You never worry do you? We might as well ask, ‘Ducks don’t swim do they?’ Of course we worry – all of us at some time or another. James says that if a man is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man (James 3:2). We could say the same thing about worry. If we never worried we would be perfect. Worry is to most of us just a part of life. The only problem is that worry is forbidden in the Bible. The apostle Paul says, ‘Do not be anxious about anything’ (Philippians 4:6).
There is an anxiety that is legitimate. If Christian parents see their daughter off to a university known for its liberal views and wild parties, there will be a concern that is justified. But when does concern become worry: and how do we distinguish between the two? To be anxious means to be distracted; to have a divided attention. If, when we should be concentrating on one thing such as our job, we are consumed by other thoughts, then we are displaying anxiety. Martha was preparing a meal for Jesus and the disciples. The ladies know what it is like preparing for special occasions – there are many things to attend to – food, dishes, the cooker. The problem was that Martha’s attention was divided; she was distracted. Her sister was in the next room listening to Jesus. Martha thought she should have been in the kitchen helping her, and it bothered her. She was getting as well cooked as the meal, and finally she boiled over and complained. Jesus had to rebuke her for being worried (Luke 10:41). So, we all worry: we know we shouldn’t, but it is hard not to.
When do we worry?
There are many causes of anxiety. We worry when relationships break down. We worry when things go wrong, when they don’t go according to plan. We worry when there is uncertainty. Our worry can involve health, finance, family problems, church problems. We could be approaching retirement, unsure of an adequate pension. Again we ask, when does legitimate concern became worry? A woman might have an unconverted husband who is dying. It is only right that she be concerned about his soul. But when does her concern become worry? When it distracts her. When she cannot function and cannot sleep.
When we worry, we are not only distracted from normal activities such as work or sleep, we are also distracted from the Lord. We take our eyes off him. We profess to believe in a sovereign God; a God who controls all things and works all things according to his will; but when we worry we are really questioning whether God is in full control. We are implying that the outcome of the situation somehow depends on us. Most of know of Martin Luther the great leader of the Protestant Reformation. We may not be so familiar with his friend and fellow-reformer Philip Melanchthon. He was a very timid man. When the pope was hurling curses at Luther and the emperor was threatening action, poor Philip would get in quite a state. Luther would say to him, ‘Let Philip cease to rule the world!’ Melanchthon was fretting as if Luther’s safety and his own, depended on him. Luther suggested to him, in a kindly way, that it would be better to let God take care of things.
Worry is sinful
Perhaps you have lost your job. The prospects for finding fresh employment are not good. There is the mortgage to pay, and a family to feed. It is natural to worry. Yet when you do so, you are implying that the outcome of the situation is in your hands. To be sure you must be diligent in seeking employment, but when you have done everything within your power, you must leave the outcome to God, and trust His promises. Promises such as the one in verse 19 of this same chapter: ‘My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.’ What a wonderful promise! Yet the worrier says (or thinks), ‘He might not supply all my needs.’
So worry is unbelief! It is an affront to God. It dishonours him, because it does not believe what he has said. And that is why it is sinful. There is a danger of isolating the Ten Commandments from the rest of God’s commands, but we often do this unconsciously. We know it is sinful to worship idols, to kill or to steal. Those actions break one or other of the commandments. But when it comes to things like worry or pride, we cannot so easily relate it to one of the Ten Commandments. So we think it cannot be so bad, and are reluctant to call it sin. But it is sinful to break any of God’s commands, whether the command is, ‘do not steal’ or ‘do not worry.’
Worry is futile
Not only is worry sinful, it is futile. It achieves nothing. I have seen people on a plane absolutely terrified on take-off. But does their terror help the situation? Was the plane the safer for their fear? Of course not. Worry never solves a problem. It never helps. The Lord Jesus reminds us of this simple truth when he asks, ‘Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?’ (Matthew 6:27).
Worry is harmful
Not only is worry sinful and futile, it is also harmful. It is harmful to health. High blood pressure and ulcers are just two effects of worry on physical health and, of course, it can have a serious effect on mental health, leading to clinical depression. It can be harmful to relationships. An anxious person is often touchy and ill tempered. It does not take much of that to lose friends and endanger family relationships. Worst of all, it is harmful to our spiritual life and our relationship with the Lord. When we are distracted by problems it is hard to concentrate on prayer or Bible reading. It is difficult to follow sermons. Yes, worry is sinful, futile and harmful, yet still we worry. We may agree with all these things, but still we worry. Is there no solution? Of course there is. If someone’s life were dominated by lying we would surely be convinced that there could be victory over that sin. There must be grace also for overcoming a sin like worry.
The remedy for worry
How, then, can we overcome anxiety?
First – recognize it as sin. We must be honest with ourselves; acknowledge that we are sinning and cry out to God for help. A diagnosis is always a first step to a cure.
