Renewing the Covenant: Don't Worry?
Don Garlington | Saturday, November 16, 1996
Copyright © 1996, Don Garlington
Philippians 4:4-7 is a familiar passage to us. Based on most English translations, we understand it to mean that Paul was forbidding worry or anxiety about anything on any occasion. When we understand it that way, we often are stricken with guilt because we have violated what Paul has told us not to do. But is that what he was talking about in this passage? I want to propose that it really is not. If you ask "Is Paul forbidding excess worry and anxiety? Does it imply that we shouldn't be that way?" the answer is obviously yes. But we must consider the heart of the text and discover what Paul is really driving at.
Reasons for Rethinking
Some texts must be rethought. Why? Our traditional understanding of them creates problems. For instance, in the text that we are studying here, the traditional understanding of the text creates some internal problems with the New Testament itself, as well as with Paul himself. Do you remember how in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul is talking about the way that he has suffered as an apostle of Christ? He recounts how he went days and nights without sleep and food, and that many times he received the forty lashes minus one by the Jews. That is very interesting in itself, because when you read a standard article on the stripes in one of the Jewish encyclopedias, it says that every time the whip was laid to the back, those present would quote a verse from the Torah which warned people not to fall away from the God of Israel. Paul was perceived as an apostate, one who at least was in the process of falling away. And so, not only was there physical pain during the beatings, but there was also the reminder that the victim was one who was very close to the precipice and in danger of apostatizing from the living God and from his covenant.
Paul received that kind of treatment on more than one occasion, and then he says, on top of everything else, there was his anxiety for all of the churches. Now any pastor and any group of elders knows how much anxiety is involved just in overseeing one congregation. Think of all the churches Paul began. And Paul uses the very word anxiety-- "my worry about all the churches." Now if he is forbidding worry in the abstract later on in his epistle to the Philippians, then surely he would fall under his own condemnation, would he not? That is one reason to think that we ought to rethink the text before us.
Another reason is that the traditional understanding creates some practical problems which we have already touched upon. If, in the most superficial sense possible, we interpret this to mean that Paul forbids all worry and anxiety, we are being naive. Have you ever been worried and anxious about anything? Have you ever lost a job and don't know where the next paycheck is going to come from, literally? Have you not known how you would be able to pay this bill or that bill? Have you not known how you would be able to provide for the needs of your children? Do you worry about things like that? I would say that if Paul is really not forbidding worry as such, or worry in the abstract, then we can rest a little bit easier. I think it would be absurd to say that this forbids all kind of worry, because the phrase "Don't worry" can be used in a very glib and a very unrealistic way, which results in unnecessary guilt.
A Divided Heart
With that introduction, I want to look at the heart of the text as I perceive it. It is contained in the imperative verb that Paul uses in verse 6. It is translated "Have no anxiety about anything," which is the standard way of translating it--have no anxiety, do not be worried. But what we have to realize is that the verb here, which is translated worry or be not anxious, is a verb that literally means to be divided. We have an excellent illustration of that in the case of Mary and Martha. Do you recall Martha's problem? What was it? She was distracted, and literally the Greek says at that point she was divided--it is the very same word that Paul uses here. She was going here and there and everywhere, trying to provide for all of Jesus' physical needs. Mary was the one who had chosen the better portion, because she chose to sit at the feet of the master and learn, but Martha was divided. The word used in this text means divided. We must realize, however, that in biblical language the idea of being divided, especially in a context like this and some other passages, means to be uncommitted--uncommitted to God and to his covenant. And there is an implication that one might fall away if one continued in that state of being divided.
Look at the first chapter of James. James, as you know, was very much occupied with the matter of perseverance. He begins on this note: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance," and so forth. In verse 6 he says, "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt," referring to the one who prays, "because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does." Now, the double-minded person is the one who is prepared to trust when things are going well, but is not prepared to trust when things are not going well. So it is in that state of being divided that he prays, and James says, let him be assured that he will not receive anything simply because he is not one who prays from the stance of an undivided mind. He is uncommitted.
