Some problems are long-term. A wayward child, cancer, a troubled marriage, financial trouble. You can’t just pray about it once and put it to bed. But you can’t live in a state of constant anxiety either. This chapter is about how to protect your heart and mind from both good and bad anxiety with the peace of God that transcends understanding.
Protect Your Heart and Mind
So far we’ve looked at God’s intended purpose for anxiety and the way it’s supposed to work. A crisis arises, anxiety forces you to deal with it, you take action, and the anxiety subsides. That’s good anxiety.
The rest of the book will focus on bad anxiety—the causes and cures. Almost all bad anxiety comes from one of three spiritual causes. Scripture offers a clear solution for each of the three. Once you identify the spiritual cause or causes of your anxiety and apply the corresponding remedy, you will see immediate results. You’ll be amazed how effective it will be to apply the right cure for the cause.
There are also some physical causes of anxiety, like hormonal changes or problems in the nervous system. We’ll examine that as well.
But before we delve into the causes, it’s important to put protections in place. All anxiety, even the good kind, burns like a fire in your soul and body. It will burn you out from the inside if you’re not filled with the fireproof substance called the peace of God.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, 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).
How Calm Is God?
The “peace of God” is not merely peace from God. It’s the very peace God experiences in his own being. God is at peace. He cares deeply about important things and he is emotional about them, but he isn’t flustered. He isn’t worried. He has perfect peace, and when you pray the way this passage prescribes, you’ll enjoy that same peace.
This peace transcends understanding. It’s beyond the reach of human thinking. You can’t talk yourself into it. You can’t get there through therapy, reasoning, optimism, medication, or reading books.
Peace beyond understanding is quite a claim because we can understand a lot. We can understand the sense of security that comes from a huge retirement account that’s more than you will ever need. We can understand job security, health insurance, lifetime warranties, deadbolt locks, police, and a strong military. We can understand dozing in a hammock on the beach in a breathtaking paradise. But God promises a peace that transcends anything we can comprehend.
Paul might have had Jesus’ words in mind when he wrote Philippians 4:7.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
All the world’s protections have limits. Your 401K gives peace of mind until the stock market crashes, then it brings you anxiety. Apparent job security gives peace until they lay you off. You can have a Cadillac health insurance plan, but it won’t calm your heart when someone in your family says, “I hate you. Get out of my life.”
Nothing in this world can give you peace when you need it most—when everything falls apart and all that is stable in your life crumbles.
But the peace of God will.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging” (Psalms 46:1-3).
Even in the most extreme calamity imaginable, when everything you’ve counted on dissolves beneath your feet, the peace of God will quiet the internal chaos with an ordered, divine calm.
Consider the promises God makes about our anxieties. Contemplate each one and let them wash over your soul.
- He offers to make us lie down in green pastures and lead us beside quiet waters (Psalms 23:2).
- When anxieties within us are many, his comforts delight our souls (Psalms 94:19).
- With a mind set on him, he will keep us in perfect peace (Isaiah 26:3).
- He invites us to cast our cares on him so he can carry them for us (1 Peter 5:7).
- Well over a hundred times in Scripture God assures us that we need not be afraid. Usually, it’s some form of “Fear not, for I am with you.”
Only for God’s Children
This peace isn’t offered to everyone. It’s only available to those who are in Christ.
“And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
“In Christ” is Paul’s shorthand throughout his writings for those who are intimately connected to Jesus because they have placed their faith in him. They follow him because they trust him more than they trust themselves. And following him always begins with repentance—turning from sin to embrace God’s will.
No promises are made to those who are not in Christ. They can have some peace, but not the peace of God.
If there is a question mark on whether you have placed your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and have all your sins forgiven, then anxiety is the least of your worries. When you’re on a sinking ship, that’s not the time to work on reducing anxiety. Use your anxiety to drive you to the most important action you can ever take—bow the knee to Jesus and enter a relationship of trust with the only one who can ever give you real peace.
Why Isn’t It Working?
Perhaps you read that and think, I’ve been a Christian for years. And I pray for peace every day. Why don’t I have the transcendent peace of God?
