BCC Staff Note: You’re reading Part One in a three-part Grace & Truth blog mini-series on Biblical Counseling and Anxiety. In addition to today’s post by Bob Kellemen, in Part Two you’ll read about When Anxiety Attacks…Let Love and Peace Rule by Sherry Allchin, and in Part Three you’ll read Counseled by the Birds and Flowers by Paul Tautges.
Philippians As a Model
From cover to cover the Bible has much to say about moving from fear to faith. In this post we’ll look at one book—Philippians—and focus on one chapter—chapter 4. We’re concentrating here not because it is the only or “best” place to look for biblical wisdom regarding anxiety, but because it’s the “common place” with that oft-quoted verse about being anxious for nothing (Phil. 4:6). We want to put that verse in the context of Paul’s entire letter to the Philippians.
My hope is that by the time we’re done you will be thinking. “Incredible! One short epistle and one brief chapter in the Bible have that much relevant counsel about anxiety. I can’t wait to explore the rest of the Word to find truth for life so that I can experience victory in anxiety!”
In the original Greek, Paul’s letter has just 1,628 words. That’s about the size of this blog post. Chapter four has just 356 words—less than two pages in an average book. Yet, we find the following comprehensive (robust) and compassionate (relational) insights for victory in anxiety.
- Guard Your Relationship with God Your Guard: Faith in Your Father
- Commit to Mature Relationships with God’s People: It Takes a Congregation
- Cling to Your Identity in Christ: Wholeness in Christ
- Put on the Mind of Christ: The Weapons of Your Warfare
- Practice What You Preach: Living and Loving with Courage
- Soothe Your Soul in Your Savior: Emotional Maturity 101
- Live Wisely in a Fallen World: Jars of Clay
Paul’s Purpose: Gospel-Centered Vigilance
Before Paul counsels us to be anxious for nothing (Phil. 4:6), he starts with a “therefore” which points us to the purpose of his letter to the Philippians. Paul writes to real people with real problems out of his very real situation. As he writes, Paul is jailed for his faith and the Philippians understand that they could be next. Now that could create anxiety! Paul’s purpose in writing them is to encourage them to live worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27). He wants them to “stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you” (Phil. 1:27b-28a).
A. T. Robertson explains that “stand firm” is a word used in the context of temptation to defection and panic. It describes someone who wants to give up, give in, and get out. If that’s not a description of anxiety, I don’t know what is.
“Frightened” portrays the metaphor of a timid or scared horse—skittish. According to Robinson the best translation is “startled.” Frightened, timid, scared, skittish, and startled—that’s the anatomy of anxiety.
Paul’s Model: Stand Firm!
In this context of anxiety, Paul explains that the gospel enables us to “stand firm.” The Greek word means to take a stand, to be steadfast, to stand erect and at attention—to be a guard, a sentry, a sentinel. Paul exhorts us to stay on guard as we “contend together”—a word from the athletic arena that pictures striving together with discipline against unrelenting opposition.
The purpose of Philippians is to teach us how gospel-centered living empowers us to experience victory together in anxiety. Paul frames his entire letter against the backdrop of helping Christ-followers to remain vigilant when everything inside and out screams, “Retreat!”
Paul’s life purpose is to model the courage of a warrior for Christ when facing internal and external worries. “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or death” (Phil. 1:20).
Guard Your Relationship with God Your Guard: Faith in Your Father
Throughout his 1,628 words, Paul weaves gospel-centered principles of vigilance—the faith response to threat. Not surprisingly, he saturates his letter with encouragement to focus our hearts on faith in our Father: Philippians 1:2, 6, 7; 2:12-13, 15; 3:8-11, 15, 20-21; 4:4-7, 13, 19.
All of these passages speak to the reality that the believer has an eternally secure relationship with God by grace through faith in Christ. Martin Luther, who struggled with anxiety, noted that to deal effectively with life’s daily fears, we must first deal with life’s ultimate fear. Hebrews 2:15 explains that ultimate fear: apart from Christ we live every day in slavery to the fear of death—separation from God. My ultimate anxiety is my fear that I will never find peace with God, never be accepted by God.
