Part 1. The Peace of God.

by Rosie Moore.

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 4:6-7).

Why does the Bible tell us not to worry about anything at all, but instead to know the peace of God in our hearts?

I think it’s because anxiety is actually worse than unhelpful. Left unchecked, it becomes dangerous and destructive. Charles Spurgeon, who himself suffered from depression, expressed it well, “Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.”

In this series, I have chosen to focus on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. In Philippians, Paul provides at least five practical remedies to enjoy the peace of God instead of anxiety:

1. Prayer.

2. Supplication.

3. Thanksgiving.

4. Moving forward.

5. Filtering thoughts.

A universal problem.

From the outset, I acknowledge that mental illness is a poorly understood problem that I don’t want to trivialize or over-complicate in this series. I realize that I am entering sensitive and complex territory. However, worry is a universal problem that is no respecter of persons. It afflicts Christians and non-Christians alike.

We all worry and get down from time to time, but some people live with daily anxiety, constant fear and debilitating depression. In this area of human struggle, I sincerely believe that Paul’s teaching in Philippians should be vital to our thinking and the way we live each day.

Moreover, if it’s true that the Bible equips us for everything we need in life, then I’m keen to be to be taught, convicted, corrected and trained for life by the Word of God, rather than buying into the world’s solutions for anxiety and depression (2 Tim 3:14-17).

God’s biblical prescription invites us to cast all our cares on the Lord, who gives us his peace in return. It may sound too simplistic, but I believe that the Bible offers the most effective daily prescription to protect our minds in a growing mental illness crisis.

You may be saying to yourself, “I don’t need this particular prescription. I’m just not an anxious person. It isn’t my struggle.” I may have said the same thing in my twenties when I was bulletproof!

But I’ve come to see that mental wellbeing is not static in one’s life. It’s affected by personality, trauma, stages of life, hormones, illness, exhaustion, stress, burnout, loss and many other factors that are out of our control. We may feel bulletproof today, but tomorrow we may find ourselves in a deep dark pit! That was Elijah’s experience after his victory on Mount Carmel. Therefore, I trust that this series will be relevant to everyone at some point in their lives.

I have personally experienced depression and anxiety. I’ve seen how life’s inevitable worries are a slippery slope which may lead to sinful thinking, self pity, unbelief, idolatry and despair. Many years ago, I was helped enormously by a dusty book I found in a second-hand bookstore, titled, How to Win over Depression (La Haye). It was a difficult read, because it was so counter-cultural and exposed some hard truths about myself. But the author gave me hope of victory and the biblical tools I needed to move forward, and in God’s mercy, to overcome. I often revert to this book.

So I am deeply thankful for my own vulnerability in this area. It has taught me a lot about myself, what I am living for, and my body’s responses to stress. It has also made me more understanding of those who suffer from profoundly unsettling feelings of worry and despondency. If you do, you’re in good company.

The Bible gives many examples of godly believers who suffered from mental distress —David. Elijah. Jeremiah. Job. Even our sinless Saviour suffered spiritual and emotional anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane at the prospect of the cross. One of the most honest expressions of true depression is preserved for our benefit in Psalm 88. Heman’s prayer concludes with these words: “Darkness is my only friend.”

Now that’s not exactly a hopeful way to start this series! But it’s also the very real perception of a person who is deeply downcast, even if their perceptions are distorted and obscured. As much as we’d like to, we can’t just snap out of it. The mind doesn’t always take its own advice. We need external, supernatural help, which is what God promises us in the Holy Spirit.

Do not be anxious about anything.

“Don’t be anxious about anything!” That’s pretty comprehensive. Paul couldn’t have given us a clearer instruction, but the clearest commands are sometimes the hardest to apply in real life.

The principle is this: When it comes to chronically anxious and negative thought patterns, obedience has to come first, even if the feeling doesn’t match.

Throughout the Bible, we are told to actively take charge of all our thoughts, because what we ruminate on will have powerful sway in our lives (Prov 4:23). Anxiety is a thought pattern. In another letter, Paul uses military language to convey the urgency of the matter: “Take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor 10:5).

Our thought patterns can literally lead us to life and peace–or to death. Scripture makes it clear that there can only be one of two pilots in the cockpit of our mind—the flesh or the Holy Spirit. And these two pilots have completely opposing flight plans and destinations:

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live according to the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace” (Rom 8:5-6).

In theory, we all know that anxiety robs and destroys today and is utterly fruitless for tomorrow. We know that fretting cannot change the outcome of a situation and only breeds more worry. It saps our strength and spills over to those around us. If left unchecked, anxiety causes spiritual fruitlessness (Matt 13:22).

Most of us will admit that worry doesn’t bring us closer to Christ and drives us further from supportive human connections. We recognize that an overly anxious Christian is hardly an attractive advert for family members and friends to seek out Christ!

But all this head knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into helpful action which will achieve the peace we seek.

Stress relief tools and medical intervention can be helpful. Our bodies and minds are inextricably connected, so if we are to be good stewards of ourselves, we need to learn to work with our bodies, not against them, as explained in this podcast.

But ultimately God has given us the best protocol for deep and sustained mental health which affects our body, mind and soul. The Bible’s definition of mental health is to experience the “peace of God”.

Peace of God.