In Psalm 119:113 David writes, "I hate double-minded men, but I love your law." Who is a double-minded man? As we just read in James, the double-minded person is one who cannot make up his mind whether he wants to be committed or not. When things are going well, he thinks he is fine; if they are not, he wonders if he wants to proceed down this path after all. In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, the notion of being divided relates to the two ways that are placed before someone. In the book of Proverbs, especially, we frequently find the language of two ways. One can go one way and pursue one type of action, or go down another way altogether.
Psalm 1 speaks of the one "who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord. . ." That is very familiar to us. But then the psalm ends on this note in verse 6: "For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish." So there are two ways down which one may go. One is the way of commitment to the covenant and the God of the covenant, and the other is a way of renouncing and repudiating that God and his covenant. One is the way of obedience; the other is the way of disobedience and apostasy.
The Risk of Falling Away
Coming back to Philippians 4, when we take this background into account, we recognize that Paul uses a verb that means to be divided. I believe he is saying that we should not be divided by the cares of life, because if we are, we lack commitment--commitment to the covenant, to the relationship--and the result is that we run the risk of falling away. You see, that makes the text far more profound, far more weighty, and far more realistic than the traditional understanding of simply forbidding all worry. Paul is not forbidding the emotion of anxiety. He himself could not help but be anxious for all the churches. But he is saying that we have to remain single-minded in the midst of our problems.
This is a text, then, that is dealing with idolatry, as many texts of the Old and New Testaments do. Why do I say that? To be divided is to flirt with an idol, to flirt with an alternative explanation of reality other than the one provided by God in his word. Paul forbids us to fall away because we are divided. That, I believe, is the heart of the text. But then he says, "Be divided with respect to nothing." "Nothing" is a small word and yet it is big. You see, in principle, anything could divide us, and anything does try to divide us. Granted, the things that might distract and divide you are not the things that would distract me and vice versa. There is a Satanic wisdom which knows our weaknesses and strengths, and which always plays upon the weaknesses where we are most vulnerable. When we say "Be anxious for nothing," we mean things like this. We want to know more than we do and think that if only we had a more vital piece of information--like having insider information to the stock market--then we could make provision and would not have to be anxious. Then we would not be divided.
What is our temptation? It is wanting to have everything in the palm of our hand, not realizing that God is God after all, and that many times he is going to leave us in the lurch, at least for a period of time, just to see if we are going to be divided or undivided. This was what Jesus faced in the wilderness in his testing, his temptation, and all of his temptations had to do with whether or not he would remain loyal, obedient, and faithful to God his Father. So it is with us. And so it may be that Satan attacks us at just the point of wanting to know more than we can actually know. Or it may be wanting to do things that we are not capable of, of wanting to be places where we cannot be, or wanting to stay where we cannot stay. We may think to ourselves, "If only I could go there, or if only I could stay there, then the Christian battle would be worth fighting." But do you see how we can be divided on those very points? We want to make provision for contingencies. There is no doubt about that. That is the reason that we have insurance. But you see, even insurance can be taken away, because there are certain conditions. If you are considered to be a bad risk, then goes the insurance.
We want to make provisions for contingencies, and when we cannot do so, we run the risk of being divided. We may begin to wonder, "Is God really trustworthy after all? He let me be ripped off twice. I was hurt in a car accident," or whatever it may be. We may want to make provisions for the contingencies of the future and we cannot do it. But we must realize that the world we live in is simply too uncertain. We are in the wilderness, remember? And the wilderness is a place of insecurity. So we want to guard ourselves against evil, nerve ourselves against an anticipated failure, and so forth. But Paul exhorts us to be anxious for nothing. Anything can divide, anything can be the occasion for causing us to fall away from the God who has come in the covenant and has sealed a relationship with us, but we must not let that happen.
