches entirely. I know I have, for far too many years.
But do you see it? This is no Pauline greeting card. This is the Biblical cure for the anxiety that runs so rampant within us.
I am an anxious person. I worry ad nauseam - about my circumstances, about my family, about unknown outcomes. It is my pet sin. I hate it, and yet I return to it again and again, like an addictive substance from which I cannot get free.
I think the biggest reason I’ve ignored Paul’s cure for worry all these years is that I’ve tried praying. I’ve tried to “be anxious for nothing” - oh, how I’ve tried! But trying harder makes no difference. Even praying more makes no difference - sometimes it even makes it worse, because it slaps a spiritual-sounding name on my sinful ruminating, and gives me an excuse to continue to dwell on my fears while I wait for God to change my circumstances.
The Philippians 4 cure for worry and anxiety hasn’t worked for me. But it’s not because there’s a flaw in the cure - it’s because of a flaw in me, and in my administration of the cure.
Verse 6 - “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” - is no Christian fortune cookie statement. It’s sandwiched into a context, some of which is made up of verses 4-5 and verses 7-9. It’s not meant to be taken as a magic pill, but as one piece of a changing heart.
That heart-change begins here: “Rejoice in the Lord always.”
Every word of that instruction matters as part of the cure.
Rejoice: The Biblical definition of joy (borrowing from the wisdom of my Bible teacher) is “The resolute assurance that God cares about and has the ability to handle my problems.” That’s the joy Paul is commanding. Not jump-up-and-down gladness, not a constant “good Christian smile,” but a resolute assurance that God knows and God cares - that God is equally sovereign and good.
In the Lord: This is a rejoicing that wouldn’t stop even if you journeyed to hell and back, because it depends on just one never-changing thing: The character of God. We do not rejoice in our circumstances, but we rejoice in the Lord. The kind of joy that can cure anxiety is anchored eternally to the One who does not move, shift, alter, or end. But take heed: this means that if you want the cure to work, you must know God for who He is, not for who you have mistakenly assumed Him to be because of your upbringing or your parents or your pastor. You must have confidence that He IS both sovereign and good, or you will never trust Him enough to rejoice. And the best way to truly know God, without prejudice or preconception, is to know His Word, and to walk with Him through the mountains and valleys of life.
Always: The command is not “Rejoice.” It is not “Rejoice in the Lord.” It is “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Our God is changeless, but we are fickle, and so Paul has to warn us that if we are going to successfully kill the sin of worry, we must be committed to trusting God’s character at all times - not just when things are going well, and not just when we feel like it, but always.
This is the call to heart-transformation that precedes verse 6.
I’ve tried to stop being anxious, and I’ve tried to pray it all away, but it has never worked because I have failed to lay the foundation of trust first. No matter how much I pray about my problems, they will remain apparently insurmountable if I see God as smaller, weaker, or meaner than He is.
And then, in verse 7, Paul paints even more necessary but often-forgotten detail into the picture of this cure: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
When we take verse 6 by itself, as I have so often done, we assume certain results. If only we can be anxious for nothing long enough to make our requests known to God, surely He will notice our heroic efforts and change the circumstances that are giving us so much grief - right?
Again, this is no magic pill; it’s transformation. It’s no overnight cure; it’s a process - a process of heart-change. Not circumstance-change.
The result of making my requests known to God is not necessarily the instant resolution of my complaints. But if I have laid the foundation of trust and am rejoicing in the Lord always, I can count on God to do one magnificent work in response to my prayers: guard my heart with His incomprehensible peace.
My circumstances may not change.
The people around me may still suffer.
The outcomes may not go my way.
But my anxiety is gone, because the peace of God stands guard over me.
That part doesn’t usually make it onto the greeting card, but it’s the most important truth of all: My circumstances do not define God’s character, and because of that, they don’t have to define my state of mental health. But God’s character absolutely defines how I should view my circumstances.
If I know Him for who He is, I will know that He is sovereign and good. If I know that He is both sovereign and good, I will be free to rejoice always. If I anchor my joy in Him, I will remember to bring my anxiety to Him in prayer and thanksgiving before I let it run my life. And if I bring my anxiety to Him on the foundation of trust that each of these vital pieces has built, I can count on Him to protect my heart, even if my situation does not change.
In conclusion, friends, we follow the instructions of verses 8 and 9: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
God alone is unfailingly true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and worthy of praise. So instead of dwelling on our problems, we dwell on who He is.
This is the Biblical cure for anxiety. It’s not a matter of “Stop worrying!” or “Pray more!”, but as so many of the most difficult things are, it’s a matter of the heart, and the heart’s submission to the character of God.
Note: I would be remiss if I did not point out that not all anxiety is strictly a moral issue. Some anxiety is rooted in an actual disorder and is related to imbalances in our bodies or brains, or psychological trauma that has never been properly addressed. If you suspect that your anxiety is not just a moral choice but something deeper, please don’t hesitate to get help from a doctor, a therapist, or another professional! God created our bodies and brains to work in amazing ways, and due to the fallen world sometimes that means our brains revert to unhealthy self-protection mechanisms. Spiritual means, though vitally important, should not be our sole response to mental or physical ailments.