Have you ever had a time in your life when things were so overwhelming that you could not sleep? Have there been times when you were so preoccupied with a problem that you didn’t seem to be able to function? Have there been issues of your life that seem to dominate every waking thought? If so, you have known anxiety.
Worry and Anxiety are different from concern and excitement. You can be excited about something and be thrilled with anticipation. That is not the same as worry. You can be concerned about something (like preparing for retirement, saving for college, etc.) and make plans to address these concerns and that is not the same as anxiety. It is when our concerns become all-consuming and debilitating that we have become anxious.
Chuck Swindoll calls worry the “universal addiction”. Paul understood the natural tendency to become anxious. He knew that anxiety is one of the greatest thieves of joy. Because of this Paul wrote,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6,7)
Don’t you hate when people tell you not to worry? It is so easy for someone to say and a lot harder to do. Don’t you sometimes feel that the person who is telling you not to worry is the one who doesn’t fully comprehend the problem because if they did they would be worried too?
In Matthew 6 Jesus condemns worry. He says worry is foolish and shows a lack of confidence in the person, character, and ability of God. Listen to the words of Jesus
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life
“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt. 6:25-33)
So why is worry wrong? Jesus gives us several reasons. First, It puts the focus on the wrong issues. Jesus said, “Is not life more important than food?” When we worry our perspective gets skewed. We begin to focus on things that are secondary and in the process lose sight of what is really important. Let me give you some examples,
- you are so worried about a graduation party that you miss the joy that comes from the accomplishment of graduating.
- you worry so much about the winter weather that you don’t enjoy the Christmas holiday with family (I’m guilty of this one)
- you worry so much about looking good that you find you are so absorbed with yourself you can’t enjoy the people you are with.
- you are so worried about not having enough money that you don’t enjoy the journey of life.
Worry distorts our thinking. When we worry we tend to look at situations through a magnifying glass which makes things bigger than they really are. When we worry molehills become mountains.
Second, worry causes us to lose sight of who we belong to. Jesus argues that God is more than capable of taking care of us. He cares for the birds, the flowers, and the animals. When we worry we show that we think that we are less important to God than these things. We aren’t. God will take care of us. Jesus tells us that God knows what we need. And because God knows what we need He will take care of His children. In another parable about prayer Jesus says,
“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! [Matthew 7:7-9]
If God knows what he needs it is inconceivable to think that God will not meet those needs if we trust Him rather than our own devices.
Do you know what the greatest help has been for me when it comes to anxiety? It is this truth: “Worry is sin”. When we are anxious is shows that we really don’t trust God. It means that either I believe God is not capable or that God does not care. Neither is true. So when I realize that I am beginning to be filled with anxiety I ask myself an important question, “Do I trust God, or don’t I?”
Third, worry is a fruitless activity. Jesus said, “Who by worry can add a single hour to his life.” Worry is wasted energy. There is nothing productive about worry. It leads to no where. Worry hinders us rather than helps us. Worry paralyzes rather than energizes us.
Worry robs us of energy and often has very negative effects: our health suffers (ulcers, blood pressure, heart problems, colon distress, headaches); we don’t get enough rest because we don’t sleep well; we become irritable to be around and begin to see only the clouds on a sunny day. Worry keeps us from being able to address the issues we can and should be doing something about.
O.K., so worry is wrong. But what do we do about it? How do we combat this very human tendency? Paul tells us to combat worry by prayer. He tells us to pray about everything (no exceptions). In other words, there is no problem, no circumstance, no situation that cannot be brought before the Father. We need hide nothing from Him. Do you see the wisdom? Rather than talk to ourselves and get ourselves all worked up (Worry is like wearing a groove in the snow with your tires. The more you spin your tires the deeper (and slicker) the rut becomes.) we are to talk to God. Do you get it? When you start to fret, when you start to get yourself churning over something it is time to talk to the Lord. Prayer is a worshipful conversation with the Almighty. Talk about taking your problems to someone who can help!
