I recently wrote a post on How Suffering Produces Hope. It was this same line of thinking that led my mind to this scripture from Philippians:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
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. 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.Philippians 4: 4-9
This chapter in Philippians may be one of my favorites of Paul’s letters. I once memorized the book for church, and these verses continually come to my mind.
When I was in middle school and struggling with going to school, I memorized verse 8 one Sunday evening and repeated it the next day at school to keep me centered. I would think of something with each word–something that was true or honorable or just and so on. (Memories like these remind me of the power of scripture memory, as well as how my childhood anxiety brought me closer to God. Despite how hard those times were, I am so grateful for how it strengthened my relationship with God.)
Verse 7 is often memorized and cited as people’s favorite verse. We love this idea of God giving us peace in all circumstances, even when it doesn’t make sense. But how do we receive this peace?
Like many of Paul’s letters, it’s important to look at the whole text, ignoring the arbitrary chapter and section breaks. These specific verses come as a call to action at the end of his letter. It is the “conclusion” that I so often teach students to write by reminding them not to simply repeat the entire essay but to draw the whole text together like a draw string on a bag, tightening up all those loose ends and leaving the reader with something to think about. If we read these verses in this way, we have to go back to the whole letter to understand the conclusion.
By doing this, we get some more clear answers about where this peace comes from.
It comes from rejoicing
In verse 4, Paul calls us to rejoice always, even during times of suffering. Perhaps he is calling back to chapter 1 when Paul says “to live is Christ, to die is gain” (v. 21). Even though he lives in a body of death, he celebrates his life as a life devoted to Christ. In chapter 2, he exhorts his readers to “do everything without grumbling or arguing” (v. 14). He raises himself up as an example, saying that, even if his is poured out as sacrifice, he will rejoice (v. 17).
But how do we rejoice always? Paul does this because he remembers that he doesn’t suffer in vain (v. 16). He remembers what Christ has done and suffered, and this spurs him on in hope. In chapter 3, he remembers that nothing in his life is worth anything next to Christ, and it is Christ that gives him true, lasting joy (v. 8).
Rejoicing doesn’t mean we don’t grieve or that we don’t have things to complain about. Rejoicing means remembering. We look behind at what Christ did and are grateful, and we look ahead at what Christ will do and we remember where our treasure is. Everything else becomes like waste in comparison, and we find that to live as Christ lived is to suffer with hope.
It comes from being reasonable
The NIV says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all” (v. 5). So, perhaps, Paul is referring back to his argument in chapter 2 about how we should imitate Christ’s humility. Christ, who made himself nothing (v. 6), is our example of a gentle spirit. Again, our remembering–our reflecting on Christ’s life–draws us towards a response. It makes us rejoice, and it makes us remember to live humbly as Christ did. Humility, I’ve found, can take away many anxieties. When we lay down our need to be the smartest, the strongest, or the most beautiful or talented, we carry around constant fears of rejection or failure. When we are humble and allow God to be God–when we become servants–we give up these anxieties and let God lead us by the hand.
It comes because “the Lord is at hand”
Paul reminds us that the Lord is at hand just before he tells us not to be anxious. You might read this as, “The Lord is at hand, and so don’t be anxious.” I used to believe that anxiety was something that could be quelled just through prayer, as if God’s hand would come down and touch my chest and physically take away my worries. But now I know that peace doesn’t just come because God is near or because we prayed for peace; otherwise we would never be anxious. Rather, it comes from remembering that the Lord is at hand. After Paul reminds his readers of this, he can only conclude that we are now free from anxieties because of this truth. When we take our anxieties to God, we are not just asking that God takes away our fear. We are remembering that there is a God who listens and who cares about every detail of our lives, and this alone washes away our fear.
I used to pray, “God, keep me from being afraid.” Now, I try to pray prayers of affirmation that remind me that God is already working. “God, you are loving and good, and you care about me. You have never let me down, and you never will.”
I think there are times when asking God to take away fear is the right thing to do. Fear can be a habitual problem that needs healing. But this can also put the focus on the fear rather than on the God whom we should fear above all else–the one who calms the storms and is powerful enough to overcome whatever we face.
It comes from prayer
Paul encourages his readers to pray with thanksgiving. Again, he is asking them to rejoice and be glad even while they pray for God’s intervention in their lives.
When we pray, we actively address our suffering by engaging in conversation with God. We place our anxieties on God rather than holding onto them ourselves. God may not answer immediately, but we know God has heard. And in our thanksgiving, we remember who God is, again taking our minds away from ourselves and focusing on God’s goodness.
The Peace of God
If we read all of this together, I believe what Paul is saying is that the peace of God is the remembrance of the Good News of Christ. It is a response to a gentle spirit who welcomes God’s intervention. It is a gift of the Holy Spirit that comes when we pray with thanksgiving and rejoicing.
The peace of God surpasses all understanding just as all holy mysteries do. We can’t fathom God’s depth and love and goodness. In a way, this peace adds to our humility, and perhaps it is because of this that it can “guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Our hearts and minds want to break away from humility and gentleness and rejoicing. They want to complain, to boast, or to despair. But when we rejoice and pray instead, we give our hearts and minds to God, who guards them with the truth of Christ.
May the peace of God be with you.