“Don’t be anxious about anything.” It sounds simple enough, but this may be the most difficult of all Biblical instructions to keep.
Anxiety has been called the official emotion of our age. Today more than ever we are seeing the effects of anxiety in our society, in our lives, and in the lives of our children. Anxiety has been defined as that “inner feeling of apprehension, uneasiness, concern or worry that is accompanied by heightened physical arousal.” You perspire, shake, your blood pressure rises, you break out in hives.
Anxiety can be a reaction to a person, a place, a memory, a threat real or perceived. Or it can be a reaction to the unknown.
In the Bible anxiety is used in two different ways, as healthy concern and as fret or worry. Anxiety in the form of realistic concern is neither condemned or forbidden in the Bible. Paul and Timothy both expressed a genuine concern for the churches and fellow Christians.
Anxiety as fret or worry is also addressed in the Bible. We read in Psalms “When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul” (Psalm 94:19).
Jesus taught that we should not be anxious about life’s basic needs of food and clothing. He reminds us that we have a loving father who will provide for us. We are told that we can cast all of our anxiety on the Lord because he cares for us.
Anxiety affects us physically. It can result in ulcers, skin rashes, shortness of breath, loss of sleep, and loss of appetite. Studies have actually shown that people who are too busy with too much to accomplish, and too little time will actually wear their bodies out at an earlier age.
Anxiety affects us psychologically. It paralyzes us mentally. We can’t think, focus, react well, recall basic and important details. Some people experience this when taking tests.
Anxiety affects us spiritually. Maybe the only positive result of anxiety is that it forces us to turn to God. But it can also drive us away from Him too. We get so overwhelmed by the physical and physiological effects of anxiety that we suffer spiritually. We quit reading the Word, we quit praying. It can also zap our desire to worship or fellowship with other Christians. It can even result in negative feelings toward God. We begin questioning “Where is God when I need him? Why would he let this happen to me?”
So Paul tells us – Don’t be anxious; that is, worried, about anything. Do not let worry have a foothold in your life. Keep it out. Even though it is tough, keep your mind on God.
And this ought to be especially difficult for Paul, who has plenty to worry about. He is writing this letter in chains, as he sits on death row. He is scheduled to be executed for preaching the gospel. His body has been beaten, he has been stoned almost to death, he has endured shipwrecks and angry mobs, and now he will die for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But his command is simple: “Rejoice.” And in case the first time did not take: “Again, I say, rejoice.” Celebrate your way through the chaos.
Earlier in the letter, writing from prison, Paul says it clearly, “I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will result in my deliverance … Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
All around him, the church is being assaulted, the apostles are being persecuted, families are being torn apart, and fear is reigning in the hearts of the believers; and Paul’s word to them, facing his own death, is simple: Don’t worry about it.
The powerful thing about Paul’s instruction here is how incongruent it is with his own context and the circumstances surrounding his readers. Pop culture teaches a peace that ignores or, simply, forgets, a peace that detaches to an island resort, a peace that hides from the news in order to lower your blood pressure and give you some perspective. Paul doesn’t just say, “Be joyful, because things are going well”; for Paul, nothing is going well. He doesn’t say, rejoice in your family, or in your job, or in your well-being, or in the fact that you live free from most – if not all – dangers. He says, “Rejoice in the Lord.”
We invest our trust in a lot of places where it is not safe. Indeed, there are people and institutions in which we place our trust that might make an outsider question what we say we believe on Sunday morning. We try to be happy in all sorts of ways; we try and make ourselves feel right in all sorts of things that cannot last. And, again, someone looking to us as an answer to the question, “What brings a Christian true joy?” might be excused for the follow-up question: “Really? How is that any different than the world?”
A confidence in temporal things will always be, well, temporary; good until the financial bubble pops, the credit bills for that island vaca come due, or the politician looks people in the eye and says, “I am not a crook.” All of it can be taken away in an instant. When we build our joy or the sand of this world, we should not be surprised when the storm comes along and takes it away.
“So don’t worry about anything,” Paul says. The reality is that some of us hear that word from Paul, and it just makes us worry more, because we worry too much, and now we’re worried that we’re too worried. But this isn’t a psychological trick. Paul isn’t telling us to think happy thoughts; he hasn’t beaten Bobby McFerrin to the punch by nearly two millennia in saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” Paul has seen up close and personal the pain of this world, the darkness of this world. He is just as overwhelmed by the evil that grips God’s creation, but he believes in another story.
And, in so believing, Paul offers a cure for worry: Prayer. Our Scripture this morning continues: “in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Notice it doesn’t say take some medication, join a support group, or go on Facebook and rant. Now I am not against those things (well, at least the first two), but our first action ought to be prayer. Too many times we want an easy quick fix. Then as a last result we turn to prayer. Prayer should come first not last.
Prayer is the cure for anxiety because it takes us into the presence of the great physician.
There is no problem too big or too small. The verse says don’t worry about ANYTHING and in EVERYTHING present your requests. God can handle any problem you give Him. Nothing is beyond His ability or His resources. No request is too big or too small.
If you think that your biggest worry is too big for God, then you have a faulty view of God. God is the creator of the universe and, as massive and ever-expanding as this universe is, He encompasses all of it. He holds the entire universe in His hand. Even if your biggest worry feels as big as the universe, God can handle it.
And, if you think your worries are too small for God’s concern and you feel you should only come to Him with the big stuff, then you’ve missed the whole point of what I’m saying. God is BIG. What worry do think God would consider a big one? It’s all small stuff to Him.
I still remember, when Duncan was little all the things he expected me to be able to do. He expected me to know all, to fix anything, and to afford everything. As he grew up, he learned that his father had limited knowledge, limited energy, limited resources, limited skills — limited everything.
But our heavenly Father really CAN do anything. In fact, the impossible is His specialty. We can try many different solutions to address our worries, but none will work like bringing them to God in prayer. Nothing will give us the kind of peace that God can give.
Paul says that God’s peace passes all understanding. He would agree with any of us that it makes no sense. It’s not something you think your way into; it’s not something you arrive at logically; it is something you trust in. And when we have that peace, God will guard our hearts. The word Paul uses is a military word, for a sentry watchman. Paul says that the God of the universe will stand watch over your heart and protect it from whatever the world can throw at you.
Letting go of our worry is not a matter of ignoring what’s wrong; it’s a confidence in what is right. It’s dropping anchor in the good news of Christ Jesus rather than waiting for the news of the world to calm down. And, by the way, if you’ve been listening, you know the world is NOT going to calm down any time soon. It’s sobering to imagine how little a worried Paul would have accomplished.
No matter what we are facing in life, job problems, relationship problems, financial problems, health problems, or the stress of a world seemingly gone off the rails, God is always there for us. He will give us the strength to live from day to day. Ridding your life of worry is not a matter of reducing stress but of increasing trust. “Rejoice,” Paul says. And if the first time doesn’t take: “Again I say, rejoice.”