Prayer Prevents Division
The heart of the text, then, is, "Don't be divided. Don't be divided by or with regard to anything." How do we keep from being divided? Paul says it is by means of prayer. He is telling us that the allurements and temptations to apostasy are staved off by nothing other than prayer. Paul says that prayer is vital and indispensable, and that without it one will fall away. It is interesting that when he says to make our requests known to God, the verb for "make known" is one that is used when God makes things known to us by means of revelation. In this verse we are doing the revealing. But Paul uses a term so strong it can be used of God making known information to us.
Now we must raise a question: Why pray if God knows everything already to begin with? This objection is frequently raised by those who are skeptical with regard to any kind of revealed religion. If God is omniscient, if he knows the beginning from the end, and if he knows our hearts inside and out, then why reveal things to him? Nothing we can say is really a revelation to God because he already knows everything.
There are many reasons we can think of to pray. God commanded it and has given it to us as a means of grace to encourage our perseverance and faithfulness. When we pray, we can really understand what God wants of us and agree with that purpose in our heart. When we pray, we sense our dependence on God. As we learn to hold things with an open hand, then we understand that that prayer is vital in order to really secure our linkage to the covenant. All these are reasons to pray.
But maybe we can distill everything by saying that prayer is simply talking with God. If people are in a family relationship, there is no way that they can maintain that relationship as it ought to be maintained if they do not talk. Now, members of dysfunctional families don't talk to one another, and their family is not functional by definition. But the covenant is a relationship, and in order to keep up the relationship, we have to talk with the one with whom we are in relationship to. It is a relationship between persons. And so even though God knows everything that we would request beforehand, we pray because there is the necessity of saying it because of the covenant bond.
I would suggest there is one more reason for us to pray. When you make known your request, you have to articulate, do you not? In other words, prayer is like taking a gun and aiming at a target, as opposed to having a scatter-shot shotgun and just hitting anything that might happen to be out there. You have to be specific and precise, and in the process you have to ask yourself, "Am I praying for something that I ought to be praying for? Is it a real need, or is it simply a whim?" When you have to articulate it and be intelligent in your prayer, that goes a long way in accomplishing the purpose for prayer in the first place.
Prayer and Supplication
Paul tells us to make our requests known to God in prayer. But then he breaks prayer itself down into two separate categories, prayer and supplication, and then he adds thanksgiving. Perhaps you could say there are three separate categories--prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving, but we will consider prayer and supplication first.
What is the difference between prayer and supplication? The word supplication is an old word meaning petition. So prayer is the broader term and supplication is the narrower term. Why did Paul use the broader term and then the narrower term? What is the importance of linking these two things together? There is a very practical reason why he did this. Our specific supplications, our specific petitions, come in the context of prayer more generally. Paul is instructing us about systematic prayer. He is saying that in making our requests known, we must not forget the needs of others. In general prayer, we talk to God about the concerns of the kingdom and his glory, not simply about ourselves. If prayer consisted only of supplication, we would find ourselves turning ever inward upon ourselves so that we and we alone would be the subject of this prayer activity. It would be focusing on our needs exclusive of the needs of others.
There is an appropriate place and time for being very specific with regard to our own needs, but we must never do so in the abstract, divorced from the needs of others and the concerns of the kingdom. Why? If we did that, we would become very self-centered in our prayers. Of course, we pray the most intensely when we have a specific need, do we not? That is natural to do. But we ought to be just as intense when we pray for others in the broader context of those supplications with regard to the kingdom and the glory of God. So I think that is an important distinction.
The Privilege of Prayer
The third category is thanksgiving. He speaks of prayer and supplication and then adds "with thanksgiving." I want to suggest that there are several reasons for thanksgiving, but a primary reason is the privilege of prayer itself. That is a point that has often been made, but one which is often overlooked.
