On a recent trip Barb and I visited a beautiful property. One of the features on the grounds was a huge hedge maze consisting of lots of misleading turns and dead ends. It would really be easy to get lost in there. At the maze we visited, as at most similar mazes elsewhere, there was a tall platform overlooking the hedges. From this platform, an overseer could see the whereabouts of anyone in the maze. I’m sure it is there to give direction to someone who might panic as they are trying to find their way out.
“Sometimes we too feel like we’re in a maze and don’t know which way to turn. We fear that if we take a wrong turn, it will lead to a dead end from which we might not be able to escape. When we’re feeling lost and frustrated, the Lord knows our circumstances and is eager to direct us if we’ll just ask him. Prayer puts us in touch with the One who sees the beginning from the end. The One who can give us his perspective on our worries and fears. The One who promises to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). The One on whom we can cast all of our cares because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
Our verses from Philippians 4 also give us direction about the characteristics of prayer that smothers worry and how we can implement them:
Pray specifically. Paul uses different words for “prayer” in verse 6. The first is a general word for prayer, but the second word, “supplication,” refers to an urgent specific plea. This is reinforced when he adds, “let your requests be made known to God.” I’ve heard some folks say that when they pray they don’t ask for anything for themselves. This might sound very selfless and holy, but it is wrong! The prayer Jesus taught his own disciples includes specific personal requests. It begins with praise to our Father in heaven and ends with his kingdom and power and glory; but in the middle supplications Jesus teaches us to ask God to meet our important personal needs. “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:11–13). Requests for daily provision, forgiveness, and protection are quite personal, and we are urged to bring them before the Lord regularly. This includes things we are prone to worry about. Do not be reluctant to cry out to the Lord about anything and everything.
Pray remembering God’s goodness. You’ll also notice that Paul tells us to pray “with thanksgiving.” Praying with thanksgiving requires us to remember all of the good things the Lord has done for us and is doing for us now. After all, there are more things in your mindscape than just worry weeds. Worries might be in the foreground at the moment, but there are many other things to which you should draw your attention and for which you should be thankful. This isn’t easy because our natural tendency is to focus on our worries rather than to give thanks. When you are worried, bring your cares to the Lord, but also remember his kindness and goodness to you right now and in the past.
Pray expecting an answer. Another reason we can pray with thanksgiving is that we can expect an answer. Sometimes the answer might not be what we expect, but the Lord has promised to answer. As many have observed, the answers the Lord gives can be “yes,” “no,” or “not yet.” We might always like a “yes” but the Lord our heavenly Father knows what is best and he will not give us something that isn’t good for us. When I was in college I thought the Lord’s plan for me was to become a famous tuba performer. Yes, that’s right—I said, a tuba performer! He had given me lots of success up to that point and I was a performance major in my college. I decided that I would audition for the United States Marine Band (The President’s Own) in Washington, DC, and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. I didn’t make either one. It was “no” and “no” from the Lord. I was disappointed, but in closing those two doors the Lord was directing me elsewhere—toward the ministry.
Pray expecting that God will want your response, too. As we pray, the Lord might make it clear that there is something that we need to do. For example, if you’re worried about a relationship, God might lead you to have a conversation with the individual with whom you’ve had difficulties. He will certainly impress upon you the need to look for and apply for jobs if you have lost your job. New health challenges will require a change in diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Be ready to be directed toward things you might need to do regarding your situation. This leading will always be according to and consistent with his Word. If you feel that God is calling you to do something that is beyond you—pray about that as well. If he is calling you to do something, he will also give you his Spirit to do it. Pray for the Spirit to help you and direct you so that you can follow Jesus wherever he calls you to go. Fundamentally, Paul reminds us that the Lord will answer, and that we should be prepared for where that answer may lead or what that answer may call us to do.
Prayer leads to peace. Paul tells us that the result of our prayer is that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Notice that this doesn’t promise that the problems will go away, but that even in the midst of our problems, anxiety can be replaced by peace.
Timothy Z. Witmer, MDiv, DMin is Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. He has also served for more than thirty-five years in pastoral ministry, currently as the pastor of St. Stephen Reformed Church. Tim is the author of Mindscape: What to Think about Instead of Worrying, The Shepherd Leader, and The Shepherd Leader at Home.