Why is it, my sister—for this habit of worrying abounds among the gracious sisterhood—why do you vex yourself about a matter which is in the hand of God? If he has undertaken for you, what cause have you for anxiety? (Charles Spurgeon)
Spurgeon is right about one thing – worrying certainly abounds among the gracious sisterhood. We are a population of worriers, our minds in constant overdrive. My husband once asked me, ‘Do you ever stop thinking? Just try and not think about anything for five minutes.’ So I tried not to think about anything, but it only led to thoughts about being incapable of switching off, and that perhaps I never really get a deep enough sleep because my mind never stops thinking, processing, worrying. So I began worrying about sleep deprivation and how that would affect my performance at work. In the meantime, my husband had fallen asleep.
I can’t help but think that overcoming worry and anxiety is a much more complex battle than Spurgeon seems to imply. After all, I know that God is in control, and that my life is in his hands, but reminding myself of this simply doesn’t dispel the butterflies that circle and flutter in my stomach. It doesn’t stop my pulse from racing when I think about difficult situations that are out of my control, and it doesn’t prevent fear from gripping my heart when I face uncertainties. At the worst times, it seems this comfort does little to avert the irrational plunging feeling in my chest that comes uninvited, and stays a while, with no clear explanation.
More than that, a lot of Christian teaching on the subject of anxiety can lead the anxious heart to feel guilty and condemned. Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones believed, based on an intense research of Scripture, that anxiety, worry and fear need have no place in the life of a believer. John Piper describes anxiety as an evil condition of heart and a lack of faith. George Muller said that anxiety is the end of faith! If we’re battling with anxiety, it’s easy to feel despair when we read such statements, and we may begin to question whether our faith is genuine, leading us deeper into fear and pessimism. Is it sinful to worry? Is my anxiety a sign that I don’t have genuine faith? And if it’s a sinful behavior why do I feel that I have so little control over it? Is there hope for the anxious Christian?
It’s hard to accept that worrying could be sinful. After all, we get little pleasure from it, and it doesn’t really feel like a choice. We want relief from anxiety, and would far rather feel secure and peaceful, which is why it can be frustrating when we are advised not to worry, God is in control. Do not worry about tomorrow (Matthew6:34)… Be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6)… I want to say; don’t you think I’ve tried?!
But perhaps, in my frustration, I’ve missed something important. What is Jesus really saying? Is he condemning my lack of faith? It’s interesting that he instructs us, again and again, not to worry. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says ‘Do not worry’ six times, and it’s recorded several times in the other gospels too. In actual fact, Jesus expects us to worry. He doesn’t say ‘you won’t worry’, he says ‘don’t worry’ – because he knows we will! He is giving me counsel, not condemning me, and he is gently reminding me that I have a loving Father who will see to my needs. Your heavenly Father knows what you need. (Matt 6:31)
Thankfully Paul doesn’t just tell the Philippians not to be anxious and stop there. He tells them how not to be anxious, offering them an infinitely better alternative to worrying. In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. When I consider this, I realise how often I worry without praying. Often, it takes a great deal of anxiety before I speak to God, and first, I tend to try lots of different ways to alleviate my own anxiety by attempting to solve the problem myself. I seek reassurance from others, over-prepare for things, and attempt to rationalize my own thoughts through repetitive reasoning and mental ‘pep’ talks. I just about try every avenue before I suddenly remember I could pray about it – the last resort. How bizarre, in a moment of uncertainty, to have direct access to the creator and sustainer of the universe, and not immediately use it! And yet my experience of praying in anxious moments has always been liberating. The moment we begin to take our eyes off our problem and remember who God is, our worries seem to dissipate and our perspective changes. Through seeking him and asking for his help, we feel his peace that surpasses understanding, guarding our hearts and minds. In a troubling time, I remember a friend of mine advised me, simply, ‘every time you feel anxious, turn it into prayer’. Paul isn’t condemning the Philippians in this passage; he’s offering them freedom from their worries and fears.
