Reacting to Problems with Thankful Prayer
but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:6b–7)
Spiritually stable people react to trials with thankful prayer. Such prayer is the antidote to worry and the cure for anxiety. The theology of prayer is not in view here, but rather its priority and the attitude the believer brings to it. The three synonyms used here, prayer, supplication, and requests, all refer to specific, direct offerings of petition to God. The assumption of the text is that believers will cry out to God when they have a need or a problem, not with doubting, questioning, or even blaming God, but with thanksgiving (cf. Col. 4:2). Instead of having a spirit of rebellion against what God allows, believers are to trustingly cast “all [their] anxiety on Him, because He cares for [them]” (1 Peter 5:7).
God’s promises support the wisdom of gratitude. He has promised that no trial believers face will be too difficult for them to handle (1 Cor. 10:13). He has also promised to use everything that happens in believers’ lives for their ultimate good (Rom. 8:28). Even suffering leads to their being perfected, confirmed, strengthened, and established (1 Peter 5:10). Believers should also be thankful for God’s power (Ps. 62:11; 1 Peter 1:5; Rev. 4:11), for His promises (Deut. 1:11; 2 Cor. 1:20), for the hope of relief from suffering (2 Cor. 4:17; 1 Peter 5:10), for the hope of glory (Rom. 5:2; Col. 1:27), for His mercy (Rom. 15:9), and for His perfecting work in them (Phil. 1:6).
People become worried, anxious, and fearful because they do not trust in God’s wisdom, power, or goodness. They fear that God is not wise enough, strong enough, or good enough to prevent disaster. It may be that this sinful doubt is because their knowledge of Him is faulty, or that sin in their lives has crippled their faith. Thankful prayer brings release from fear and worry, because it affirms God’s sovereign control over every circumstance, and that His purpose is the believer’s good (Rom. 8:28).
Once the sinner has made “peace with God” (Rom. 5:1), that is, in salvation having ceased to be God’s enemy and become His child, he can enjoy the peace of God, the inward tranquility of soul granted by God. It is a confident trust in His flawless wisdom and infinite power that provides calm amid the storms of life. Isaiah wrote of this supernatural peace: “The steadfast of mind You will keep in perfect peace, because he trusts in You” (Isa. 26:3). Paul prayed for the Romans that “the God of hope [would] fill [them] with all joy and peace in believing” (Rom. 15:13). In his high priestly blessing on Israel Aaron said, “The Lord lift up His countenance on you, and give you peace” (Num. 6:26). In Psalm 29:11 David wrote, “The Lord will bless His people with peace.” Shortly before His death Jesus promised, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful” (John 14:27). God’s peace is not for everyone, however; “ ‘There is no peace for the wicked,’ says the Lord” (Isa. 48:22), neither with God, nor from God.
Paul further defines this supernatural peace as that which surpasses all comprehension. It transcends human intellectual powers, human analysis, human insights, and human understanding. It is superior to human scheming, human devices, and human solutions, since its source is the God whose judgments are unsearchable and whose ways are unfathomable (Rom. 11:33). It is experienced in a transcendent calm that lifts the believer above the most debilitating trial. Since it is a supernatural work, it resists any human comprehension. The real challenge of the Christian life is not to eliminate every unpleasant circumstance; it is to trust in the good purpose of our infinite, holy, sovereign, powerful God in every difficulty. Those who honor Him by trusting Him will experience the blessings of His perfect peace.
When realized in believers’ lives, God’s peace will guard them from anxiety, doubt, and worry. Phroureō (will guard) is a military term used of soldiers on guard duty. The picture would have been familiar to the Philippians, since the Romans stationed troops in Philippi to protect their interests in that part of the world. Just as soldiers guard and protect a city, so God’s peace guards and protects believers who confidently trust in Him. Paul’s use of the phrase hearts and minds was not intended to imply a distinction between the two; he was merely making a comprehensive reference to the believer’s inner person. Once again, Paul reminds his readers that true peace is not available through any human source, but only in Christ Jesus.
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.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). Philippians (pp. 283–284). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2000). Philippians: an expositional commentary (pp. 238–243). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.