The peace is only for Christians, but it doesn’t come automatically just because you’re a Christian. It comes through prayer, and not just any prayer. That peace comes when we follow the model of praying that Paul lays out for us in Philippians 4.
The wrong kind of prayer only makes anxiety worse. If your prayer is merely a repetition of all the thoughts that got you anxious in the first place, fixing your attention on them rather than on God, it will only throw more gasoline on the fires of anxiety. By the end of your prayer, your problems will seem bigger than ever and God will be the last thing on your mind.
The same is true for praying with wrong attitudes. For example, suppose your anxiety is caused by an attitude that sees something in this world and says, “I must have that in order to be happy.” It could be a relationship, a circumstance, a family or job situation, good health—anything in this world.
Any attitude that requires some earthly circumstance in order to be happy in life will cause anxiety because no earthly treasure comes with any guarantees. There is always a possibility you won’t get the object of your desire, or, if you already have it, that you might lose it.
When you bring that “I can’t be happy without this” attitude with you into prayer, then prayer will only make your anxiety worse because there’s always the possibility God may say no.
And not just a possibility that he’ll say no. More like certainty. That attitude makes it certain God will say no because God refuses to assist us in our love for the world (James 4:3-4).
Another reason this kind of prayer aggravates anxiety is that it rises from a false conception of God. This kind of prayer casts God in the role of a servant—a cosmic bellhop. Bellhops only bring peace of mind when they do what you want and make your life easier. Bellhops with a plan of their own are an annoyance.
Most people, when they are in bad enough trouble, pray for help. But often the goal is to use God, not to seek him. They have a solution in mind, and the goal of the prayer is to use God to get the thing they really want. If they end up with only God and not the solution they wanted, it’s not enough.
The Nearness of God
So what are the ingredients for the good kind of prayer—the kind that will bring the transcendent peace of God? Paul is going to lay them out for us in Philippians 4:6, but before he does that, he lays the foundation for all true prayer in verse 5.
This is easy to miss because the verse divisions (which were not in the original) can be distracting. The most important key to true prayer appears just before Paul says, “Do not be anxious.”
The text reads this way—“The Lord is near. Do not be anxious” (Philippians 4:5b-6a). The peace of God only comes through the presence of God. And seeking that presence is the foundation for all true prayer.
Why does the Bible speak of God being near or far when we know God exists everywhere? It’s because existence and nearness are not the same thing. God’s nearness, or presence refers to his favorable attention. The Old Testament word translated “presence” is the normal Hebrew word for “face.” God turning his face toward you means he is giving you his favor and drawing near to you relationally. If he turns his face away, he is withdrawing his favor and becoming more relationally distant. Less accessible. God exists everywhere, but he doesn’t turn his favorable attention everywhere.
Where does he turn it? To us. To whom is God accessible? To his children who have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul says the Lord is near, that means when we are in trouble, God will come alongside us to provide strength, comfort, enablement, and encouragement.
And the nearer God is to you, the more of that you get. So Scripture teaches us how to draw even nearer to him. But the point here in Philippians 4 is about simply realizing the nearness we already have. Much of our anxiety comes from simply ignoring God’s presence and favor.
If you would like to explore the concept of how to enjoy God’s presence more deeply, consider the “Loving God with all Your Heart” sermon series and the daily devotional Deeper Knowledge of God.
God’s remedy for anxiety provides what no drug can ever give. Personal comfort. In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, the Lord is called “the God of all comfort who comforts us in all our troubles.” The word translated “comfort” literally means to approach, or to be next to the person. When God encourages you, he does it by drawing near to you.
For most dangers, isn’t the refuge we seek usually personal? A frightened child runs to his parents. If you’re lost in the woods, a map is nice, but much more comforting is if a person finds you and leads you to safety.
If someone threatens to hurt you, a defensive weapon might bring some comfort. But ideally you want someone bigger and stronger who can simply step in and deal with the attacker.
While driving a Safety Patrol truck for the Colorado DOT, my son Josiah stopped on a vehicle on the left shoulder of the Interstate. The teen driver was so terrified she could hardly speak. Out of gas, stranded, cars whizzing by at 90 mph, she was trapped and alone.
