Want to see anxiety demonstrated? Get on any highway in the country during morning rush hour traffic. One out of every 10 drivers is either running late, in a hurry, under the gun from the boss or the school kids, and taking it out on every other motorist on the road. They’re not wicked, just stressed.
A friend wrote to thank me for an article on depression. “I’m not really depressed,” he said, “but anxious. I have a lot of problem with anxiety.”
I could write a book on that subject myself. (A friend, Dr. Larry Kennedy–now in Heaven and a member of the great cloud of witnesses–did just that. I told him he might have thought of a more uplifting title than Down With Anxiety, but he felt the play on words worked.)
I’ve been anxious. It seems to go with the job of pastor.
Ask any pastor how well he sleeps on Saturday night.
Let’s not add to the misery of those battling anxiety by calling them unbelievers. Anxiety may well be the norm for those who live in uncertain times. And yet there is a Scriptural answer for it.
Perhaps we should think of anxiety not so much as depression as a blend of worry and fear. It’s a first-cousin to stress. Anxiety is fear about something that may or may not happen in the future. And it doesn’t go away or cave in when you become a believer in Christ, in the same way that temptation actually increases after salvation. Sometimes temptations and anxieties and fears are attacks of the enemy, but often they are merely things we do to ourselves. (The unholy trinity of the world, the flesh, and the devil are at work. But let’s not credit the last of the three with more than he is due.)
Anxiety is normal. But it tends to yield to faith.
I sat on the plane, about to take my first trip in a commercial airliner. I was 30 years old and headed to Detroit for a revival across the river in Ontario. I’d been up in small planes a few times, but over the years had managed to work up a certain amount of anxiety about the big ones.
“Lord,” I whispered, the plane still sitting at the gate, “my life is in Your hands.” Just as clearly He spoke back to my spirit. “And just where do you think it has been all these years?”
I relaxed and went to Canada and had a wonderful meeting. Since then, I have flown hundreds of times, all over the globe. Anxiety still shows up from time to time, but I remind my unsettled spirit that the Lord is in control and I refuse to stay home just because of fear. Whether the anxiety goes away or not, I board that plane and have a great flight.
The Word of the Lord is the best cure for anxiety I know.
A few favorite texts on the subject (followed by a more in-depth look at Psalm 116:7)…
–The friend whose note triggered this article replied that Isaiah 41:10 meant a lot to him. “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, Yes, I will help you. I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” I suggested that verse is a companion to Hebrews 13:5-6. “… for He hath said, ‘I will never leave thee nor forsake thee. So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper; what can man do to me?’”
–Everyone’s favorite is Philippians 4:6-7. “Be anxious (fearful) for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God which surpasses comprehension shall guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” The outline used by Dwight L. Moody in the mid-1800s, and everyone since, says: Worry about nothing; pray about everything; thank God for anything.
–And then there is Psalm 56:3. “Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You.” When a woman told D. L. Moody that was her favorite text, he replied, “I prefer the verse following it: ‘I will put my trust in Thee and not be afraid.’” In both cases, the point in the same: Trust, trust, trust. After all, “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6).
–The 23rd Psalm. Psalm 27. Psalm 103. The list is endless (well, okay, there are only 150 psalms).
–In the New Testament, check out Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1. If the pastor is anxious before his Sunday sermon, imagine the anxiety that may have filled this young lady who was being charged with bringing not a message to a flock but The Messenger (!) to the world. And yet, Mary, ever trusting, said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior… He has filled the hungry with good things… He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy…”
And then, back to Psalm 116:7, the gold standard for the anxious believer…
He was anxious: “The pains of death surrounded me, and the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me; I found trouble and sorrow.
He called on the Lord: “Then I called upon the name of the Lord: O Lord, I implore You, deliver my soul!”
He spoke to himself: “Return to your rest, O my soul, for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.”
He remembers how the Lord has dealt with him in the past: “(The Lord has delivered) my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from falling…”
He determines to be proactive: “What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits toward me?” He will “take up the cup of salvation, call upon the name of the Lord (pray), and pay my vows to the Lord.” “I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving and will call upon the name of the Lord.”
He ends: “Praise the Lord!”
Okay. Here’s how Psalm 116:7 works out in actual practice…
You’re on that plane, headed somewhere important. Your nerves (fears, anxieties) did not let you sleep much the night before. What do you do?
You give yourself a good talking to, reminding you of all the times you have taken trips in the past and the flights have been wonderful and smooth and quick. Remind yourself of all the places you’ve been able to see, the events you’ve been able to attend, because you took those flights. Remind yourself how the Lord is faithful regardless of how you personally feel.
You’re planning on preaching a sermon the next day (or bringing a lesson or giving a talk). You’re anxious and cannot find any specific reason for it. What to do? Take 116:7 to heart and start listing all the times you’ve been in this position before and how the Lord was faithful each and every time. Those sermons worked out, God blessed, and all was well. How you felt in advance had nothing to do with what the Lord did.
My wife Margaret used to be so anxious before she taught the Sunday School lesson to her group of ladies. She would work hard all week and ask me lots of questions. On Saturday nights, she was worried and fearful (anxious, right?). Invariably, on the way home from church, when I would ask, “How was your class today?” she would answer, “It was wonderful.” I would tease her about all that anxiety. One day one of our staff ministers told her she was over-preparing for the lesson and that was the reason for her anxieties. She took his advice to heart and it helped.
This is how we are to understand all those Psalms where the writer is giving history lessons. “Remember, O Israel, how the Lord brought you through the Red Sea. How He erased Pharaoh’s armies. How He fed you in the wilderness. How your shoes did not wear out and your clothes were good the entire trip.” He’s giving reminders of the Lord’s provisions and faithfulness in the past in order to drive a stake through the heart of their fears and anxieties.
The Lord gives to His people baptism and the Lord’s supper. The Lord’s supper to show the death of Jesus and baptism to demonstrate His burial and resurrection. Together, they remind us of all the Lord has done in the past and why He can be trusted for the future.
“Hitherto, the Lord hath been our help,” said the Lord’s prophet to His people. “He has been faithful up to this point. I think it’s safe to say we can trust Him the rest of the trip.” (That would be 1 Samuel 7:12).
Help us to trust Thee, Father. Thank you for Thy faithfulness.
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