When we put Paul and the city of Philippi in historical context, we find a man in the middle of a thriving city full of Greco-Roman paganism. And what was a chief characteristic of these pagan Greco-Roman deities? It was their inaccessibility. If you study classical literature you notice how capricious, selfish, and standoffish the gods could be. One had to placate them, sacrifice to them, and play the game according to their rules. Even then they were not necessarily prepared to do anything for you. We see this idea also in the mystery religions of the ancient world. One entered into, or was initiated into, the mysteries of a particular deity by degrees because the deity was essentially inaccessible and standoffish.
To have the privilege of prayer means that God is accessible to us. He is not some capricious entity to be wooed and won; rather, he is one who wants to be entreated. "Come, my soul, thy suit prepare: Jesus loves to answer prayer," says John Newton. "He himself has bid thee pray, therefore, will not say thee nay." That is the biblical attitude of God when it comes to prayer. He invites prayer and desires to enter into a personal relationship with us that is fed and nurtured by prayer.
Other Reasons for Thanksgiving
Another reason for thanksgiving is for the promises on which we base our confidence. Scripture contains all kinds of ironclad promises. Now, sometimes we may think that something is ironclad and it really is not, and we have to reevaluate our hermeneutical approach. But there are so many promises that we really do not have to invent promises because they are all over the place. These promises give us the basis for confidence.
Then there is thanksgiving for past mercy. Someone has said that our thanksgiving ought to be as specific as our petition was in the first place. I agree with that because frequently our petition has been very specific, but once the thing has been granted, we are not as specific in our thanksgiving as we were in asking for the thing to begin with.
Another reason to be thankful is that there is an expectation that God will do exceeding abundantly above that which we can ask or think. I wonder if we really take seriously God's promise to grant exceeding abundantly above that which we can ask or think? I come from a Baptist background, and when I think of this verse, I am always reminded of an incident in the life of Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon came from a godly Congregational family in England, and his father and grandfather were ministers. After his own conversion, Spurgeon was baptized, joined a Baptist church and became a preacher. One day his mother said to him, "Charles, I often prayed that you would become a Christian, but never a Baptist," which demonstrates the disdain shown to Baptists throughout their history. "Well," Spurgeon replied to his mother, "isn't that just like the Lord to grant exceeding abundantly beyond that which we can ask or think?"
Finally, there is thanksgiving because we are confident that our asking will not ultimately be in vain, and I underscore the word ultimately. Some things may not be granted in this life. We may think that if we only had this object, this relationship, this job, this position, or whatever it may be--if we only had a certain thing, we would be fulfilled and content. Then we could get on with the service of Christ and continue in Christian warfare. But we do not know what we are asking for very much of the time. We are like children who ask to have candy all of the time. If you were a child, which would you rather have--a plate of caramels or a plate of Brussels sprouts? I think most of us would prefer to have the caramels. But what we need sometimes are the bitter Brussels sprouts. Why? They contain iron and other beneficial nutrients. So it is when we pray. We ask for the sweets, and the sweets are withheld because, if we had too many of them, then we would contract spiritual diabetes, would we not?
Some things, therefore, may not be granted now but they will be granted, ultimately, in terms of the great future eschatological kingdom of God. God will be glorified and his people will become the image of Christ in the end. But we must wait, persevere and not be divided now, knowing that we will see unfolding before us throughout the ages of eternity what God has planned for his people. It is worth hanging on for.
The Peace of God
What is the result of our prayer and supplication with thanksgiving? In verse 7 we read, "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." Here again, I think this is a case where we need to rethink our traditional understanding of a passage. Commentators usually make a distinction between the peace of God referred to here, meaning subjective peace--the feeling that things are well, the feeling of wholeness and so forth--and the peace with God referred to in a passage like Romans 5:1, "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God."
