Fifteen years ago, I was a senior in college. I hadn’t wandered far from home after high school (just 45 minutes away). I was born and raised, and lived all 22 of my years of life so far, in a small region of a small state. But now as a senior, an exciting and scary prospect stood on the horizon: leaving the motherland.
As I entered that final collegiate fall, I had narrowed the field to four postgrad options, and all four would require me to move hours from home, if not overseas. In some sense, I would be “setting out on my own.” I felt an unusual anxiety about it.
The worries I battled that senior year of college had much excitement in them; the great opportunities just came with fear of the unknown — of not messing up, not taking a wrong step, not making a false start on adulthood. My anxiety was spiritual and emotional, not clinical. It never became so acute that I sought professional help. But it was a trial of faith, and a chance to grow and learn. Instead of letting anxiety eat my joy alive, I had to find a way to fight back. Could there be any better way to fight than with the very words of God?
That fall, I found three clear texts where Jesus, Paul, and Peter each take anxiety head-on. I printed them out on blue cardstock and pasted it next to my bed. I rehearsed the passages first thing each morning, and last thing each night. It didn’t take long to memorize them cold. Even now, fifteen years later, when anxiety rises to the level of my consciousness, I go back to these three tried and true passages.
“I tell you, do not be anxious about your life,” Jesus says, “what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25). He knows, and cares, about food, drink, clothing — such basics! If you’re not worried about where your next meal is coming from, or how you’ll clothe your body, let that put your present concerns in perspective. “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:8). Jesus talked to men and women worried about food and clothes. Gratitude for what we’re not worried about is a great first step in the fight.
Hear Jesus, the Lord of lords, say to you, “You are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 6:31). His words are powerful because they’re so practical and obvious. Sometimes we need Jesus to blow away the delusion of anxiety with a simple rhetorical question, like this one: “Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). In other words, your worry will gain you nothing. Your being anxious about your life is not helping your life. In fact, it’s poisoning you. It’s robbing you of joy. It’s dragging down your life. Turn to me, he says. Roll your burdens onto my broad shoulders and strong back.
Spiritual anxiety is a faith issue: “O you of little faith” (Matthew 6:30). And by calling for faith, Jesus is not telling us to muster up strength within, but to acknowledge our own weakness and inability, and lean afresh on his strength and power. “Your heavenly Father knows” (Matthew 6:32). The world seeks after mere things. But in Christ, we have been set free to seek after God. And to trust him for whatever he adds and when (Matthew 6:32–33).
Lest we think that battling against anxiety only relates to the basics of food and clothing, Paul makes the universal application explicit with an “anything” and an “everything”:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6–7)
It’s not enough to distract ourselves — to try to turn our worried minds elsewhere and forget our troubles, uncertainties, and fears. Rather, we need to go Godward. “Let your requests be made known to God.” And as we go to him, grateful prayer and inner peace go hand in hand. This is a promise to those who go Godward with their anxieties: “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Fighting anxiety, and coming into respites of spiritual and emotional peace, doesn’t mean all our questions are answered. God gives peace beyond calculation. His peace transcends easy explanation, and even our most generous anticipation. He gives a peace that “surpasses all understanding,” that doesn’t make sense on mere earthly terms.
1 Peter 5:6–7
Matthew 6 laid a massive foundation for me, and Philippians 4 reminded me of the vital place of prayer, but it was 1 Peter 5:6–7 that seemed to burst most often with the most refreshing grace.
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.
“Humble yourselves” is the reminder that our anxieties often rise with our pride and sense of self-sufficiency. To lose sight of God is to decline in humility. It’s a timeless summons to the anxious: humble yourself. You can’t control this. Your anxiety is rising with a swollen view of self, and a diminished view of God.
Then that phrase “at the proper time.” Oh, what clarity and hope I’ve found in these words. Clarity in that my sense of timing is often not God’s perfect sense of timing. He knows all my needs (Matthew 6:32) and has his “proper time,” so I shouldn’t rush to judgment when my prayers, prompted by my worries, are not immediately answered in the way I would like.
Rolling my burdens onto him doesn’t mean he gives me what I want right away, but that he gives faith, which prepares me to wait patiently for his perfect timing. And not just clarity, but hope — because his “proper time” often comes suddenly and unexpectedly. He relieves me of the burden of being my life’s master of ceremonies. I don’t need to watch the clock, but trust the Lord of time.
The four most anxiety-dispelling words for my soul over the years come at the end of 1 Peter 5:7: “he cares for you.” The coming of Christ, his sacrificing of himself for your sake, his rising again in power, his coronation as King of kings at the right hand of his Father, the sending of his Spirit — it all bears witness that “he cares for you.” The Father demonstrates his care for you in this: that while you were still a sinner, Christ died for you (Romans 5:8). The Father did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for you — how will he not graciously give you all you need, in his perfect timing?
He cares for me. Anxiety, be gone.
Looking back, it is remarkable what comfort God gave in that otherwise harrowing senior year by his Spirit through particular promises in his word. Even today, as I turn regularly to Matthew 6, or Philippians 4, or 1 Peter 5, I taste afresh the gracious comfort God siphoned to my worried heart in those days.
Just last week I came again to Matthew 6:25–34, and Jesus’s words fell on me as pleasantly as any commandment ever has. “I tell you, do not be anxious about your life.” That’s a command: “Don’t be anxious.” Modern people can chafe so quickly at commands, and yet the promises of Christ from over the years flood that sweet imperative for me with the strong and gentle tenor of Jesus’s voice and compassion. Your heavenly Father knows all your needs, and he stands ready to meet them beyond what you can ask, or think, or imagine, all in his perfect timing.
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David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org and pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is a husband, father of four, and author of Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus through the Spiritual Disciplines.