How to Obey an Impossible Injunction

"Be careful for nothing, but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God."—Philippians iv. 6.

It is easy for prosperous people who have nothing to trouble them, to give good advices to suffering hearts; and these are generally as futile as they are easy. But who was he who here said to the Church at Philippi, "Be careful for nothing"? A prisoner in a Roman prison; and when Rome fixed its claws it did not usually let go without drawing blood. He was expecting his trial, which might, so far as he knew, very probably end in death. Everything in the future was entirely dark and uncertain. Vet Paul, with all the pressure of personal sorrows weighing upon him, and in the very crisis of his life, turned to his brethren in Philippi, who had far fewer causes of anxiety than he had, and cheerily bade them "be careful for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make their requests known unto God." Would not advice of that sort, coming not from some one perched up on a safe hillock and calling to the strugglers in the field below, but from a man in the thick of the fight, be like a trumpet-call to them who heard it?

Here is an apparently impossible ideal, and here, too, is the one way of making it a reality. Even when we take into account the changed meaning of "careful," and remember that, while care, in the sense of wise forethought and consideration, is a duty, it is anxiety, the nervous, gnawing irritation which unfits for true care, and as the word in the Greek means, tears the heart apart, that is here forbidden, the exhortation appears a counsel of perfection far beyond us. Facing the possibilities which we all must face, and knowing ourselves as weak as we all know ourselves to be, how can we keep anxiety from affecting our feelings? The sage advices which well-meaning, would-be comforters give so plentifully are like "vinegar on nitre." What is the use of saying to one plunged in calamity, Cheer up, my friend? Why should he cheer up? It is idle to bid us not be afraid when evident danger is bearing down on us, unless the counsellor can give some reason why we should not be afraid. But such impotent advice is about all that the world's consolations and encouragements amount to. As well bid a ship in a storm not to roll or pitch, as well bid the reeds in the river-bed not to bend to wind or current as say to me, Be careful for nothing, unless you have much more to say. A man who fronts the Universe alone must be, and should be, anxious about many things, and folly consists, not in anxiety, but in not opening his eyes to facts, and in not feeling the emotions appropriate to these.

But there is a course which makes the apparent impossibility possible, and Paul tells us what it is. He introduces his positive counsel with an eloquent "but," implying that what follows is the sure preservative against the temper which he deprecates. All is summed up in the one counsel—put everything into God's hands. These are the alternatives. If we do not take the one, we must have the other. If we do not pray about everything, we shall be worried and anxious about many things; if we do pray about everything, we shall not be troubled beyond what is good for us about anything. The heart is never empty. If not full of God, it will be full of the world and of worldly care. Luther says that a man's heart is like a pair of millstones; if you do not put something between them to grind, they will grind each other. It is because God is not in our hearts that the two stones rub the surface off one another. The victorious antagonist of anxiety is trust, and the only way to turn gnawing care out of their hearts and lives is to bring God into them, and to keep Him there.

"In every thing :" if a thing is great enough to threaten to make me anxious, it is great enough to be spoken about to God. If He and I are on a friendly footing, the instinct of friendship will make me tell Him everything. Entire openness of speech should mark our intercourse with Him. The word rendered "confidence" in the New Testament, and often applied to our access to God, means literally "saying everything." How irrelevant, then, is the question whether we should pray about "worldly matters 1" Friends talk about all their concerns. "In every thing let your requests be made known unto God." That is the wise course, because a multitude of little pimples may be quite as painful and dangerous as a large ulcer. A cloud of gnats may put as much poison into a man with their many stings as will a snake with its one bite. If we are not to get help from God by telling him of the little things, there will not be much to speak to Him about, for every life is an aggregate of trifles, as the towering mountain is a mass of minute mica flakes.

But " by prayer " does not merely mean by petition. "Supplication" follows, but prayer is more than asking. There is the higher region of communion where the soul seeks and finds, sits and gazes, aspiring possesses, and possessing aspires. Where there is no petition there may be the prayer of contemplation, such as that with which the burning Seraphs gaze on the Throne. The prayer of quiet trust in which we cleave rather than seek, the prayer of silent submission in which the will bows itself, the prayer of fruition—these, in Paul's conception, precede "supplication." And if we have such union with God, by realising His presence, by aspiration after Himself, by trust in and submission to Him, we have that which conquers anxiety, as a light in a chamber prevents the lightning flash from being seen. An ingenious inventor devised a vessel in which the saloon was to hang level while the hull was tossed by the waves. It was a failure. By prayer and trust we can keep the inmost room where our true self sits level and still while tempests rave. If we are thus joined to God, He will do for our inmost hearts what the inventor tried to do with the chamber within his ship. Prayer in the highest sense, by which is meant the exercise of aspiration, trust, submission, will fight against and overcome all anxieties.

"By prayer and supplication." Actual petition for the supply of present wants is meant by "supplication." To ask for that supply will very often be to get it. To tell God what I think I need goes a long way always to bringing me the gift that I do need. If I have an anxiety of which I am ashamed to speak to Him, that is a sign that I ought not to have it; and if I have a desire that I do not feel I can put into a prayer, that feeling is a warning to me not to cherish such a desire.

There are many vague and oppressive anxieties that come and cast a shadow over our hearts, that if we could once define and put into plain words, we should find that we vaguely fancied them a great deal larger than they were, and that the shadow they flung was immensely longer than the thing that flung it. Put your anxieties into definite speech. It will very often reduce their proportions to your own apprehension. Speaking them, even to a man who may be able to do little to help, eases them wonderfully. Put them into definite speech to God; and there are very few of them that will survive.

"By prayer and supplication with thanksgiving." If one only considers what he has from God, and realises that, whatever he has, he has received from the hands of divine love, thanksgiving is appropriate in any circumstances. When Paul was in gaol at the very city to which this letter went, with his back bloody with the rod and his feet fast in the stocks, he "and Silas prayed and sang praises to God." Therefore the obedient earthquake came and set them loose. Perhaps it was some reminiscence of that night which moved him to say to the Church that knew the story—of which possibly the gaoler was still a member—"By prayer and supplication with thanksgiving make your requests known unto God."

One aching nerve can monopolise our attention and make us unconscious of the health of all the rest of the body. So, a single sorrow or loss obscures many mercies. We are like men that live in a narrow alley in some city, with great buildings on either side towering high above their heads, and only a strip of sky visible. If we see up in that strip a cloud, we complain and behave as if the whole heavens, right away round the three hundred and sixty degrees of the horizon, were black with tempest. But we see only a strip, and there is a great deal of blue in the sky; however, there may be a cloud in the patch that we see above our heads from the alley where we live. Everything, rightly understood, that God sends to men is a cause of thanksgiving; therefore, " in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God."

"Casting all your anxieties upon Him," says Peter, "for He "—not "is anxious "; that dark cloud does not rise much above the earth—but " He careth for you." And that loving guardianship and tender care is the one shield, armed with which we can smile at the poisoned darts of anxiety which would else fester in our hearts and, perhaps, kill. "Be careful for nothing"—an impossibility unless "in every thing" we make "our requests known unto God."