“Anxiety and Thanksgiving”
November 22, 2015
A two-step approach to dealing with anxiety can lead you to peace in the presence of the God of peace.
I. With thanksgiving, take your anxieties to God (Philippians 4:4-7)
II. With thanksgiving, dwell on what is beautiful and good (Philippians 4:8-9)
Do you ever have trouble sleeping? Do you stay awake worrying, or wake up with some worry gnawing at you, going round and round over and over in your head? Well, I’ve got just the thing you need. It’s called insomnia jeopardy. Pick the category and amount and you’ll have something brand new to worry about. Strange noises for $20. Is that the toilet running? Or did somebody turn on the water in the kitchen? Money troubles for $40. If I don’t pay off the Discover card again, will I have enough to pay the insurance? Why did I say that for $10. He already knew that he’d messed up. Why did I have to rub it in? Twice. Ways in which people have wronged me for $50. I’ll just bet she did that on purpose. She says she had nothing to do with it, but I know he’s gone behind my back before, bad mouthing me to my friends, turning them against me. If only . . . And everyone’s favorite, Diseases I probably have for $30. Why am I so tired and exhausted every day? They say chronic fatigue is a sign of diabetes. Or was it leukemia? I know I have trouble clotting. Maybe it’s anemia? Or bulemia, uremia, hypoglycemia, Slovenia? No, that’s a country. Vaccinia, hemophilia, aphasia, neurasthenia, paraplegia. Can I even move my legs? Schizophrenia, pneumonia, hypochondria? Maybe that’s it.
Anyway, you know how it goes, and this endless cycle of worries, concerns, imagination run wild, counsels of despair and dread certainties is serious. We call it anxiety. It consumes not only our sleep but our waking moments. It conditions and often poisons our responses to people and situations. Outward anxiety can cloud our witness to Jesus and inwardly it can lead to doubts about Jesus. Anxiety keeps us from better uses of our thoughts, our emotions, our time and our energy. In the extreme, anxiety, or Generalized Anxiety Disorder can lead to all kinds of physical symptoms and medical complications. And it can lead to the prescription and over-prescription of drugs that end up making you anxious because of their significant dangers and side effects. Many people have pictured anxiety as a self-sustaining cycle, and it can definitely be that.
This morning, as we near the end of our series on fear, I want to try to offer a practical discipline for moving from anxiety to peace. Fortunately I didn’t have to invent something and then double-blind test it on all kinds of randomly chosen populations. No, this particular two-part discipline is explicitly explained in a well-known passage of Scripture, and as such has the Good Peace-giving seal of approval from the author of life himself. In fact, this discipline puts you deeply in touch with the author of life himself.
It also puts you deeply in touch with thanksgiving. The outward celebration that we will enjoy this week is supposed to reflect an inward reality. Such thankfulness is a good-for-you behavior. In fact the known health benefits of thankfulness are a mirror image of the health risks of anxiety. No wonder the Apostle Paul includes it in his description of the path from anxiety to peace. That path or process or practical approach is found in a very familiar passage, Philippians 4:4-9. My goal this morning is to encourage you. If you embrace a simple two step approach to dealing with anxiety you can find peace in the presence of the God of peace.
The first step, then, is to take your anxieties to God, with thanksgiving. Phil. 4:4-7 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Before we go through this in detail, I want to call your attention to the central idea. Beginning of verse 6, a command worded negatively, ‘do not be anxious about anything.’ And the end of verse 6, a command worded positively, ‘let your requests be made known to God.’ So the basic premise is that you have anxieties, or cares that are doing you no good. When we studied Matthew 6, Jesus essentially said the same thing. But to deal with those anxieties, you take them to God. There’s more to it than this, but this is the core; instead of being anxious about your circumstances, take your circumstances to God.
I’ve been trying to find a simple way to picture this, a mental image that will be emotionally, spiritually and even psychologically helpful. What I’ve come up with is what I showed the kids. You take a box. Most of the time it will probably be a mental image of a box. And you put it in front of you and you pull out an anxiety: worries over kids, worries over finances, worries over safety, whatever is troubling your heart. And maybe you look at it a minute to separate out the real requests and concerns associated with that anxiety. But then you put it in the box, and tape it up, and give it to God. You leave the anxiety in his hands. Or maybe it’s easier to picture yourself putting that box down at the foot of the cross. In any event, you let the anxiety go, but you lift the real concerns to God in prayer. If you do this he promises peace.
