Welcome back to the podcast on this holiday week. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving for us here in the United States and in Canada. We like to take these moments to take up the theme of thanksgiving in the apostle Paul’s letters, which is a major theme for him. Last Thanksgiving, I mentioned that the apostle Paul mentions “thanks” about fifty times in his epistles. This leads to one of my favorite quotes, a claim by New Testament scholar David Pao, who once wrote (quoting Paul Schubert), “The apostle Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving more frequently per page than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian” (Thanksgiving, 15).
Thanksgiving was always on Paul’s lips. And it was on his lips when he was talking about prayer and anxiety. In Philippians 4:6, Paul writes this: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Pray your way past anxiety. And pray your way into thanksgiving. Here’s Pastor John to explain.
Let’s go to Philippians 4:6–7. It’s very famous, very precious, and more embedded in the big picture of this letter than you may have thought. I want to draw out how Philippians 4:6–7 relates to the big things Paul is trying to do in this letter.
So now, finally, for the first time, he exhorts them to pray. I think that’s been implicit so far, but now it’s explicit. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything . . .” (Philippians 4:6). That’s a big word. Do you pray about everything? Everything? When Paul says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), that probably is connected to “pray about everything.” Do you walk in a spirit of communion with God that — sometimes consciously, sometimes less so — is constantly offering up thanks, but especially sending up need? “I need help in this conversation. I can barely understand that person’s accent, and my hearing is bad. I need help right now at the dining-room table.” Do you live like that?
Do not be anxious about anything, 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 understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6–7)
Broad and Narrow Prayer
In one sense, this command to pray is all-encompassing because of the words in everything. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything” pray. Do you see the connection there? Don’t be anxious in anything because in everything you’re praying for what you need in the anxious moment, and you’re trusting God because of his promise to be there and help — and so, anxiety lifts. That’s the way prayer is supposed to work to take away anxiety.
In another sense, it’s not broad and all-encompassing. It’s very narrow and very focused because instead of saying the hundred things that God does in answer to prayer, he simply focuses on two things, which are really two sides of the same coin. “Do not be anxious” is one result of prayer. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). So the first thing that happens when you pray about everything is that anxiety is lifted. “Cast all your anxieties on me because I care for you.” That’s Peter’s way of saying it (1 Peter 5:7).
“Negatively, aim by prayer to be done with anxiety. And positively, aim by prayer to enjoy constant peace.”
And the second thing is that the “peace of God” — which is the opposite of anxiety, right? — that passes all understanding comes in and takes over and protects, guards, your hearts and minds. So negatively, aim by prayer to be done with anxiety. And positively, aim by prayer, in everything, to enjoy constant peace.
Walk through the world of trouble — ministry troubles, family troubles, European troubles, refugee troubles, political troubles, financial troubles — in the protection of the peace of God that cannot be accounted for by human reason. It cannot. It goes beyond, it surpasses what human reasoning can do. When Paul is saying, “Enjoy peace through prayer,” if somebody says, “Yeah, but how could you have peace when that’s happening?” well, that word how has no answer humanly. That’s why it says, “beyond human understanding.” Human understanding will not be able to come up with an answer to how you enjoy peace in this circumstance. It is suprarational. Reasoning doesn’t make the peace happen; God makes the peace happen, and he does it in answer to prayer. It’s a wonderful experience.
Key to Philippians
Now let’s ask this: How do those two halves of verse 6 and 7 — get rid of anxiety by prayer; enjoy peace with God by prayer — how do those two results of praying in everything relate to the big picture of Philippians, which we’ve been seeing?
“Living or dying, make Christ look great. That’s the reason you’re on the planet.”
The first day, I argued from Philippians 1:20–21: “My eager expectation and hope [is] that I might not at all be ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live as Christ, and to die is gain.” That’s the big goal of this letter: Christ magnified in your bodily existence. Living or dying, make him look great. That’s the reason you’re on the planet. That’s the reason your family exists, your ministry exists. Make Christ look magnificent because that’s what he is. That’s what this big picture is in Philippians.
And we saw that Paul gets very specific. Another way of describing “make Christ look great” is “lead lives worthy of the gospel.” That’s Philippians 1:27–28. Live a life that is fearless before the adversary and united, arm in arm, in love with other believers. Unity in love and fearlessness, he says, become a sign to the world of “their destruction” and of “your salvation” (Philippians 1:28).
In other words, when you are fearless before your adversary, and you are full of love, driven by humility, counting others more significant than yourself, putting others’ interests before your own — when that’s the source of the loving unity and the fearlessness, it’s a sign. It’s a sign to the world that Christ is all-satisfying to these people. Christ will meet every need that they have. Christ is all they need. “I want to know about this because I don’t get it.” That’s the big picture.
How does that relate to the praying of Philippians 4:6? The answer is that “do not be anxious about anything” is the fearlessness of Philippians 1:27–28. The fearlessness before the adversary in Philippians 1:28 is another word for “don’t be anxious.” When you stand before the authorities in the university or the authorities in the capitol, when you stand before people who don’t like your position on this or that, don’t be afraid. Or to use the words of Philippians 4:6, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything, let him know what you need.” All of which goes to say, prayer is the key to this book.