Josiah assured her, “I won’t leave until we get you to a safe spot and you’re okay.” She began sobbing with tears of relief. She didn’t know Josiah from Adam. But the assurance that she wouldn’t be alone was all the comfort she needed.
There’s something about personal comfort that we need in times of anxiety. While the world offers pills and practices, God reminds us of his nearness.
“When anxieties within me are many, your comforts delight my soul” (Psalms 94:19, author’s translation).
At Home with God
“If you make the Most High your dwelling … then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent” (Psalms 91:9-10).
The word “dwelling” means home—where you live. Think of the last time you uttered the words, “I can’t wait to get home.” Why was your desire for home so strong? It’s a place of rest, safety, and familiarity. It’s where all your stuff is—everything you need.
It’s good to venture out, go to work, go on a vacation, travel the world. But you always venture out from somewhere, and it’s the place to which you return when the adventure is over. Is there a more comforting word in the English language than home?
When Psalm 91 promises that God will take care of us if we make him our dwelling, the idea is that God is your home base. He’s your place of safety and refuge. When you need comfort, rest, resupply, or you just need to be re-grounded in a place of familiarity, you go to him.
That is the highest goal of prayer. It’s not to get through your prayer list so you can tell people you prayed for them. The starting place of prayer is to go home.
Do that, and you’ll have no reason for anxiety because the Most High God will protect you from harm.
Does that mean you’re exempt from trouble? No. Psalm 121 is a whole psalm on the promise of God’s watchcare, and the psalm begins with trouble.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains– where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalms 121:1-2).
He’s in trouble, and so he’s looking to the mountains, which was the place of supernatural help. And what does that help look like?
He will not let your foot slip– he who watches over you will not slumber; indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD watches over you– the LORD is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night. The LORD will keep you from all harm– he will watch over your life; the LORD will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore” (Psalm 121:3-8).
Did you notice how many times he repeated the phrase “watch over”? Six times in the span of six verses. It’s a beautiful concept. The Hebrew word appears the first time in Genesis 2:15, where it is used to describe Adam’s responsibility to watch over (tend) the Garden of Eden.
It’s used again in Genesis 4:9 where Cain asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain was asking, “Am I his guardian, protector, and caregiver? Am I supposed to keep track of him and watch over him every moment?”
To translate this word “protect” is inadequate. You can protect someone without really caring about that person or tending to their wellbeing. This word is a combination of protecting and cherishing. Perhaps the best translation is “watchcare.” Six times in six verses God promises his watchcare.
To be free from anxiety, you don’t need a promise of no trouble. You don’t need your problems to be solved. You don’t even need to see light at the end of the tunnel. You only need a Caretaker.
When Suffering Comes
You don’t know what the future holds. It may be a whole lot of hardship. But if you make the Lord your home, God will be your protector, your guardian, and your keeper who watches over, cherishes, and takes care of you.
Will you suffer hardship and trouble? Yes.
“In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship? … No. … Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
That thing you’re so stressed out about—you don’t have to be afraid of it. Whatever it is, it cannot separate you from the love of your Caretaker. And his love is better than life at its best, which means even if the worst-case scenario happens, you will still have access to a happy life. You will never be sentenced to be miserable as long as you make the Lord your home.
“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. Selah There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells” (Psalms 46:1-4).
Shade at Your Right Hand
Back to Psalm 121. Notice the promise in verse five.
“The LORD watches over you– the LORD is your shade at your right hand” (Psalms 121:5).
Having God at your right hand means he will be immediately accessible. God’s comfort is never out of reach.
“Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Psalms 139:7-12).
Jesus promised, “Behold I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 24:3). You don’t have to go through anything alone. For the Christian, there is no such thing as alone.
When you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he is right there with you (Psalm 23:4). No matter how far down you sink into the pit, he will stay with you. No matter how pitch black it gets around you, your Guide and Caretaker can see just fine. Maybe you can’t see him in the dark, but he is as near to you as your breath.
God has his purposes for delay, but when the time is right, the movement of his hand to save you will be like lightening. Remember when Peter walked on water but then looked away from Jesus and started to sink (Matthew 14:30)? How fast did Jesus’ hand move? If you step out on water, it takes less than a second for you before your head goes under. But in that fraction of a second Jesus had Peter in his grasp. That’s what it means to have the Most High at your right hand.
