The Meaning of Prayer
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.
For most people few doctrines associated with Christianity are more generally misunderstood than that of true prayer. It is totally misunderstood by nonbelievers, and it is misunderstood by many who profess the name of Jesus. The problem may be traced to the fact that so few persons know God well enough to be closely associated with him in prayer, and since none of us is as closely associated with him as we ought to be, prayer is at least partially confusing to us all. Does prayer change things? Or does prayer change people? Does God change his mind as the result of believing prayer? Or does God move us to pray? What does it mean to pray without ceasing? Who can pray? How do you pray? And why should a person pray anyway? In any gathering of God’s people many of these questions will receive different and sometimes even contradictory answers.
In the fourth chapter of Philippians there are two verses that are an exceptionally fine statement of the Christian doctrine of prayer. Paul says, “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” (Phil. 4:6–7).
For Christians Only
What is prayer? Prayer is talking with God, and the place to begin in any true definition of prayer is with the fact that prayer is for believers only. Paul did not write his words about prayer to the pagan world at Philippi or to the world at large. He wrote them “to all the saints in Christ Jesus” at Philippi. This means that prayer is exclusively for Christians. It is the means by which an empty soul that has been touched by Jesus Christ can be thrust beneath the life-giving fountain of God’s grace, can bask in God’s goodness, and can be supernaturally refreshed for life’s tasks. Prayer is the Christian’s antidote for anxiety.
I know something called prayer is offered a billion times daily by millions of people who are not Christians, but this is not prayer in any real sense. Scores of non-Christian people in the East spend the better part of a day spinning prayer wheels. Savages chant prayers in many jungle clearings. New Agers finger prayer beads. Many poor souls cry out a prayer in the midst of some calamity. Many non-Christians give themselves to a life of meditation. But this is not true prayer, if the person involved is not a Christian. Prayer is talking with God, and the only prayer that God hears and answers is one that is made through his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who alone provides access to his presence.
This truth was taught by Jesus. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Jesus did not say that he was one of several ways to come to God, that he was a prophet who pointed out the ways to God; he said that he was the way to come to God, and he added, lest anyone misunderstand him, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” This means that no prayer offered to God apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ has ever reached God his heavenly Father.
There are more passages in the Bible that tell when God will not answer prayer than there are passages in which he promises to do it, and God definitely says he will not answer the prayer of anyone who does not come through faith in his Son.
Have you ever tried to pray and found God distant and unreal? Have you gone away without any real hope that God has heard you? It may be that you have never done the first thing God requires. Your sin divides you like a wall from God’s presence. It will only be removed by Jesus Christ. You need to come to him. You need to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I recognize that I am separated from you by my sin; but I believe you died for me to remove that sin forever. Remove it now, and accept me as your child. Amen.” If you do that, God will remove your sin, and he will accept you as his child forever.
Barriers to Prayer
Now we must also add that although it is true that God does not hear the prayer of non-Christians, it is also true that he does not hear the prayers offered by many Christians. In fact, the Bible says that God will never hear a Christian’s prayer so long as the Christian is clinging to some sin in his heart. David said, “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18). Isaiah wrote, “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isa. 59:1–2).
Do these verses describe your prayer life? If so, you must confess your sin openly and frankly, knowing that God “is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We can only pray if our lives are open books before him.
In normal life we must know people well before our conversation with them flows freely. There are many people I know casually to whom I would speak about the weather, their work, their families, but to whom I would never speak about more personal things. There are others I know better; to these I would speak about some problems in my own life or about the concerns of others. Certain things I share only with my wife. How easily I can speak depends on how well I know the person. It is the same in our relationship to God. If we do not know God well, if our sin keeps us from him, if we do not recognize his characteristics and how he operates with people, then he is like a stranger to us and the prayer flows slowly, even though we have come to faith in Jesus. Instead, we must confess our sin and learn to spend time alone with our heavenly Father. When we do that our prayer will become the kind of communion that we have in conversation with a close friend.
Prayer for Others
Everything that I have noted up to this point has ourselves as the center; but if you know what prayer is, you know also that prayer necessarily involves other people. No matter how intimate the conversation may be between a husband and wife, it does not always center on their own affairs exclusively. They share news about their acquaintances and their concerns for them. So it is in prayer. The Bible calls such prayer “intercession.” First Timothy 2:1 says, “I urge you, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone.”
