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.
6 Paul now turns to the second consequence of the Lord’s being “near.” They are to live without anxiety, instead entrusting their lives to God with prayer and thanksgiving. In so doing, he borrows from the Jesus tradition, that the children of the Kingdom are to live without care—but not “uncaring” or “careless.” Jesus invites his followers to live “without anxiety” because their heavenly Father knows and cares for them; in Paul’s case it is because their “Lord is near.” Apprehension and fear mark the life of the unbelieving, the untrusting, for whom the present is all there is, and for whom the present is so uncertain—or for many so filled with distress and suffering, as in the case of the Philippians.
On the contrary, Paul urges, “in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” “In everything” stands in contrast to “not about anything,” and means “in all the details and circumstances of life.” In situations where others fret and worry, believers in “the Lord” submit their case to God in prayer, accompanied by thanksgiving. For this combination see on 1:4. The three words for prayer are not significantly distinguishable; “requests” are “made known”44 before God “by prayer46 and petition.” In so doing one acknowledges utter dependence on God, while at the same time expressing complete trust in him.
Especially striking in the context of petition is the addition, “with thanksgiving”—although it is scarcely surprising of Paul. His own life was accentuated by thanksgiving; and he could not imagine Christian life that was not a constant outpouring of gratitude to God. Lack of gratitude is the first step to idolatry (Rom 1:21). Thanksgiving is an explicit acknowledgment of creatureliness and dependence, a recognition that everything comes as gift, the verbalization before God of his goodness and generosity. If prayer as petition indicates their utter dependence on and trust in God, petition “accompanied by thanksgiving” puts both their prayer and their lives into proper theological perspective. Thanksgiving does not mean to say “thank you” in advance for gifts to be received; rather, it is the absolutely basic posture of the believer, and the proper context for “petitioning” God. Gratitude acknowledges—and begets—generosity. It is also the key to the final affirmation that follows.
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.
The Peace of Believing Prayer
Do not worry about anything; but in everything with prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all human thought, will stand sentinel over your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
For the Philippians, life was bound to be a source of worry. Even to be a human being and so to be vulnerable to all the chances and the changes of this mortal life is in itself a cause for worry; and in the early Church, to the normal worry of the human situation there was added the worry of being a Christian, which meant taking one’s life in one’s hands. Paul’s solution is prayer. As M. R. Vincent says in his commentary, ‘Peace is the fruit of believing prayer.’ In this brief passage, there is a whole philosophy of prayer.
(1) Paul stresses that we can take everything to God in prayer. As it has been beautifully put, ‘There is nothing too great for God’s power; and nothing too small for his fatherly care.’ Children may take anything, great or small, to their parents, sure that whatever happens to them is of interest there, their small triumphs and disappointments, their passing cuts and bruises. In exactly the same way, we may take anything to God, sure of his interest and concern.
(2) We can bring our prayers, our petitions and our requests to God; we can pray for ourselves. We can pray for forgiveness for the past, for the things we need in the present, and for help and guidance for the future. We can take our own past and present and future into the presence of God. We can pray for others. We can commend to God’s care those near and far who are within our memories and our hearts.
(3) Paul lays it down that ‘thanksgiving must be the universal accompaniment of prayer’. Christians must feel, as it has been put, that all through life they are, ‘as it were, suspended between past and present blessings’. Every prayer must surely include thanks for the great privilege of prayer itself. Paul insists that we must give thanks in everything, in laughter and in tears, in sorrows and in joys alike. That implies two things. It implies gratitude and also perfect submission to the will of God. It is only when we are fully convinced that God is working all things together for good that we can really feel the perfect gratitude towards him which believing prayer demands.
When we pray, we must always remember three things. We must remember the love of God, which only ever desires what is best for us. We must remember the wisdom of God, which alone knows what is best for us. We must remember the power of God, which alone can bring about that which is best for us. Everyone who prays with a perfect trust in the love, wisdom and power of God will ﬁnd God’s peace.
The result of believing prayer is that the peace of God will stand like a sentry on guard over our hearts. The word that Paul uses (phrourein) is the military word for standing on guard. That peace of God, says Paul, as the Revised Standard Version has it, passes all understanding. That does not mean that the peace of God is such a mystery that the human mind cannot understand it, although this also is true. It means that the peace of God is so precious that the human mind, with all its skill and all its knowledge, can never produce it. It can never be of our contriving; it is only of God’s giving. The way to peace is in prayer to entrust ourselves and all whom we hold dear to the loving hands of God.
5b, 6. (3) Let there be no worry but prayerful trusting in God above.
