Top Twelve Scripture Texts: Number 1
Philippians 4:6-7: Anxiety
Anxiety-related conditions are the most prevalent set of psychological disorders today. Anxiety may be defined as “a subjective feeling of tension, apprehension, and worry, set off by a particular combination of cognitive, emotional, physiological, and behavioral cues. It is generally thought to differ from fear in that it is not tied to a realistic threat from the environment” (D. Simpson, “Anxiety,” in Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology, ed. David G. Benner [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1985], p. 65).
Anxiety is a universal human experience. All of us become anxious at times. When we are anxious we feel uneasy and tend to be overly concerned about what may happen in the future—either the immediate future (perhaps today) or sometime in the days (or years) ahead.
Another definition is that anxiety is an abnormal state of worry and unease “characterized by a feeling of being powerless and unable to cope with threatening events, typically imaginary, and by physical tension, as shown by sweating, trembling, etc.” (Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 3rd ed. , p. 62).
Not all anxiety is harmful, however. In fact, “a certain amount of tension or anxiety may be not only helpful but necessary in order to perform efficiently certain stressful tasks. For example, the mild anxiety which a confident driver experiences while traveling along a busy freeway serves a useful function. The increased tension accompanying the adrenalin flow may enhance reaction time and decision-making ability, thus helping the driver to respond more quickly to dangerous traffic situations than if he were totally relaxed” (W. G. Bixler, “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” in Benner, ed., p. 450). It is not a bad thing to be anxious in this sense of alertness and heightened concern.
The Biblical Teaching
The words “anxiety,” “anxious,” and related words are found about one to three dozen times in the modern translations of the Bible, depending on the version. The venerable King James Version of the Bible does not contain the word at all, but translates the Hebrew and Greek words some other way, such as “care” and “careful.” Modern versions sometimes use the words “worry” and “worried.” When the Bible speaks of anxiety, it presents it as a negative factor in our lives—something harmful and out of harmony with God’s purposes for us.
Perhaps the best known scripture text on the theme of anxiety, and one of the “top twelve” Bible passages throughout my life, is Philippians 4:6-7. The apostle Paul, led by the Spirit of God, writes: “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” (New International Version).
We are commanded not to be anxious! Contrary to what is sometimes offered as the best advice for parenting, preaching, and counseling, I have found remarkable strength and comfort from the directness of the Bible’s exhortations concerning how to live: “Do this! Don’t do that! Be like this!” Even though most Christians, I suspect, find it difficult to command someone (including ourselves) directly from the strongly authoritative sections of scripture, I find that these texts, when I receive them and offer them as orders from our loving, all merciful God, give me a powerful inner strength or mind, spirit, and even body. As the adage says: “God’s commands are his enablings.” In the very exhortation itself is the power to do it, if we come to the scriptures with an openness and willingness to do whatever God requires. I remind myself of the words of Jesus: “my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). Because the Lord Jesus Christ gives us instructions that are only and always for our good, I attempt to step out in faith and do whatever his word says. Just a few verses later in our text we find these words: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:13).
A Personal Testimony
A little over four years ago I had a heart transplant. Before the surgery the doctors told me that the two greatest potential difficulties I might face during recovery would be infection and rejection. I have not had major problems with infection, but I have with rejection. In fact, my doctor told me in March, 2007, that I probably had no more than six months to live. My body was doing what it had been doing for four years—rejecting the foreign object. Even though my immune system is highly suppressed by powerful medications, my body had finally determined a way to drive out the invader. I live daily with the knowledge that my cardiac arteries are so inflamed that a serious heart attack or attacks may end or greatly change my life anytime.
Because of this condition, and because of the difficult side-effects of some of the medications I take, I have suffered from anxiety. Interestingly, I have not known until quite recently that my problem was anxiety. If you would have asked me several months ago what I felt my main non-physical difficulty was, I think I would have said discouragement and/or depression. I am still not sure how to name some moods, emotions and psychological states that I experience. I become concerned about certain health problems and daily symptoms of illness. I become concerned about pain, social activities, the passing of time, and the inability to accomplish much for eternity. I sometimes become anxious about the poor, the hungry, the oppressed and the spiritually lost.
Perhaps it is not really all that important to be able to name precisely this or that emotional/mental condition we experience. However, the more accurate we are in our thinking, the more likely we are to find the help we need. In my case, God helped me to discern that, not only was anxiety a problem for me, but anxiety about anxiety was as well. It has only been within the past several weeks that I have come to see this. I would wake up in the morning overly concerned about whether or not anxiety would be a problem for me that day! This occurred during the day as well. The Bible says that “an anxious heart weighs a person down” (Proverbs 12:25), so it is more understandable to me now to see how anxiety and discouragement are related. I am so grateful that God has helped me to name this aspect of my experience.
The Positive Side of the Text
One of the best things about Philippians 4:6-7 is that the text does not simply tell us not to be anxious. A prohibition by itself on this problem would be no real help, In fact, it would be discouraging. No one can overcome worry by simply willing it to be gone. The Bible—in keeping with the gracious character of its divine Author/Editor—gives us a positive practice to perform and then leaves us with a peace-giving promise. Instead of concentrating on overcoming anxiety, as if we must master that first, the Word says, “but in everything by prayer and petition [a specific kind of prayer for our personal needs], with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6).
Three aspects of Paul’s positive exhortation stand out.
(1) We are to bring “everything” to God, whether it is a financial matter, a family issue, a health concern, a job problem, depression, anxiety, or even anxiety about anxiety. Don’t mention these just once to God, but again and again and again. But be sure you are living in obedience to the truth you know. God does not accept our pleading—no matter how sincere—as a substitute for obedience.
(2) Our requests are to be offered “with thanksgiving.” No matter how dismal your situation may be at the present time, never pray without also thanking God for something. For decades I have thanked God daily for three things: good health, victory, and what I call “good days.” Even though my health is shaky, I realize I have many health-related benefits, and I am thankful every day. By “victory” I refer to my personal salvation through Jesus Christ, received at the age of 19, and the victory God has given me over sin and self, which I receive anew every day. “Good days” is a way I summarize all other blessings of my life—past and present. I am grateful for my wife and children and their families, for my education, my life of serving as a pastor and teacher, material provisions, and for friends. I especially thank God for the scriptures—the written Word of God. God feeds me daily through them, encouraging me by his Spirit of wisdom, comfort and strength.
(3) The final part of our scripture text is a rich promise: “and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”(Phil. 4:7). I recommend that you study this verse and meditate on it. Try to obtain a good study Bible—ask him to provide the money if you don’t have it. The New International Version (NIV) Study Bible is a very helpful tool. Here we read that the expression “guard your hearts and your minds” is “a military concept depicting a sentry standing guard. God’s ‘protective custody’ of those who are in Christ Jesus extends to the core of their beings and to their deepest intentions.” I Peter 1:5; 5:7; and Matthew 6:25-34 are very helpful supporting scriptures on this whole theme of overcoming anxiety.
In closing, I want to offer you a glorious benediction from the Word of God, pertinent to our theme.
"And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen" (I Peter 5:10-11).
This article is one of a series of twelve blog postings—one for each month of 2008—presenting my all-time favorite Bible passages. My criterion for selecting these texts is the practical benefit/nourishment/help I have received from God through these scriptures over the four and one-half decades of my Christian life. I am who I am today because of some key people and because of the truths in these twelve scripture texts. There are many other Bible verses that could fit well in this series. The Word of God is a well-stocked gold mine of truth.
If you wish, start your own list, and share some of your stories on this blog—to help us all live well, help us all to serve others, and help us all to prepare well for the remainder of this life and for the next.