As we meet with God in prayer—at the beginning of a day, at its end, or in any moment throughout it—these concerns should also be a part of our conversation with him. We should have great boldness as we present the concerns of others.
That great Bible teacher, Harry Ironside, tells a story about intercessory prayer in one of his books. He had been preaching in the Midwest and had held meetings in a church that contained a most unusual group of believers. They had Sunday services and midweek meetings, but they did not come together for prayer. He spoke to them about this lack. They said, “We don’t need to meet for prayer. We have no spiritual needs, for the Bible says that we have all spiritual blessings in Christ Jesus. And we have no need of material things, for we are well provided for. So we don’t pray.” Ironside said, “Well, that is unfortunate. At the very least, you should pray for me that God will give me freedom of speech as I go about preaching the gospel.”
They could not seem to understand his point, and Ironside left. Some time later he collapsed while in the pulpit. It was found that he had typhoid fever with a temperature of 106 degrees. In time he recovered, and during the next year he was back with this strange group of Christians. They said to him, “When we heard that you were sick with typhoid fever we began to pray for you. We prayed for you twice a week, but after we heard that you had recovered we stopped.” Ironside said, “Well, that is unfortunate also. As long as I was in the hospital room I was all right. All I had was typhoid fever. But now that I am out preaching the gospel, I am faced with the spiritual temptations that come to a Christian minister. Now I need your prayers more than ever.”
I know someone is going to say, “Do you mean to teach that God will only take care of another Christian if we pray?” No, I do not think intercession means that. But it does mean that God allows us to share in the blessings he gives to others and delights in using our prayers as a means through which he operates.
Let me illustrate this by another story. More than a generation ago a man named Hotchkiss went to Nigeria where he spent over forty years as a missionary. One day he was late for a service he was to have in a village located across a large plain. There was a rule in Nigeria in those days that no one ever crossed a large open space for fear of stampedes by the herds of wild game that roamed at large in the country. A safe path always passed within a short run of the trees. Hotchkiss was late, and he knew the quickest way to the village was to go directly across the plain. So he started across it. Halfway across the worst happened. He heard the thunder of rhinoceros hoofs, and as he looked up he saw a herd of the monstrous animals headed toward him. There was nowhere to go, so Hotchkiss knelt down in the middle of the plain, clasped his Bible to his chest, and prayed, “Lord, here I come.” An eternity passed as the roar grew louder and then faded away into the distance. At last all was quiet and Hotchkiss arose. He was standing in the midst of the plain marked with the hoofprints of a hundred or more rhinoceros. But he was alive, and he went on to his meeting in the village.
Years later, a couple from Ohio visited this man in Nigeria. In the course of their conversation the husband said to Hotchkiss, “I had a most unusual experience once that concerned you. One night I woke up suddenly with an irresistible urge to pray for you. And I did, committing you to God’s safekeeping.” Hotchkiss asked if he remembered when it was. The man had written it down that night in his Bible, and when they compared the times, it was on the same day and at the same hour that Hotchkiss had been spared on the Nigerian plain.
Someone may argue that God would have saved Hotchkiss anyway, even if the man had not prayed. Probably. But the point is that in God’s marvelous working he moved a man halfway around the world to pray for Hotchkiss in that hour. Thus, years later the man was able to share in the blessing of his friend’s supernatural deliverance. In the same way we have the privilege as God’s children of committing others into his hands for his blessing—our friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and family. As we do, we are permitted to share in his blessing on them. Our Christian life holds few joys greater than this one.
There is one other point about prayer that comes directly from this passage. Prayer is not only talking with God, nor is it only intercession for others. Prayer is also an opportunity to present our requests to him. Paul calls them petitions, and he says, “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.” God invites us to place our earnest requests before him.
This is God’s cure for anxiety. Christians are troubled about many things. You may be troubled about your work, your family, the future, money, sex, or happiness. God invites you to place your request about these things before him. The promise of the verse is that the peace of God will keep your heart and mind through Christ Jesus.
