I think the Apostle Paul should’ve been worried.
In AD 62 (or so), Paul was languishing under “house arrest,” awaiting a trial to determine whether or not he’d be killed for his faith in Christ. The deranged Emperor Nero was to be his judge — a man who’d already executed his own mother and who’d very soon orchestrate the cruelest persecution of Christians in history. (In fact, Nero did indeed order Paul’s death in AD 67).
Imprisoned with heavy chains manacling him to a Roman soldier, Paul wrote to Christians in Philippi where, years prior, that city’s leaders had violently evicted him (Acts 16:12-38). They’d persecuted Jesus-followers ever since. Into these dire circumstances, Paul gave his friends this absurd advice:
“Do not be anxious about anything…” (Philippians 4:6).
How could Paul say that—and actually mean it? The answer lies in understanding the true nature of worry, and the true nature of prayer.
The True Meaning of Worry and Anxiety
Anxiety has four main characteristics.
1. Mental health expert, Suzanne Jessee, explains in her book, Escape Anxiety:
“A friend once told me, ‘Worry is praying for what you don’t want to happen.’ We could also say that worry is a form of meditation. Any time we have focused concentration on something specific, it is a kind of meditation and/or hypnosis. So be careful what you meditate on!”
2. Our worried thoughts are defined by emotional perception. Noted author Stephen Covey observes in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “We see the world not as it is, but as we are.” Thus if we begin to feel fearful, our world becomes fearful; when we feel threatened—whether that threat is real or imagined our world becomes threatening. So we worry.
3. Worry is a cognitive conflict of opposing desires. When the Apostle Paul spoke of being “anxious” in Philippians 4:6, the Greek word he used meant “to be pulled in different directions.” As theologian Warren Wiersbe commented, “Our hopes pull us in one direction; our fears pull us in the opposite direction; and we are pulled apart!”
4. Worry is always outcome-based and always stressed about tomorrow. It fixates our thoughts on unrealized results — and how those future outcomes can disappoint.
The True Meaning of Prayer
Looking at five characteristics above, I begin to understand why Paul’s practical instruction in Philippians 4:6 makes so much sense.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
You see, the true nature of prayer, accompanied by petition and thanksgiving, is this: It reorients our thinking away from the temporal and toward the eternal.
Do you see what Paul has done here? With this simple advice he renders impotent the power of worry over the human soul! A Philippians 4:6 prayer is not simply a recitation of fears. This kind of praying instinctively redirects within us the natural meditative impulse. It turns our perceptions and desires away from fearful future outcomes, focusing us instead on the unifying truth that God is sufficient, even when the circumstances of this life are not.
Does that mean we’ll never face difficulty or even death? Of course not. But it does mean that regardless of the outcome, in the midst of any awful circumstance, we can connect our minds with Christ’s—supernaturally, intimately—and thus redirects our limited, temporal thinking to align with His true, eternal perspective.
This is an astonishing gift. And it includes a shockingly-generous consequence (Philippians 4:7):
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” ...Wow.
What Does it Look Like to Give Your Anxieties to God in Prayer?
So, if this is the true nature of worry, and also the true nature of prayer, what does that mean for us?
Giving our worry and problems to God in prayer is, in the simplest sense, an honest, meditative conversation with our Father whereby we attempt to transfer responsibility for desired outcomes out of our hands and into His. It’s a deliberate act of faith that trusts in who God is more than our perception of what He does or doesn’t do. That’s why, even when shackled to a Roman soldier, the Apostle Paul could write with such confidence: Do not be anxious about anything …
Now, here’s something to help you experience Philippians 4:6-7 for yourself. It’s a mental image my wife once gave me, so now I give you this gift as well:
One time I was emotionally locked up with worry over a fretful situation. Amy came to me and gently took hold of my wrist.
“Make a fist,” she instructed, “and hold out your hand, palm up.” Next she said, “Open the fingers of your fist. Spread them wide so that anything in your hand would spill through them like water.” After I’d done that, she said, “Now, that problem you’re worrying about? Picture it pouring through your fingers and into God’s great big hands. He’s got it. Regardless of what happens, it’s His problem now. It’s not yours to worry about anymore.”
Even as she was dying from cancer, there were moments she’d look up at me from the hospital bed and raise a chemo-shrunken fist. Then she’d smile and spread wide her fingers. Amy never had to say a word for me to hear her voice whisper reassurance into my heart, “God’s got this, regardless of what happens…”
And my girl was right.
“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 4:6-7).
What Does This Mean?
Space prevents me from digging more deeply into this, so take a little time on your own to read all of Philippians 4:5-20 with the perspective of reorienting your thinking from the temporal to the eternal. If you’re like me, this exercise will help you very much. "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." ~ Philippians 4:13
Find prayers for anxiety below, compiled by the Crosswalk staff, to help you in "casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:7)
10 Prayers for Anxiety
Prayer to Soothe an Anxious Heart
Dear Lord, I thank you that I can come to You always for any reason. I’m grateful that when I pray to You, You answer me. Help me to come to You at the beginning of my fears and anxieties instead of waiting until I can’t stand them anymore. The quicker I come to You the better. You want to free me from ALL my fears. Help me look to You for help more often so that I can be radiant with Your joy. In Jesus’ Name, I pray, Amen.
