“Be anxious for nothing including COVID-19, but with every news report and update by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, NASB adapted).
Recently our local Walmart was out of milk. Mary, my wife, asked me later if I had taken a look at the aisle where the toilet paper is. I hadn’t. But if I had, I am sure I would have found more empty shelves. Last week while having a McDonald’s coffee with a friend—the restaurant is now closed to in-dining—I noticed the parking lot of an adjoining supermarket was the fullest I had ever seen it.
Many of us are anxious and fearful people because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. We are like the church in Philippi to whom Paul says, “Stop perpetually worrying about even one thing” (Wuest translation). Good words for worrying people.
I must confess my own anxiety at times. The other day as I watched a televised presidential update, I frequently glanced at the live Dow Jones index at the bottom right of the screen. When the index went up, I was delighted. When it went down, which was pretty much the trend that day, my heart kicked into anxiety mode.
Last week California’s governor Gavin Newsom announced that about 56 percent of the state’s population—25.5 million people—could be infected with the novel coronavirus within the next eight weeks if precautions were not taken. I live in California! I don’t like this kind of news. Really, who does?
Experiencing emotional peace
In the midst of all the unknowns surrounding us now, emotional peace can be found. Let me state that again: real inner peace can be our lot. From a state of anxiety, we can move toward peace in the here and now and for tomorrow.
Paul said it. I believe it. And this because our Heavenly Father’s signature at the end of the Philippians text promises it. As one New Testament commentator so aptly says, “God’s peace, like a sentinel, mounts guard and patrols before the heart’s door, keeping worry out.”
To make this peace a blessed reality we only need to present our requests to God by prayer. Asking by prayer is the key. Both petition and prayer are needed. With our Bibles before us let’s look more closely at what asking by prayer really involves.
Petition and “gone fishin”
The verb “to ask” (aitéō) means to request, petition, beg, solicit, etc. According to Vine’s Dictionary of New Testament Words, it is the petition “of one who is lesser in position than he to whom the petition is made” (i.e. a child to a parent, a slave to his master, a human to God).
I believe the modus operandi of many Christians today is to ask God to do something and then move on to another activity. They feel their responsibility is over because they asked: “God will take it from here.” And they call this prayer.
This type of religious activity, as noble as it is, is not prayer, at least biblically speaking. Perhaps this is why many Christians don’t find that much-desired consolation in these troubling times. They have petitioned God, but they have not prayed to God. They have asked, but not by prayer.
Petition and listen
The second element needed to experience God’s antidote to anxiety and fear is prayer. To pray (proséuchomai) means to wish for, to vow or to desire something before somebody. That somebody is God.
The difference between asking and praying is this: When we ask God for something we are initiating an action called asking. We control the action when asking. When praying, God is in control. We only take part in his plans. We participate in an action that he has already initiated. Koine Greek grammar teaches us this; we act “with a view to participation in the outcome.” It’s not just stating a petition and moving on.
Eugene Peterson says it well. “We welcome God’s will in our lives, and we participate in what he is doing in the world. God involves us in his plans… I will to participate in what is willed.” Perhaps for this reason, prayer is sometimes translated to vow.
Knowing how to participate requires hearing God’s voice. And for us to hear his voice, especially when seeking to leave behind worry and move into the arena of emotional peace, we need solace and solitude.
Interestingly in Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-13, where the verb “to pray” (proséuchomai) appears six times, Jesus talks about this place of solace. With our door closed we can present these and similar petitions to him and then learn how to walk alongside him. These seven petitions serve as a model for when we pray. With each petition, he will reveal how and when we are to participate. Again, we only listen and obey.
Perhaps the last two petitions in verse 13 best relate to how to petition and listen when facing anxiety and fear. An adapted reading of this verse might look like this: “And don’t let us yield to the temptation to be anxious and fearful during the COVID-19 pandemic but rescue us from the evil one” (NLT).
I believe we can experience true emotional peace as we petition God, listen to him and obey him. He will define how to proceed.
Perhaps, the primary life-experience God is inviting us into in the midst of our present crisis is to trust him. Knowing each of us is unique and that each is facing this crisis with different concerns and realities, God has a perfect plan appropriate for each disciple.
