We are certainly enduring unprecedented days. During the last six weeks, most of us have experienced a kind of chaos that was not only unforeseen when the calendar turned from 2019 to 2020, but also one that is having devastating effects not only on people’s health, but also our economy for months and years to come. Economic uncertainty, isolation mandates, and invisible viruses that can strike from anywhere at anytime create a stew that is certain to boil over into anxiety for many of us at any time. Perhaps since most of us have been spending several weeks in this “new normal”, we’ve started to settle into some routines that are hopefully easing the anxiety we all felt at the beginning. How can you not help but feel anxious when there’s no toilet paper in town whatsoever! I am not one who normally gets stressed or anxious easily. However, I remember taking a trip to Walmart one Friday morning right before the state-wide “stay-at-home” mandate in my state was ordered. I went to simply pick up a couple of things I needed for dinner that night. But as a tried to navigate through an incredibly crowded store and stared at shelves with large barren spots, I felt a sense some tension and worry begin to rise inside of me. I went there to buy what should have been $25 worth and instead spent $140 just to make sure our family had stuff to eat for a few days. I must also admit that when I watched as my retirement account dropped almost a third of its value in just over three weeks that I felt a great deal of anxiety and concern.
So, how can we lessen anxiety in the midst of anxious times? How can we navigate the onslaught of discouraging news and uncertainty about tomorrow with a sense of confidence and sanity? First, let me say that I am no expert about this subject or about how to control the thoughts of the human mind. In addition, I want to clarify that I am not speaking about those who suffer from a clinical and chronic form of anxiety and/or depression for which they must seek medical help. That is a real and painful condition that many people suffer with every day of their lives. I am simply talking about that tendency that some people have which causes them to default to worry, stress out, and become anxious whenever something unforeseen appears on the horizon. I am speaking about the kind of personality that takes a level 3 concern and makes it a level 9 issue simply because they are easily prone to become anxious.
First, let’s understand that the Bible makes clear that anxiety is to be avoided by children of God at all times. Whenever the Scriptures present anxiety, it is always presented as something negative that needs to be corrected or avoided. Paul said in Philippians 4:6-7 “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.” Paul’s words are given to believers to let us know that we are to replace anxiety with a sense of God’s peace by taking our concerns to God in prayer. When Jesus was at the home of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha, he observed that Martha was overly-anxious with all the details of serving such a large crowd while her sister Mary just sat at the feet of Jesus and listened to him teach. She demanded that Jesus make Mary get up and help her and Jesus answered, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42). What Martha saw as appropriate concern, Jesus saw as unnecessary and distracting anxiety.
One of the most appropriate texts about dealing with anxiety comes from the Lord Jesus in Matthew 6:25-34: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
Let me give two clarifying truths about anxiety that I hope will be helpful. First, anxiety is not the same thing as being concerned about difficult circumstances or making wise plans for today or the future. Often when I speak to people who are experiencing anxiety, they will respond, “Don’t we need to be concerned about these things?” or “We have to make plans for the future. We can’t just fly by the seat of our pants all the time.” While those statements are true, they are poor and inadequate excuses for anxiety. Certainly we should be concerned and seek to exercise wisdom in the face of a global pandemic. We should feel concern when we are going out into public places and touching surfaces which we do not know who else has touched recently. Certainly we should feel concern when we have a loved one who receives an unseen and potentially difficult diagnosis. Certainly we should have concern about our retirement years and make appropriate plans to save and invest in such a way that we can have our needs met. But being concerned and wisely planning are not the same thing as anxiously worrying or being crippled with fear. Anxiety is not appropriate concern. Anxiety is an obsessive worry about things either today or in the future that we ultimately cannot control. And that lack of control can grip us in a state of constant fear and dread.
Second clarifying statement: Anxiety never adds value or quality to our lives – it only subtracts those things. Jesus asks a prescient question in Matthew 6 “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” The answer is obviously nobody. There is never a situation where anxiety ever added anything of value to our lives or increased the quality of our lives. Anxiety and stress has been repeatedly linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, ulcers, breathing problems, and many other health concerns. We may come out of a season of anxiety with relief that the problem we were worrying about is solved. But we often also come away with a sense of embarrassment or regret for how much we worried about it in the process. Jesus’ words above are directed at our tendency to put too much worry on things that may seem important for a season, but are general concerns that everyone experiences at one time or another and which God has proven faithful over and over again. In reality, our tendency to get anxious over these things doesn’t actually make them come to fruition faster or more smoothly. It simply directs a lot of our energies towards the fact that they have done so yet.