He who watches over you will not slumber” (Psalms 121:3).
Sleep is used as a figure of speech describing inattentiveness. Saying “he will not slumber” means God is always, at every moment of every day, paying close attention to exactly what you are going through. He is alert to what is happening to you, how it feels, and what you are thinking about it.
He does allow times when it seems like he isn’t there. He’ll even allow you to feel forsaken on some occasions (Psalms 22:1). But even in those times he is acutely attuned to exactly what you are going through.
“When I awake, I am still with you” (Psalm 139:18).
Have you ever awakened to see your spouse was watching you sleep? You have to love someone quite a bit to want to watch them sleep. And even if that has happened to you, chances are, they weren’t watching you very long. Certainly not all night. But God was. If you’re a believer, every time you wake up, he is already with you, paying attention to you. The problems you couldn’t stress about because you were unconscious—they were on his mind all night.
David loved that about God. He loved it that every time he woke from sleep, he awoke to God’s presence.
So many times we wake up in the morning battling stressful thoughts right off the bat. It’s like Sampson waking up with the Philistines already upon him and having to fight the moment he opened his eyes. Yesterday’s problems, today’s challenges, upcoming worries—you’re barely awake and the enemy is all over you.
No doubt David had plenty of problems that needed his attention. But before thinking about any of that, he took a moment to say good morning to God.
Imagine how much better equipped you would be to face the day’s troubles if your first conscious thoughts were on God. Instead of groping your night stand for your phone first thing, let your heart grope heavenward to wake up to God’s presence. Let your first conscious thoughts be a personal exchange with the one who watched over you all night.
The Who Question
One of our most natural responses in times of trouble is the “why” question. Why is this happening? Why would God allow this?
That’s natural, but it’s not helpful. We think we need to know why, but most of the time, we don’t. If you lose a child and cry out, “Why God?” would it really help you if he gave the answer? Suppose he laid out all his reasons. Wouldn’t the loss hurt just as much?
And what if you couldn’t understand all the reasons because your mind isn’t large enough to fathom the complexities or vastness of all God’s purposes?
How much better to shift from the “why” questions to the “who” question. Prayer protects you from anxiety by forcing you to contemplate the nature of the one to whom you are praying.
Focusing on what God is like puts your problems in perspective, it reorients your attention, and it corrects misaligned priorities. It sets this big scary crisis you’re so worried about alongside God, so you can see how relatively small it is in comparison.
That saying, “I don’t know what the future holds but I know who holds the future” is not just a clever Christian line. It’s the core of what it means that we worship a personal God. We get our comfort not from knowing all the answers, but from clinging to a Guardian and Caretaker and Shepherd and Father who not only knows all the answers, but who also loves us as his own children. You don’t have to know the why’s when you know the Who who knows them all.
Jesus Catched Me
Max Lucado tells the story of the day two-year-old Noah Drew was run over by a car.
The Drew family was making the short drive to their neighborhood pool. Leanna, the mom, was driving so slowly that the automatic door locks didn’t engage. Noah opened his door and fell out. Leanna felt a bump and braked to a quick stop. Noah was on the pavement, legs covered in blood and he was convulsing. Incredibly, tests in the ER showed no broken bones. Only cuts and bruises.
That night Leanna stretched out on the bed next to Noah, thinking he was asleep. As she lay beside him in the dark, he spoke. “Mama, Jesus catched me.”
“I told Jesus thank you, and he said, you’re very welcome.”
The next day Noah gave some details. “Mama, Jesus has brown hands. He catched me like this. He held his arms outstretched, cupping his little hands. When she asked for more information, he said, ‘That’s all.’ But when he said his prayers that night, he said, “Jesus, thank you for catching me.”
I don’t know if Noah had a dream, a vision, or a physical encounter with Jesus or an angel. but I do know that his description is very close to what Scripture promises.
“He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11).
Sometimes when Jesus catches you, you still get run over. But there is a world of difference between being run over without Jesus’ watchcare and being held close to his heart during the ordeal. The reason we don’t have to worry about future events is the promise that no matter how painful things get, even if you lose your life, you can bank on his promise to always be there to catch you.