Joy within, big-heartedness all around, and now prayerful trusting in God above. Says Paul, The Lord (is) at hand. In view of the immediate context (3:20, 21) the meaning is probably not, “The Lord is always nearby or present,” (cf. Ps. 145:18) but rather, “The Lord is coming very soon.” This, of course, is strictly true with respect to every believer. If the Lord arrives from heaven before the believer dies, then no one surely will be able to doubt that this coming was, indeed, at hand. But if the death of the believer occurs before the day of Christ’s coming, then two facts remain true both for the believer’s own consciousness and according to the clear teaching of Scripture: a. The believer’s life-span here on earth was very, very brief. In fact, it amounted to a mere breath (Ps. 39:5; 90:10; 103:15, 16); and b. the interval between the entrance of his soul into heaven and the Lord’s second coming was but “a little season” (Rev. 6:11), for in heaven he was geared to a different kind of time-scale. Hence, take it either way, Paul had every right to say, “The Lord (is) at hand.” Whatever happens in history is a preparation for this coming, which, as has been shown, will in either case be soon. This does not mean that the apostle excludes the possibility that by earthly reckoning there could still be an interval of many years before the Lord’s arrival. He is not setting any dates (see 1 Thess. 5:1–3; 2 Thess. 2:1–3). In view of the fact that no one knows the day and the hour when Jesus will return (Matt. 24:36), it behooves every one to be ready, working, watching at all times (Matt. 25:1–13). At the coming of the Lord all wrongs will be righted, and the believer will stand in the presence of his Lord, fully vindicated. Hence, let him not make too much of disappointments, or unduly trouble himself about the future. So Paul continues, In nothing be anxious or “stop being anxious about anything.” (See also N.T.C. on John 14:1–4.) There is such a thing as kindly concern, that is, genuine interest in the welfare of others. The verb (used in Phil. 4:6, and here rendered “be anxious”) can elsewhere have a favorable meaning, as it does, in fact, in this very epistle (2:20): Timothy was genuinely interested in the welfare of the Philippians. Often, however, it indicates to be unduly concerned about, to be filled with anxiety, to worry. Such worry may be about food or drink or clothes or one’s life-span or the future or words to be spoken in self-defense or even about “many things” (Matt. 6:25–28, 34; 10:19; Luke 10:41; 12:11). The cure for worry is prayer. Hence, the apostle continues, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your petitions be made known before God.
The cure for worry is not inaction. If one wishes to plant a garden, build a house, make a sermon, or do anything else, he cannot attain his objective by prayer alone. There must be careful planning. There must be reflection leading to action. Paul is not forgetting this. In fact, the reflection is stressed in verse 8, the action in verse 9. On the other hand, however, it is also true that reflection and action without prayer would be futile. In fact so very important is prayer to the Christian that it is mentioned first of all (verse 6b).
Neither is the cure for worry apathy. God never tells us to suppress every desire. On the contrary, he says, “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it” (Ps. 81:10). Proper desires should be cultivated, not killed.
The proper antidote for anxiety is the outpouring of the heart to God. Here questions occur:
- In connection with what situations or circumstances should this take place?
Answer: “in everything.” Note the sharp contrast: “In nothing be anxious but in everything … let your petitions be made known before God.” Because of the specific context here, the emphasis is, nevertheless, on all such circumstances which might otherwise cause one to worry: “Cast all your anxiety upon him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). The outpouring of the heart to God should, of course, not be restricted to this.
“Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer.
That calls me from a world of care,
And bids me at My Father’s throne.
Make all my wants and wishes known!”
(W. W. Walford)
- In what frame of mind should this be done?
Answer: with reverence and true devotion. That is implied in the words, “by prayer.” Prayer is any form of reverent address directed to God.
- What is the nature of this activity?
Answer: it amounts to supplication. Note: “and supplication.” By this is meant the humble cry for the fulfilment of needs that are keenly felt.
- What is the condition of acceptance?
Answer: that this be done “with thanksgiving.” This implies humility, submission to God’s will, knowing that this will is always best. There must be grateful acknowledgement for: a. past favors, b. present blessings, and c. firmly-grounded assurances for the future. Paul begins nearly every one of his epistles with an outpouring of thanksgiving to God. Throughout his writings he again and again insists on the necessity of giving thanks (Rom. 1:21; 14:6; 2 Cor. 1:11; 4:15; 9:11, 12; Eph. 5:20; Col. 3:15; etc.). Prayer without thanksgiving is like a bird without wings: such a prayer cannot rise to heaven, can find no acceptance with God.
- What are the contents?
Answer: not vague generalities. The prayer, “Lord, bless all that awaiteth thy blessing” may be proper at times but can be overdone. It is easy to resort to it when one has nothing definite to ask. Paul says, “Let your petitions be made known before God.” There must be definite, specific requests (1 John 5:15). That is also clear from the example given us in what is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6:9–13). Note also the preposition before, in “before God.” One enters into the very presence of God, realizing that nothing is too great for his power to accomplish nor too small for his love to be concerned about. Is he not our Father who in Christ loves us with an infinite love?
 Barclay, W. (2003). The Letters to Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (3rd ed. fully rev. and updated, pp. 90–92). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press.