But what if I don’t feel comfort from knowing God is in control? What if I still fear and worry even when I pray? To be honest, it doesn’t always reassure me to know that everything apparently works together for my good, because it doesn’t mean that difficult things don’t happen. People who love God sometimes lose their jobs, develop cancer, experience betrayal, get divorced, have miscarriages and suffer bereavement. How can I trust God, not knowing what tragedies could come my way?
In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar orders that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be thrown into a blazing furnace because they refuse to bow down to his gods. He is so angry with their defiance that he orders the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual. Can you imagine the anxiety and fear that gripped them as they heard their sentence declared? Yet their response to the King’s threat is astounding.
‘King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’ (Daniel 3: 16 – 18)
Although they have full confidence that God is more than capable of delivering them from the furnace, their faith goes further than that. But even if he does not, they will trust him. Their courage and peace in the face of such a sentence doesn’t come from knowing that God will get them out of it, it simply comes from knowing he is able and he is in control. They didn’t need to know that they would be delivered from the fire in order to face it; they found the strength to face it simply in knowing God. I am challenged to ask myself then, when I come to God with my anxiety, what am I asking him? Is it for his peace to guard my heart as I tackle what’s ahead of me, for a strengthening of my faith, or am I simply asking him to solve my problems and change my situation? Am I willing to walk into the furnace if he is with me, or do I just ask him to take the flames away?
Knowing God’s peace alone is actually enough to dispel anxiety, even if the situation remains the same or even gets worse. He loves us so intensely, and he has promised not to give us more than we can bear. He has compassion on us, and we must trust him! And in actual fact, if God only calmed our worries by solving things or taking them away, our peace would just be grounded in our smooth-running lives, not in knowing him. What good news that God promises to give his peace, regardless of the situation! It’s liberating! And it’s also why we don’t need to interpret Jesus’ command not to worry as condemning. Anxiety takes our strength away and prevents us from thinking clearly. Jesus’ words are empowering, therefore – if we believe them, they allow us to continue to be productive and joyful even when we face a situation that is troubling or difficult.
And Paul is not so much rebuking the Philippians as equipping them to battle against anxiety. God’s word is living and powerful, and we can use it to fight and speak against the lies that anxiety tells us. God has given us the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17) So pick it up! Be empowered with God’s weapon to speak out against anxious and worried thoughts with authority. We are empowered and enabled by God’s commands not to be anxious.
Whilst I needn’t feel condemned by Jesus’ command, it’s important to see why I must heed it. Having a peaceful heart, regardless of my situation, enables me to be creative and productive as a Christian. But an anxious heart opens the door to a huge amount of dysfunctional and sinful behavior.
Stop for a moment and think about how many different sinful actions and attitudes come from anxiety. Anxiety about finances can give rise to coveting, greed, hoarding and stealing. Anxiety about succeeding at some task can make you irritable, abrupt and surly. Anxiety about relationships can make you withdrawn, indifferent and uncaring about other people. Anxiety about how someone will respond to you can make you cover over the truth and lie about things. So if anxiety could be conquered, a lot of sins would be overcome. (John Piper)
When I first read this I felt defensive. It seemed presumptuous to assume I was guilty of all these sins just because I’m a worrier. But when I examined myself, I found that it was all true! I worry about saving enough for a house deposit, and so I am reluctant to give to the church. I am anxious that a friend is cross about something they’ve heard, so I put a spin on it that puts me in a better light. In rebuking our anxiety, Paul is going straight to the root of a huge amount of sinful behaviour. Not to condemn, but to equip.
It might sound like I’ve got it figured out, but it won’t be long before I find the next worry to consume my thinking. I love how realistic God’s word is – that’s exactly what he expects! Psalm 56:3 says, when I am afraid, I put my trust in thee. It’s a when, not an if question. My prayer then, is that when I am next gripped by anxiety, and the butterflies swarm in my stomach, I’ll have the wisdom to pick up the sword God has given me. And rather than feel condemned by his command, I’ll know the love that’s behind it and be empowered to speak with authority against my fears.