When live in an age of anxiety. Despite the fact that we possess more than we have ever possessed and we live longer than we have ever lived, most people have never been more anxious. There is a lingering cloud of worry that oppressively chokes the joy out of life and ominously looms over any hint of hope in our culture. Who has time count your blessings when there are so many potential dangers to distress over?
If you are not currently distraught over the prospect of future disappointment, someone can help you find something to distress about. Whether a major media outlet or a Facebook friend, you can count on someone being there to remind you of how irresponsible it would be for you to stop worrying. Somewhere there is big corporation, a political faction, a pharmaceutical company, or a billionaire whose primary objective in life is to harm you. If they are not available, there is a new cause of cancer, a new disease, or a side effect that no one has told you about. In other words, one of the great cultural sins of our age is anxiety.
We should expect the world to be embroiled in constant anxiety. Since unbelievers refuse to recognize God’s sovereignty over all things, they think that true joy comes from gratifying personal desires, and they live in the constant fear of death. However, within the church the situation should be very different because we have Christ (Heb 2:14–18). Not only do we have Christ, we actually know what is actually going on in the world. Ever since Genesis 3 everything ultimately causes death and nothing can completely alleviate suffering.
But in all of this we also know that our heavenly Father loves us and cares for us (Matt 6:25–34). The futility of anxiety is exposed by the constant care of our heavenly Father. And yet, we still find ourselves battling this sinful form of controlling fear that is motivated by unbelief. In the same way that we respond to our unfulfilled desires in anger, we fret over the possibility of unfulfilled desires through anxiety. It is useless, of course, since you can’t add a single hour to your life with your striving, and your duties today will not be completed by your consternation over tomorrow.
Worse than being futile, anxiety is faithless. It grows in a heart that doubts God’s promises, denies God’s priorities, and covets God’s providence. In other words, sinful worry is not convinced that God will do all that He has said; it is not content that what God has said is sufficient; and it it not comforted by God’s sovereign care for his creation. Anxiety is the kind of high-handed sin that we love to excuse despite the fact that it functionally dethrones God and damages our hearts.
So what do we do about the anxiety in our lives? We must repent of sinful anxiety and refuse to be manipulated by the anxiety of our age. To do this, there are several anxiety-enhancers that we particularly need to avoid:
Spiritual idleness is rebuke worthy (cf. 1 Thess 5:14) because it always represents a lack of faithfulness in personal responsibilities. When you are not faithful with the duties that God has provided to you, then the cares of this world are going to start piling up in your life on every side. If you want to tempt yourself to be anxious, idly neglect your responsibility for another day. “Slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger” (Prov 19:15, ESV).
If you are idle then your life will inevitably become disordered, at which point it will make it very difficult for you to address the anxiety in your life. If there are dozens of daily cares that have been left undone your heart will be so distressed by the cumulative disorder that it will be very hard to get clarity on the exact cause of your anxiety. You might be so worried that you don’t know exactly what you are worried about, but the fact is that you are worried about everything.
If there is something in this world that you fear losing more than you fear losing Christ, it is by definition an idol. Not only is it an idol, it is also something that will cause anxiety in your life. God has promised that He will never leave nor forsake His people. But if you love the things of the world more than you love communion with God, this promise will not protect you from anxiety because you can still lose what you love most (Heb 13: 5-7).
Anxiety is a manifestation of unbelief, which means not knowing and believing the truth of Scripture will significantly contribute to our sinful worry. How can you find comfort in the promises of God if you do not know the promises of God? Again, we would expect those who do not know God to be anxious, but those of us who have His Word should be standing on his promises. If you don’t know your Bible then you will have no defenses against anxiety.
Knowing what God’s Word says is an essential for avoiding anxiety, but you can’t stop at mere understanding. You have to place your faith in what God has said. If you don’t trust the Lord enough to submit to His Word, the providential circumstances He has brought into your life, and the authority He has placed over you, then your defiance will sow the seeds of anxiety in your heart.
6. Selfish Ambition
If the priority of your life is to get as much out of life as possible, you’ll always be worried that you are missing our on something. This particular anxiety-enhancers seems to plague families in the church, who are so busy trying to do everything for their kids that they aren’t being faithful with the most important things. They are running in every direction to support every ambition and in the process everyone gets eaten up by the pressures of worldly pursuits.
The ultimate anxiety-enhancer is pride. The mentality that everything should be about us—and that we should have control over everything around us—is the leading cause of anxiety in our lives. This is why Peter wrote, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet 5:6–7, ESV). The pride that wants to control everything will consume you with things too wonderful for you to handle, and the pride what expects personal comfort in every circumstance will consume you with the constant fear of not getting what you want.
How can we address the anxiety that must avoid? Philippians 4:4-9 provides the paradigm for responding to anxiety in our lives:
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” (Phil 4:4–9, ESV).
Out of this text we can develop six questions that will help us identify and avoid anxiety:
1. Am I rejoicing? (v. 4)
- Can I joyfully rejoice because I know the Lord, I have been forgiven by Him, and I trust His promises?
- Can rejoice always because I know that regardless of my circumstances the Lord never changes and He will never fail me?
2. Am I being reasonable? (v. 5)
- Is my response reasonable based on the fact of my situations, the convictions of my theology, and the responsibilities God has given to me?
- Is my response reasonable in light of the fact that the return of the Lord is at hand, and that when He returns He will judge the world and rule over it in perfect peace?
3. Am I making requests? (v. 6)
- Have I turned to the Lord in prayer over my fears for the future, or am I looking elsewhere for help?
- Have I cast my care upon the Lord knowing that He cares for me, or am I only concerned with getting what I want?
4. Am I resting (v. 7)
- Am I considering the peace that I—a sinner—possess with God through the work of his Son?
- Am I comforted to know that no matter what tomorrow holds, I know that Christ will hold me fast unto salvation?
5. Am I realistic? (v. 8)
- Is my mind so wrapped up in possibilities, opinions, theories, and hypotheticals that I am missing what is true?
- Is my mind meditating on what God commanded me to consider, or is it focused on things that aren’t true?
- Is my mind focused on reality as it has been defined by God, or have my fears reshaped the reality in my head?
6. Am I responding? (v. 9)
- Am I responding to the truth of God with faith and obedience, or am I only responding to my anxiety?
- Am I responding in such a way that promotes peace in my own heart, or am I feeding anxiety?
Ultimately, dealing with anxiety requires a heart submitted to the will of God and a mind controlled by the truth of God. This is the only way that we can avoid getting caught up in the anxiety of our age.
Paul Shirley is a graduate of The Expositors Seminary and has served as the pastor of Grace Community Church in Wilmington, Delaware since 2011.