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 your minds in Christ Jesus.
(Philippians 4:5-7 ESV)
Explaining the Text
For all of its heart-strengthening beauty, and for all of the glorious foundational statements found in these few verses, there are only two commands, a negative and a positive, and I wanted to visually communicate them both in this image. First, Paul calls the Philippians to be “anxious for nothing,” and second, he calls them–in everything–to “let your requests be made known to God.” Be anxious for nothing, but instead, go to God with everything. That is the simple center of this passage.
Now, those two commands are staggering in the breadth and seeming impossibility of their application. How can we be anxious about nothing? Well, Paul gives us both a foundational reason that this is so and an explanation of the way in which we are to pursue peace that passes understanding.
First, the foundational reason comes at the very end of verse 5: “The Lord is at hand.” This is why any of what we read in verses 6-7 is possible. The Lord–the living Jesus Christ–is at hand. He is near by, He is with us–just as He promised to be (Matt.28:20), and His actual presence in our life is the only reason that Paul can follow up in verse 6 and say, “be anxious for nothing.”
Because the living Lord Jesus Christ is near, Paul issues the command that we are to be anxious for nothing in our lives. But he doesn’t–thank goodness–end his exhortation there. Christ’s nearness to us motivates and enables us to battle anxiety by obeying Paul’s second command, namely “in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And it is by this making known of our requests to God that the heart-and-mind-guarding peace of verse 7 is granted to us in Christ Jesus.
Now, what exactly is the peace of God “which surpasses all understanding” and guards our hearts and minds “in Christ”? I take it to mean essentially the supernatural application of Christ’s Person and Work to our specific anxiety-inducing situation. There is no anxiety that will not be quieted by a deeper mental and emotional apprehension of WHO Christ is to us and WHAT He has accomplished for us (Philippians is full of examples, 3:8-21 is especially rich with them). And so, I believe the peace that Paul commends in this passage is the peace that comes when we are granted a renewed, clear-headed sight of our fears in the light of Jesus’ person, or a vivid sense of our anxiety’s impotence in the face of Christ’s sovereign accomplishment. It is the peace of Jesus applied. And it confounds human understanding just as surely as the act by which it was secured confounds the wise of this world (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).
But, before I move to explain the image, I want to ask one question that stumped me for a time as I prepared to visually exegete this passage, and it is this: If the peace we are given is the application of Christ to anxiety-besieged our hearts and minds, then why is the making known of our requests a necessary part of the equation? Why does Paul not say, “Don’t be anxious, but instead remember Christ!” Why rather does he say, “Don’t be anxious, but instead make your requests known”? I think the reason might be that God will not grant the peace of Christ-applied to a prideful heart.
When we hold our anxieties inside and try to deal with them internally, when we “bottle up” rather than “pour out” our hearts, we are not acting like children of the Father….we are not acting like helpless sheep in need of a Shepherd…rather, we are acting like self-assured, confident fellow partners in a deal. But we are not fellow partners with God–at least, not in this way. In regard to anxieties and fears and the things that tempt us to worry, we need to take on the heart-posture of children in need of their Father….and that looks like genuinely, humbly, unashamedly making our requests known to God. The peace of Christ is poured out to those humble and child-like hearts that pour themselves out to God in genuine supplication, and it is withheld from those who feel themselves above offering this sort of desperate plea to the Lord.
Explaining the Image
Since I believe the nearness of Christ is the foundation for all that Paul calls the Philippians to in verse 6-7, I wanted to make the representation of Jesus the central element in the picture. The darkness and tendrils around the bottom of the image represent the reality of anxiety-causing situations. Paul is not pretending that prayer will always make the hard and horrible things go away, and so I wanted to depict them clearly in this image. However, rather than fixating on them or internalizing them, notice that the anxiety-besotted man is pouring out his need to God in prayer. I drew the prayers almost as a sort of “incense” (Psalm 141:1-2) offered to God in both thanksgiving (for the ability to come to Him in Christ) and appeal. The prayers transition from red to white as a reflection of our mental and emotional state transitioning from suffering (red) to rest (white) as our needs are poured out to God. Notice also that the prayers take on the form of a dove at the top of the picture. This is an attempt to show that the Holy Spirit Himself moves and motivates the prayers of God’s people and presents the curse-assailed groaning of our soul with perfect clarity before the throne of God (Romans 8:26-27).
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the peace of God that guards heart and mind in Christ is represented by the hands of Christ covering the man’s heart and head. Especially note that the out-poured prayers of the man are passing through the wounds of Christ. This is because all of our peace is bound up in the cross of of God the Son. The sin-bearing, wrath-absorbing, righteousness-achieving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is the work by which we are saved. And that same work of sovereign self-giving love is itself the supreme communication of the One whom we are saved in order to enjoy. On the cross, Jesus becomes both the redemption by which we are saved and the revelation for which we are saved. And it is in the application of this redemption and revelation–this work and person–that we receive the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. As I said above, there is no anxiety, no fear, no terror in this life that will not be stilled by clearer knowledge and a dearer love of the crucified and risen Christ.