The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached in June, 2022*
Sermon Audio: Do Not Be Anxious (Phil 4:5-9)
Imagine, if you could, speak with someone who lived in a thousand years ago and you got to listen to the typical things they are concerned about. What would they be? Will I and my family have enough food to eat? Will another king come along and wage war with my king and our village be in danger? Will there be another plague that kills a third of everyone I know? Will I live past the age of 40? How many of my children will die? Now, imagine if you could explain to someone what life is like for you. We live in an age where there is such an abundance of food that there are more deaths worldwide from eating too much food rather than hunger. We live in the comfort of a (relatively) stable democracy; likely no one in this room has worried this week about a foreign nation invading. We have modern medicine that has eradicated things like the bubonic plague, the average life expectancy is now more than double what it was a thousand years ago, and we consider it a horrible and unusual tragedy if a child dies today, not just another part of life. If you could explain all of that to someone a thousand years ago, they might think, Wow! The future sounds incredible! You must live in incredible peace, no fear, no worries, no anxiety.
Well, do you? Actually, if you read the writings of history, you could argue that we possess much more anxiety than they do. How could that be? I am very glad that I live today and not a thousand years ago, but it seems that the problem of fear and anxiety isn’t merely an issue of circumstance, but there is something more deeply rooted in us that gives it life. What are you worried about? What are you anxious about? Maybe it something out there: seeing the price of gas continue to climb or watching your 401K diminish or the future of our nation as the angriest and non-sensical and destructive of forces seem to be winning. Or maybe it is something in here: maybe your family is going through a tense season, maybe your health isn’t as reliable as it once was, maybe you’re afraid that the worst parts of you are outweighing what is good.
We may have more technology, information, resources, opportunities, and comforts available to us today than any other generation of human beings who have ever existed, but all of these things have not made us more virtuous, only more powerful. And like pouring gasoline on a fire, it has appeared to only amplify our fears, anxieties, and stress. So, what are we to do? So we come to our text for our sermon today:
The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. – Phil 4:5b-9
The center of this passage is the command “do not be anxious about anything.” We consider what anxiety was a few weeks ago when we looked at this passage. We said that anxiety is imagining the future without Jesus in it. Anxiety is not only future-oriented but functionally atheistic. Or, at least, the God we imagine to exist in whatever future scenario we are paralyzed by is not the God of the Bible, but is a god that cannot be trusted. The only person we can trust is ourselves. And we fear and worry about that which is outside of our control. Anxiety is a fear, stress, worry of the unknown; it can be localized onto a specific situation (I’m worried about what my boss will say in my annual review), or it can be generalized and diffuse (I feel fearful and uncertain about life).
Now, we all know that anxiety is not good for us. Jesus asks us, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt 6:27). We now know that anxiety not only fails to lengthen our life, but actually shortens it. There are all sorts of problems that happen to our health and well-being by keeping a pot of anxiety on a low-boil in our mind. Our immune system doesn’t work as work as well, our blood pressure shoots up, we develop ulcers, and lose sleep at night. Everyone admits that anxiety is unhealthy and a problem, you’ll never find a self-help book that encourages you to practice anxiety more effectively. Everyone agrees on the problem, but not on the solution. Simply telling someone “don’t worry, be happy” doesn’t provide much help. So, what does Paul mean here when he flatly commands us “do not be anxious”?
We were discussing this passage weeks ago in our small group when someone mentioned that maybe Paul’s command “don’t be anxious”—which seems so unhelpful to just tell yourself in the moment of anxiety—really means, “you have no reason to be anxious.” In other words, when Paul commands us to not be anxious he doesn’t do it without providing reasons for why we shouldn’t be.
So, what are those reasons?
“The Lord is at hand.” We looked at this phrase briefly last week, since it was a part of verse 5. I think, however, that the verse division here was probably not the most helpful one; I think that this phrase makes more sense to be included with verse 6. The phrase contains a double meaning. To say that Lord is “near” could refer to his nearness in time, as in, Jesus is returning soon. But it could also refer to his proximity in space, as in, Jesus’ presence is near, right here. I think Paul intends both of these meanings to serve as the diving board to jump into the command of “do not be anxious about anything.”