So as we continue into these verses, I want to ask you to take out, from your mind or heart one worry, one anxiety that is troubling you. Hold it before you as we talk, and apply what we say to that specific anxiety and its underlying cares. You may have many concerns, for yourself and others, but pick one for now.
Let’s look at the verses. Verse 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” This is the big idea of Philippians. It’s a joy epistle. Paul says that he prays for the Philippians with joy, 1:4, he rejoices when Christ is proclaimed, 1:18, that even if he is to be martyred, he rejoices with them, 2:17. Then he says at the start of chapter 3, “Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord.” He spends that whole chapter developing the thought before repeating it here. So the command to present your anxieties to God is part of the larger command to rejoice in the Lord. Not about the Lord or despite the Lord, but in the Lord, as rescued people thrilled by his goodness, truth, beauty and righteousness.
Verse 5: Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. Other versions say let your gentleness or graciousness or moderation or forbearance. It’s a hard word to translate. One dictionary says that the word means “what is right or fitting,” “what is serviceable,” thus “equable,” “moderate,” “reasonable,” “gentle.” I don’t know exactly what nuance Paul intended, but the phrase “what is right or fitting” reminds me of the word “integrity.” “Let your integrity be evident to all.” By rejoicing and not being anxious even in difficult circumstance you show the rightness, the integrity of your faith, you show that the Lord makes a difference. And since the Lord is at hand, by which Paul probably means that the second coming is near, it’s a crucially important thing to show. Our witness is in words and deeds, but also in life, thus in how we handle anxiety.
Now don’t get me wrong. Far too often in the history of Christianity there has been a false expectation that Christians have it all together. We don’t, and our vulnerability is important and is part of our integrity. But . . . as we grow closer to Christ things can improve. We can more and more not be anxious and rejoice in every circumstance. What we say and what we live can more and more agree. In a fallen world we will not have complete freedom from anxiety, and we probably shouldn’t. But there can and should be, in Francis Schaeffer’s phrase, substantial healing, notable progress. Today you may feel you are entirely a captive of anxiety, but I pray that you will be able to take concrete steps toward substantial healing, toward the visible integrity of your faith.
So, verse 6, do not be anxious about anything. The troubling word, of course, is ‘anything,’ and sadly, knowledge of Greek doesn’t help us because the phrase is literally ‘in nothing be anxious.’ No circumstance justifies anxiety. But the last time we worked with the word ‘anxious,’ in Matthew 6, we made a key distinction. Jesus did not say that there are no valid concerns or challenges in life. He said that worrying about them, fretting, having this general anxiety and all these symptoms, doesn’t help at all. We said “it’s not that concerns about things like food and clothing aren’t valid, it’s that worrying about them does no good. You can have real concerns, but worry and anxiety don’t help.”
What does help, Paul says, is prayer. This exercise of taking our anxiety and putting it at the foot of the cross while lifting up our petitions, is a prayer exercise. Paul says to do it, in every case, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving. The first word is the common word for prayer in the New Testament. It is any cry to or conversation with God, including worship. The second, supplication, is a subset that specifically concerns communication of needs. ‘God I ask your help for this need, this circumstance.’ It is what is left when the useless anxiety is removed from our real needs and concerns. It also recognizes that even where we have some responsibility, the meeting of our needs is ultimately in the hands of God. We can cooperate with him, we can be strengthened by him to act, but ultimately he is the one who sovereignly chooses our course.
Therefore we are to lift up these petitions “with thanksgiving.? When we take our anxieties and box them up, we discard and discount them. Then, when we lift up our real needs we are able to thank God in our circumstances and even for them. We may not understand what God is does, but we understand he is working for our good and for his glory, so we are able to say ‘thank you.’