Have you ever noticed that the verse does not say that we shall necessarily receive the things we ask for? You would expect the verse to say, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God, and God will fulfill your requests.” But it does not say that. It says, “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.” Our prayers are often in error, and we pray for things that are not good for us. God does not promise to give us these things. All things work together for good to them that love God. However, God does promise to give a supernatural peace to those who share their real needs with him.
We must not think that Paul was recommending something for others that he had not found true for himself. Paul too had had this experience. Do you remember the prayer that Paul wrote in Romans 15? Paul was in Corinth and was about to go on to Jerusalem with the collection from the gentile churches. After that he had planned to travel to Rome as an ambassador of the Christian gospel. He asked prayer for three things: 1) “that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea”; 2) “that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints”; and 3) “that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed” (Rom. 15:31–32).
How were Paul’s requests answered? We do not know every aspect of God’s answers, but we know that Paul’s first request was not fulfilled literally. Paul fell into the hands of unbelievers and spent two years in prison in Caesarea as a result, although his life was spared. We have no information about his second request—that his collection might be received willingly by the saints in Judea—but there is no reason to think Paul received a warm welcome from anyone. Finally, we know that Paul’s third request—for a joyous journey to Rome—was fulfilled, if it was fulfilled, only after long delays and through much hardship. When Paul arrived in Rome at last, he arrived as a prisoner in chains.
God certainly did not answer Paul’s requests as Paul intended. But God did answer, and he answered exactly as Paul indicates in his words about prayer to the Philippians. He answered by giving Paul peace. Paul knew God’s peace even in the most difficult of earthly circumstances, and he writes out of these circumstances to tell us also to make requests of God, our heavenly Father.
6 Anxiety can be good or bad. Paul has anxiety for the progress of the gospel (2:28) and the condition of the individual churches he has founded, and he sometimes loses sleep over them (2 Co 11:28), but he does not seem to regard this concern to be a noxious anxiety. It comes with the task of being an apostle. The anxiety Paul warns against is the kind that unhinges, paralyzes, and incapacitates one—“anxious, harassing care” (Lightfoot, 160). Paul is not calling for them to be indifferent toward life. The root idea of the verb “to be anxious” (merimnaō, GK 3534) is “to be pulled apart.” The Philippians are not to allow their lives to become so wrapped up with material well-being that they fall apart when their standard of living is threatened or their wealth is taken from them. They also need not be anxious about what is going to happen to Paul. Only those who are confident in the coming of the kingdom of God and in their vindication by God will not be overwhelmed by anxiety when trouble comes.
They are to “present [their] requests to God,” not because God is unaware of their needs and needs to be informed, but because it is a way to acknowledge their total dependence on God. When requests are accompanied with thanksgiving, they will be prepared “to surrender themselves to his will whatever the circumstances” (Peter T. O’Brien, “Divine Provision for Our Needs: Assurances from Philippians 4,” RTR 50 : 24). Michael, 197, writes, “The way to be anxious about nothing is to be prayerful about everything.” If the Philippians are truly thankful for what God has done for them in Christ, they will not be anxious about the assaults of opponents who threaten them. A thankful spirit crowds out selfish pride, checks fear, defuses anger, and directs one’s thoughts outwardly toward others.
7 The “and” (kai) that begins this verse introduces the result of thankful prayer (Thielman, 219). The “peace of God” is the peace that God possesses and bestows on others (Ro 5:1) and that leads to contentment (Php 4:11). It is akin to God’s salvation secured through Christ. It will become a garrison standing guard over their hearts and minds, where anxiety and fear lurk. The reference to peace, concluding both sets of exhortations (4:7, 9), may also allude to their dissension. Every time Paul refers to the peace of God elsewhere, it occurs in contexts where strife has reared its ugly head (cf. Fee, 420). The peace of God is not simply what individuals might experience in their soul but is something that should reign over the community (Ro 14:19; 2 Co 13:11; Eph 4:3; Col 3:15; 1 Th 5:13). It keeps minds from becoming hardened (2 Co 3:14), blinded (2 Co 4:4), and outwitted by Satan (2 Co 2:11; 11:3) so that every thought remains captive to Christ (2 Co 10:5). It keeps hearts from losing heart (2 Co 4:1, 16; Eph 3:13) so that they do not stray from pure and sincere devotion to Christ.
