What Should We Do with Our Anxiety?
By Josh Howeth
I’m curious if you’ve felt anxious lately. You might respond with, “How could someone not?” And I’d probably agree with you. I'm wondering though if our anxiousness as believers is markedly different in any way than the rest of the world. It should. And the reason for that has everything to do with hope.
You see, hope and anxiety often go together. The moment you begin to hope for something, anxiety will often be activated within you.
Let’s think of an example in our own lives by going back to childhood. With the Christmas season fast approaching, maybe a fitting example is, as a kid your parents asked what present you wanted for Christmas, and let’s just say you said “I want a new bike.” What happened when you said “I want a new bike?” That bike became important to you. The idea that requesting a bike could possibly lead to receiving a bike, generated hope in you.
Hope is an attitude in which you place importance on something you want. Every time you hope, you are attributing importance to something. And simultaneously as you hope for what is now important to you, you realize that you lack that very thing. In summary, hope is a declaration of importance and an understanding of lack. What happens in between those two realities? Well, in terms of Christmas, we are often filled with excitement and anticipation. But in other, more important matters, we are often filled with anxiety.
Right now, there are many things that are very important to us. And it’s not just us. Every person on the planet is hoping for new realities to take shape - in other words, they have hope - and therefore, they realize their lack of that very thing they deem is important. People are anxious. Seemingly, everyone.
- Many are anxious about the election results. We are glued to our devices wanting the latest updates.
- Many are anxious about the pandemic - whether it’s the frustration that it will continue much longer than we’d hope, or that flu season is here and that may bring many more infections and deaths.
- Many are anxious about distance learning and the toil that has on our families.
- Many are anxious about their jobs and where the income will reliably come from to support their own livelihood.
- Many are anxious about their own sanity and mental health. Maybe they are feeling the effects of isolation.
- Many are anxious about the future of our country or the world at large. Maybe they are bingeing on the 24/7 news cycle which thrives off of chaos and outrage.
- You can fill in the blank: __________________________________
Let me be honest in saying, I’m not immune to anxiety myself. In fact, I’ve experienced the worst anxiety of my life earlier this summer. So I don’t write this as an outsider or a guru.
My point is to reflectively ask us as a church: Is the way we deal with our anxiety any different from the world?
Do you isolate and self-medicate? Do you lash-out in rage hoping that through your venting your will will be established on earth? Do you tear others down and slander those you love, or even those you’ve never met? Do you just go to sleep? Do you set new goals and get to work? Or do you just hunker down and listen to more podcasts wondering if it’s really just information that you lack?
Let me tell you: God is so good, you guys. He is so, so good. He knows this about us, and He has spoken clearly to us regarding our anxiousness. Let me try and practically help us by briefly looking at two iconic passages on anxiety. I know this is a longer writeup, but stay with me.
First, God has never said that we should embrace anxiety. Meaning, we should never adopt the attitude that “everyone gets anxious, it’s just a part of life, therefore, it’s fine to be anxious.” No. In fact, He has actually commanded us to not be anxious. From the mouth of Jesus himself, we are told, “do not be anxious about your life.” (Matthew 6:25)
Just because we see anxiety all around us and even find it in us, don’t raise the white flag in your soul. God doesn’t tell us to settle and conform to the pattern of this world. We have great reason and resources to not be anxious.
Secondly, God has told us what to do with our anxiety when it comes. We are told to do three things.
- Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).
This makes us ask, “What am I after today?” This simplifies so many things for us. We are supposed to be on offense, not just defense. So, how do we seek the kingdom of God? We start by seeking the King. Then we realize that in seeking the King, we are to be doing the King’s will. Which our King, Jesus, is purely righteous. He always does what is just and right, and therefore, we do the same. This is our offensive strategy.
As Anna said in Frozen 2 as she spiraled into despair, “Just do the next right thing.” I apologize for the quote, but I have young daughters. Also, Anna is kind of right. The difference between us and Anna is that we do what Jesus says is right and that we do it for His glory.
- Make your requests known to God with a thankful heart (Philippians 4:6).
This verse is basically saying to you when you are anxious - “Go to God and tell Him about it. And when you tell Him about it, realize you are giving those anxieties to Him.” 1 Peter 5:7 says we should “cast all your anxiety on Him because He cares for you.” It’s not just telling….it’s giving.
Often when I’m anxious I go into analysis mode and cave in on myself. This is telling me to do the opposite: Talk to God. Go to Him. And we are to do so with a heart of gratitude.
Complaining comes from focusing on what I don’t have. Gratitude is created when I focus on what I do have. So if I’m going to make my requests known to God with a thankful heart, I must consider in my request-making, all that God has done for us, and all that He is for us.
- Fill your mind with whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8).
Off-loading our cares isn’t all we do. We’ve had a bucket that’s been filled with anxiety and we just dumped it thankfully on God. But now our bucket is empty it would seem. So what do we fill it with? We fill our bucket with way different thoughts then we were filling it with before.
Filling our mind with these things in Philippians 4:8 could mean focusing on the beauty of life. It could be filling your mind with the good, gracious provisions of God: friends, family, nature, art, things that make you laugh.
But even more than this, it’s filling your mind with the attributes and actions of God. For who is more true than God? Who is more honorable than God Himself? Who is more just, more pure, more lovely, more commendable and excellent than God? Who is more worthy of praise than our great Savior?
Finally, we are told to consider two things. To consider something is to have it in view.
First, we are to consider God’s care for creation, and in turn, see our value and trust in God’s care for us. (Matthew 6:26-32). “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?”
We spiral in on ourselves when we are anxious, and we often think that we are the ones who have to look out for ourselves because no one cares about us the way that we do. This couldn’t be further from the truth. God cares for you. And He’s better at caring for you than you are at caring for yourself! If we doubt that, look at the way he cares for much lesser things in value. If He sees them, He sees you. If He cares for them, why would He not care for you?
Second, we are to consider that Jesus IS coming back. There is a short phrase we often overlook before Paul says “do not be anxious about anything….” Paul begins that command by saying, “The Lord is at hand.”
In one swift move, Paul is telling us to realize two things in our anxiety. That God is near to us even now. This phrase communicates proximity. But it also communicates a coming arrival: Jesus is returning. We are to think about His nearness to us now, and the arrival of Jesus on that great last day.
God has seen us in our sin and despair and sent Jesus to suffer in your place. We see Jesus praying in the garden, sweating drops of blood, anguishing over the moment of the cross. Yet, He laid down His life so that we could know that God is nearer than we ever dreamt. He suffered so that we might always be in God’s loving care. He anguished so that we could cast our anxieties on Him knowing that He will return and make all things new. He is our hope!
And as we feel the lack of the fullness of all that will be when Jesus returns, we don’t wonder if we will open the present on Christmas and find a bike underneath all the wrapping paper. Our hope isn’t a wish. It’s sure.
May we not be like the world in our anxiety. Friends, let’s encourage one another, carry each other’s burdens and point one another to the open arms of our Father. Go to Him. Go to Him in it all. He cares for you.