We’ll see in a minute that the remaining verses imply thanksgiving for the truth and beauty and goodness God has given. But even here there is a lot to commend thankfulness. As a commentator said “Thanksgiving in a time of trials reflects three things: One, remembrance of God’s supply in the past. You think back over His faithfulness to you up to this point and realize that His mercies have sustained you. Two, submission to God’s sovereignty in the present. To thank God in the midst of a trial is to say, “Lord, I don’t understand, but I submit to Your sovereign purpose in this situation.”. And three, thanksgiving trusts God’s sufficiency for the future. A thankful heart rests upon the all-sufficient God, knowing that even if we don’t see how, He will meet our every need.
So it’s in this mindset that you “let your requests be made known to God,” or “present your requests to God.” This is prayer about specifics, the real needs and the legitimate deep concerns and the people and the circumstances that have led to anxiety. But you’ve taken the anxiety off, put it in a box and put it away. It’s no longer your concern. And the real concerns you’re presenting in this mindset of thankfulness to a God who is faithful.
Verse 7, “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” God fills the space that had been occupied by your anxiety with his peace. It’s like you have this hollow place, right in your gut, and anxiety is a liquid poison that swirls in there, splashes in there, eats you up, causes spiritual, mental, emotional and even physical ulcers.
But when you give over that anxiety, that poison to God, he gives you peace in return. This is cool clear still water for your soul, quiet streams, a fountain of life, balm, to use a wonderful old word. This peace is indescribable and undeniable and beyond understanding. There is no human reason why prayer with thanksgiving would lead to peace, but this is God’s promise. The anxiety threatened to overturn your mind but this peace guards your heart and mind.
And this peace isn’t just in your soul. Rather it envelopes and surrounds you because you are in Christ Jesus. Peace is found when you are in Him. He’s all around us guarding our hearts and our minds. I have tried before to make a picture of this, and the best one I came up with is that we are a plant in the sunshine. Jesus surrounds and nourishes us as the sunlight surrounds and nourishes the plant, but here we learn that he also guards us from the storms of anxiety.
So, step one of this simple process: When you discover an anxiety, pull it out, separate out the real concerns, then seal up the anxiety in a box and leave it at the foot of the cross. Present the real concerns to God with thanksgiving. And expect there to be a peace that comes with this. Even if you have to do it again a day or an hour or a minute later, develop the habit, develop the prayer that presents specific concerns and needs to God while thanking him that he has worked, is working and will work all things out for our good and for his glory.
Step two – and there are only two steps – is to think with thanksgiving about things that are beautiful and good. Verse 8 and 9: Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 9What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
So I have, first, identified my anxiety, from concerns about money, to noises in the dark, to things I’ve done wrong, to things others have done, to the hurts and difficulties of those around us, to the sorry state of the world. I’ve separated the real concerns from the anxious worry or panic. Then I’ve packed my anxiousness into an imaginary box and consciously put it aside at the cross, while lifting my real concerns to God, specifically and with thanksgiving.
Step two. At you look up, notice that there are all kinds of lovely wrapped boxes up there near the cross. And each of them has a word on it: true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy of praise. Pick one. Open it. And then use your imagination to see in that box beautiful examples of that word, whether from God’s revelation of himself, or God’s work in creation or God’s work in and among the people he has created. And give thanks.
Let’s take the word ‘true’ as an example. Paul says to think about whatever is true. One thing we can always do with these qualities is to see them in God. Jesus affirms that God is true, and that he himself is ‘the way and the truth and the life.’ We can rejoice with thanksgiving in this. But we can also give thanks when we see truth in the character qualities of people or creation. For example, the world has tried to hijack science from its original practitioners, Christians, but I can testify that there is something wonderful about the physical laws God has made and I give thanks that those laws and behaviors are true.
So, verse 8, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Don’t think about your anxieties and fears, but about these positive things with thanks to God himself and for his reflection in what he has made.
One of my favorites is the simple word ‘lovely’ or literally ‘inclined toward brotherly love.’ Jesus occasionally uses the verb form, phileo, of the love of the Father for him and for the disciples. But the adjective means something inherently loveable, and is used both of moral and physical beauty. So I can say that God is lovely and give thanks for that, but I can also easily fill the box with images of creation and the heavens and the beautiful details of these things. The shell of a nautilus is lovely. A new fallen snow is lovely.
