Inviting God Into Your Anxious Thoughts
I commonly get asked whether the number of people I’m meeting with over the last 2 years due to COVID has increased significantly. Many of us who work as counselors would readily say the number has greatly increased and, indeed, it is likely due to the increased stress and anxiety the pandemic has created through quarantining and prolonged isolation, following multiple protocols which have greatly changed how we interact with each other, and of course, there is the sickness and, in some cases, the tragic loss due to the disease itself. How do we typically handle the anxiety from these factors on top of all the ongoing familiar stresses we face in life?
Jesus talks about anxiety a good bit in the scripture. Here are just a couple of passages:
“For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” Matt 6:25-26
“Be anxious for nothing, 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 comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
“And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matt 10:28-31
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.” 1 Pet. 5:6-7
As you can see from the bold type, when we are anxious about anything God considers it crucially important for us to focus on His care for us and how greatly valuable we are to Him. It’s one thing to acknowledge with our mind that God is a deeply caring God who wants us to rest peacefully convinced He is in control. But what do we do if we don’t feel or seem to experience the fulfillment of His warm invitation, even though He repeatedly stresses it throughout His Word? There are multiple reasons, but one crucial element is that when we are overcome with worry about something it’s tempting to believe the opposite is true – that God must not truly care, or He’d do something about it.
This doubting conclusion we often have about the lack of God’s protective care for us has been a part of mankind since the beginning of creation. Think about it: Satan sows doubt in Eve as to whether God is truly caring for her and Adam (“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Gen. 3:1). When Eve responds that they are free to eat from all the trees except for one, Satan next tempts her to take matters into her own since God must be withholding His best from them (“God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” Gen. 3:5). And the rest is, as they say, history
Sinclair Ferguson says in his excellent book The Whole Christ, “Thus the lie was an assault on both God’s generosity and his integrity. Neither his character nor his words were to be trusted. This in fact is the lie that sinners have believed ever since – the lie of the ‘not-to-be trusted- because-he-does-not-love-me-false-Father.’”
But what are we to do about the anxiety producing situations we often face when it seems like God is doing nothing? What do we do when we’ve lost our job and seek another one without success? What about when we or a loved one is diagnosed with a significant illness? What are we to do when we pray for healing, but there is no healing? Even everyday difficulties like an argument with a spouse or a roommate, a missed deadline, a child who habitually will not fall asleep in the middle of the night, an upcoming family holiday gathering with difficult relatives, etc. can evoke significant anxiety within. These may not seem as severe as a loss of a job or a serious illness, but these instances happen with far greater regularity - almost daily. It really doesn’t matter how severe the issue seems: if you and I experience regular anxiety our body, mind, and spirit will experience inner turmoil and disruption, regardless of how it compares to the stresses of others.
So, what do we do? Often we seek to renew our minds with the truth, reviewing passages of scripture containing the promises of God’s loving care and offer to carry our burden for us. And we should do this since God says we’re transformed by the renewing of our mind. We also offer up a prayer, “God here’s my burden. Please take away my anxiety and help me to trust.” Again, God instructs us to pray to Him when we are anxious. But that’s often not enough. Because, while it’s always true that God promises to be our comfort, if we don’t experience His abiding peace, we won’t be changed. And we’ll be tempted to handle life on our own without Him. And that’s the strategic trap set for us in our ongoing spiritual battle – to rebel against God by acting independently of Him. Most of us think of rebellion as adamantly waving our fist in the air as we march in the street, shouting angry words of protest, etc. But that’s not how rebellion is described in the scriptures.
Adam and Eve didn’t seem angry. They didn’t doubt God’s existence. In fact, they believed many things about Him – they believed He made them and put them in the garden. They believed He created everything around them, including food for them to eat. But when it came to the prohibition God placed on one tree, they followed the evil one’s logic that God must not be good or He wouldn’t withhold from them something they needed. The next step? If they wanted it, they would have to go after what they really needed on their own without God. And that’s what God calls rebellion.
