In this fourth and final blog of this series, we will focus on prayer as indispensable to survive (and thrive) in perilous times. But I am not thinking of prayer in general but a specific type of prayer that must be practiced these days, the kind that allows us to unburden our hearts before God.
In this regard, I want to focus specifically on Philippians 4:4-7. These verses unpack how Paul made it through the difficulties he encountered. This description of prayer found in these verses, if practiced, is a source of immeasurable blessing.
In the previous four blogs, I spoke of three indispensable qualities to navigate through the perilous times of the last days. The first is a deep trust in a God Who is sovereign over all things. Unless we are well-grounded in the truth that God is in complete control of all that occurs, we will be shaken as we behold the increasing chaos of the latter days. The second is the desperate need to experience community: having a relationship with the body of Christ which exceeds the superficial. The third is humility. The prophet Zephaniah tells us that we must seek humility if we are to avoid the judgment of the day of the Lord (Zephaniah 2:3).
We begin our discussion on prayer with the opening statement made in Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice.” Taking it at face value, we have to ask the question, ‘Can Paul be for real?’ Lest we dismiss him as some sort of Pollyanna, it is helpful to remind ourselves that he is writing from a prison cell in Rome. He gave the Philippians church an example of this when he and Silas were beaten and put in a prison cell. Luke tells us that “about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25, LSB). Paul lived the exhortation he gave to the churches that they should rejoice in the Lord in every situation.
How, you may ask, are we to rejoice in the midst of a major pandemic? Or how was I to rejoice when my 46-year-old half-brother passed away? Or when one of our best friends and one of the kindest Christians I have ever known suffered from pancreatic cancer for six months and was not healed? The answer is found in the three-word phrase found in this passage: “in the Lord.” We are to rejoice in the fact that we are in Christ, which means that our sins are totally forgiven, but Christ now lives in us. That means that whatever happens to us outwardly, the constancy of his presence inwardly never changes.
This is followed by the statement, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” The word translated reasonableness is hard to interpret. The KJV translates it, “let your moderation be known to all.” But this is not a call for temperance or abstinence. The better translation is that of generosity or the willingness to make allowances. It is the quality that keeps one from insisting on their full rights. In other words, it’s the opposite of entitlement, the opposite of demanding one’s due. As author Sam Storms says, ‘It is the patient willingness to yield wherever.’
This is followed by the statement, “the Lord is at hand.” Most people who read that assume Paul is making a time reference, perhaps referring to the Lord’s coming. But it is my belief that this is not a time reference but rather a spatial (or relational) reference. Perhaps David said it best: “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18). That means that before we can effectively pray, we need to cultivate the nearness of God” (read Psalm 73:28). We are not praying to a God who is far off, but a God who is near us.
No wonder this is immediately followed by the incredible statement, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Paul has the audacity to offer the cure for anxiety. In this passage, the word translated anxiety is the same word Jesus used in the Sermon on the Mount (“Therefore, I say to you, do not be anxious about your life”). What is the antidote for anxiety according to this verse? It is to bring everything to God in prayer. According to the apostle, this is the only way we can live with unburdened hearts. (I don’t mean by that that our hearts should not be burdened for individuals, for God has called us to “bear one another’s burdens.” Galatians 6:2). I am speaking of burdens due to worry and the anxiety they cause. According to his teaching in Philippians, we have to learn to pass them off by handing them up to God.
To illustrate this point, Watchman Née gave the following picture I have found to be quite helpful. Imagine a construction worker standing on the second floor of a construction site whose job is to receive cement bags passed up to him from a man on the first floor. He then must pass them up to the man on the third floor. But what if he decided not to pass them off but hold them in his arms. Slowly, he begins to be crushed by the weight of the increasing cement bags. Eventually, because of his refusal to pass them up, the load will utterly crush him (commonly known as a nervous breakdown).
To sum it up, Jesus spoke these words at the end of the Olivet Discourse found in Luke’s Gospel:
“But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed
down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares
of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like
a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face
of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying
that you may have strength to escape all these things
that are going to take place, and to stand before the
Son of Man” Luke 21:34-36