Source: Jennifer Heeren
A Prayer for Anxiety: Lord, Have Mercy
Lord, have mercy. In all our needs… In all our hurts… In all our anxiety…
Lord, have mercy. With all our questions… With all we know… With all we don’t know…
Lord, have mercy. For healing… For peace… For a stronger trust in Your Word and promise…
Lord, have mercy. To calm our doubts… To soothe our fears… To bear our griefs and carry our sorrows…
Lord, have mercy. Help, save, comfort, forgive, strengthen, and heal us by your grace. Amen.
Prayer for Times of Anxiety
May Jesus Christ, the King of glory,
help us to make the right use
of all the suffering that God sends,
and to offer him the true incense of our hearts;
for his name’s sake. Amen
Source: Johannes Tauler, d. 1361
Prayer for Peace in Jesus Christ
“‘I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.’” (John 16:33)
Dear Jesus, You are the Prince of Peace. You came to give us your peace. It’s nothing like the world gives. It is a peace born in the freedom we have in you, a gift to all God’s children—to guard our hearts and minds.
I can’t escape the troubles of this world. I may face financial difficulties, relationship breakdowns, a health crisis—so many scary challenges. But you tell me to “take heart,” to be encouraged because you have overcome the world. You have overcome all the things that would discourage and defeat us. I am grateful for your peace that is beyond all my circumstances.
Father of Mercy, Come to My Help
Almighty God, Father of mercies and God of all comfort, come to my help and deliver me from this difficulty that besets me.
I believe Lord, that all trials of life are under your care and that all things work for the good of those who love you.
Take away from me fear, anxiety, and distress. Help me to face and endure my difficulty with faith, courage, and wisdom.
Grant that this trial may bring me closer to you for you are my rock and refuge, my comfort and hope, my delight and joy.
I trust in your love and compassion. Blessed is your name, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen.
Source: Orthodox prayer, slightly modified
Hope that Comes from God’s Promise
O Father in heaven, look upon all your people who struggle with anger, anxiety, doubt, frustration, guilt, hopelessness, loss, memories, lack of patience, pain, regret, sadness, selfishness, temptation and weakness.
Your holy Word tells us “All things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And that means that you make all these things work for your good purpose in our lives, even when we do not understand.
Remind us of your invitation, “Cast all your cares upon me,” and of your assurance that goes with it, “because I care for you.” …through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Source: Paul C. Stratman, 2017
Preserve Us from Faithless Fears
O most loving Father, you want us to give thanks for all things, to dread nothing but losing you, and to cast all our anxiety on you because you care for us.
Preserve us from faithless fears and worldly anxieties and grant that no clouds of this mortal life may hide from us the light of that love which is immortal, and which you have shown us in your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Source: Freely modified from Prayers Ancient and Modern
Prayer Against Worry
“Dear Father, I admit that I often forget that you are with me. I often forget what you’re like. Would you please forgive me for that? I need to get to know you better. I need to get to know your Word and your promises better. Help me to put you first in every area of my life. Help me to live one day at a time. Help me to not worry about tomorrow but instead focus on what you’re doing in my life right now. I want to trust in your promise to take care of every one of my needs — financial, relational, physical, social, spiritual, and emotional. Help me to trust you more and worry less. I pray in Jesus’ Name. Amen.”
Source: Rick Warren
God is the Source of Love and Self-Control
Father God, I know you are not the source of fear and anxiety. That is Satan’s realm, and he delights in causing your children pain. You do not torment us with worrisome thoughts or burden our hearts with fretfulness. You are the God of peace. You desire to give me power over my worries as I count on your love and trust in your sovereign care.
Help me remember when fears and anxiety come knocking at my heart’s door, to answer with powerful Scripture—to remember you are a good God and faithful, and you will help me challenge my worries with life-building truth instead of destructive thoughts. Your peace will guard my heart and mind in Jesus’ name.
Cast Out Anxiety With Love
“Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” (1 John 4:18)
Lord, I know you do not want us to be paralyzed or depressed by fear of judgment from you. You want us to be confident that you will accept us in Christ on Judgment Day. Your complete love abides in us to bring us this confidence. When we walk in the light, your love is perfected in us.
Teach me how to live in that perfected love of your sacrifice for me. When I am tormented by fears about my sins or my future, remind me of your great love for me. Show me how my love-walk with you, Abba Father, confirms the authenticity of my faith and casts out my fears.
Mike Nappa is a big ol’ Bible Study Nerd, and an ongoing Bible commentary and theology writer for Christianity.com. He’s also a bestselling and award-winning Christian author with more than a million copies of his books sold worldwide. Learn more about Mikey at Nappaland.com and MikeNappa.com.
Photo Credit: Thinkstock/RJohn97
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The Serenity Prayer, The Lord's Prayer, Morning Prayers, Prayers for Healing, Thanksgiving Prayers, Advent Prayers, Christmas Prayers, Prayers for Peace, Prayers for Protection, Prayers for Strength, Praying in the Spirit.