Luther, Paul, the author of Hebrews, and the Apostle John all understand the core gospel-centered “answer” to ultimate fear and anxiety. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).
When I was working with a counselee named “Mike” we explored his relationship with Christ. He summarized the impact of our interactions.
“If we had only focused on my ‘earthly’ fears, we never would have hit the heart issue. When we started applying Romans 8 to my life, and the truth that there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ and that nothing can separate a Christian from God, that launched me on a path toward defeating anxiety. With that BIG issue settled, every other fear—while not wiped away—fell into place, a place I could handle with Christ. I needed the calm assurance of my eternally secure relationship with the God of peace before I could even begin to experience the peace of God in my daily struggles.”
Renew Your Image of God
Paul further stresses our faith relationship to God in the immediate context of Philippians 4:6 by sandwiching around and slicing within the following images:
- The Lord is near (4:4)
- The peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (4:6)
- The God of peace will be with you (4:9)
When anxiety strikes, we focus so much on the situation and our feelings that we lose focus on God, or we accept a skewed view of God. Paul helps us to counter that temptation by renewing our image of God. He is the God of peace Who loved us so much that He sent His Son to reconcile us back to Himself.
When we see God as our God of peace, then we can experience the peace of God that guards our hearts and minds. Robertson translates it beautifully: “Shall garrison. God’s peace as a sentinel mounts guard over our lives”
When Mike and I discussed this concept he almost jumped out of his chair.
“I don’t have to live an anxious, guarded life. I don’t have to guard myself or be self-protective. I don’t have to be self-focused—always stuck scanning my horizon fearfully. I can live an unguarded life because God is my Guard! I can protect others because God is my Protector! I can focus my energies on God and others because God is my Sentinel!”
Engage in Worshipful Prayer Focused on God’s Character
The word Paul uses for anxiety in Philippians 4:6 pictures being habitually and perpetually stuck in the abyss of worry about everything, being continually distracted by many cares that draw the mind in countless divided directions. Paul’s a realist, so he tells us how to stop living like that: seeing God as our Guard helps guard our soul against the attack of anxiety.
As a realist, Paul doesn’t just say what not to do. He tells us what to do instead. Instead of giving into anxiety’s attack, fight back through prayer. Paul chooses a word for prayer which highlights worshipful prayer focusing on God’s character. In anxiety, we choose a crippling focus on our circumstances. In worshipful prayer, we choose a healing focus on God’s character.
This God-focus is reminiscent of Isaiah 26:3. “Thou will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on Thee.” “Mind” is the Hebrew word for our imagination. It’s our ability to picture our world, to take snap-shot images that summarize our beliefs. Isaiah repeats “shalom” twice to communicate perfect peace, complete wholeness. We’ll experience shalom shalom when we focus our imagination faithfully on our faithful Father.
Open Your Palms to God
So far we’ve only look at one word—prayer—in the litany of counsel that Paul gives us about what to do instead of giving into anxiety. He also urges us to relate to God through petition, thanksgiving, and requests.
When worry strikes, we’re to approach God our fatherly Guide with petitions—asking God urgently, specifically, and vulnerably to handle what we’re worry about, to supply our daily bread. In this spirit we present our requests to God. Paul pictures us asking God humbly, submissively, and trustingly.
Remember the musical Oliver? The poor orphan boy, Oliver, breaks the rules of the orphanage by daring to ask, “Please, Sir, may I have some more?” With both palms open wide and arms extended, Oliver lifts his empty bowl of soup heavenward. When anxiety attacks, attack back with trusting, humble asking.
“Father, I’m overwhelmed. I see no way out. I feel like I’m starved of resources. My bowl of soup is empty, my gas tank is on E, my resources are depleted. Rather than trusting in me, I’m clinging to You. I’m feeble. You’re Almighty. I refuse to rely upon myself. I choose to rely upon You.”
Join the Conversation
Ponder an anxiety-producing situation you are currently facing. What specific application could you make using these principles:
- Renew Your Image of God
- Engage in Worshipful Prayer Focused on God’s Character
- Open Your Palms to God
Note: The preceding post is developed from material in Anxiety: Anatomy and Cure by Dr. Kellemen.