January 10, 2020

How to Survive in an Age of Anxiety

Anxiety can be crushing. It can immobilise us and squeeze every last ounce of joy out of our lives. It can also have a massive impact on us physically and emotionally. Someone suffering with ongoing anxiety may deal with symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, anger, sweating, rapid heartbeat, chest pains, exhaustion, lack of concentration, hair loss, weight gain or loss, panic attacks, insomnia, and high blood pressure. That’s to name but a few.

One writer puts it like this: “Crushing anxiety happens when I believe lies. You might think of your worries as false prophets. They’re telling you that God isn’t good, sovereign, and wise.”

All over the world, people are being crushed by this kind of anxiety. It’s happening on a daily basis. I know it’s easier said than done, but we need to stop listening to those lies. Anxiety is a massive issue in our society, and as Christians, we need to know how to fight this sin.

Anxiety is Real

Paul instructs the Philippians concerning anxiety: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Phil. 4:6) Now, you may read that and think: What? Are you serious, Paul? Do you really expect me to go through life never being anxious?

I mean, every mum on the planet knows the feeling—it’s every mother’s nightmare—that moment you realise you have no idea where your child is. This happened to me once when I was shopping in the town centre. Suddenly, my then 4-year-old son, Bobby, disappeared. I did the mum thing: called his name, searched all the hangers, looked under the tables and behind the tills. As time passed and I still hadn’t found him, I realised that this was getting serious. I got the store’s staff involved in the search. My heart was pounding, every muscle in my body was tense, I was screaming inside, and trying really hard to hold back the tears. My anxiety was through the roof.

Then my mind started going off in all directions—has he been kidnapped? Can I actually remember what he was wearing today? Should I call the police? Perhaps you’ve had a moment like this. Or maybe you’ve never momentarily lost a child, but you can relate to the overwhelming anxiety that I’m describing. So I’m sure you can imagine the feeling of utter relief and joy—which all-too-soon became anger—when I found my son curled up in the shop window with the manikins.

Here’s the thing about anxiety: it seems perfectly natural. In that moment, it seemed that I could have had no other response than to be utterly consumed by anxiety for my missing son. But here’s Paul, in Philippians 4, clearly telling us not to be anxious about anything. How are we to make sense of this?

Anxiety is Active

At one level, the state of anxiety can be a normal, natural human response to a frightening situation. But Paul is talking about being anxious, which is active. It’s something we choose to do. So how do we fight this kind of anxiety?

Paul’s answer is simple: pray (Phil. 4:6). D. A. Carson once said, “I have yet to meet a chronic worrier who enjoys an excellent prayer life.”

Now, I know this is easier said than done. Especially with the big things. A couple years ago, I was at a conference delivering a session I knew really well. I was on the stage when, halfway through my talk, I suddenly didn’t know what I was supposed to say. It wasn’t that I simply forgot; I actually had no idea what my point was, what the next word was, and I realised I couldn’t even read the words on my sheet, never mind find my place. Everyone thought I had paused for effect. But, in that moment—as I grappled with what was going on—I realised something was seriously wrong with me. It felt like it lasted forever but, thankfully, it didn’t, and I managed to finish my talk.

From there, I went through a long process of neurological tests, MRI scans, and other examinations. It took ages before they discovered the cause of the problem. I’m not going to lie to you: there were moments of anxiety. But, by God’s grace, this drove me back to Him in prayer. I had to trust that He knew what was going on, that He was sovereignly in control. I wasn’t afraid, and I didn’t dwell on or anxiously google every symptom I experienced. I really was content to just leave it with God. This is what Paul is talking about in Philippians 4—that in every situation, we can trust God and know that He has it in hand.

Kent Hughes basically gets right to the heart of the matter when he says: “Rest in God’s grace and stop freaking out like one who doesn’t know God.” When we pray—no matter the situation—we are acknowledging that we need God. Hughes again: “When we pray, we bring our requests, which reflect every possible case of anxiety. . . . We are casting all our cares on God and declaring our absolute dependence upon him.”

Anxiety Must Be Fought

So here are some practical truths to remember as you battle against sinful anxiety.

1. Worrying is pointless. It steals our joy and peace. Talking about this passage, Tony Merida says Paul made it clear that “peace comes only through prayer and petition with thanksgiving. . . .”  Prayer is the tool we wield in the fight against anxiety. It reminds us that we can have God’s peace even when our circumstances make no sense to us. God is the source of our peace.

“And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:27)

2. God is with us. Do we actually believe this? The God who spoke the universe into existence, who wiped out the earth with a flood, who held back the sea for Moses, who toppled the walls of Jericho, who provided a husband for Ruth, who protected David from Saul, who kept Jonah alive in a fish, who sent His Son to die for you on a cross. This God, this very same God, is with you and will never forsake you. This God is trustworthy.

As another writer put it: “Instead of exhausting your mental energy on the futile ‘What if’ treadmill, focus your thoughts on the true, honourable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy Son of God, who loved you and gave himself for you”. . . and be content to trust Him.

3. He’s all-powerful. John Frame explains it this way, “He has created and provided all things; nothing happens without His power;”. This is the God in whose presence we dwell. 

4. God provides. God’s ultimate provision has already been given to us in the gospel, and we need to remember that—He has provided an eternal home for us. God meets our greatest need in Christ.

Tony Merida says it well: “His gift of salvation gives us cause to rejoice. He removes our greatest fear and relieves our deepest anxiety through His victorious death and resurrection. He paid the penalty for us.”

We may think our greatest need is to have a full belly, a husband, children, a new house, a better job, but the reality is our greatest and most pressing need is more of God. All too often we think we know what we need better than God does in these moments we need to run, run, run to God and find satisfaction as we trust and rest in Him.

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