Anxiety and worry are a burden that “weigh a man down” (Prov 12.25) and produce a daily pressure that affects our emotional, mental, and physical health. All of us from time to time carry the heavy burdens of worry and anxiety, some more than others. The question is, how (if at all!) can these burdens be relieved?
Here are three simple questions that will help direct you as you seek to deal with the daily pressures that life throws at you.
Have you prayed? Jesus once visited the household of Mary and Martha (Luke 10.38-42) and as so often happened he brought a crowd with him. As Martha’s home began to fill up with guests, and the pressures of being a host weighed on her, Martha was quickly overwhelmed by anxiety. Perhaps her sister Mary could have helped relieve this anxiety by assisting her, but Mary remained in the living room spending time with Jesus and the other guests. Martha’s anxiety caused her to be frustrated with her sister and even to lash out at Jesus. She exclaims “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?.” Jesus responded with these words:
“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 ESV).
Now it remains that guests still needed to be greeted, food needed to be served, needs had to be met. All the duties of hosting remained. But of all the duties that remained, only one thing was necessary. That one thing was to be with the Jesus.
Most of the time we think through all the things that need to be done. Only once we are truly overwhelmed are we given over to prayer. Prayer should not be the last thing we do, but rather it should be the first. In Martha’s anxiety she thought that Jesus did not care about her troubles. “Lord, do you not care!?!” she says. But Jesus did care. He cared deeply about her anxiety and he understood the one thing necessary to relieve it. She must put her troubles away for a moment and go to him. Peter encourages us to cast “all our anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5.7). I have heard some Christians say that they feel guilty always bringing their problems before God in prayer. Now that I have a son, I understand God’s care for me more than I used to. If David is hurt I want to know about it. If he is sad I want to know why. If he is scared I want him to call for me. I want all these things because I care for him. If, though I am but a man, care for David this way, imagine how much more God must care for us!
If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt 7.11 ESV)
Before you do anything else, go to God first. He cares for you and he desires that you would share your burdens with him.
Have you made an honest assessment? What is it exactly that you are worried about? Like a coin, anxiety has two sides. On one side is an event that causes anxiety either by directly inflicting stress (an illness of a loved one) or an event that is in the future whose outcome is unseen. It is the uncertain outcome of this event that causes anxiety. On the other side of the anxiety coin is your own personal sin. It is important to get to the bottom of each side in order for a true assessment to be made.
Let’s look at the first side of anxiety. When a loved one is hurt this causes anxiety. We’re anxious to relieve the pain of someone we love. Anxiety can also be caused, for example, when our bank account is low at the end of the month and we’re not sure if we’ll be able to pay our bills. Scripture and common sense dictate a proactive approach to both events.
Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise. Without having any chief, officer, or ruler, she prepares her bread in summer and gathers her food in harvest. (Proverbs 6:6-8 ESV)
Anxiety can have a crippling effect on us as we are overwhelmed by stress and a variety of options. Suddenly we are incapable of making decisions. Our inability to make decisions regarding our anxiety directly leads to inaction. And though we’re not sluggards, anxiety has actually produced the same outcome. We are unprepared and inactive.
Consider the ant, says Proverbs. The ant is faced with the prospect of starvation in winter time. She makes preparations by gathering resources. She plans for the worst and hopes for the best. Perhaps you are faced with a winter time of your own. What could you be doing to prepare? Have you done all you could do? Often times I find a friend a helpful resource to think through these things. They’re able to see things that we could/ should be doing that we are not able to see ourselves. Once we’re aware of what steps we should be taking, it is time to take them.
If you’ve done all that you could do, it is time to stop worrying and trust God. After all, there are limits to what we can accomplish with our own efforts and we should learn to be satisfied with this. Jesus says:
And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? (Luke 12:25-26 ESV)
Exercise and healthy eating are good common sense preparations against illness. But exercise and healthy eating cannot prevent illness. If you have exercised and eat healthily, what more can you do? Nothing but trust God. Do what you can and be content with your limitations.
The other side of the coin of anxiety is personal sin. This must be gotten to the root of as well. Jesus says to Nicodemus:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (John 3:19-20 ESV)
I know a man who is currently hiding his immense debt from his wife. He is anxious about the day his debt will be revealed, but why is he anxious? There are two sides to his anxiety. On the day his debt is revealed, both he and his family will suffer poverty. That is a source of tremendous anxiety. The other side of his anxiety however, is that his evil deeds will be brought into the light and his sin and shortcomings will be exposed to everyone. He is anxious over the pain of this exposure and this can be easily understood.
Is there sin in your anxiety? You must carefully examine yourself. Are you anxious because something is about to be brought into the light? If so, then you must work to bring it into the light by the help of the Spirit. As long as your sin remains hidden, your anxiety will remain. But there is a double promise to those whose deeds are brought into the light.
If we confess our sins, Jesus is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9 ESV)
The double promise is both forgiveness and cleansing. Why allow your sin to remain hidden and your soul to be burdened with anxiety? A little short term pain brings healing now. But hidden sin brings much suffering in the long term.
There is one other alternative. Perhaps God is using your anxiety to bring sin into the light. For example, your anxiety might help you discover your lack of faith in God. It might help you discover that you do not trust him to care for you. It might help you learn that you think he is weak and that his power cannot prevail for you. This too is sin, and this too can be confessed with the double promise of forgiveness and cleansing.
Have you trusted in the promises of God? Having prayed and made an honest assessment, one thing remains. Have you trusted in the promises of God? One such promise that I cling to in times of worry and anxiety is Rom 8.28-30.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:28-30 ESV)
Perhaps I have prayed. Perhaps I have made an honest assessment. Perhaps I have, by the help of the Holy Spirit, discovered my sin and confessed it for the double promise. This is no guarantee that what I fear most will not come upon me. The prayers and faithfulness of Jesus are not enough to keep him from the cross. Rather, having prayed and searched himself out it becomes clear that Jesus must endure that which made him sweet blood in the garden (Luke 22.39-46).
What are we to do in these circumstances? What are we to do when after all our prayers and all our searching we are nevertheless brought face to face with the source of all our anxiety? The death of a loved one, an empty bank account, returning to grievous sin etc (falling off the wagon). At this point the only thing left to do is to remind us of the promise of God, “that all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Whatever visits you, no matter how powerful it is, it is not beyond God’s ability to enter into it and work it for good. Even more so, God has promised that he will personally enter into ever hardship and work it for good. Even your own, willful sin is not beyond God’s ability to enter into and work for good.
Perhaps the greatest example of this is Good Friday, where the Son of God hung on the tree and all seemed lost. But even in the midst of this great evil, God was at work to “do whatever his hand and his plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.28). While wicked men were driving nails into the Savior, God had entered into the suffering and was working it for good, not only for the good of Jesus but the good of the whole world. The world you and I live in will intend much evil against us. Oftentimes, because of our own personal sin, we will intend evil against ourselves. But we have a wonderful promise, grounded in God’s power and his good will towards us. “You meant it for evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50.20). Ultimately, trusting in this marvelous promise is the stake God uses to pierce and destroy the very heart of our anxieties.