Paul tells us that there are two elements to this prayer. The first is petition. Petition is asking. The Bible tells us,
You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. – James 4:2,3
James tells us we are not living victoriously because we are not turning to the Lord. We quarrel, fight, kill, covet. We will manipulate, rationalize, and work ourselves to death. We try everything to address our problems except the one thing that can really help . . . prayer! We don’t have because we don’t ask or because we are asking for the wrong things!
Jesus said (right before the passage about bread and the serpent),
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. – Matthew 7:7,8
This isn’t that hard to grasp is you have children. Often a parent wants to help but knows that a child needs to learn to do things on their own. Sometimes we want to help but we know that help will be seen as an infringement on their freedom. Sometimes our help is resented if it is given without solicitation. So, we stand back. We wait. We watch. We are ready to help as soon as we are called upon. Deep down we are hoping that our children will ask for our help. We delight to help them but we don’t want to make them feel that they are incapable, so we wait. God delights when we ask Him for help.
Bruce Wilkinson tells about a fable about a Mr. Jones who dies and goes to heaven,
Peter is waiting at the gates to give him a tour. Amid the splendor of golden streets, beautiful mansions, and choirs of angels that Peter shows him, Mr. Jones notices an odd-looking building. He thinks it looks like an enormous warehouse — it has no windows and only one door. But when he asks to see inside, Peter hesitates. “You really don’t want to see what’s in there,” he tells the new arrival.
Why would there be any secrets in heaven? Jones wonders. What incredible surprise could be waiting for me in there? When the official tour is over he’s still wondering, so he asks again to see inside the structure.
Finally Peter relents. When the apostle opens the door, Mr. Jones almost knocks him over in his haste to enter. It turns out that the enormous building is filled with row after row of shelves, floor to ceiling, each stacked neatly with white boxes ties in red ribbons.
“These boxes all have names on them,” Mr. Jones muses along. Then turning to Peter he asks, “Do I have one?”
“Yes, you do,” Peter tries to guide Mr. Jones back outside. “Frankly,” Peter says, “if I were you . . .” But Mr. Jones is already dashing toward the “J” aisle to find his box.
Peter follows, shaking his head. He catches up with Mr. Jones just as he is slipping the red ribbon off his box and popping the lid. Looking inside, Jones has a moment of instant recognition, and he lets out a deep sigh like the ones Peter has heard so many times before.
Because there in Mr. Jones’s white box are all the blessings that God wanted to give to him while he was on earth . . .but Mr. Jones had never asked. [Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah) p. 25-27]
When we pray we must be specific. We must ask God for help. But not only are we told to “ask”, we are also told to do so with thanksgiving. Let’s go back to our children again. We are eager to help if we feel that our help will be appreciated. When your generosity is taken for granted, when it is something that is demanded or expected then we resist. I think God is the same way. When we appreciate what God has given and thank Him for what He will do, God delights to help us.
You see, it is a matter of posture. A demanding person, an ungrateful person, is putting themselves in the position of the superior making demands on the inferior. When we are ungrateful in prayer we act like God owes us! When we act with gratitude we take the servant position. We acknowledge his position and bow before Him. It’s the difference between a child who says “Give me this” and the child who says, “May I have this?”
When we pray we must always do so confident that God will provide what is best for us. We present the need and then trust that God knows the best way to meet that need. I find that often there will be a mechanical problem and I will talk to someone to have the problem fixed. Often I will say something like, “Can’t you just . . . . ” and the response will be a look of astonishment that I could be so stupid followed by a response such as, “No, it is better to do it this way because then you won’t (flood your house, electrocute yourself, remove the item that is holding up this wall and so forth.) When dealing with an expert you ought to trust the wisdom of the expert. They know best. God is the expert we turn to. We make a request and then trust His wisdom.
If God shows you something you need to do, do it. If He shows you His advice in the Bible, follow it. If there is something you need to repent of, confess it. And if God simply tells you to “trust Him”, do so.
To combat worry we gratefully give God our problem confident that He is willing and able to help us.
