With well over 200,000 self-help titles available, if you’re looking for peace there is no shortage of advice available. Popular books include ‘The Little Book of Calm’, ‘Inner Talk for Peace of Mind’ and ‘Peace is Every Breath’. The shelves of major bookshops are bending under the weight of everything that’s been written on this subject. In America alone, the self-help industry is worth around $12 billion dollars a year.
But is it really possible to experience genuine peace in a world where there’s so much pain and suffering?
We can try to escape the pain, of course, or to anaesthetize ourselves from it. And I’m sure we each have our own ways of getting relief from or smothering our anxious thoughts. Some try to pursue peace through the accumulation of money or more stuff (in my case it’s usually the latest ‘must-have’ gadget). Others through an obsession with diet, exercise and healthy living. Still others think the answer is to find a better job, or a new relationship, or a stimulating hobby.
In Christ, we’re promised a very different kind of peace. The peace of God that transcends, or surpasses, all human understanding and that is not dependent on our circumstances. And this divine peace has the power to defend your heart and your mind, to turn them into an impregnable fortress. I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like peace really worth experiencing. This great promise is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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. (Philippians 4:4-7)
Clearly, this promise is conditional. To experience peace that surpasses all human understanding, Christians have to do something. Or, to be more precise, we have to not do a certain thing and instead do something entirely different in its place.
First the negative command: “Do not be anxious about anything.” The word translated ‘anything’ is unambiguous in the Greek; it means not one single thing, absolutely nothing, nada. Paul commands the Philippians not to be anxious about anything whatsoever. That sounds pretty challenging, doesn’t it? Is it even possible? Well, Paul gives this command because he knows that the tendency of the Philippian Christians, and our tendency too, is to worry about things. We worry about all kinds of things. Some of us even do the exact opposite to this command and we worry about everything.
So is Paul saying, then, that we just need to stop being anxious – to ‘don’t worry, be happy’ as the famous song puts it? No. Notice how the negative command is followed by a positive one. Instead of being anxious and worrying about things, we’re to do something proactive. We’re to pray. Whatever the situation – no matter how great or small – whatever the source of our anxiety, we are to pour out our hearts to God about it. We are to talk to him and come to him with specific prayers and requests.
Peace with attitude
Our attitude is vital here. Paul’s just commanded the Philippians to rejoice always. In other words, to rejoice in God no matter how difficult their circumstances might be. And he now says that their prayers are to rise up from hearts of gratitude.
We too should pray with joyful, thankful hearts. Yes, there might be unpleasant things that are causing us to be anxious; they may even be the cause of extreme suffering in our lives. And we don’t, of course, rejoice in the difficulties themselves with a kind of warped masochistic pleasure. But we do rejoice in God and thank him even when we face tough times. Why? Well, because he is good and because he exercises his fatherly, sovereign control over every detail of our lives. For this reason, we’re to trust him. And we demonstrate that we really do trust him as we pray to him.
Notice the promise is not that God will change our circumstances or take away the source of our anxiety. He may well do that, of course, but that’s not the guaranteed outcome. Instead, we’re assured that the peace of God, which goes way beyond all human comprehension, will garrison our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. So it’s as if a battalion of divine soldiers surrounds the command and control centre of my life. And no matter how desperate the circumstances, God will not let me be overwhelmed by fear and anxiety.
Peace in practice
One of my great anxieties over recent years has been the fear of growing old alone, with no one to care for me. As an unmarried man, I’ve also worried at times about what would happen if I got ill and was unable to work. Who would provide for me? Where would I live? Two of my close Christian friends, Simon and Helen, once gently challenged me about my level of anxiety in these areas:
“Jonathan, hasn’t God always provided for you? Have you ever lacked anything that you really needed?”
I had to admit that, yes, God had faithfully and consistently provided for me (even before I was a Christian).
“Then are you willing to trust him with these fears? If he hasn’t let you down so far, then there’s no evidence to suggest he’ll abandon you in the future.”
My friends urged me to stop worrying about these things and to start praying. This proved to be one of those life-changing conversations. I’m not saying I never get anxious about these things now, but God has given me a growing sense of peace about the future. And when anxious thoughts return, I try to remember that conversation and recall Paul’s instruction, both of which remind me to convert my anxieties into prayer requests.
Now my worries won’t necessarily be your worries, of course. But whatever anxieties, fears, or doubts you might be struggling with, in Christ the promise of divine peace is held out to you. But you have to do something if you want to experience that peace. You have to pray. Pray about anything that causes you anxiety. And remember this: “The Lord is near” (verse 5) and he really cares for you.
Towards the end of his first letter, Peter (quoting from Proverbs 3:34) reminds younger Christians to be subject to the elders, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And he then urges all Christians to:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:6-7)
This is the second in a series of articles exploring various spiritual blessings that are ours in Christ