Series: Biblical Prescriptions for Mental health, part 2, 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).
In Paul’s letter to the Philippian believers, the apostle calls his readers to learn from his example, so that “the God of peace will be with you” too (Phil 4:9). Last week, we looked at God’s promise of peace to “guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” and we explored the nature of this peace in the life of Paul.
From Paul’s own life and example, I think we can infer that it is our Father’s will for all his children to experience divine peace, even in the midst of the lowest lows and regardless of our personality type. But Paul also gives clear instructions on how this peace is to be secured and enjoyed daily, for the rest of our lives on earth.
How often do we expect to experience God’s peace without following his protocol set out in Philippians 4:6-9?
In this series “Biblical Prescriptions for Mental health”, I have chosen to focus on Paul’s letter to the Philippians because it shows us explicitly how to trade our anxiety for God’s peace. For the next few weeks, we will explore Paul’s protocol for peace, starting with prayer and supplication.
The Bible shows followers of Christ the way up when we’re down. It’s to replace fretful, cyclical thoughts with prayers—prayers directed to the God who has redeemed us by his Son. And so, anxious thoughts are actually a powerful invitation to approach the throne of grace and to pray in the name of Jesus.
Over centuries, prayer has always been the way up for believers. David’s prayers provide many templates for our own prayers, especially when we’re battling to find words to express ourselves. Here are just a few examples out of hundreds in the Psalms:
“But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory and the lifter of my head” (Ps 3:3).
“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed spirit.” (Ps 34:17-18)
“I waited patiently for the Lord;
he turned to me and heard my cry.
2 He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
and gave me a firm place to stand.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a hymn of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear the Lord
and put their trust in him. (Ps 40:1-3)
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me (Ps 23:4).
A special invitation.
I wonder how our prayer lives would be transformed if we saw each of our cares as a special invitation to call on the Lord in our weakness? Imagine if we saw each worry as a renewed challenge to trust in God’s promises to comfort and care for us? (1 Peter 5:7).
After all, didn’t Christ himself invite us to come to him for rest, “all who labour and are heavy laden” (Matt 11:28)?
It’s no wonder our hearts and minds are guarded by divine peace when we pray:
Prayer makes Jesus big and our problems small by comparison. In talking to creation’s King, we are transported out of the echo chamber of our babbling thoughts and disordered priorities. Through our confessions, we experience forgiveness, hope and a true perspective.
But many people are confused about prayer, as we are influenced by postmodern forms of ‘spirituality’ that masquerade as Christianity. Prayer is not what is touted as ‘mindfulness,’ ‘meditation’ or ‘practicing the presence of God’. These are unbiblical concepts that do not resemble the many hundreds of prayers recorded in the Bible or Christ’s express teachings on prayer.
Prayer is not mindless repetition or grovelling, as if we’re trying to manufacture peace or twist God’s arm. Prayer is also not always what we feel like doing.
Instead, when we pray, we unselfconsciously pour out our hearts to God and make specific requests for the sake of Jesus, who died for us. We look outside of ourselves, not to our own wisdom or resources, but to our heavenly Father on whom we rely totally. That’s why it’s so much easier to pray in our mother tongue.
If the Bible is true, then we needn’t ever feel timid about our prayers, even when praying in a group. Should a young child who is learning language feel shy of their flawed speech? Our heartfelt prayers will always be good enough for the Lord, who promises never to despise the prayers of his people. His Spirit will edit our faltering prayers with groans too deep for words (Rom 8:26-27).
And so, there is no unworthiness that can disqualify us from prayer if we are covered by the blood and righteousness of Christ. God accepts our prayers because of Him, our great High Priest. When we obey God’s prescription to pray instead of fretting, He will use our worries to grow our faith and transform us to be more like His perfect Son.
Secondly, Paul prescribes supplication. By adding supplication, Paul is reminding us that we are not to give up praying just because we don’t get an instant response.
Supplication isn’t a quick bedtime or mealtime prayer, but a request from a place of deep humility and desperation, out of acute need and inadequacy. Since God has created us to love him and long for him, when we plead his grace over our lives, we are expressing our dependence on him.
Supplication builds and requires faith, precisely because it isn’t instant and is always subject to God’s will. Supplications attach us to God’s heart, regardless of whether or when we get exactly what we’ve asked for.
Supplications are persistent requests, like the wrestling of Jacob on the banks of the Jabbok river, when he prayed fervently for God’s blessing (Gen 32:9-12; 24-28). Or like the barren Hannah when she prayed for a baby. “In bitterness of soul, Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord” (1 Sam 1:10-11). God heard Hannah’s supplication and gave her Samuel.
One of my favourite stories of supplication is the healing of Bartimaeus, the blind man. Remember how the crowd tried to silence him because he kept calling out to Jesus? But he stubbornly refused to stop his supplications.