So, friends, Jesus is coming back and bringing with him the New Creation. Look inward and do a brief analysis of what you are currently anxious about, what you feel is a present source of stress. As you mentally compile that list, consider that there will be an end, not only to that specific stressor or fear, but to all fear, all worry. The Lord is at hand, Christ is coming again soon. Remember, this world is not our home and there is a great reward that awaits us. Whatever dire circumstance you fear, whatever calamity falls upon you, it cannot touch your eternal hope. There is no darkness so black that it will not be pierced by the rising sun, and there is no suffering in our lives that will not be swallowed by the beauty of the New Heavens and New Earth. What heights of love, what depths of peace, when fears are stilled, when strivings cease. The Lord is at hand, brothers and sisters, so do not be anxious.
But also remember, the Lord is near you. He has not abandoned you. Jesus has promised that He will never leave you nor forsake you (Heb 13:5). Maybe as you survey your future and feel paralyzed at what could happen. Take heart—your Lord is there with you. Maybe a solider is very fearful to press the battle, but if he has a great general at his side who says, “I will not leave you,” his heart is lightened. A young novice may be frightened at the inspection of their craft, but if the grand master, the wise senior stands by his side to guide him along the way, he feels hopeful. Our great Savior will not send you where He will not go Himself. He is with you. So with you, that the Bible speaks of us being united with Christ, so that wherever we go, we are with Him.
Hudson Taylor, the founder of China Inland Mission, reflecting on his union with Christ, wrote:
“The sweetest part, if one may speak of one part being sweeter than another, is the rest which full identification with Christ brings. I am no longer anxious about anything, as I realize this; for He, I know, is able to carry out His will, and His will is mine. It makes no matter where He places me, or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for in the easiest position He must give me His grace, and in the most difficult His grace is sufficient. It little matters to my servant whether I send him to buy a few cash worth of things, or the most expensive articles. In either case he looks to me for the money and brings me his purchases. So, if God should place me in serious perplexity, must He not give much guidance; in positions of great difficulty, much grace; in circumstances of great pressure and trial, much strength? No fear that His resources will prove unequal to the emergency! And His resources are mine, for He is mine, and is with me and dwells in me.” – Hudson Taylor.
Okay, so we have heaven ahead of us, and God for us; all His resources are at our dispense here and now—we must remember that. So, we have the presence of God on our side—that would sound like we are ready to do some superhero, Marvel-movie, level of action. We are going to obliterate our anxieties by going out and fixing them ourselves, right? Well, not exactly: “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,” (Phil 4:6-7).
This is illuminating on so many levels; let me just tease out a few thoughts.
First, just as we are not to be anxious about “anything” so too are we to pray about “everything”. Meaning, there is no issue too small, too trivial for prayer. If it can cause anxiety in you, it is worth translating into prayer. Oh, what peace we often forfeit, Oh what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.
Second, the impulse of the Christian when fear and anxiety arise should be first to pray. Many times, prayer is our last resort. We are like the sailors who are told to throw Jonah overboard, but continue to strive against the oars till they are exhausted, and then finally heave the prophet overboard. We tend to think that the remedy of anxiety is to solve the problem—so you are anxious about hosting a family for dinner because your house isn’t clean. You think, I will be at peace once I finish the task. But Paul says, when anxiety rears its head, there is something else going on in our hearts that is deeper going on than just the task at hand.
When Paul tells us that we are to “let our requests be made known to God,” he knows that we are not giving God new information that He does not already possess. Jesus taught us that our Heavenly Father already knows what we need before we ask (Matt 6:8). So, in making our requests be made known to God, we are doing this because there is something happening to us in that process that we need.
Do you remember the story of Martha and Mary? Jesus visits the home of Martha and Mary, who are sisters, and Martha is playing the role of being a good host—she is rushing around, preparing food, getting the home in order, and where is Mary? She is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him, she is having her quiet time, so to speak. “…Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:40-42).
Martha is doing what so many of us do: she is using her anxiety and stress like jet fuel to get all the tasks done that she thinks needs to be done—and they are good things! She is serving! But Jesus gently rebukes her, “you are anxious and troubled about many things; your mind is scattered a thousand places, Martha. One thing is necessary, and Mary is showing you what that is.” Anxiety, stress, the tyranny of the urgent, yanks our hearts and minds all over the place and leads us to ignore what is most important. Why does the psalmist pray, “unite my heart to fear your name,” (Ps 86:11)? Because our hearts, left to themselves, will branch off into a thousand little tendrils reaching out for everything, and we need the Lord to mercifully untie our hearts into an undivided whole, centered on Him. Paul tells us to pray first, not accomplish a task, because anxiety is a symptom of impoverished faith that needs to be taken directly to the Great Physician through prayer. If we don’t do that, if we only find relief from anxiety and stress after the task has been completed, then we will experience peace, but it will not be the peace of God which surpasses understanding; it will be the peace of man which makes all sense in the world.