I think that that distinction is basically illegitimate. Why? Everywhere else in Paul's writings, everywhere else in the New Testament, and indeed, everywhere else in the whole Bible, peace is not defined as something subjective, but, rather, objective. I just mentioned Romans 5:1, "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ." In Isaiah 32 we find a prophecy which is the direct background to Romans 5. It is a typical prophecy of the Messianic kingdom, speaking of the age to come when the people of God are delivered from bondage. The background of this prophecy is that the people of Israel are going to be judged because of their idolatry and sent into captivity, but then the righteous remnant comes back, and when they do, that will be their justification.
In the beginning of Isaiah 32, we are told about a king. It says, "See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each man will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land." Then Isaiah continues to describe the way in which Israel will be taken into captivity and restored. We are told that the land is going to be laid waste and become a place in which wild animals will romp and roam. Animals will be the lords of the land of Israel and the land will be forsaken until, we are told in verse 15, "the Spirit is poured upon us from on high." When that happens, the wilderness will become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field will become a forest.
In Romans 5:5 we read how the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. That matches precisely what Isaiah says is going to happen in the time of salvation. There will be a wasteland until the Spirit is poured out upon us from on high.
In Isaiah 32:16-18 we read, "Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness in the fertile field. . . The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest." First comes righteousness, and the result of righteousness is peace. That is precisely that pattern that Paul follows in Romans 5:1, "Therefore, being justified by faith, we have peace with God."
Peace and Restoration
Every time that peace is used in the Bible, it has to do with the restoration of the creation. The original creation was shalom--peace--in the most profound sense possible. It was not simply the absence of war, but rather, a state of the creation being in harmony with itself. Creation existed like that for a period of time, and then moral chaos came crashing in upon it because of what Adam did. Throughout the Old Testament the prophets are envisioning a time when once again the creation will be be in harmony with itself. Thus we read of the lion and the lamb dwelling together, the infant playing near the cobra, and similar visions of peace.
The peace of God stands for the cosmic power of God in making all things, first, and then in remaking all things anew. If that is the case, what Paul calls the peace of God here is not the feeling of calm and resignation that one might have in the face of problems, wants and needs. Rather, it is the power of God which lays hold of our hearts and minds. The very power that made and preserves the cosmos, and that will recreate the cosmos, is that power which keeps our minds and hearts in Christ Jesus. No wonder Paul says that it passes all understanding. Who can comprehend the power of the creation? Who can comprehend the way that the creation is all held together? In principle, we may say that all things hold together in Christ because the statement is clearly made that he bears all things by the word of his power. But who comprehends what that means? How is it that the risen and ascended Christ controls every molecule and guides it to its predetermined and predestined end?
And so the cosmic power of God in effecting creation is what keeps our hearts and minds, and Paul there uses the metaphor. Literally it means to place a guard over something, to place a garrison over our hearts and minds. Do you see what he is saying? God's peace, as we have just defined it, unites a divided mind, and only the power of the cosmos can do that. If we remain committed to the covenant, it is because God's power has done the job.
Hearts and Minds Guarded in Christ Jesus
Finally, when Paul speaks of hearts and minds, he once again makes a distinction between the two things. What is the heart? It is the very center of what we are--our life, our aspirations, our desires, our hopes, our personality--everything that makes us distinct persons. This guard is placed over the center of our person, of what we really are, and our thoughts grow out of that. "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." Paul is probably drawing upon that text. Our thoughts flow from how we are in our hearts. If we have divided thoughts, it is because our hearts are divided. If we are persevering in the way, it is because the cosmic power of God has united our hearts and therefore, our thought life will be united as well.
That is the great issue in this text as far as I am concerned. Paul is not simply saying, "Stop worrying! It is all going to work out." Sometimes things don't work out the way that we want them to. That is reality. Is this text, then, realistic or unrealistic? I would say it is very realistic because, the grand issue is whether, from the human point of view, we make it to the end and stay within the covenant. We stay within the covenant by renewing it on a periodic, if not daily, basis. The text here in Philippians 4 is speaks very much to that issue.
Thank you for reading. If you found this content useful or encouraging, let us know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 1996, Don Garlington
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The "NIV" and "New International Version" are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™