Trust and pray (vv. 6–7)
Christians are not to be filled with anxiety and tossed with care. They are rather to bring their problems and needs to the Lord with the confidence that he cares for them and his care is sufficient. They are to do so with thanksgiving, remembering how very gracious God has been to them. An ungrateful child always seeks more from his parents without giving thanks for what he has received. We are not to be ungrateful children.
Believers who carry their burdens to the Lord will find peace and rest in their spirits. This peace will stand at the door and guard the hearts and minds of believers so that anxious care and worry cannot enter. It is a glorious peace from the Lord that unbelievers cannot find and cannot explain, and it is a peace that believers themselves cannot fully understand.
4:6 / Because “the Lord is near,” his people need not be anxious about anything. This is in line with Jesus’ own teaching to his disciples: “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear … do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matt. 6:25–34). Christian existence in a pagan world was full of uncertainties: persecution of one kind or another was always a possibility, and the impossibility of membership in guilds which were under the patronage of pagan divinities was bound to involve economic disadvantage. But if the Lord was near, there was no cause for anxiety. Jesus had encouraged his disciples to have done with anxiety because their heavenly Father, who fed the birds and clothed the grass with flowers, knew their needs and was well able to supply them (Matt. 6:26–32 par. Luke 12:24–30). Similarly Paul says, in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. He uses three different Greek words for “prayer” here. There are slight differences of nuance between one word and another, but the main effect of the use of all three is to emphasize the importance in Christian life of constancy in believing and expectant prayer. Like his Master, Paul takes it for granted that an essential element in prayer is asking God for things, with the same trustful spirit as children show when they ask their fathers for things. In the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to use when addressing their heavenly Father, the provision of his children’s daily bread is included along with the establishment of his kingdom on earth.
Moreover, a grateful remembrance of past blessings is a safeguard against anxiety for the future: it adds confidence to the prayer for continued blessings. Hence the importance of thanksgiving in all true prayer.
4:7 / If they paid heed to this encouragement, then, in place of anxiety they would enjoy peace of heart. Jesus, in John 14:27, bequeaths to his disciples “my peace,” which he gives them “not … as the world gives.” So here, the peace that God’s children receive is the peace of God, which transcends all understanding. It “surpasses all imagination” (F. W. Beare); it exceeds all that human wisdom can plan. This peace will “stand garrison” over their hearts and … minds and keep anxiety and other intruders out: it will guard them in Christ Jesus.
The peace of God may mean not only the peace that he gives (cf. Rom 5:1) but the serenity in which he lives: God is not subject to anxiety.
4:6. Joy replaces anxiety in life, so Paul advises the Philippians not to be anxious about anything. The cure for anxiety? Prayer! Worry and anxiety come from focusing on your circumstances such as imprisonment or persecution which Paul and the Philippians faced. Anxiety or worry doesn’t accomplish anything, but prayer does (Jas. 5:16). Jesus warned against worry which demonstrates a lack of trust in God (Matt. 6:25–34).
4:7.The peace of God comes from prayer involving both asking God for earthly needs and thanking God for his presence and provision. The expression appears only here in the New Testament. God’s peace reflects the divine character, which lives in serenity, totally separate from all anxiety and worry. Such peace is like a squad of Roman soldiers standing guard and protecting you from worry and fret. Such peace is not a dream of the human mind. The human mind cannot even comprehend this kind of peace, wholeness, and quiet confidence. Such peace protects the two organs of worry—heart and mind that produce feelings and thoughts. Such protection is real, available in Christ Jesus. Those who do not trust and commit their life to Christ have no hope for peace.
4:6 Is it really possible for a Christian to be anxious for nothing? It is possible as long as we have the resource of believing prayer. The rest of the verse goes on to explain how our lives can be free from sinful fretting. Everything should be taken to the Lord in prayer. Everything means everything. There is nothing too great or small for His loving care!