What is the ‘peace of God?’ Isn’t the whole world searching for peace?  In the past, I seem to remember people striving for happiness, money and success, but these days “peace’ is the most coveted prize of all. Perhaps that’s because there’s so little of the genuine article around.

Paul starts his letter with this greeting: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:2).

The Bible promises trusting, praying believers the “peace of God”, which is beyond rational explanation (Phil 4:7). This peace is unique and unlike any other fleeting peace that the world can offer.

Paul is describing an inner confidence in the Lord that springs up within a Christian in a way that is unrelated to the adversities or circumstantial blessings of this life. The peace of God is not a euphoric emotion, but a settled state of being, rooted in the salvation achieved by the Lord Jesus. It is a protective peace that does not abandon us when life gets rough, chaotic and uncertain.

But when it comes to our own wellbeing, often it’s Christ plus our health, Christ plus our family, Christ plus financial stability and the good life, Christ plus a spouse.

But God’s peace is Christ plus nothing. The source of this peace is knowing that our eternal security is guaranteed in Christ’s finished work. Therefore, we are at peace with our Maker. If our trust is placed in anything else, the peace of God will always elude us and our mental peace will just be a superficial feeling that comes and goes.

This is not just Paul’s understanding of God’s peace, but Christ’s too. Peace is linked to trusting Jesus as our Saviour and Lord:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God;  believe also in me (John 14:1)

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Jesus has overcome! And so, there is no other source of peace apart from a relationship with the Prince of peace himself. It is a divine peace flowing from an objective source: “Being found in Christ, not having my own righteousness, but the righteousness of God through faith in Christ (Phil 3:9).

But this divine peace is not reserved for the elite Christian, nor the Pollyanna type, nor the lucky individual who always seems to land with their feet on the ground. If we’re in Christ, we are just as qualified, and just as able, to subjectively experience the peace of God that guarded Paul’s mind in a dark, cold prison cell in 60AD.

Paul’s peace.

In fact, we are expressly told to imitate Paul’s example (1 Cor 4:15-161 Cor 11:1Phil 4:91 Thess 1:6-72 Thess 3:7-9), regardless of whether we have a melancholy or upbeat disposition.

Consider Paul, the author of Philippians. He wrote these words from a prison cell in Rome. The apostle was a human being just like us, who experienced every trauma and terrifying memory known to man, including literal starvation, cold and nakedness (2 Tim 4:13212 Cor 11:27); shipwrecks, severe illness (Gal 4:13-142 Cor 4:7-8); mobbings and stonings (Gal 4:13-14Acts 14:192 Cor 11:23-29). If you want to feel better about your troubles, just read about Paul’s!

Every time a guard walked by, Paul would have remembered his numerous beatings with whips and rods at the hands of authorities. He knew what it was to “despair even of life” (2 Cor 1:8).

As an elderly man, Paul’s mind must have been haunted by regrets of a sinful past as a murderer of Christians (1 Tim 1:12-17). He would have regretted all those wasted years believing he could earn his way to heaven and misleading fellow Jews.

By the time he wrote his letter to the Philippians, Paul had been expelled from his place of worship and cast out by leading Jews, who plotted to take his life (Acts 13:4550Acts 17:5-7Acts 18:6Acts 20:3). Exclusion and death threats are hardly conducive to mental health.

And perhaps most painful of all, Paul was deserted, neglected and betrayed by fellow believers (Phil 4:15Acts 15:382 Tim 1:154:1016Gal 6:17). These are intensely traumatic and stressful events for any human to endure.

And yet, it strikes me that throughout his prison letters, Paul displays no symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Instead, he expresses his joy in Christ and spurs on other believers to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 1:4-51:17-181:252:17-184:4). In fact, Paul considers joy in the Lord a ‘safeguard’ for the Phillippian Christians (Phil 3:1).

Paul did not only prescribe what is necessary to receive “the peace of God” (Phil 4:7). He practiced what he preached, by praying with thanksgiving, even when worries threatened to overwhelm his mind.

And Paul calls us to learn from his example, so that “the God of peace will be with you” too (Phil 4:9). We can infer from this that it is our Father’s will for all his children to experience this divine peace, even in the most stressful circumstances and regardless of our personality type.

The book of Philippians provides a straightforward, effective prescription for God’s peace, with no hidden side effects.

Join us next week as we explore each remedy one by one—

  1. Prayer. 2. Supplication. 3. Thanksgiving. 4. Moving forward. 5. Filtering thoughts.

I will leave you to meditate on Gerald Bilkes’s words on the protective power of prayer:

“When by faith we are “fully persuaded” that He will hear our prayer, according to his faithful promise, then our faith triumphs in a measure over unbelief. We might not feel like victors; we might lose our nerve over and over again. The confidence we have one moment might be shaken the next, yet God does not leave his struggling children to themselves. They can rest on the promise of his assistance.”

Sources and further reading:

Gerald Bilkes, How can I stop worrying? Reformation Heritage Books, 2018.

Edward Welch, Depression—The Way up When You Are Down, P&R Publishing, 2000.

Tim LaHaye, How to Win over Depression, Zondervan, 1974.

Anatomy of an Epidemic:Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America: Whitaker, Robert: 9780307452429: Amazon.com: Books

Cross-sectional Comparison of the Epidemiology of DSM-5 Generalized Anxiety Disorder Across the Globe – PubMed

The serotonin theory of depression: a systematic umbrella review of the evidence | Molecular Psychiatry

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s