This leads us to the promise that Paul gives. He tells us what will happen if we stop worrying and instead start turning to God with the trusting attitude of a grateful child. “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
We are not told that all our problems will go away. We aren’t told that we will immediately understand the circumstances we are dealing with. We aren’t even told that the problem will won’t seem to get worse before it gets better. We are told that the churning will be replaced with peace. If we turn to God worry gives way to faith, anxiety gives way to a calm confidence.
Adam Clarke in his commentary on Philippians writes,
This peace passes all understanding; it is of a very different nature from all that can arise from human occurrences; it is a peace which Christ has purchased, and which God dispenses; it is felt by all the truly godly, but can be explained by none; it is communion with the Father, and his Son Jesus Christ, by the power and influence of the Holy Ghost.
How can we have peace in the midst of the storms of life? What is it about turning to the Lord in worshipful, confident and grateful prayer that brings calm in the churning?
- When we pray in this way we are reminding ourselves that our God is capable. It is like the old Allstate insurance commercials. We remind ourselves that we are in good hands. When we remember what God is able to do it helps us to relax.
- When we pray we remind ourselves of how caring God is. God knows our need and wants to help us with it. He is not indifferent. He is willing to help us when we ask for His help.
- When we pray we remind ourselves of how wise God is. In our prayers we remember that God knows what He is doing. What He allows He allows for a reason.
Now if you put these things all together you can see why peace comes. Let’s play this out. Let’s suppose you have recently had a medical test. You haven’t felt well and you are concerned. No, you’re not concerned, you are worried. You can’t sleep as you anticipate the test and the results of the test. You recognize the churning building inside of you and you find a quiet place to spend some time with God. You don’t just utter a quick prayer, you actually spend time with God talking about this situation. You confess your anxiety and your concerns. You ask God for help. You tell Him that you know He loves you and that you trust Him. And you keep telling Him this until you believe what you are saying. Suddenly you are reminded of several things,
- you are reminded that the God who loved you enough to send His Son for your salvation is not going to abandon you now
- you are reminded that God’s wisdom is far superior to anything the world can muster. You realize that this crisis is an opportunity to demonstrate trust.
- you are reminded of God’s power. It is a power to change circumstances or help us through the worst of circumstances.
- you are reminded that even if the worst case scenario comes true (you have cancer and die) this life is not all there is. There is more to life than existence. You are reminded that it is not how long you live but how faithfully you live.
So as a result of this time of prayer you are now able to relax. You want the test results to show that there is no problem. You want everything to be the way that is most comfortable for you. But you know that even if it doesn’t turn out that way, God has good things in store for you. He knows what He is doing. He can handle it.
You’ve met some of these folks, haven’t you? They face disease, death and all kinds of difficult circumstances not with a sense of resignation but with confidence. There is a difference. One says, “There’s nothing I can do about it so I guess I’ll just have to live with it.” These people become negative, withdrawn, depressed. The other group says, “There is nothing I can do, but God will do what’s best and I will trust Him.” This person lives without fear. They may even joke in a crisis. They even face death joyfully and faithfully. And they do all this because their focus is on the Lord and not themselves or their circumstances.
So here’s the question? Is there anxiety that is robbing you of joy today? While I talked about worry did you find your mind drifting to the problem that weighs heavy on your heart? Have you had trouble concentrating because of the anxiety that seems to be smothering you?
If so, it is time to do several things. First, it is time to repent. It is time to confess that you have been living as if God doesn’t care or isn’t capable to help you. Face this issue squarely. Ask yourself, “Do I believe or don’t I?”
Second, it is time to pray. It is time to get alone in the quiet and open your heart to the Father. Don’t pretend, instead tell Him what you are really concerned about. Be honest. Don’t stop with superficial platitudes. Make your requests known to God. And as you pray thank Him for the faithfulness that He has proved in the past. Thank Him for His willingness to help. Thank Him for His wisdom and His grace.
And finally, it is time to enjoy life again. It is time to rest in His arms. It is time to leave the future with the Lord. It is time to give Him our worries so we can experience the joy that comes from grace.