I am an anxious person. I haven’t always known that to be true, but it has become more obvious with each passing year. I am anxious about what I can do—and anxious about what I can’t. I’m anxious about how to love the people in my life—and I’m anxious when I don’t. I’m anxious about what is past—and anxious about what is yet to come.
Are you like me? If you are, then you have probably spent some time meditating on Philippians 4:6-7. It is one of the most oft-quoted passages in Scripture that addresses anxiety.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
These words are a deep blessing to me when I am overwhelmed with heavy responsibilities at work, or as I struggle with miscommunication with a friend. I, like many, turn to this passage for comfort.
But I have realized that if we limit our meditation to these verses alone, Paul’s main point of the passage is often missed. His reassurance is not meant to be a detached snippet of advice. It is actually part of an unfolding process that brings the peace of God in the deepest way imaginable. These verses are part of a unified response to a real life situation in the Philippian church and are meant to be read in light of that fact. So let’s look at what Paul shares about these circumstances a little earlier in the chapter.
It’s a common situation; there has been a conflict in the church. We don’t know the exact issues, but conflict is always upsetting and it is likely there was a fair amount of anxiety present for those involved. We can see that two women, Euodia and Syntyche, had a disagreement, and Paul is encouraging a particular brother, a “loyal yokefellow,” to come alongside these sisters and help them address it (4:2–3). Then, over the next several verses, Paul urges them to do several things: to rejoice, to pray, to think about what is good and, finally, to imitate him—all with a larger goal in mind. Let’s look at these a little more closely.
Rejoice because the Lord is near
Amid the contentious dynamics in Philippi, Paul’s words are striking: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (4.4). This might seem odd at first. Is he sure that the conflict these sisters are facing will be settled? He appears hopeful toward that end, but that is not why he says they should rejoice. Rather, they should rejoice because the Lord is near (4:5). Rejoicing in God’s presence helps them (and us!) to approach conflict in a state of mind that allows humility and grace to flourish, rather than defensiveness and judgment.
Pray without limitation
After grounding his advice and encouragement in the nearness of God, Paul urges them to pray without limitation: “… in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (4:6). Even when a situation is conflicted, even when anxiety reigns, we can seek peace and find it in him: “And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (4:7). It is a blessing to attain relief from these inner storms of anxiety through honest, heartfelt prayer. What could be better than the peace of God?
Yet Paul’s message to his readers continues.
Think about good things
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (4:8)
So, in the face of conflict and anxiety, Paul has reminded his readers that they can find joy in the nearness of God and peace through thankful petition. Now he invites them to direct their thoughts toward subjects that will inspire truth, nobility, beauty, etc. When we think about good things, we are thinking God’s thoughts after him. Recognizing what is praiseworthy invites us to praise the One who is near.
Imitate me: Act
Then, Paul urges his readers to act, to imitate him.
Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put this into action. (4:9)
So what have the Philippians (and we) seen and heard from Paul? He is a man who practices what he preaches. His testimony here and throughout the New Testament shows a man who continually seeks to know God, a man who amid his own pressures and anxieties brings his requests to God through prayer and petition, and who thinks, and speaks on what God says is good and true.
“And the God of peace will be with you.”
Rejoice, pray, think, imitate—these all are good goals—but not the final goal. His interest is more transformational. In verse 9 he says:
“And the God of peace will be with you.”
This is the promise that Paul holds most dear and wants the Philippians and us to experience as he has—the presence of the God of peace. This is the main point after all and what the previous verses are leading up to. Paul is able to rejoice because God is near to him. He is near when hardship is present and when it is overcome. Paul is able to be content in all circumstances because the Lord is with him. So, yes—we want to bring all of our requests to God and experience the peace that can calm our hearts and lessen our anxiety when times are hard. And yes, we want to think true and good thoughts and live in godly ways. But in the end, peace is found through an intimate relationship with God—the God of peace with you.
Let us follow Paul’s lead. Let’s strive toward internal peace in times of anxiety and peacemaking in the midst of conflict, but let us not stop there. Ultimately, why settle only for the peace of God, great blessing that it is, when we can have growing intimacy with the God of peace himself?
Anxious people, let us rejoice! The Lord—the God of peace—is near.