How Can I 'Be Anxious for Nothing' as Philippians 4:6 Says?
- Seth L. Scott Columbia International University
- 2021 27 Jan
Scripture is full of commands concerning our emotions and thoughts of fear and uncertainty with the frequent refrain to God’s people to not be afraid (Josh. 10:25), be strong and courageous (Josh. 1:9) and have faith or believe (Ex. 14:31). Is it really that easy? Do the variety of passages that tell us to trust in the Lord when we are afraid (Psalm 56:3) or to stop being anxious (Matt. 6:25; Luke 12:22; Phil. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:7) mean that if we just tell ourselves these things, our feelings and thinking should just change from a force or act of will? And what does it mean if that doesn’t happen? Directing our cares and concerns to the Lord in thankful prayer does not occur just as an act of the mind or will through command, but occurs through the process of holistic, intentional community formation in dependence on God by the Holy Spirit.
What Does it Mean to 'Be Anxious for Nothing' in Phil. 4:6?
Is the solution to just distinguish between real and imagined threats and “Be anxious for nothing”? Yes and no. The solution requires not just a change to how we feel or what we think but a change to who we are, what we do, what we care about, and what we fear. Paul wrote this letter to the church at Philippi as a personal thank you for their care and support both financially and in sending Epaphroditus to care for Paul during his imprisonment (Phil. 1:13; 2:25; 4:16, 18). Paul also addressed some concerns with the church around personal ambition and rivalries and false teachers emphasizing a return to the law and perfection for salvation. Throughout the book, Paul established his expectations for them through a series of contrasts, comparing negative patterns of behavior with his expectations for them through the ultimate example of Christ’s humility through the incarnation, crucifixion, and exaltation. From this ultimate example, Paul compares the Judaizers who are attempting to return the Philippians to the requirements and expectations of the righteousness through personal attainment of the Law, which is impossible and leads to death (Phil. 3:19; Rom. 3:20). In Philippians 3, Paul contrasts an earthly focus of personal attainment and independence with a heavenly focus of transformation and dependence. This contrast is critical for understanding his capacity and call for the peace of God to fill us in spite of our circumstances (Phil. 4:7, 9).
Paul’s exhortation to “not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6) sits within this context of contrasting a life of selfish ambition and personal focus with the attainment of “righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil. 3:9) and a focus on Christ (Phil. 3:14). Anxiety is the residue of perceived or desired control when we have none. We do not need to fear or attempt to control our lives, “’What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:31-33). Paul prefaces his encouragement to not be anxious by reminding us, “The Lord is at hand” (Phil. 3:5). The Lord is by our side, attentive to our needs, so why are we trying to handle it ourselves when we really don’t control it anyway? This effort only produces worry and uncertainty, directing our focus away from God and to ourselves. Our focus should be on ultimate things, the realities of life and death that should provoke fear. Jesus redirected His disciples' focus toward these greater realities when He said, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Don’t be afraid of the shadow of the truck when the truck is bearing down on you! This fear is different, though. Jesus reminds the disciples that His care for us is perfect and His love for us is comprehensive (Matt. 10:31; Jn. 17:23).
What Is Anxiety and Why Do We Experience It?
Before we can define what “Be anxious for nothing” (Phil 4:6) means, it is important to first distinguish between anxiety and fear. Scripture explains a context for fear in the life of the believer, suggesting that there are times both to fear and not fear that are appropriate (Gen 15:1; Gen 42:18; Ex. 20:20; Dt. 6:13; Josh 24:14; Ps. 25:14; Ps. 33:8; Prov. 1:7; Isa. 11:2; Mt. 10:28; Jn 12:15; Phil. 2:12; 2 Tim. 1:7; Heb 13:6; 1 Ptr. 2:17; 1 Jn. 4:18). So, which is it? Should we fear or not fear and what does that mean for being anxious? Fear is defined as an appropriate and learned response to an actual and immediate threat whereas anxiety is the inappropriate or excessive response to the perception of danger or harm out of proportion to the actual threat. To be anxious is to be concerned for something or about something as the object of our focus or intention. Fear is the appropriate response to danger or threat, which is appropriate when we consider the awesome power of God. God is not our equal or peer but is the Creator of the universe and an accurate view of God causes an adjustment in our view of ourselves.
