Hear the words of St. Paul: “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your forbearance 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 minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:4-7).
The structure of this indicates that Paul is giving a command attached with a promise. If we do something we will receive something. The command here is expressed in a few different ways, some negative and some positive, but the repetition and manner in which Paul carries on suggests that this is a single, somewhat complex, suggestion. The command is expressed in the following ways: 1) rejoice in the Lord always, 2) let your forbearance be known to everyone, 3) do not be anxious about anything, 4) prayerfully make your requests known to God in everything, 5) offer thanksgiving to God in everything. If we manage to do all of this, then the peace of God, which is beyond nature, will keep our hearts and minds in Jesus.
What are we to make of this? Where do these five expressions find their unity? Perhaps in the one declaration placed amidst them all: the Lord is at hand. God is here, and he is on our side. This is the God who saved Noah from the flood, parted the Red Sea, destroyed the armies of Pharaoh, lavished fame and fortune upon Joseph, guided the stone out of David’s sling, and destroyed the armies of the Philistines. This is the God who walked on the sea, multiplied loaves, calmed the storm, turned water into wine, healed lepers, gave blind men sight, and rose from the dead on the third day. If it is true that the Lord is at hand, then being “anxious” about “anything” is utter foolishness. If we are anxious, we do not “rejoice,” but we worry about things. If we are anxious, we do not meekly offer our belongings to everyone in forbearance. If we are anxious, anything can upset us. If we are anxious, we forget God in some things and battle the world ourselves. If we are anxious, we do not thank God for everything, but instead we curse him for our curses. Paul is asking us to rely on God always, with everyone, about anything, and in everything. If, when troubles arise in our lives, we look meekly to the Lord who is “at hand,” instead of staring into the eye of the storm and trembling, then God will fill our hearts with a peace that no one will understand—a peace that looks like foolishness from a solely natural perspective. Then, and only then, will we be able to keep our attention focused on Jesus.
True Christian devotion to Christ means giving him everything, just as Abraham gave everything he had to God. If we try to follow Jesus, but we still want to fight for our own bread, then we have held something back. Part of giving everything to Jesus is giving him our security. If we do not trust him to pay our bills and manage our time, then every single worldly threat we face will pull our minds and hearts away from him. We will be like men with a foot in two camps, unable to see that our lack of commitment to one prevents our success in the other. Time goes by, and each failure, each threat, each pitfall only worsens the problem by making us less likely to relinquish our nervous hold on the details of our lives. He stands before us and tells us to look not at the world but keep our eyes fixed on him. We cannot look away, and if we keep our attention firmly fixed, he will provide for everything we need. How often do we find ourselves confused and separated from him because we gave him some, but not all, of our objectives? The negative command not to be anxious is really a positive command to keep looking at Jesus, meekly accepting whatever comes as from him—like a lamb to the slaughter. Until we learn to keep looking at him, the Devil has a trump card that he can always laughingly toss on the table. He can always use the one thing we have not surrendered to Christ to separate us from him. The first bump the world throws sends us rushing back to ourselves, desperately fighting the rising tide with our own two hands. With our eyes no longer fixed on him, and instead on so many other things, we fail to learn something of his goodness, we do not feel his tender love, and so our minds are filled with darkness, and our hearts pull us again into the mire of sin. If instead, we surrender everything with childlike trust, then the Devil is out of cards, and we can dance through minefields all the way to the Kingdom of God.