Second – meditate on the character of God. The psalmist says, ‘Delight yourself in the Lord’ (Psalm 37:4). If we are consumed by our problems we are not delighting ourselves in the Lord. Consider him. Consider his power to deliver you from every problem as he sees fit. Consider his wisdom in bringing about this situation. If we could plan our lives we would plan them without any serious problems – we would be wealthy (maybe not billionaires, but at least comfortably off!), healthy and without major catastrophes. Yet he who has in fact planned our lives has not ordained it that way. Surely he knows best. Consider his faithfulness: he has promised that no temptation will be too strong for us. Consider his love: he sent his Son to be our Saviour. he drew us to himself. Now, as our Father, he wants only the best for us. If we have pain and sorrow, it is only for our good.
Third – submit to the sovereign will of God. Let God be God. Acknowledge his right to do as he wants. Accept that his way is best. Some people are ready to defend God’s sovereignty with all their might. They will hold unflinchingly to the doctrines of election and particular redemption, yet when there is a problem in their lives they go to pieces. For all their doctrine, they have failed to grasp the basic truth about God’s sovereignty, namely that he is in control of all things, for he ‘works all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11). So, don’t grumble; don’t complain when things don’t work out as you expected.
Fourth – pray. This is Paul’s next point in Philippians 4:6. He says, ‘don’t be anxious but pray.’ The two are alternatives. We worry or we pray. We pray or we worry. You may say, ‘I pray but I still worry.’ If that is true then you are not praying as you should. We pray because we know that only God can really solve this problem. He has the willingness to hear us and the power to answer us.
What will we pray for? The natural thing is to pray for the problem to go away, whether it is the sickness, the family crisis, the financial problem or the unemployment. The whole situation is making us miserable and we want an end to it. There is certainly nothing wrong with asking the Lord to take away the problem, but there is a very important appendix that needs to be added – ‘if it is your will,’ and it may not be.
Just think about it. The God who has sovereignly decreed the problem has brought it into our lives for a purpose, and to see that purpose fulfilled may take time. So removing the problem may not be God’s will, at least not for a while. Suppose a man has a crisis in his business. Because of the high value of sterling and competition from third world countries, his sales have declined sharply and he faces bankruptcy. He prays and brings his needs to the church prayer meeting. It will be natural to pray that the business will turn around, but perhaps the man has been giving too much attention to his business while neglecting his family and his spiritual needs. It may well be that the crisis has been sent by God to get him to rearrange his priorities. So praying for the problem to go away may not be the right approach.
The true resolution of the problem may not be a change in the situation but a change in the person. So we need to pray with that in mind. An appropriate prayer might be something like, ‘Lord, if it’s not your will to change the circumstances, then change me. Help me to submit to your will. Help me to learn valuable lessons from this crisis. Help me to grow in grace through it.’
Dare to thank God
In our praying we should also thank God for the situation that has caused us anxiety. We see that in verse 6: ‘In everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.’ That is an important step in coping with anxiety. It is one thing to endure trials, but another to give thanks for them. Yet James counsels us, ‘Brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials’ (James 1:2). We can often grin and bear it, but that is not the rejoicing that Paul refers to in verse 4; ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ To thank God for a trial is to submit cheerfully to him.
It sounds simple but it is not easy. It certainly needs grace. How do we get from enduring to rejoicing? Once again, there are no short cuts, but it comes through meditating on the appropriate truths of Scripture – the Fatherhood of God; his wonderful love; and the assurance that all things really do work together for good to those who love God and whom God loves. Romans 8:28 does mean what it says!
The effect of prayer is peace
We see this in verse 7: ‘And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.’ Again there is a contrast. Peace is set in opposition to worry. When we worry we have no peace, only inward turmoil and fear. But if we have peace we will not worry. Worry and peace cannot co-exist. One excludes the other. It is wonderful to have inward peace. The picture in this verse is a military one – of a detachment of soldiers guarding a town or garrison. They surround it and there is no way in except past their weapons. When we have prayed rather than worried, God’s peace envelops us, it guards us against stress and anxiety. The ‘peace of God’ is not just the peace that God gives, it is the peace that he himself possesses. God does not worry. Imagine if he did! Worrying whether or not the sun would rise or the plants would grow. But God enjoys perfect peace at all times. When we pray and trust him, he gives us his peace, enabling us to know tranquillity even in the midst of storms. Jesus himself exemplified that, asleep in the boat while the disciples were terrified of the storm (Matthew 8:23-27).
Do you know that peace? The peace of God is an experience, a feeling. However we can never know the peace of God unless we first know peace with God. Not until we have come to Jesus Christ for pardon for our sins can we know peace with God, a right relationship with him. Then by his grace, we can know his peace within, giving us calmness at all times.
One last word: this inward peace is not a once-for-all experience. We may have peace today, but tomorrow, when the next crisis comes, and because we have perhaps neglected prayer, we will be anxious. As with every aspect of Christian experience, peace will be ours as we live from day to day in fellowship with God, trusting him and thankfully accepting every trial he sends.