AVOIDING ANXIETY THROUGH PRAYER
Philippians 4 provides the apostle Paul’s advice on how to avoid anxiety. It is the most comprehensive portion of Scripture dealing with anxiety and therefore is foundational to understand how God feels about anxiety and why He feels that way. In Philippians 4:6–9, Paul issued a series of commands:
“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.”
The best way to eliminate a bad habit is to replace it with a good one, and few habits are as bad as worrying. The foremost way to avoid anxiety is through prayer. Right thinking and action are the next logical steps, but it all begins with prayer.
React to Problems with Thankful Prayer
Instead of praying to God with feelings of doubt, discouragement, or discontent, we are to approach Him with a thankful attitude before we utter even one word. We can only do that with sincerity when we realize that God promises not to allow anything to happen to us that will be too much for us to bear (1 Cor. 10:13), to work out everything for our good in the end (Rom. 8:28), and to “perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish” us in the midst of our suffering (1 Peter 5:10).
Know that all your difficulties are within God’s purpose and thank Him for His available power and promises. Being thankful will release you from fear and worry. There are so many blessings to be thankful for: knowing that God will supply all our needs (Phil. 4:19), that He stays closely in touch with our lives (Ps. 139:3), that He cares about us (1 Peter 5:7), that all power belongs to Him (Ps. 62:11), that He is making us more and more like Christ (Rom. 8:29; Phil. 1:6), and that no detail escapes Him (Ps. 147:5).
That’s the promise of Philippians 4:7: “The peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This precious verse promises inner calm and tranquillity to believers who pray with a thankful attitude. Notice, however, it doesn’t promise what the answer to our prayers will be.
The real challenge of Christian living is not to eliminate every uncomfortable circumstance from our lives, but to trust our sovereign, wise, good, and powerful God in the midst of every situation. Things that might trouble us can actually be sources of strength, not weakness.
Jesus said to His disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). As disciples of Christ, we need to accept the fact that we live in an imperfect world and allow God to do His perfect work in us. Our Lord will give us His peace as we confidently entrust ourselves to His care. The peace of God “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).
The believer who doesn’t live in the confidence of God’s sovereignty will lack God’s peace and be left to the chaos of a troubled heart. But our confident trust in the Lord will allow us to thank Him in the midst of trials because we have God’s peace on duty to protect our hearts.
Focus on Godly Virtues
Prayer is our chief means of avoiding anxiety. After Paul said not to be anxious (Phil. 4:6), he added two complete sentences specifying how we’re to pray and what the benefits will be. Philippians 4 is often oversimplified and misrepresented as a mere grocery list on how to deal with worry, but it is much more than that. As believers, we’re to leave the sin of worry behind with our prayers and gradually become different people through new ways of thinking and acting.
Paul wrote these words: “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” (Phil. 4:8). We are the products of our thinking. According to Proverbs 23:7, “As [a person] thinks within himself, so he is.” Unfortunately, many psychologists believe an individual can find stability by recalling his past sins, hurts, and abuses. That kind of thinking has infiltrated Christianity. The apostle Paul, however, said to focus only on what is right and honorable, not on the sins of darkness (see Eph. 5:12).
How We Think
Now let’s survey what Scripture says about our thinking patterns before, at, and after salvation.
Describing unredeemed humanity, Paul wrote: “As they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind” (Rom. 1:28). Once, our minds were corrupt. Worse, our minds were also blind, for “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving” (2 Cor. 4:4). As a result, our minds were engaged in futile thoughts (Eph. 4:17). Indeed, prior to salvation, people’s minds are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them” (v. 18).
The ability to think clearly and correctly is a blessing from God. It all begins with the gospel, which is “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16). The Lord uses the gospel to illumine the mind of the unbeliever. Salvation begins in the mind as an individual comes to realize the seriousness of sin and Christ’s atoning work on his or her behalf. The Holy Spirit is at work in us, renewing us; and we receive a new mind or way of thinking. Divine and supernatural thoughts inject our human thought patterns.