Prayer is both an act and an atmosphere. We come to the Lord at specific times and bring specific requests before Him. But it is also possible to live in an atmosphere of prayer. It is possible that the mood of our life should be a prayerful mood. Perhaps the word prayer in this verse signifies the overall attitude of our life, whereas supplication signifies the specific requests which we bring to the Lord.
But then we should notice that our requests should be made known to God with thanksgiving. Someone has summarized the verse as saying that we should be “anxious in nothing, prayerful in everything, thankful for anything.”
4:7 If these attitudes characterize our lives, the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. The peace of God is a sense of holy repose and complacency which floods the soul of the believer when he is leaning hard upon God.
Stayed upon Jehovah,
Hearts are fully blessed;
Finding, as He promised,
Perfect peace and rest.
—Frances Ridley Havergal
This peace surpasses all understanding. People of the world cannot understand it at all, and even Christians possessing it find a wonderful element of mystery about it. They are surprised at their own lack of anxiety in the face of tragedy or adverse circumstances.
This peace garrisons the heart and the thought life. What a needed tonic it is, then, in this day of neuroses, nervous breakdowns, tranquilizers, and mental distress.
6 Anxiety is to have no place in the lives of Christians because in everything there can be prayer, prayer in its various forms and modes, petition, requests, but above all thanksgiving. This is because praise is always due to God and because faith is quickened when we remember in thankfulness what God has done for us in the past. There is an echo here of the teaching of Jesus (Mt. 6:25–34; 7:7–11). 1 Pet. 5:7 is similar as it says, ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you’, and as J. A. Bengel (New Testament Word Studies, vol. 2 [Kregel Publications, 1978], p. 447) aptly puts it, ‘Anxiety and prayer are more opposed to each other than fire and water.’
7 When prayer replaces worry, the peace of God, which transcends all understanding comes in, and that peace acts as a sentry guarding the Christian’s mind and emotions from being over-whelmed by the sudden onrush of fear, anxiety or temptation. This reality Christians should prove in their daily lives.
4:6 Paul exhorts the Philippians to pray about their circumstances instead of worrying over them. be anxious for nothing: Although the same word in 2:20 describes Timothy’s concern for the Philippians, here Paul uses the word to refer to worry. He prohibits the Philippians from worrying about their own problems. Instead they are to commit their problems to God in prayer, trusting that He will provide deliverance.
4:7will guard: Paul’s choice of a military term implies that the mind is in a battle zone and needs to be “protected by a military guard.” Since the purpose of such a guard in a wartime situation is either to prevent a hostile invasion or to keep the inhabitants of a besieged city from escaping, the peace of God operates in the same way: to protect the mind from external corrupting influences and to keep the mind focused on God’s truth.
4:6–7. Joy and gentleness (vv. 4–5), accompanied with an awareness of Christ’s imminent return, should dispel anxiety. Paul’s appeal to the Philippians is do not be anxious about anything. But this was not a call to a carefree life. To care and be genuinely concerned is one thing. To worry is another. Paul and Timothy cared for the people they ministered to (2 Cor. 11:28; Phil. 2:20), yet they retained trust in God. Jesus warned against worry which obviously eliminates trust in God (Matt. 6:25–33).
Paul exhorted the Philippians to prayer instead of anxiety. Praying with thanksgiving involves trusting God. Four words are used here to describe a believer’s communion with God. Prayer (proseuchē) describes a believer’s approach to God. Petition (deēsei) emphasizes requesting an answer to a specific need. Thanksgiving (eucharistias) is an attitude of heart which should always accompany one’s prayers. Requests (aitēmata) speak of definite and specific things asked for.
When the exhortations of verses 4–6 are heeded, the peace of God (v. 7) will flood one’s troubled soul. The Lord Jesus Christ is a believer’s peace (Eph. 2:14), and every child of God has peace with God through justification by faith (Rom. 5:1). But the peace of (or from) God relates to the inner tranquility of a believer’s close walk with God.
This peace of God transcends all understanding, that is, it is beyond man’s ability to comprehend. This peace guards the believers. Guard (phrourēsei, also used in 1 Peter 1:5) translates a military term which means “to protect or garrison by guarding.” Like soldiers assigned to watch over a certain area, God’s peace garrisons the hearts and … minds, that is, the emotions and thoughts, of God’s children.
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