“Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). How often have I been told by the evangelically correct that this is a command, just like “do not worship other gods,” “do not commit adultery,” “do not steal”? Many, many times.
But it doesn’t sound like one to me. Commands are given in a stern voice with dire consequences for defying them. They’re surrounded by statements about the holiness of God, His perfection, and His complete goodness which is incapable of fellowship with sin and evil. They’re proclaimed from a mountain covered in fire and smoke. A mountain that mustn’t be touched by any animal or any person other than Moses, Aaron, and Joshua on penalty of death. Once a command has been broken, fellowship with God can only be restored through painful and humiliating repentance and sacrifice.
But as I read Philippians chapter 4, I’m immersed in God’s kindness and Love and understanding. Right before He tells me not to be anxious, He comforts me with His presence in verse 5: “The Lord is near.”
He follows His encouragement to refrain from worry with instructions on how to overcome my anxiety when it hits: “But in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” He’s offering me help and hope. Does He ever do that when He’s confronting me with my sin? No. In that case, He says to cut off my hand or gouge out my eye (Matthew 5:29-30). Take extreme measures. Nothing like that is suggested here.
Verse 7 describes the blessing that will result from my increasing ability to trust Him: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” When a command is broken, such peace is only promised after confession and repentance. But there’s no call to repentance here.
In the well-known passage advising me not to worry found in Matthew chapter 6, Jesus’ words aren’t in the form of a rebuke for sin; they’re more like water and sunshine and fertilizer for my growing faith. He tells me that I’m more valuable than the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. He reminds me that my heavenly Father is gladly providing for my daily needs. His words are spoken with love and compassion. The Bible never treats immoral behavior this way. Sin is far too serious in God’s eyes.
Peter encourages me to cast all my anxiety on God. He doesn’t advise me to do it because God will punish me if I don’t; he invites me to give my worries to Him because He cares so very much for me (1 Peter 5:7).
Jesus comforts me in Luke 12:32, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom.” He addresses my fear, not with judgment, but as a Shepherd tenderly caring for His sheep. He tells me that my loving Father is pleased to graciously grant me riches beyond my wildest imagining.
The greatest God
Sometimes I wonder if people reject the God of the Gospel because He sounds too good to be true. How could such a God exist? How could He love me so deeply when I defy Him and disappoint Him on a regular basis? I know I don’t deserve this. Could His grace really be so great, so rich, so free?
But this is the only kind of god that I could ever worship without reservation, without disappointment, without that little voice inside telling me that He should be better than He is. He must be beyond all my expectations of the best possible god, or He isn’t God at all.
The greatest good
I also question the idea of seeing Philippians 4:6 as a command because it just doesn’t make sense from a psychological point of view, and I have a feeling that God knows human psychology way better than all the wisest mortal counselors who have ever lived.
When I was a child, I was a crier. Any little pain, physical or emotional, could bring me to tears. Following the philosophy of their generation, my parents often responded to my weeping by commanding me to quit doing it. The result? I sobbed even more loudly because I was hurt by their lack of understanding and empathy. In a similar way, my anxiety is never, ever reduced or resolved when someone tells me to just stop it.
I suspect God understands this aspect of human psychology and knows how to deal with it in a way that will lead to the best results. When the evangelically correct command believers to simply cease being anxious, many respond with repression and denial. Hide the anxiety. Pretend it’s not there. Don’t let anyone see it (especially fellow Christians), or you’ll feel guilty and rejected. Others give up on their faith in this God who appears to have no compassion for their struggles.
God’s way is always the better way. Commanding and expecting me to stop indulging in a particular sin is reasonable and right. Even though I’ll never be perfect in this life, the only way to make any progress in overcoming my evil choices is to recognize that they’re wrong and intentionally turn in the opposite direction. I can find the motivation and the strength to do this because I’ve experienced His forgiveness through Jesus’ sacrifice. That’s the best way to deal with the sin that separates me from the blessing of fellowship with Him.
But anxiety is a different matter. Soothing my fears, offering realistic ways to work through them, reassuring me of His presence and His care, are far more effective than chastising me. In His love and grace, He provides the better way. The way that meets my deepest needs. The way that increases my faith and my love for Him. The way that draws me nearer to Him. That’s where He wants me to be.
Maybe It's Not a Command