This also means that if we seek the Lord, we have to let go our idol of productivity. We may not get as much done. If Martha was sitting at Jesus’ feet as Mary was, the meal probably wouldn’t have been as good or the house as clean; and maybe if you spend more time in prayer and reading, perhaps your house won’t look as nice for guests, perhaps you won’t be as productive at work. But we may be surprised at what the Lord can do when we seek Him. Psalm 127:1-2 reminds us: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” Martin Luther once remarked, “I have so much to do today, I must spend at least three hours in prayer first!”
Third, notice how the verse works. You “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,” (4:6-7). It doesn’t say, “let your requests be made known to God, and once He answers your prayer, then the peace of God will guard your heart.” Rather, it is the act of turning to the Lord in eager faith through prayer that results in the peace of God. I think this is why we are told that the peace of God “guards” our heart; all difficulty has not been removed, but there is now an impenetrable shield of peace between us and our fear. I think this is also why we Paul reminds us to pray “with thanksgiving.” We pray with thanksgiving by looking back at how the Lord has blessed us and served us, but also we thank the Lord in the very moment we are praying, thanking Him for how He will answer this prayer. We aren’t sure how He will answer it, but we trust that He knows what is best for us and will be on our side for our good. Consider Jesus’ words, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:7-11)
This is one of the reasons why we gather to pray together as a church—we gather because we are beset with so many weaknesses and are in need, and the resources available to us through prayer are just too great for us to ignore.
After Paul exhorts us to remember the Lord’s nearness, and then exhorts us to pray, he calls us to think: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9 What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you,” (Phil 4:8-9).
Paul wants us to be deliberate in our thoughts and learn from his pattern of life so that “the God of peace will be with” us. This is because anxiety is what our minds naturally gravitate towards. Dealing with anxiety is less like having surgery and more like exercise, less like a vaccine and more like a vitamin. It is not something that is dealt with once and then we are done. We can fill our minds and hearts with beautiful truth about God that silence anxiety, but there are holes in the bottom. So, we have to constantly be pouring fresh water in. Isaiah reminds us, “You keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you, because he trusts in you,” (Isa 26:3).
Anxiety is the great mind-killer. You don’t have to think to be anxious. I know we tend to associate anxiety with over thinking, our minds get wound up and splintered out in a thousand directions, stressing over a thousand possible worst case scenarios. But our problem is that we have failed to remember, to think about what is ultimately true. At some point this week, this afternoon maybe, sit and write down everything you feel stressed about, feel anxious about. Everything, big or small. As you look over that list (1) remember: God is here with you in this problem, He is for you, and is coming back soon, then (2) pray: anxiety is when we talk to ourselves about our problems, peace comes from talking to God about them; pray with thanksgiving, thank God for how He has blessed you, and then thank God for how He is going to answer this prayer; lastly, (3) think. Evaluate your thoughts about each of these issues—are they true? What is true?
As you look over the list of verse 8 of what to think on, “True…honorable…just…pure…lovely …commendable…excellent…praise worthy”, I can’t think of anything that fits that description better than God’s heart for you in Christ Jesus, than the gospel itself. Is there anything more lovely, more commendable, more praise-worthy than Christ giving Himself for us? Peter exhorts us to “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you,” (1 Pet 5:7). Such a simple command, and yet, why are we so reluctant to do it? Why do we hedge our bets and try to deal with things ourselves? Perhaps it is because we don’t really believe that He cares. We are suspicious that this God whom our eyes cannot see is really something to be banked on, to be trusted in, to be turned to in our need.
So we remember, we pray, and we think—who am I? Who is God? And what does God think of me. And perhaps, in God’s mercy, He may kindly wound us with grace, we may feel the twist of the augur of guilt burrowing into our soul and a mighty stroke from heaven falls and we are stricken deaf and dumb, certain with knowledge that our God in heaven would be wholly right and just to cast aside. And yet, He doesn’t. His heart is so bound up with ours that He is willing to send His son to die in our place, to take our sins, to forgive us, so that we can be reconciled to God, be brought into His family.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom 8:31-32)