Anxiety is a complex experience. Those suffering with it will tell you it is a taste of death. Whereas fear is the sense of immediate danger (as in a burglar in the house), anxiety is more future-oriented. It is the sense of expectant loss, pain, embarrassment, or discomfort. The reality is that more people experience anxiety than perhaps any other emotion. And anxiety is felt acutely in the body, making its presence known as a racing heart, sweaty palms, and shortness of breath. It has the effect of depleting its victim of energy, mental alertness, and spiritual vitality. It is a disquieting experience that leaves its owner with dread of its continuation, leading, at times, to a sense of desperation. Why is this so? And where is help to be found?
One particular aspect of anxiety that needs to be acknowledged is its power to hide from us the various blessings God has given or has promised to give. This power arises from the heart condition that hopes, desires, and trusts in things and people other than in God himself. Anxiety is the certain consequence of living according to our own wisdom and power (which are both significantly limited), while seeking to avoid those things that we fear or gain those things we most desire. The Lord is acutely aware of our propensity to live in this manner, and has gracious words to say to us about it.
As fear and anxiety are common themes in the scriptures, the Lord acknowledges the reality of our lives in a fallen world where fear is understandable and even expected to happen. Fear and anxiety, as a manner of life, are a form of suffering that our gracious God does not chide His children about, but rather gives them the assurance that He is with them in their experience. He leads us to see Him as the one whose promises are sufficient in the midst of a troubling world, and whose presence is better than the things the world has to offer. How do we learn to believe Him, to live by His promises to us? Let’s consider how thanksgiving is way of re-directing our thoughts to the Lord in the midst of our fears and anxiety.
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. (Phil. 4:5-7)
The apostle Paul wrote these words to help his readers address their anxiety by directing their attention toward the Lord. He assures them of the Lord’s promised presence (“The Lord is at hand”), and then leads them to pray. But the elements of his prayer are important. Rather than dwell on the particular element of their anxiety, Paul directs them to bring everything to the Lord in prayer, seeking Him for the peace that is absent in their hearts. The key element, however, is thanksgiving. Why thanksgiving?
Praying with thanksgiving redirects the attention away from what is causing fear and anxiety and focuses it on what God has already done. Principally, thanksgiving is based in the ultimate gift of Christ Jesus and our salvation through Him, and all the attendant blessings of relationship with Him. Whereas ingratitude grows out of a self-focused heart growing out of idolatry that dwells on what is lacking or feared, thanksgiving meditates on and exclaims the goodness, provision, and sovereignty of God.
While praying in this manner does not necessarily remove fear and anxiety, the stated promise of peace exclaimed in this passage is rooted in the reality that God is guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Paul states that we cannot fully comprehend this reality, because it is happening when we cannot even feel it. This is God's promise to us. We are to believe it and thank God for it. Praying with thanksgiving, rather than living in our anxiety, is what we do to battle that anxiety. Furthermore, fixing our minds on Christ follows in verses 8-9. These are practical spiritual disciplines that address the issue of anxiety. Thanksgiving is more than a day to remember the things God has done for us over the last year. It is a manner of life that is a necessary part of the Christian life and a characteristic of the growing believer. As you pray, remember to see all that God has done for you as you read the scriptures and as you see the various blessings around you that He has done or is doing. Give thanks, especially when you are anxious!