It can keep you up at night, rob you of your joy, and paralyze further action.
Everyone wrestles with anxiety to some extent. For some, anxiety is an ever-present companion, a signature struggle that feels insurmountable.
During the times I can’t sleep, when I feel overwhelmed by anxious thoughts, I turn to Philippians 4:6-7 to set my mind on things above. Here are three truths to rehearse next time you feel anxious:
1. You Are Not Trapped
6 “Do not be anxious about anything…”
Anxiety entraps. It makes you feel like you cannot escape, and so you fixate again and again on what is making you anxious to try to gain some control, only to become more entrapped. At precisely this moment, here is what God’s Word says: Stop.
On the surface, this may seem unhelpful, even callous. In fact, it might make you want to respond, “If I knew how to do that, don’t you think I would?” And yet, that is what God’s Word says. We are told that to remain in anxiety is a sin. This is because anxiety is not morally neutral or a simple emotion. Anxiety is a lack of trust in God. It is a vain attempt to gain control.
Often, our anxiety stems from what we fear we are losing due to our circumstances. This is our idol. The heart behind anxiety says: “I want something so badly that I am willing to make myself miserable to get it or sick because I don’t get it.” Someone with crippling anxiety over their grade on a paper or their ability to hit a project deadline might be exposing their idol: fear of man.
A bad grade means looking bad in front of the teacher, and a missed deadline means looking bad in front of peers. Or maybe the idol is actually comfort. The good grade means access to good schools and a better job. Likewise, the well-done project means access to a promotion. Both bring the comfort of success and recognition. These are all fine things, but anxiety exposes what we feel we can’t live without.
Freedom from anxiety means trusting God with our circumstances, yielding control knowing that he has our best in mind, regardless of the outcome. That is why, when Jesus also tells us not to be anxious, he appeals to God’s evident, providential care for all living things (Matt. 6:25-34). He is reminding you: God is going to take care of you.
That is why this command is actually freeing. And in that, it is also comforting. In telling us not to be anxious, the command implies that it is possible to not be anxious! What wonderful news this can be precisely when we feel unable to walk out of anxiety. Rather than simply giving a command, God graciously gives us the tools to do that which he has called us to.
2. Prayer Is Vital
“…but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
God desires that we turn from anxiety to prayer. And this makes complete sense. Not only does prayer force us to take our minds off our anxiety-producing circumstances, but it also forces us to set our minds on the only one who can ultimately affect our circumstances. How can we be free from anxiety? Pray. Sunday school answers are Sunday school answers for a reason.
This verse lays out three different words that relate to prayer. The first is the generic “prayer.” The second, “supplication,” refers to a prayer of request. The third, “thanksgiving,” is probably the most interesting.
When we think of prayer—and specifically prayer in the midst of anxiety—we instinctively go to prayers of request. We want God to remove the anxiety-inducing circumstances and strengthen our resolve to endure. But how often do we choose thankfulness? Because of how out-of-place thankfulness seems in this passage, I believe it actually holds the key. Turning to God in thankfulness acknowledges that he is sovereign over all things (Isa. 46:10), that he intends this circumstance for my good (Jer. 32:40), and that bad circumstances may not necessarily correlate with what is best for me.
By turning from anxiety to prayer, and in particular thanksgiving, we remind ourselves that we are firmly in his hand (John 10:28).
3. You Can Have Peace in the Storm, not After the Storm
7 “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Conventional wisdom tells us this passage should read differently. What we want to hear is that when we pray with thanksgiving, God takes away the bad stuff. Then, once there is nothing to be anxious about, we can go back to not being anxious. But what God promises us is so much better.
He promises to give us the ability to not be anxious regardless of our circumstances. He promises his peace that will guard us, a peace that will let us sleep even if something terrible awaits us in the morning, because we know he is in control.
This is exactly why it is a peace that “surpasses all understanding.” If you do not believe God is in control (or even exists), you have every reason to be anxious. If there is no providential, guiding hand over everything in the universe, then it is up to you. And because you are finite, you will eventually lose. But a peace that surpasses all understanding recognizes that circumstances are ultimately out of your control and embraces that. This peace frees you to do what you are able, and to leave the rest to God.
Freed from Circumstances
Freedom from anxiety does not mean freedom from the circumstances that cause anxiety. Keep in mind, the Apostle Paul writes this command from prison. Looking purely at circumstances, Paul had every reason to be anxious. But he gained peace even in the storm by choosing to turn to prayer with thanksgiving.
That doesn’t mean that Paul’s situation, or yours, is not difficult. This doesn’t mean that the temptations you face aren’t legitimate or that this passage is a magical antidote to anxiety. At the same time, unless we understand the true source of our anxiety—a lack of trust in God—we will be a slave to our circumstances.
When we rightly recognize the source of our anxiety as being inside us, then we can know the God of peace. This God not only gives us hope that freedom from the present anxiety is possible, but he also kindly and graciously gives us the tools to carry out his will.