“Perfect Wisdom, Perfect Power
Perfect Goodness, Perfect Love
Father, Savior, Friend, and Healer
O so near and all above
You are joy each moment new!
Here I rest content in You.”
-hymn, “Content in You” – Ken Bible 2014  

The book of Philippians was written by the apostle Paul while in an ancient Roman prison. Not that today’s modern prisons are enviable in terms of their creaturely comforts, but comparatively Roman prisons (the likes of which Paul was in) make today’s U.S. prisons look quite tame. They are hardly a place you would expect someone to experience joy and peace. Yet, the letter to the Philippians is full of emotional words. The word “joy” and “rejoice” are used 16 times, while other words spanning the continuum of affections are used a whopping 49 times! Even a quick reading of the epistle makes it clear that God not only cares a great deal about our emotions, but more specifically, He cares that we embody the right emotions at the right times related to the appropriate godly thoughts (Phil. 4:8). If you have been a Christian any length of time, one of the most frequently quoted passages that captures this vision is from chapter 4 of the same book:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, 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 understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

We can easily relate to this passage because the experience of anxiety and fear is a daily occurrence. Anxiousness is very real and we all try and find ways to subdue those overwhelming feelings with things such as food, sleep, destructive behaviors, and unholy mental strategies. In spite of our familiarity with this passage, I believe that we tend to view this passage merely as a prescription to subdue our anxious feelings and the paralyzing fear difficult circumstances can bring about. Of course, in a sense this is true but there is so much more to this passage that we tend to overlook when we only look at one or two verses at a time. I believe that this section in chapter 4 is far more than an instructional list, or a spiritual “how-to” used in order to learn how to control our emotional ups and downs.  Instead, this passage represents more of a reality check regarding the kind of God we serve and the profound implications those truths should have for our lives. My main goal, by the power of the Spirit and the grace of God, is to help you see that verse 5b (“The Lord is at hand...”) is the foundation that supports the commands and promises of this entire passage. Unfortunately, this verse is often overlooked with an emphasis on the “prescription” (v. 6 – “…prayer and supplication”). Let’s look verse-by-verse to see why verse 5b is so critical to a proper understanding and application of ideal Christian living as embodied by Paul himself, and perfectly lived out by our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Rejoice, always?   
Prior to chapter 4, Paul had already commanded[1] the Philippians to rejoice (1:18, 2:17-18, 2:28) in terms of certain activities and events (ex. that their “concern was revived” for Paul). But, uniquely in chapter 3, Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice in God (verse 1), as we similarly find in verse 4 of chapter 4. Paul gives a command to rejoice and to embody the Spirit-filled emotion of joy (Galatians 5:22). However, note what the cause of the rejoicing is – it is not in a certain set of circumstances or events, or in a desired external outcome (remember Paul is in prison!). The cause of the rejoicing is God Himself. Ultimately, our rejoicing should be about God and His Person no matter what the circumstances – good or bad. James talks about “counting it all joy when we encounter various trials” (1:2), but Paul does not ask us to enjoy or seek pain, for pain’s sake – he wants us to dig deeper – not only in our worst experiences, but even in our best! He wants us to find our highest joy and gladness in God Himself, namely in the person of the Lord Jesus.  Psalm 16 says that in God’s presence there is fullness of joy, and Jesus promises that for faithful servants of God, they will be allowed “to enter into the joy of their Master” (Matthew 25:23). Consequently, Paul’s command to rejoice is intended to evoke a joyful response in relation to God Himself. In other words, for the Spirit-filled Christian, God Himself and right thoughts about Him should cause joy and gladness. Before we look at verse 5, I want to examine the surrounding verses to better understand how they support our main point.

The Means: Thankful Prayer
Verse 6 offers the “prescribed” command by which we may turn from anxiety and fear towards that Spirit-enabled joy that we are asked to embody. Most will be familiar with this verse. The command can be paraphrased as such: In faith, pray. Pray, and in doing so you may move from anxiety to peace and joy. Ask God with an attitude of thanksgiving in any and all circumstances for help, and His sustaining joy and peace will come. Notice the similarities to verse 4 – “pray in all circumstances” and (v. 6): “rejoice always”, (v.4): “Do not be anxious” and (v. 6) – instead be joyful (v. 4). Through thankful asking, we have been given the means by which we can gain access to Spirit-empowered joy. Again, notice that the emphasis is less on asking God to change our circumstances (although certainly this is not prohibited!) and more on changing our heart and attitudes (anxiety moved to joy) in the midst of (even difficult and painful) “various trials”.

The second thing to see is the attitude with which we are told to pray. We are told to make an affection-altering request “with thanksgiving”. We are not to grumble our way into prayer, but rather to enter into prayer with an attitude of thanksgiving. But what must we be thankful for? Surely in a set of circumstances whereby everything appears to be going wrong God would not expect us to be thankful, right? The question is: what is the reason for our thankfulness? Regarding what, exactly, are we to be thankful for? A content-less, pie-in-sky, ambiguous, feel-good thankfulness is not biblical (and actually different from how we normally experience thankfulness). We don’t muster up thankfulness in spite of reality, but precisely because of it! So, what then are we to be thankful for and what are we to rejoice over? Remember, from a biblical perspective thankfulness assumes a giver and a receiver. By default, God as Creator and myself as the creature, all good things come from God and therefore we are indebted to Him for all things (Romans 11:36). I believe verse 5 holds the key to answering these questions; and I believe it matters because the truth of verse 5 can and will sustain prayers and supplications that allow us to flee feelings of anxiety, to make our “reasonableness” be made known to all, and consequently for God to be glorified. In the second part of this series we will discover a God-given and “profound promise” and how biblically-guided “right thinking” enables us to pray the way that Paul intends us to. Without believing this promise and thinking godly thoughts, we will never realize the God-glorifying and joyful potential intended for us. The third part of this series will bring into focus the main point of this scriptural passage and of this article – that “…the nearness of God is my good…” (Psalm 73:28).


[1] . It is important to understand that Paul can command us to embody an emotion because the Spirit elsewhere has promised to fulfill that command. For instance, see Galatians 5:22-25.

Write a Comment

Comments for this post have been disabled.