Paul’s Prescription for Anxiety
Anxiety: Part of the Human Condition
Is anxiety part of the human condition? Various psychologists, philosophers, and theologians have all said that it is. And most of us could testify to the prevalence of stress, anxiety, and worry in our own lives. At times it may just be a light nipping at our heels. But there are also moments when it feels like a heavy weight pressing against our chests. And dragging us down.
Jesus understood how common anxiety is, and spent a sizable portion of his ‘Sermon on the Mount’ discussing it. He concludes his discussion with these words, “So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34). And though we may know he’s right, it isn’t always so easy to practice what he preached.
Even though we can’t change things by worrying…
Even though worrying does nothing but harm us…
We often can’t seem to help ourselves.
Anxiety: Carrying the Burden of the Future
One commentator describes anxiety as “attempting to ‘carry the burden of the future oneself.'”¹ In other words, we try to look into the future (a future that is unknowable for finite creatures like ourselves) and make sense of so much darkness and shadow. And since there’s no light on our personal futures, our imaginations go wild. We see sicknesses and deaths; lost jobs and lost family members.
We don’t quit seeing monsters when we grow up. They just look more like bankruptcy or a casket than big, furry creatures with razor-blade teeth.
So how do we, as Christians, deal with anxiety and worry? We all know that putting our faith in Christ doesn’t make all of the worries of life magically disappear.
So, is there anything that can be done?
Anxiety: Is There a Cure?
Paul gives us some valuable advice in this regard. At the end of his letter to the Philippians, he mentions three prescriptions for anxiety. And before you object with, “But Paul doesn’t know my situation!” you should probably know that Paul was in prison as he wrote this letter. And through his life, he’d been beaten, stoned, gone hungry, faced verbal abuse. The list could go on and on.
So Paul is speaking from experience here. These aren’t merely theoretical ideas. They’ve been tested, tried, and found true.
Listen to Paul’s words:
“Be anxious for nothing, 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 comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” – Philippians 4:6-9
Prescription 1 – Pray
Paul tells the Philippians to “be anxious for nothing.” But he doesn’t leave them there. He gives them advice to help them in this regard. And his first piece of advice is made as clear as possible by his use of three words that point to one thing.
Talk to God…
Prayer. Supplication. Requests. What do these things have in common? They all involve talking to God.
Think with me for a moment. What are anxiety and worry? They happen when we talk to ourselves. We ask ourselves “What if?”. We tell ourselves something bad is going to happen. Worry is borne from that internal dialogue.
So Paul tells us to direct those internal thoughts upward. As he says elsewhere, “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).
And he doesn’t just tell the Philippians to do this occasionally. He says to do it “in everything.” Every circumstance – good or bad – is an opportunity for us to talk to God. It doesn’t matter what we’re going through. It doesn’t matter what our trial is.
As Paul will go on to say a few verses later, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am…I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11,13). And how does Christ strengthen him? By always keeping the lines of communication open.
Even secular research has shown that prayer can help with anxiety and stress. Likewise, Paul’s other advice in this verse is backed up by studies that have been done. He says to pray “with thanksgiving.” So, according to Paul, we shouldn’t just pray about all the things we wish God would change. We should thank God for what he’s already done, what he’s presently doing, and what we know – with confidence – he will do in the future.
Think, for a moment, about all God has already done. He’s saved us. He’s given us his word and his Spirit. God has protected us when we didn’t even know we needed protecting. Even if he never did anything else, he’d be worthy of our thanks.
Likewise, think about how he’s working right now. There are revivals going on around the world. You probably have friends who could testify to his work in their lives. Maybe he’s recently spoken to you through his word or through a time of prayer. Give him thanks for these things.
Now, think about what you know God is going to do in the future. We know that Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us. We know he’s going to come again to receive us to himself. There are certain things we can know he will do. We ought to give him thanks even now for those things.
So, what is Paul’s first prescription for anxiety? Thankful prayer.
Prescription 2 – Meditate
Paul goes on to tell the Philippians to dwell on things that are true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent, and worthy of praise.
Again, where do anxiety and worry come from? They often come from us dwelling on bad things – the “What ifs?” in life. When we focus on the darkness, we’ll inevitably see more and more of it. But if, instead, we’ll focus on the light, we won’t be pulled down so easily by discouraging thoughts.
If we’re focused on the faithfulness of God, the fears will have a harder time working their way into our thinking.
If we’re dwelling on God’s love for us, we won’t have time to visit all of the negative futures that ‘could be.’
Meditating on his promises in Scripture can help us see a brighter future.
Where are Worries Born?
At this point it would be wise to consider where so many of our negative thoughts come from. Our mind will return to the things we feed it. If our thought-lives are receiving a constant stream of death and darkness (via the television we watch, music we listen to, and websites we visit), we shouldn’t be surprised when we find ourselves dwelling on those things. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “Bad company corrupts good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). What we surround ourselves with has a direct impact on what we become.
Reflect for a moment on the television shows you watch (the news can be a real killer here), the music you listen to, the books you read, the websites you visit, and the people you regularly talk to.
Do these things have a focus on light or darkness? Do they direct your thoughts heavenward or earthward? As you walk away from these things, do you find yourself encouraged or discouraged?
None of this is to say that you should cut out everything you do from your life. But I would suggest noting the negative influences in your life and minimizing them when possible.
And more importantly, I would suggest spending intentional time reflecting on and thinking about things that are truly good, right, pure, and lovely.
Meditate on or read Scripture.
Listen (and sing along) to worship music.
Read a good devotional book.
Talk with others about God’s faithfulness – share, or listen to, a testimony.
These things will help alleviate some of the worry and anxiety by focusing your mind on things worth focusing on.
So, what is Paul’s second prescription for anxiety? Meditation.
Prescription 3 – Obey
Paul concludes his advice here by saying, “The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9). Paul reminds the Philippians to be obedient to God’s word. And he encourages them by telling them that obedience leads to the presence of the “God of peace.”
When we live in known disobedience, we will not experience true peace. Worry and anxiety will flow from our guilt like a spring.
Disobedience leads to guilt. Guilt leads to worry. And worry leads to anxiety (and the dark side).
So Paul tells us that if we’re experiencing anxiety, we ought to examine ourselves to make sure that we’re practicing the things we hear about in Scripture.
This reminds me of something John writes in his first letter. He says, “By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because He first loved us” (1 John 4:17-19). As we are perfected in love, we are led into obedience. And that love casts out the fear, worry, and anxiety that is such a part of the human condition.
If we’re going to be free from anxiety, it’s only going to take place through the active presence of the God of peace.
And if we’re living disobedient lives, we won’t be able to experience his presence.
So, what is Paul’s third prescription for anxiety? Obedience.
If you’re experiencing anxiety or worry, I would encourage you to put Paul’s prescription into practice. Spend time in prayer and meditation. Allow God to point out any areas of disobedience in your life – then get right.
Anxiety can be conquered through the presence of the God of peace. As he moves in our lives, anxiety will flee. And he moves in response to prayer, meditation, and obedience.
Note – These suggestions are for minor to moderate levels of anxiety. If you’re experiencing severe anxiety, I would recommend talking to your pastor or a good counselor. They can tailor advice for overcoming anxiety to your particular situation.
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¹ – Hawthorne, G. F., & Martin, R. P. (2004). Philippians. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.