- “Trust me and live in my peace if you have already contracted COVID-19. I will show you the way.”
- “Trust me and live in my peace if you are in an age group with a higher health risk factor. I will show you the way.”
- “Trust me and live in my peace if you are facing employment concerns and wondering about next week’s meals and rent. I will show you the way.”
- “Trust me and live in my peace if you are concerned about your investments. I will show you the way.”
- “Trust me and live in my peace if you are concerned about your parents, children or grandchildren. I will show you the way.”
God was already aware of our present dilemma in eternity past. His solution also originates from then. But he is inviting us to participate in his perfect solution now. Perhaps instead of petitioning God we should be asking God how we could best plug into his perfect plan.
Our petition by prayer carries a sense of urgency, given that the word “supplication” in our Philippians 4 text denotes a cry for God’s help that exposes our inability to meet our own needs. We listen with urgency.
The same could be said about the word “thanksgiving,” also in verse 6. While Paul doesn’t mention those things for which we should be thankful, when we thank God for his wisdom, presence and willingness to include us in his plans in times of challenge, we are providing some likely reasons for which to be thankful.
Another helpful tool is to realize we sometimes don’t know how to pray. Paul confesses this when he writes in Romans 8:26 to a people who were facing even harder times than ours: “for we do not know how to pray as we should.” (The word “pray”is the same Greek word we find in Philippians 4:6.) God knows our hearts and needs even when we don’t.
God’s will and God’s peace
It is interesting to note in our reading of Philippians 4 that God doesn’t promise to fulfill our every wish and desire. Some of us may become infected and die. But even in light of this possible eventuality, “my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
He also promises peace. When petitioning by prayer we must always consider the words of Isaiah 55:8-9: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord.” Sometimes God challenges us to change our petitions as we listen to him in order to bring them more in line with his will. In the end he desires we experience emotional peace regardless of the outcome.
Recently, a Christian brother told me he is certain the coronavirus will not infect him or his family. “Just like the Spirit of the Lord passed over the Israelite first-borns in the book of Exodus,” he stated, “so will my family be protected by the blood of Jesus.”
Such a certainty is possible, but only if the Father has clearly revealed that to him. If not, he may be setting himself up for failure and disappointment if infection and sickness and/or death should happen. Also, young believers and children around him may suffer a crisis of faith if such an infection should happen.
We should always keep before us 1 John 5:14 when stating any promise: “This is the confidence which we have before him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” There is no room for reckless thinking if we haven’t clearly heard from God.
But even if infection and sickness and/or death should occur we have the promise that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). I am confident that you, like me, have heard some exceptional stories about how God is working our present world tragedy into something good. Perhaps the greatest example would be those Jesus disciples who are walking in peace during this time of social and emotional unrest.
Pondering, practicing continually
Paul writes in Philippians 4:8-9: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, continually dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, continually practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (adapted).
Recently I met a man with Christian leanings who was emotionally distraught, but not due to COVID-19. In my years of pastoring and chaplaincy work, I have never met a person so anxious and fearful and filled with hopelessness and negative thinking as this person. It was as though I was holding a gun to his head and he was desperately pleading for mercy. His tears were many. His pleading was constant. His very real despondency reminded me of where worry and fear can take us if we don’t act appropriately.
Amidst the sobs, we read these verses from Philippians 4. I spoke to him about his true identity in Christ and how valuable, precious and important he is to God and his Kingdom. “God indeed is fond of you right now” I said and encouraged him to consider these things. And over the last fifteen minutes of our visit, his demeanor slowly changed. It was remarkable. He was eventually dried eyed. Hope seemed to be breaking into his heart.
What I failed to do was remind him that Satan was not giving up on him and that he should do as Paul counsels in verses 8 and 9 and continue thinking and practicing these things. Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to say this to him in the future. It’s one thing is to begin a race. It is quite another to finish this race. Much perseverance is required.
In the end, as we parted ways, he stood up and asked if he could hug me. Immediately I thought about social distancing! When I was about to recommend “an elbow-to-elbow bump” I found his arms tightly wrapped around me. I had no choice. As he was walking out the room he said, “I haven’t smiled like this for a long time!”
Such can be our song of salvation and emotional peace as we petition and listen, and then do what God tells us to do!