We had just crossed the border from Michigan into Ontario. I was driving a van filled with seven college student worship leaders, and one of the guys piped up, “It’s two hours till we're back on campus. I’d like everyone to name their favorite Bible verse and explain why it matters to you.”
The sharing took the entire two hours. After the last person was done, I was struck that four of the eight Scripture testimonies focused on how the Lord ministers to us in our anxiety. We heard these three passages reflected upon (with two people naming the same Scripture):
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matt. 6:33-34).
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).
Cast all your anxiety upon him because he cares for you. (1 Pet. 5:7).
As I reflected on those rich two hours, I realized I was not surprised that half the group chose passages that speak to our anxiety. I am quite an anxious person myself, so I’ve pondered anxiety’s dynamics a great deal. It strikes me that anxiety is simply woven within the human condition. One of the first instructions in Scripture is to rule over the creation (Gen. 1:28), and ruling involves taking intentional actions towards a desired outcome. At the same time, two other factors undermine our ability to rule. First, we can’t control the outcome of our actions. As the preacher declares, “Sow your seed in the morning, and in the evening let not your hands be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well” (Eccles. 11:6). Second, this lack of control is compounded by the many unexpected curveballs life sends our way—curveballs we have learned to see through the lens of the Lord’s providential care. To put it starkly: ruling is a form of control, but we are not in control. Anxiety lives inside that paradox.
My mind understands that this biblical paradox puts us in a place of trusting surrender. I love the Heidelberg Catechism’s declaration that “We can be patient when things go against us, thankful when things go well, and for the future we can have good confidence in our faithful God and Father that nothing in creation will separate us from his love” (Q&A 28). But it’s usually more difficult for my heart and emotions to operate in sync with my mind. My mind celebrates biblical declarations; my heart whispers But . . . ? and is not so easily convinced.
My lifelong struggle to reconcile mind, heart, and emotions concerning anxiety has led to these two reflections in an attempt to place anxiety in perspective:
First, experiencing anxiety is part of the human condition. In Philippians 4, Paul instructs us not to be anxious, but in chapter 2, while telling us about his co-worker Epaphroditus being near death before he finally recovered, he writes, “Therefore I am all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety” (v. 28). Paul is eager to have less anxiety, but he tells us to have no anxiety. How does that make any sense?
Second, appropriate anxiety serves a kingdom purpose. Studies have shown that teams working on projects function best when they include one or two anxious people. The reason is simple: The anxious folks imagine worst-case scenarios and challenge the team to build in plan-B protections to diminish the likelihood of these scenarios taking place. Inappropriate anxiety paralyzes a team; a lack of anxiety creates an overconfident, error-prone team; appropriate anxiety pushes a team toward prudently bold action.
How might these two ideas help frame a biblically healthy approach to anxiety? Here are my tentative conclusions:
- Feeling anxious in itself is not a sin. It just is. Paul was anxious about Epaphroditus’s health; that was just the way it was.
- The anxiety within us has to go somewhere. We can turn it in on ourselves, we can project it onto others (which usually leads to conflict), or we can surrender it to the Lord. Paul’s naming of anxiety in Phil. 4 follows directly after an exhortation to deal quickly with a conflict: “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord” (v. 2). Paul continues, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (v. 6). In other words, don’t turn your anxiety on each other, but bring it to the Lord. Feeling anxious is not a sin, but carrying it to the wrong place and giving it the power to cause harm is a sin.
- Avoiding the wrong places and going to the right place (the Lord’s throne room) is part of the central dynamic of the Christ-following life: dying to sin and being made alive in Christ. It is a specific manifestation of “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).
- Paul promises that the prayer of the anxious person will lead to peace: “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Eliminating every shred of anxiety from our lives is more than most of us can hope for on this side of the Jordan River. We have not arrived yet. I wonder if the marvelous peace of the Lord “transcends all understanding” because in a miraculous way it coexists with the anxiety that I will not be rid of completely until I see my Lord and Savior face to face.
As I’m completing this article, I can feel anxiety about its reception welling up in me. Who am I to think that the words written here might have blessings to share? But I catch myself just in time; it’s not my calling to fret over that question. I’m simply called to risk tiny steps of faithfulness and leave the rest in the Lord’s hands. Such surrender does not eliminate my anxiety, but it does draw me toward the peace that passes understanding.
- What is your favorite Bible verse, and why is it meaningful to you?
- How does lack of control affect your anxiety and your life?
- How might you identify whether you are having appropriate or inappropriate anxieties?
- What are some “tiny steps of faithfulness” that you might need to risk taking?