“The thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God,” said Paul, but we as believers “have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we may know the things freely given to us by God” (1 Cor. 2:11– 12). In other words, because the Holy Spirit indwells us, the very thoughts of God are available to us.
The Bible is full of logic, and we must never think of faith as something purely mystical. We do not just sit down in an armchair and expect marvelous things to happen to us. That is not Christian faith. Christian faith is essentially about thinking. Look at the birds, think about them, and draw your deductions. Look at the grass, look at the lilies of the field, consider them.… The trouble with the person of little faith is that, instead of controlling his own thought, his thought is being controlled by something else, and he goes round and round in circles. Some people assume worry is the result of too much thinking. Actually, it’s the result of too little thinking in the right direction. If you know who God is and understand His purposes, promises, and plans, it will help you not to worry.
Faith isn’t psychological self-hypnosis or wishful thinking, but a reasoned response to revealed truth. When we in faith embrace Christ as our Lord and Savior, our minds are transformed.
Since we still live in a fallen world, however, our renewed minds need ongoing cleansing and refreshment. Jesus said that God’s chief agent for purifying our thinking is His Word (John 15:3). Paul reiterated that concept many times:
- Romans 12:1–2: “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
- Ephesians 4:23: “Be renewed in the spirit of your mind.”
- Colossians 3:10: “Put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.”
The New Testament calls us to the mental discipline of right thinking. Paul said, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). In addition, Peter said, “Prepare your minds for action, keep sober in spirit, fix your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:13).
What We Should Think About
What is that right focus? Dwelling on “whatever is true … honorable … right … pure … lovely … of good repute” (Phil. 4:8).
Truthful Things – We will find what is true in God’s Word. Jesus said, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17; see also Ps. 119:151). The truth is also in Christ Himself, “just as truth is in Jesus,” said Paul (Eph. 4:21). Dwelling on what is true necessitates meditating on God’s Word and “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of [our] faith” (Heb. 12:2).
Noble Things – We are to dwell on whatever is worthy of awe and adoration—the sacred as opposed to the profane.
Righteous Things The term “right” speaks of righteousness. Our thoughts are to be in perfect harmony with the eternal, unchanging, divine standard of our Holy God as revealed in Scripture. Right thinking is always consistent with God’s absolute holiness.
Pure Things – “Pure” refers to something morally clean and undefiled. We are to dwell on what is clean, not soiled.
Gracious Things – The Greek term translated “lovely” occurs only here in the New Testament and means “pleasing” or “amiable.” The implication is that we are to focus on whatever is kind or gracious.
Praiseworthy Things – “Honorable” predominantly refers to something worthy of veneration by believers, but “good repute” refers more to what is reputable in the world at large. This term includes universally praised virtues such as courage and respect for others.
Whenever you catch your mind wandering back into the forbidden territory (and you can be sure that it will—more frequently at first, until you retrain and discipline it), change the direction of your thought. Instead, crisply ask God to help you to refocus upon those things that fit into Paul’s list recorded in Philippians 4:8–9.
Practice What’s Been Preached
All this godly thinking is to lead to a practical end. Paul put it this way: “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” (Phil. 4:9).
Paul’s words speak of action that’s repetitious or continuous working to improve our skill. God’s Word cultivates the godly attitudes, thoughts, and actions that will keep trials and temptations from overwhelming us.
Right attitudes and thoughts must precede right practices. Only spiritual weapons will help in our warfare against the flesh (2 Cor. 10:4). By avoiding anxiety through prayer and making other such attitude adjustments, we can take “every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (v. 5).
Finally, “the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9), said Paul, who ended on this note because he was addressing the issue of spiritual stability in the midst of trialsWhen we follow that practice, “the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard [our] hearts and … minds in Christ Jesus” (v. 7). There’s no better protection from worry than that.