“He cried all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus did not get annoyed or call Bartimaeus a God-botherer. Instead, he stopped and healed the desperate man (Mark 10:47-52).
Similarly, Jesus praised the Canaanite woman who showed persistence and fervency in her supplications. She too cried out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
Even after Jesus seemed to put her off twice, the gentile woman refused to let him go, but knelt before him, “Lord, help me!” she said quietly. The woman prayed boldly until Jesus responded, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted” (Matt 15:22-28).
Jesus expressly taught supplication. He said that we should persist in asking for what we need with “shameless audacity” or “impudence” (Luke 11:8), like a trusting child nags a good father (Matt 7:9-11). Jesus said that in our prayers, we should not just ask, but also seek and knock, expecting our Heavenly Father to answer us (Matt 7:7).
And so, provided that our requests aren’t sinful, we ought to continue to pray, just as Paul pleaded three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed (2 Cor 12:8-10). Paul only stopped when he knew that God’s power would be made perfect in his weakness. This was to save Paul from conceit and to demonstrate the Lord’s strength in his weakness.
The content of our prayers and supplications.
Jesus provides the greatest example of supplication for us to follow.
Not long before his death, Christ prayed throughout the night and we have a record of that desperate supplication in John 17. Firstly, Christ asked that God be glorified, and secondly, that God’s people would grow in obedience. Thirdly, He asked for strength for himself and his followers to stay faithful as they faced the great trials ahead (John 17:1, 5, 17). Christ’s supplication in John 17 shows us the most important petitions we need to ask for when we pray, for these are our deepest needs too.
And so, even if we are not delivered fully from mental or physical illness, the Lord will give us the strength and courage to keep moving forward, to stay faithful and to keep glorifying God in our lives. Whatever God’s reasons for delaying or giving us a different answer than the one we hoped for, we can keep praying for the grace to follow Him more fully. The process of supplication is always good for our soul and our sanctification.
In supplication, it’s good to start by praising and thanking God, to focus ourselves on the character and holiness of God. Then to confess our sins and ask God to reveal the sins we haven’t seen. Then to lay our requests, burdens and confusions at the foot of the cross.
Moreover, the Bible promises that if we pray persistently for wisdom and the Holy Spirit, we can be sure that our Father will grant our requests (Luke 11:13; James 1:5-6). We must not give up asking for these promised gifts.
Prayer precedes Peace.
A woman I know well has related some of her own experience of God’s peace following prayer and supplication. I hope her testimony will encourage you to lay down your burdens in this way:
“I often battle with insomnia. I wake up at around 2 o’ clock feeling overcome by anxious thoughts. The more my mind spins, the less I sleep, and the less I sleep, the more my mind hurtles out of control. It’s a vicious cycle I have no power to escape, no matter how much I try to mute the noisy circus of elephants rampaging in my head. I always seem to have so many things to worry about.
Eventually I realized that I needed to take Paul’s instruction in Philippians 4 seriously. I confessed my sins to God. I admitted that I was not obeying His clear word, nor trusting Him with my life. I was guilty of the sin of unbelief and misplaced priorities. Then I specifically asked for God’s help the next time the circus came to town.
This began the most wonderful times of quiet, undisturbed communion with the Lord and a habit I never want to abandon.
Nowadays, as I wake up, I don’t waste time stewing fruitlessly in my bed. I accept Christ’s invitation to pray. I get out of bed and tiptoe to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and light a fire. I sit with a candle (so I don’t wake myself up too much), and read a few Psalms out loud. Then I give thanks to God and pray through each of my problems and fears one by one:
All the things I can’t control or make sense of, I tell God all about them, no-holds-barred, totally uncensored. All the people I can’t save; all the knots I can’t undo; all the wicked injustices and pain in the world I can’t stop; all my responsibilities and plans; all the people I love. I lay them all on the table like a pack of cards, until there’s not a single one left in my mind.
Honestly, my prayers aren’t profound or full of faith at all. They’re often in a jumble and I can’t think of the right words. Sometimes I cry and plead with the Lord to change my perceptions and motivations, as I don’t like the things that rule my heart. Sometimes I just pray Psalms to the Lord and leave it that. I can’t do it better than those prayers of David when he was in trouble.
But my prayers in the night are always followed by a profound peace and deep sleep that I cannot explain. Nothing’s changed but my mind feels light, tidy and swept clean. Prayer isn’t a once-off victory, but a continuous struggling and unburdening of my worries in his presence. It always takes several weeks before the circus leaves town and I’m able to sleep through the night again.”
I think the prophet Isaiah describes this woman’s experience perfectly: “You will be kept in perfect peace, all whose thoughts are fixed on you.” (Isa 26:3)