A Word for the Anxious

History, philosophy, and theology all testify that fear and anxiety have always been a significant part of the human experience. Nevertheless, the word anxiety has a contemporary ring to it. We live in an age of anxiety; it is a part of the fabric of modern life. And it is part of the experience of many believers. Anxiety is a chronic and pervasive feeling. While fear describes a response to specific and immediate threats, anxiety is a response to something more distant and nebulous. Kierkegaard referred to it as a sense of dread. When we are anxious, we often don’t even know what it is we are dreading, but a malaise can begin to settle over us, making it difficult to cope with life. The Bible acknowledges that the natural propensity of the human heart is to be anxious and fearful. In fact, the very first thing Adam and Eve did after eating the fruit was to cover their bodies and hide from God’s presence (Gen. 3:7–8). So while we may live in an “age of anxiety,” anxiety itself has been a defining feature of the human experience for nearly as long as humans have been around—which means none of us is uniquely sinful because we feel anxious. Nevertheless, we all ought to be aware that anxiety is not God’s desire for us. So the Bible also presents a solution. God’s word to us is never that we should ignore anxiety or push it away by sheer force of will. The answer is not detachment, and it is not bravado. It is not a magical, one-time cure. It is trust. The Scriptures recognize the reality of anxiety and teach us to displace it with a growing confidence in God. Peter’s Word to the Anxious The apostle Peter wrote to the scattered believers of his day with advice on how to handle their anxieties. These Christians were normal people who worried about everyday things, but they were also believers in a hostile environment, regarded as a nuisance by many of their neighbors. They lived with both the prospect and the reality of rejection and suffering—and therefore, they had plenty to be anxious about.The Bible acknowledges that the natural propensity of the human heart is to be anxious and fearful Amid this experience, Peter urged his readers, “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 Peter 5:6–7). These words provide both a framework to understand what we should do with our own anxiety and an assurance that can help us proceed when we feel overwhelmed by life’s troubles. An Attitude to Adopt At its heart, anxiety comes from our trying to assume responsibility for the things only God can do. It has to do with the urge for control. It takes root when we think something is ultimately up to us—that with a little bit more effort and organization, we can finally handle it (what “it” is) by ourselves. This perspective can take the shape of open defiance of God, but it is often a hidden attitude of the heart. With our mouths we say, “I trust You, God,” but within, we cling to the sense that we must do something ourselves. Many of us who fly frequently know the experience: You’re flying over an ocean in the darkness of a night, and paralyzing, bizarre thoughts creep in. That turbulence sure was unsettling. And I haven’t heard from the pilots in a long time. I hope they’re okay! What would happen if something went wrong now? Those fears can be sudden, unexplained, and overwhelming—but they’re not useful. Tempted as we may be to pester the attendants with our questions, it will do no good, because we are not the pilots. We actually have no power over the situation, and it is firmly in the capable hands of those who do.At its heart, anxiety comes from our trying to assume responsibility for the things only God can do. The key to dealing with our anxiety is to “humble [our]selves … under the mighty hand of God.” Before we can take any action, we have to learn the inner virtue of knowing our powerlessness and God’s power. He knows our beginning from our end, and nothing happens to us apart from His knowledge and will. His purpose is to work all things together for good—even the suffering and death of His saints (Rom. 8:28, 38–39). We can thus bow down under the loving sovereignty of God and turn to Him when circumstances are out of our power. An Action to Take Our response to anxiety should be resolute and purposeful. As Peter writes, we are to be “casting” our anxieties onto God. The verb “casting” indicates decisiveness. It is similar to a schoolboy coming home on a Friday afternoon and tossing his bag in the corner. He has no thoughts of looking in that bag for the rest of the weekend. He is casting it aside for the time being. Instead of going through our days pressed down by the burden of anxiety, we are to cast all our anxieties on God. We should do this with fervor, with no intention of recovering what we’ve given to the only one who is perfectly capable. We can say, “God, I have to put this in Your hands. It will do me no good to think of this any longer, so I entrust it to You.” Many of us find, when we try to cast our anxiety away, that the feeling sticks to our hands and stays with us. A prayer asking God to take on our burdens is always a good first step—though it won’t always relieve the inner burden that we feel. But we can still take decisive steps forward in trust. When we know our concerns are in God’s hands, we can choose to focus on those things that He has given us power to do. It is important to acknowledge the difference between our feelings and the reality that God is faithfully working behind the scenes. Then we can act on what’s real, not on how we feel. An Encouragement to Receive Peter finally encourages his readers with four words: “He cares for you.” Jesus already knows all our troubles, and His care extends even to the smallest details of our lives, for “There’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus—no, not one!”1 He is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” (Heb. 4:15, KJV). And if we ever are in doubt of His care, then we must turn again to the cross, where the ultimate expression of God’s care is seen. Ultimately, though, it isn’t “self-care” but “God-care” that is the key to combating our anxieties. The true antidote to anxiety is theological. Because of who God is, anxiety no longer needs to control us. We may not be able to deal with the cause of our anxiety—whether it’s unemployment, singleness, recurring illness, etc.—but by the help of God’s Spirit, we can refuse to be burdened by the care that weighs us down. God works all things together for good for His people is “because he cares for you.” Our ultimate comfort is to be found in the fact that nothing can separate us from Christ’s love (Rom. 8:38–39). We may face all kinds of trouble, and this world may offer us every reason for fear and anxiety, but we can rest assured that we are secure in Christ and in His care for us. Just as He had victory over His sufferings when God raised Him from the dead, we will have victory when He raises us up with Him—and then “He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).The true antidote to anxiety is theological. Because of who God is, anxiety no longer needs to control us. Assurance amid Anxiety Many of us are fighting a battle in this realm of anxiety. We wonder if it will always be this way, if we’ll ever get over it, and why things can’t be different. Many of our friends and family don’t seem to understand. But God knows about our worry, and He is our confidence going forward. As we learn to trust in Him, we will find it easier to cast our cares on Him and move forward in doing what He has called us to. As J. B. Phillips paraphrases Peter’s words: “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern.” This article was adapted from the sermon “Anxiety” by Alistair Begg. Subscribe to get weekly blog updates. * Johnson Oatman Jr.,“There’s Not a Friend like the Lowly Jesus” (1895).↩︎
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