One thing I have wrestled with a lot over the past few years is how does a Christian consider anxiety?
On one hand, our experience tells us that it is utterly impossible not be anxious, and so for many of us, our instinctive interpretation of “be anxious for nothing” is something along the lines of “that can’t possibly actually mean that.” Or “anxiety isn’t a sin, it’s what you do with it that’s a sin.” And so on. And we have to categorize the idea of anxiety disorders and panic attacks, as well, which just don’t seem to fit into the biblical prohibition of anxiety as a sin.
I too find myself swayed by these arguments, and by the passionate testimony of my many friends with anxiety issues.
And yet. Scripture actually doesn’t leave a whole lot of wiggle room.
- Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. (Isaiah 41:10)
- Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)
- Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on… therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow… (Matthew 6:25-34)
- Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. (1 Peter 5:7)
- There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4:18)
- Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)
- Let not your hears be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 14:27)
- The Lord is my light, and my salvation; whom shall I fear? (Psalm 27:1)
- Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
- The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? (Psalm 118:6)
Does any of this, any of this at all, leave room for “it depends on what you do with your anxiety” or “don’t sin in your anxiousness”?
Does God ask the impossible?
Last week, there was a terrible windstorm at our house—our house which has more trees within falling distance than I can count! Trees which sway horrifyingly in the nighttime gloom and it is so easy to lie in bed listening to the wind howl and the sides of the house quake from the force of the wind, and imagine a tree falling on the house. It’s easy to imagine our lovely children coming to harm in their beds from such a tree, and I was duly lying there imagining it!
But I had been thinking about this question of anxiety that night, and especially thinking about Jesus in Matthew 8:23-26:
As He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. Suddenly, a violent storm arose on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves. But He was sleeping. So the disciples came and woke Him up, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to die!”
But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, you of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea. And there was a great calm.
Imagine: such a violent storm—an unexpected and sudden storm!—that the boat was actually being swamped. This isn’t just a scary situation, it’s a lethal one.
We might think holiness would be to pray fervently for mercy and try to discipline our hearts to accept God’s will.
But Jesus, the very picture of holiness, was… asleep.
I love the way Michael Card tells the story in his lullaby for children:
Were You simply fearless, a sleeper so sound,
that You could find rest with the storm all around?
Was it simple trust in Your Father that made
the dangers seem like a charade?
Sweet Jesus, You slept through the storm in the bow;
through lightening, through thunder, You slumbered, but how?
You totally trusted your Father, that’s how
You slept through the storm in the bow.
[Michael Card, from “Come to the Cradle”]
Jesus also teaches us that there’s a time to pray fervently, of course; Gethsemane comes to mind. But still there’s something to be said for the fact that He was asleep in the middle of a tremendously terrifying event. In Gethsemane, I think, He was not anxious; rather, He knew something dreadful was surely coming, something to endure. One can dread something without being fearful of it.
So I considered the trees, and the wind, and my fear. Is God a good God? Does not He care even more for my children that I ever could? Does a tree fall without His willing it? Was there, in short, any justification at all for my even being distracted by the howling wind? My heavenly Father is the One who holds each tree upright even in the calm!
Why should I even be anxious? Our God is sovereign, and He is good! What could we possibly be afraid of, in light of that? In Christ I may sleep peacefully even through the loudest, most dangerous storms! And I can also recognize all my little excuses for anxiety—that it’s “realistic” or “impossible” or “natural”—for what they are. I am not called to be anxious about worldly things, rather to fear nothing but God. I am not called to worry, when He knows every hair on my head and every sparrow that falls and every flower that needs adornment.
We are so blessed to be able to rest in His marvelous and perfect provision, and there is never a reason to doubt it.
Because I do have dear friends who struggle with (medicated) anxiety, I want to clarify that “anxiety,” as the Bible uses the term, is worrying about things instead of trusting God. It doesn’t mean shortness of breath or mental cloudiness or any of the other things which are beyond our consciousness and (hopefully) helped by medication. It is unhelpful that our language conflates the theological concept with the physiological functions of our fallen bodies. Stephen Altrogge writes helpfully about this. I’m not talking about “anxiety disorders” here, but the sin of anxiety.