But probably closer to the point, people are lovely. I’m not talking about physical beauty, though that’s God’s creation too, but lovely in God’s inward design. Many of us are followers of HONY on Facebook. Brandon, the photographer, has a unique ability to record the beauty in a person’s, often in the context of tragedy. Ann Voskamp, the poet laureate of thankfulness, is also good at this. This week she wrote: “I was standing in line with passport in hand on a Friday afternoon in the busiest airport on the entire planet, looking into the weathered and young and searching eyes of a torrent of passing people, and I was falling head over broken heart in love all over again with teeming, beautiful humanity. You can find beautiful people wherever you seek to see beauty. I was this smiling fool nodding at everybody. I couldn’t stop looking into the eyes of the wanderers and the sojourners and the weary travelers because I never get over it: smiling at anyone is to awe at the face of God.” Voskamp has looked in the box and given thanks for loveliness.
So let me just hint at some of the things that fill my thoughts with thanksgiving when I trade my anxieties for a healthy mind. I thank God for honorable men and women, serving for justice and freedom and duty and compassion, whether in the armed forces or as first responders or as selfless caregivers.
I thank God for that which is just and right, for men and women who will not forsake their faith or abandon what they think is right even in the face of torture and death. As we’ve sung since February 15th, “even though we lose it all, we will not be lost, we’ll not be lost.” I give thanks for the purity of a child’s laughter and a mother’s love. I give thanks for the loveliness of the world’s faces and the Lord’s presence. I give thanks for what is commendable, the hard work of fathers and teachers and those who bring good news and spread truth and seek justice. I give thanks for excellence, whether on the athletic field or the piano bench or behind a camera or at a potter’s wheel. I give thanks for all that is worthy of praise, from the spectacle of the complexity of the enormity and detail of creation to the gift of a flower from one toddler to another.
But even as I work through that list and give thanks for what is good and beautiful around me, I am endlessly drawn back to Jesus, to my king. I’m tempted to play our favorite video, “That’s My King,” but I won’t, today. Suffice to say that Jesus is true, and he is the truth. Jesus is honorable, who in humility bore a punishment not his own. Jesus is just, who would not give cheap grace but instead paid the price of my sin. Jesus is pure, sinless, holy. Jesus is lovely. He had no outward form that we should admire him, but his character has drawn even his enemies to him for two millennia. Jesus is commendable, who loved like never man loved. Jesus is excellent, who deals with me with such skilled grace. Jesus is infinitely worthy of praise and I will think on him and give thanks for him and to him and he promises I will know peace and joy.
And as I think on these things and Lord who gives them, as I give thanks, I will seal my anxieties away. Put the anxiety in a box and bring your concerns to a loving Father and receive this peace he offers. Fill the space your anxiety occupied with these thoughts and thanks for things that are noble and right and subjects that are lovely and pure and acts that are commendable and just.
This, Paul says, is what I do. Verse 9: What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” The people of Philippi had seen Paul endure hardship with joy, singing hymns in the jail cell. They had seen his trust in Jesus, speaking boldly to the jailer after the earthquake so that he might believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved. They had heard his teaching in their town square and witnessed the power of his faith. Now, he says, imitate these things. Don’t be anxious. Do be prayerful. And set your hearts and minds on the beauties of God, and on those things seen in his people, not on your own stuff.
In verse 7 he promises that this leads to fullness of the peace of God. But in verse 9 he says that fixing your thoughts on what is beautiful and good and doing thig good that noble that flows from these things lead to the presence of the God of peace. Not just the peace of God; rather the God of peace will be with you. It’s one thing to have peace despite circumstances. It is quite another thing to have the God of peace despite circumstances, to have the God of peace with you, receiving your thanksgiving and praise and himself filling the places where once anxiety and fear and panic reigned.
So let’s rehearse this in its unadorned simplicity one more time. When you are anxious, worried or panicked, take the anxiety out, examine it for a moment and remove from it your real cares. Put the anxiety in a box and lay that burden at the foot of the cross. Then lift up the real cares and concerns to God, with thanksgiving. While you are thus looking up, take down a box of goodness or beauty and think on these things with thanksgiving. And the God of peace will be with you, the peace of God will guard your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus.