Do not be anxious about anything? Surely that sounds too good to be true. I can barely think of one day in the last year where I did not feel a little anxious about something.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the U.S., surpassing even depression and affecting 40 million adults in the U.S. alone. That is nearly one in every five people!
And many of those who do not suffer from diagnosable anxiety disorders are still beset by all the worries and cares of life in the world today. We worry about work, money, relationships, our health… And that is just the start of the list. On the news, we are bombarded by all the violence, destruction and heartache in the world, and on social media we are inundated by words and images depicting impossible standards of beauty, wealth and happiness that we think we need to live up to.
No wonder then that Philippians 4:6,7 are among the most searched Bible verses on the Biblica website:
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Do not be anxious about anything. Is this another impossible expectation we need to try and live up to? Absolutely not. In his letter to the church in Philippi, the apostle Paul is not telling them that Christians are not allowed to feel anxious or that your faith is weak if you worry about things.
His encouragement to not be anxious is rather a word of comfort and reassurance. He is telling them that no matter what their circumstances are they do not need to worry or be anxious because they are already secure in their Lord, Jesus Christ.
And in writing about trying circumstances, Paul knew what he was talking about! He was, after all, writing this letter from a prison cell. There was every possibility that he might be facing a death sentence and he knew it. Yet he writes that he will continue to rejoice (Phil 1:18-20) because, “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death.”
Let us unpack that a bit. Paul is very clearly in a dangerous situation. He has every reason to be anxious about what happens to him as he is at the mercy of his captors. He has no control of the situation. And yet he feels secure because he knows God is in control and that through the strength that Jesus gives him he will have sufficient courage to face whatever is to come. His trust in God is so complete he can even write these famous words: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21).
His trust and hope are not based in the wish that God will spare him from all suffering, pain or disappointment. Rather, he has contemplated the worst possibility – that he may be executed – and resolved that even then he knows he is in God’s hands and he “eagerly expects” that God will give him sufficient courage to face the worst. And that whatever does happen, God will use to advance the gospel and accomplish his will (Phil 1:12).
Isn’t this a stark contrast to how most of us respond to our worries and cares? We feel anxious because we want to be in control of what happens and we pin our hopes on particular outcomes. We worry that we won’t get what we want or that things won’t turn out the way we had planned. In that sense, anxiety can sometimes be a subtle form of selfishness.
The peace that Paul is talking about can only come from releasing our needs, desires and fears into the hands of God. Our prayers and petitions should be less, “Please God, give me x and make y happen,” and more, “Lord, let your will be done.” Our confidence then comes from knowing that God knows what we need better than we do, and indeed our particular needs in a situation are part of a much greater web of purpose and meaning that we cannot see from our limited perspectives.
Perhaps the reason Paul writes that the peace of God “transcends all understanding” is because we cannot think ourselves out of our fears and anxieties. We can only let them go into God’s hands, for as Jesus himself said, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matt 6:34).
Paradoxically, most of our anxieties about the future are the result of a fear that some unpleasant experience from our past will reoccur. For example, we fear the feelings of loss and abandonment that we felt when a past relationship crumbled and we project that fear onto a current relationship and become consumed with “what ifs”. What if I can’t trust them? What if I let them down? What if they disappoint me? What if I’m not good enough?
If you drill them down to the root, our anxieties are most often a fear that our most basic human needs won’t be met; the needs for security, love, care, intimacy, trust, respect, and so on. And our fears stem from the memories of when those needs were frustrated; when we felt threatened, shamed, abandoned, or neglected.
The beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that in his life and death, and in his victory over sin and death, not only have our sins against others been forgiven (and therefore in Christ we are now whole and completely adequate just as we are) but Jesus has also carried and healed the hurts from our past when we were sinned against. We do not need to fear a repetition from the past because God has set us free; the old is gone, the new is here! And as God’s new creation our future is already assured.
There is nothing that can separate us from the love of God. And there is therefore no need to be anxious about anything.