The only way to overcome anxiety is to rob it of its power to control our lives. But how do we do that? How do we take away the power of worry and anxiety to control our lives? From this text that Jesus teaches us in Matthew 6, I see two ways that we rob anxiety of its power. First, anxiety loses its power when it’s replaces by a trust in something (or someone) bigger. When I was a child, I would sometimes wake up at night in deep fear. Sometimes this fear would lead to a sudden and deep anxiety as I would be scared because of something I had watched on television or a story I had heard. I would try to go back to sleep, but the more I tried to stop thinking about whatever woke me up, the more I would think about it and the greater the anxiety I would feel. Inevitably, the answer was always the same. I would go to my parents bedroom and take my covers and pillow and lay down at the end of their bed. Usually within just a few minutes, the fear would be gone and I would fall back asleep. Why? Because the fear that I was experiencing felt bigger than me but it didn’t feel bigger than my dad. I knew that nothing could get to me unless it went through my dad first. That anxiety instantly lost its power because I was exercising trust in someone bigger than me.
In similar fashion, when I first became a pastor, I would often wake up at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning with incredible fear in my heart and my mind racing with thoughts. Questions filled my mind about why people had left my church, was I a good leader, did my preaching make any difference, and whether I actually had what it takes to pastor a church. The more I tried to erase those thoughts, the more anxiety I would feel. I found that the best thing to do was to get up and go read a few pages of Scripture and spend about 20-30 minutes in prayer. Usually, after about an hour, I could go back to bed, close my eyes, and fall asleep within a few minutes. When I woke up later, those problems that seemed huge to be at 1:00 AM didn’t seem as big at 7:00 AM. Why? My fears of inadequacy had been replaced by trust in someone bigger than me. I rested in my Heavenly Father’s love for me and that whatever situation He decided to place me in that He also had given me the resources to accomplish the task. Fear and anxiety lose their power when they are replaced by trust in something or someone bigger than that which we fear.
Secondly, anxiety loses its power when we remember God’s past faithfulness towards us, even in the smallest areas of our lives. This is Jesus’ point in Matthew 6 when he directs our gaze from our pressing concerns to look instead at the birds and the flowers. Think about how crazy that is for a moment. If you came to me and said, “I am feeling a lot of anxiety right now about getting this virus, or about losing my job, or about feeding my family. What should I do?” and I answered you by saying, “Go outside and do some birdwatching and walk through a field of flowers”, you would likely dismiss me as a moron and never come to me for advice again. So what is Jesus doing? Jesus is helping us to cut the power of fear and anxiety by directing our gaze at the continual and ever-present faithfulness of God in even the smallest areas of life. Jesus reminds us that God’s sovereign care extends even to the birds in our backyard. They didn’t wake up today feeling stress and anxiety in where they would find food. They simply and instinctively know that food is available whenever they need it. They still have to go work for it. But a faithful God provides the food they need every day. Likewise, the flowers of the field bloom and blossom with vibrant colors because the ever-faithful God sends the sun and rain they need in season. Then Jesus reminds us that you and I are of infinitely more value to God than birds and flowers. We are his image bearers in this world. He didn’t choose to place his image in birds, or dogs, or bees, or aardvarks. He chose to place his image in you and me. He didn’t send his Son to die for the transgressions of baboons and beluga whales. He sent his Son to die for your sins and mine. So while we may have real and very powerful concerns that are facing us at this moment, we don’t have to be crippled or sidelined with fear and anxiety because we remember that God has repeatedly demonstrated his faithfulness to us over and over, hundreds of thousands of times in our life up to this point. Because he is the ever-faithful God who feeds birds and clothes flowers, he will be faithful and demonstrate his love, power, and wisdom to us in this season of life as well. Anxiety loses its power when it remembers the past faithfulness of God and is replaced by trust in someone much bigger than our present dilemma.
So, while I have no idea when we are getting out of this pandemic, or when we will be able to have gatherings at church once again, or what the long-term economic impact of this crisis will be on families in our church or my retirement account, I do know that I trust in an ever-faithful God who has shown me over and over that while I don’t know what’s in the future, I do know Who is in the future. And I know that I have no reason to be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, I can present my requests to Him and know that the God who feeds the birds and clothes the flowers will give me a peace that passes understanding that will guard my heart and mind here and now.