What is anxiety?
What do you get anxious about? According to Merriam-Webster, anxiety is “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill.”
That certainly sounds familiar.
Speaking for myself, I feel anxiety particularly when it comes to my career and reputation, and how I am doing as a husband and father. I worry, am nervous and uneasy about where I am going and how I rank, especially because of how it will impact the people under my care either for good or for ill.
Oftentimes I yearn for action, for some thing I can do which will make the critical difference. My anxiety is at its greatest when the things I want to do, or which I believe I should do appear to be blocked.
Contrary people, circumstances, or merely a perceived inability on my part – all these things not only frustrate me, but also cause me anxiety. How am I going to get where I need to go and become what I need to be if I cannot do what I need to do?
That is how the internal dialog goes when I am feeling anxious.
Apparently, anxiety is very common. Over 3-million Americans suffer from anxiety disorder annually. However, the commonness of it should not lead us to acceptance. What then should we do when we feel anxious? And what does the Bible say about anxiety?
Do not be anxious about anything.
God’s Word is clear on this. Our Maker did not create us for anxiety. And Christ did not save us and grant us everlasting life so we could feel nervous our whole lives.
In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi he writes:
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 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.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Now let us first address what the passage is saying, then I will contend with what it is not saying.
Here Paul says we should pray and ask God for what we need rather than worrying about it. Prayer and thanksgiving, then, is the antidote to anxiety. And in the passage that follows, we are encouraged to think about good things. Focus on the positive.
Notice even there at the end, however, that we are charged to practice what we have learned, received, heard, and seen in Paul. This too, I believe, is a cure for anxiety for the Christian. And this is not saying we should ignore problems and do nothing except pray when we are anxious.
There are two types of anxiety, and God tells us how to respond to both of them.
There are at least two ways to categorize our anxieties. Into the first category belong the things outside our control. These we entreat God to intervene on our behalf about.
Are we sick? Is there a natural disaster happening around us? Are forces at work which are bigger and stronger than we are? Whatever the problem is, it cannot be bigger than God. And, fortunately, God loves us and can intervene on our behalf. So rather than worrying, we should commit ourselves to his care and ask him to intervene on our behalf.
There is a second category of anxiety, however. In this second category belong the things within our control. These we can resolve, mitigate, and alleviate by doing what we know we ought to do.
Sometimes we do not know, or we feel conflicted about what we need to do. But that is where James tells us to ask God for wisdom.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
This is a relief especially where we need wisdom to settle on a course of action for ourselves. If we are in a dilemma, the Lord is eager and willing to help us resolve it.
And, indeed, once God has given us wisdom to act, we are accountable to act upon it. As James says later,
“So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.”
The fear of man lays a snare.
Here I am reminded of one of wise King Solomon’s proverbs.
“The fear of man lays a snare,
but whoever trusts in Yahweh is safe.”
How often do we fail to do the right thing because we are afraid of what people will think of us? And how much of our anxiety can be traced back to what some person or many people want us to do or not do, or what they have told us or said about us?
If you think you are alone in feeling anxious about people, you are not. And if you think you alone become paralyzed from time to time by the opinions of others, rest assured that is not the case. People can be fickle and capricious, superficial and judgmental. And it is impossible to please everyone. In anything we might say or do, some will praise us while others will condemn and criticize.
As the famed Greek philosopher once said, “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”
Yet God created us to be something.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
We see then that it would be a sin for us to fail to do the good we ought to do when we know it. And we know we ought to ask God for wisdom if we do not know what good thing we ought to do. And if we allow our fear of man to take hold of us, we fall into a trap. But if we trust in God, we are free and safe and can really live.