How do you fireproof your heart to protect it from both good and bad anxiety? Focus on the nearness of God. Suppose you have a big, long-term problem, like cancer or a wayward child or troubled marriage. You can’t just take action today and be done with it. You need that good anxiety to pressure you to think hard about the situation, to pray hard, and to take necessary action every day for months or years.
But you can’t live in a state of constant anxiety or you’ll destroy yourself, even though it’s a good anxiety. So what do you do? Well, if it’s 2:00pm and it’s a good time to pray or to think through your next steps, let the good anxiety do its work.
But what about when it’s 3:00 and you have to go to an appointment? Or it’s 10:00 and it’s time to go to bed and you need some sleep? Or it’s 6:00 a.m. and you need to get breakfast for your family and start them out well for the day? If it’s not the right time to focus on the problem, shift your thoughts from the problem to the nearness of God. You can put those worries on hold for the next few hours by enjoying his presence.
Godliness Training Exercises
- Pick your favorite promise of God’s presence in times of trouble and memorize it. Consider Psalms 46:1-3; 23:2-4; 139:7-12; 139:18; 91:9-10; 121:1-8; 46:1-4; Romans 8:35-39; Matthew 24:3. Choose the passage you think is most likely to calm your heart in times of anxiety.
- God designed your brain so that the anxiety centers can override your rational brain in an emergency. If you’re talking to a passenger in your car, and the sound of squealing tires coming toward you hits your ears, your subconscious brain will throw your whole body into a state of readiness. Your heart rate will speed up, breathing will become quick and shallow, muscles tense, you will stop in mid-sentence, grip the wheel, and hit the brake—all before your conscious mind even knows what’s happening. That’s great for emergencies, but it can be a problem when you need your conscious mind to regain executive control. The higher your anxiety level, the more difficult it is to think clearly. But you need clarity of thought to recover from the anxiety.
To prepare for this, write a note to yourself. Make it a letter from calm you to anxious you, reminding yourself of the principles from this chapter you most want to remember the next time anxiety takes over. Those principles seem simple right now, but in the turmoil of anxiety, they will be next to impossible to recall. Keep the letter in a place you can grab it the next time you feel bad anxiety coming on. The earlier you catch it, the better.
- Share the principles from your letter with at least one other person. Do it in casual conversation (“I’ve got to tell you some things I’ve been learning …”), send them an email of encouragement, mention it in family devotions, tell it to your pastor—whatever opportunity you can find to verbalize the principles. Abstract ideas become much more solidified in your mind when you put them into words and communicate them to another person, especially if it turns into an extended conversation. That process of converting idea to words has an effect even on the non-rational emotional centers in your brain, such as the amygdala.
- Be alert to the next small anxiety that arises in your life over the next 24 hours and practice calming your soul by enjoying God’s presence. This is for practice, and you want to make sure it’s a success, so the smaller the anxiety the better. You don’t start getting in shape by climbing Mount Everest. Watch for a very minor fear to arise and get a win by soothing your soul with promises to be with you.
For the video of this session, click here.
 Grammatically, it is possible to take it as a Genitive of source (peace from God), but given the emphasis on the transcendent nature of it, it seems more likely Paul meant it as a Genitive of description (peace that describes what God is like).
 It’s usually assumed that that phrase “the Lord is near” belongs with the rest of verse five. “Let your gentleness be evident to all (because) the Lord is near.” That is a possibility. There is a very similar statement in James 5:9.
However, I believe it is more likely the phrase belongs with what follows. “The Lord is near (so) don’t be anxious about anything.”
There are only two other places where the Bible says the Lord is near using these same words (Psalms 34:18; 145:18). And they both have to do with comfort, not warning. Also, taking the phrase with verse 6 fits the context of Philippians 4, forming a sandwich.
- The Lord is near (verse 5)
- Do not be anxious about anything (verse 6)
- The God of peace will be with you (verse 9)
 Hebrew shamar.
 For example, see Psalms 44:23.
 Max Lucado, Anxious for Nothing, audiobook, ch.8 at the 21:35 mark.