"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 (ESV)
It seems to me that this passage is more often quoted than understood or applied. It is easy to quote when we are not bothered by fears. It is harder to face when we are. Some may believe themselves rather superior because they are not overrun by fear. But that may be only a reflection of differing circumstances rather than superior character. One person may entertain different fears than another.
Perhaps one of the most important observations to make about this passage is that the test of someone's faithfulness in handling fear is not in not experiencing it but in what one does with it. It is too easy to pat ourselves on the back for not being anxious about anything. People who are cool as cucumbers may seem like they have some incredible ability to obey this passage while others do not. To those among us who find themselves frequently faced with fears, this passage can come to seem an unattainable standard, almost like perfection. In this way, Christendom can be divided into two classes: those who have no fear and those who do.
The Measure of Obedience
Those who obey this passage best are not those who experience no fear. They obey best who fear most and then respond in the way Scripture commands. Do not boast in the smallness of your fears but in the greatness of your God. It is an entirely different way of thinking about it than some seem to think.
But Christianity has no two such classes. The point of this passage is not simply to tell people not to be anxious. It is to tell them what to do instead. I suspect fewer obey this passage than quote it. I am certain more hear this passage than obey it.
What is this passage saying? Paul commands the Philippians to take their anxieties and convert them into requests made with thanksgiving. This is an astounding command. Paul is saying here that the problem is not that we have fears or anxieties but that we do not know what to do with them.
The term for being anxious here is the same term translated as "worry" in Matthew 6 where Jesus teaches on the topic. (e.g. Matthew 6:28, 31, 34). What Jesus and Paul have in mind are issues with the future that concern us. In Matthew 6, Jesus addresses the potential lack of food and clothing. These are necessities. In our passage, Paul is juxtaposing anything we might be anxious about with everything that should be brought to God in prayer.
The point is rather simple. Rather than dwelling on fears and anxieties in ourselves, we should convert our fears into requests and ask for God's help. And we should do it with thankfulness. The only fear for which there is no remedy is the fear of a sinner who refuses to repent. That person stands under the fearful condemnation of almighty God unless he or she repents and places faith in Christ.
How to Do It
This requires work that perhaps some are not inclined to do. There are no doubt many reasons for not wanting to do the work. A person might be despairing, or unbelieving, or too proud, or just plain lazy.
For those who are inclined, how do we do it? The key is not in suppressing our fears and telling ourselves that we do not need to be afraid. That is what I have heard many do, but that is not what Paul is commanding. There seems to be a belief among some that doctrine abstracted from God ought to carry us through all our difficulties. But supposed doctrine severed from a real and vibrant relationship to God is no true doctrine at all. Paul is not commanding us to theologize our fears away. Some Christians seem no better than the Stoics when it comes to navigating their fears.
But the answer is not to throw away all our doctrine either. It is to remember once again that part of the function of healthy doctrine is to carry it from the theoretical to the practical. The biblical teaching and instruction about God ought not to keep us from going to God in our fears. They should pave the way to him. That is precisely what Paul is saying. Rather than allowing our anxieties to swirl around in our hearts and minds, Paul is saying that there needs to be an outlet for them. When a dish is burnt in the kitchen and smoke fills the house, someone needs to open a window to let the smoke out. The same is true with our fears and anxieties. They do not need to stay inside us. They need to flow from us up and out to God.
Paul gives surprisingly specific instructions for how this ought to work. He says to take what we are anxious about and convert them to requests that we make with thanksgiving. This is not difficult to understand. It is harder to do. This calls us to let go of the notion that our fears are things we must control ourselves. They are not. God is sovereign and we are dependent upon him. So we take whatever we are anxious about in our minds and simply tell God about it. We ask for his help. We tell him why we are anxious or afraid. And we express gratitude.
What happens as a result? The peace of God guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. The need for the peace of God to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus means that being anxious is a state of vulnerability in the mind. I imagine that this is like a vision of an oasis for a person lost in the desert. As Christians, we are not subject to anxieties and fears. We are subject to God, and all that might make us fearful or anxious is subject to him too.