Job’s response to God’s power and knowledge is to say, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me. I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:2-6). We fear God because of His power, but we need not fear God at the same time because we have a relationship with God in His power through His Son and the focus of His power is no longer against us, it is for us (Rom. 8:29; Heb. 13:6).
We fear things that we don’t understand and cannot control, like issues of life and death. Fear is immediate with an accompanying response to the threat that either resolves the danger or we succumb to the danger. Anxiety is the residue of perceived or desired control when we have none. Anxiety is boxing the shadows and fearing the impact of the punch, cowering and tense in preparation for a blow that we cannot control. We experience anxiety because our body responds to a real threat and perceived threat the same by increasing our heart rate, focus, blood flood to extremities, adrenaline, and cortisol in preparation for response whether the danger is real or imagined. In a culture of persistent triggers for perceived threat and heightened arousal, our minds and bodies are on constant alert for dangers we feel we need to control but cannot.
Is it Possible to Be Anxious for Nothing - If So, How Can We Achieve It?
If it is more than willpower or changing our thinking, how can we follow Paul’s urging and stop being anxious by relying on the person and presence of the Lord? The objects of our affection define the direction of our energy and action. Relinquishing control of our lives and needs to the care of God takes practice and support through the formation of our habits of desire in community. A shift from anxiety experienced in independence and self-sufficiency to peace through dependency on the provision of God requires cooperative practice in the community of the body of Christ. Paul notes the collective nature of the process toward growth in Christ by calling the Philippians to imitate him and the example of those like him (3:17), continuing to learn and grow together in mutual practice (4:9).
We can only be anxious for nothing if the object of our desire is Christ, seeking dependence on His power and provision by relinquishing our life to Him, dying to our own ambitions and demands and having our focus be Christ (Phil. 3:12-14). We do not need to fear death because Christ defeated death at the cross and through the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20, 55-57) and we now live with new life (Rom. 6:4). The resurrection of Christ from the dead is the guarantee for our own resurrection and we live according to the reality of this promise (Rom. 6:5-6). Habits take time to form and new habits are best formed through accountability and practice with others. We have had a lifetime of this culture molding us to its image of fear, death, and anxiety; cultural change is insufficient, it is only through the corporate transformation of the body of Christ operating in the unity of love, passion, direction, and focus that we reorient our dependence by receiving the implanted Peace of God through holistic and cooperative practice (Phil. 4:8-9).
What Is the Balance between Praying for All Things but Worrying about Nothing?
How do we “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) and “cast all your anxieties on Him” (1 Peter 5:7) while not worrying about anything (Phil. 4:6)? The balance comes with the recognition of the role of responsibility and dependence. Anxiety concerns the focus or aim of our attention or worries and our perception or attempt at controlling them. The balance occurs through the recognition of responsibility for handling these needs when they arise. As Jesus explained in Matthew 6, our food and clothing are realistic needs as created beings, but “The Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:5) and He knows we need these things and will provide them for us. Praying about these needs does two things for us: one, it supports the process of our conscious release of attempting to control and independently provide these needs for ourselves by relinquishing them to God’s care; and two, it provides the opportunity through dialogue in relationship with God to refine our perception of need, want, and desire with what God desires for us and sees as our needs (Psalm 37:4; Matt. 6:32-33).
Each occurrence of anxiety is a reminder for us to check our reliance. Are we resting in the care, provision, peace, and perspective God provides (Heb. 13:6), or are we taking the helm and ordering and orchestrating our needs on our own? Our sin nature consists of a nasty habit of independence and self-reliance and dependence on God and conformity to the person of Christ to break this habit requires the transformation of our affections. To become like Christ, we have to love what He loves and act like He acts (Phil. 2:5). Fortunately, we do not have to pursue Christ alone. The Lord is near and His peace, “which surpasses understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Habit formation occurs through the relationship with Christ and one another, by the power of the Holy Spirit, directing the object of our attention and affection to Christ in dependence on Him as we cast our cares on Him and He gives us rest (Psalm 55:22; Matt. 28-30; 1 Pet. 5:7).
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/BulatSilvia
Seth L. Scott, PhD, NCC, LPC-S is an associate professor of clinical mental health counseling at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina and provides clinical counseling and supervision in the community through his counseling practice, Sunrise Counseling. Seth, his wife, Jen, and their two middle school children enjoy outdoor activities, reading together as a family, board games, and meeting people through Jen’s pottery business at galleries and festivals.