When it comes to anxiety, we want relief. It’s only natural. What we often to do is throw up a quick prayer, “God take away my anxiety.” We read a passage about God’s peace, but we often don’t experience it, at least not right away. But if the knowledge that God is able to take away anxiety doesn’t change us, we are tempted in the same way of Adam and Eve: if praying and reflecting on truth doesn’t create peace, God must not care, I’ll have to attain it on my own.
Pastor and Author Tim Keller speaks about wrestling with this when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer,
“One of the first things I learned was that religious faith does not automatically provide solace in times of crisis.. . . I realized that my beliefs would have to become just as real to my heart, or I wouldn’t be able to get through the day . . . (this) requires both intellectual and emotional engagement: head work and heart work. (reasoning and feeling) . . . rational conviction and experience might change my mind, but the shift would not be complete until it took root in my heart . . . The heart work came in as I struggled to bridge the gap between an abstract belief and one that touches the imagination. As the early American philosopher Jonathan Edwards argued, it is one thing to believe with certainty that honey is sweet, perhaps through the universal testimony of trusted people, but it is another to actually taste the sweetness of honey.. . In the same way, it is one thing to believe in a God who has attributes such as love, power, and wisdom; it is another to sense the reality of that God in your heart. The Bible is filled with sensory language. We are not only to believe that God is good but also to “taste” his goodness, the psalmist tells us; not just to believe that God is glorious and powerful but also to “see” it with “the eyes of the heart,” it says in Ephesians.” (Atlantic Magazine, March 7, 2021)
This same type of communion with Chris is necessary when facing any type of anxiety. We must know God’s promise of peace, but also experience it within. But how? There is no one single way, but as Keller says, the promises and invitations from God must touch our imagination. We must envision them as personally offered to us from Christ, Himself, in the very situation and moment we are facing.
Think of a stressful situation you are currently facing. You think of the invitation from Christ in 1 Peter 5:7, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.” Rather than merely praying for God to take away your anxiety, envision God inviting you to come into His presence out of the genuine care this passage says is true of Him. You see him and his expression is compassionate and earnest. He’s not merely willing as a concession to carry your burden, but you envision His powerful ability and his eager love to do so. You humble yourself according to the passage and you admit to Him that it doesn’t seem like He cares because He doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it (remember the disciples while in their boat said to Jesus during the crashing storm all around them, “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” – Mark 4:38). But it strikes you that He isn’t offended or indignant at your doubting words. In fact, He continues to offer His kind invitation. It doesn’t diminish his power, love, perfection that you are skeptical. God doesn’t have self-esteem that can be wounded by the words of others. He doesn’t retract His invitation to you. He addresses you by name and invites you to tell Him what is on your mind and heart, even though He already knows the situation better than you do. You share with Him your worry and tell Him what you fear the future will bring if it doesn’t change. Jesus looks at you directly with a strong but welcoming expression. Again, He addresses you by your name, “Jon, I hear the worry you have, and I care about you. Let me carry the burden of the outcome for you. Let me carry the concern of how others will respond to you. That is not something you can control; I am sovereign over the future more than you’ll ever know. You seek to honor me in how you walk through it this day, knowing I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
This may seem awkward at first, but these are truths, promises, and invitations made to us in God’s Word, which is absolute truth. We should hear them as offered directly to us, and not something meant for other people. We need to regularly envision God speaking His promises directly to us just like He says them in His Word, and with the very expressions of love and care that He says He has for us.
This will take repetition for most of us. We will be tempted to believe that God is put off by our anxiety and frustrated with us. Dane Ortlund says in his recent book Gentle and Lowly that this is absolutely not so, “Jesus is . . . not harsh, reactionary, easily exasperated. He is the most understanding person in the universe . . . the minimum bar to be enfolded into (His) embrace is simply: offer yourself up to Him . . . You don’t need to unburden or collect yourself and then come to Jesus. Your very burden is what qualifies you to come . . . This is not who He is to everyone, indiscriminately. This is who He is for those who come to Him, who take His yoke upon them, who cry to Him for help.”
As we envision this more and more, we will both know and experience God is quite able and willing to carry our burdens for us.