What makes your heart anxious? What do you tend to fret about? Sometimes we worry about major issues like a loved one with cancer. Other times, our worries are smaller than a life-threatening illness. Worry can be replaying a conversation over and over again in your head to make sure you didn’t embarrass yourself. It can be the sinking feeling in your stomach as you consider an upcoming meeting. It might look like obsessing over what the boss is going to think when you are late to yet another appointment.
Opportunities abound for our hearts and minds to be consumed with anxious worry. However, God’s agenda for us is to experience the peace associated with prayer, not the turmoil that accompanies worry. In Philippians 4, Paul makes the connection between fervent prayer and a peaceful heart. He wrote, “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).
The Philippian Christians were confronted with many opportunities to worry. They faced threats and persecutions from their “opponents” (Philippians 1:29-30), and they were concerned about the welfare of Paul and Epaphroditus (Philippians 1:12; 2:26). Paul was imprisoned in Rome and Epaphroditus had fallen deathly ill. Instead of being pleased with their over-concern for his safety, Paul gives them the sweeping prohibition, “be anxious for nothing…”
The same verb translated “be anxious” in Philippians 4 is used positively earlier in the letter where Timothy is said to “show genuine concern” for the church in Philippi (Philippians 2:20). Apparently, the Philippian church had moved from genuine concern to a posture of worry or stress. Paul’s command for them is to cease what they have been continually doing. For Paul, there are areas in which we should express real concern for ourselves and others. However, there is no proper object of obsessive worry. Instead, we ought to bring all things before God in prayer.
How does prayer lead to a peaceful heart?
Hannah was worried. She wanted a child (1 Samuel 1:7-8). She was so overcome by her emotional state, she had stopped eating. Those around her only compounded her suffering. Her husband had taken another wife, presumably because Hannah couldn’t bear him children. On top of this was the relentless bullying and mockery coming from her husband’s other wife.
Hannah had much to worry about. However, she models Philippians 4:6-7 by running to the Lord in prayer. She speaks to the Lord out of her “great anxiety and vexation” (1 Samuel 1:16). She is convinced that God hears, God cares, and God acts. You can read here for a more detailed explanation of Hannah’s theological commitments that led her to pray. This article deals more with the peace Hannah experiences following her prayer.
After pouring out her soul to the Lord, Hannah experiences a peaceful heart. The Scriptures record that following her prayer she “went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad” (1 Samuel 1:18). Hannah’s swift change is perplexing to us because nothing about her circumstances had changed (yet). When Hannah said “amen” she was still childless, still sharing her husband, still going to be mocked. Yet she had peace.
After bearing her heart to the God who knows all things, who cares for his people, and is powerful enough to act, she can rest. When we begin to believe God’s grace toward us, we can begin trusting him with the outcome of our circumstances or suffering. Peace is not the result of God giving us what we want in prayer, it is a gift he gives his people when they rely on his good plan. One commentator put it succinctly, “The condition for experiencing God’s peace is not that God grants all of our requests but that we have made known all our requests to God with thanksgiving. God’s peace is not the result of the power of our prayers or the effectiveness of our prayers… When we trust God in prayer, God gives to us his peace to guard our hearts and minds against anxious thoughts.”
Bobby McFerrin released the hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in the fall of 1988. Often wrongly credited to Bob Marley, who died in 1981, the song is catchy, fun, but overly simplistic in terms of its message. If only it were that easy. Just stop worrying, just be happy. Philippians 4 and Hannah’s example instruct us that peace is a gift from God that he gives his people when they run to the creator of the universe and pour out their hearts before him. This is not a simplistic, one-time occurrence, but a habit we form by continually taking everything to the Lord in prayer. Prayer is not some kind of a magic bullet, but it is one of the means God uses to move us from a posture of worry to one of peace.
G. Walter Hansen, The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Letter to the Philippians (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2009) 293.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Philippians 4:6-7 and all other Scripture). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.