When We Worry

Worry is normal. We worry about a lot of things. We worry about our finances. We worry about our grades. We worry about our careers. We worry about our families. We are in a fallen world filled with fallen people there is no end to the situations we have to worry about. We are not guaranteed to live a suffering-free life, so we often walk through our days with a low-level fear that, if something hasn’t happened yet, it may very well happen soon.

This worry and fear manifests itself in all sorts of different ways in each one of our lives. Some of us experience this worry as “stress.” Our muscles get tight, our attitudes get irritable, our bodies get fatigued. Some of us experience this worry as a constant low-level anxiety. We walk through every day meditating on the things that concern us. They’re always present; we rarely forget them. Some of us experience this worry in more dramatic forms. Maybe it manifests in the habitual worry of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. Maybe it manifests in the combined physiological and mental habits of a panic attack. Regardless of how it manifests itself in your life or in my life, we can’t escape the reality that we all worry.

When we read Scripture the reality of our worry can feel problematic. God seems fairly clear that worry and anxiety aren’t supposed to be a part of our lives as Christians. In his letter to the Philippians Paul states the command fairly plainly: “Don’t be anxious about anything…” (Phil 4:6). But, what does that mean? What is Paul saying about the worry and anxiety that we all feel? How do we simply stop feeling anxious?

Thankfully, God’s attitude toward our worry is not that simple or rigid. It’s not that God commands us to stop being concerned about things, but it’s what we do with that concern that he is after. In fact, Paul himself, earlier in this same letter (and similarly inspired by the Holy Spirit) confesses his own worry (anxiousness) for his brother, Epaphroditis: “I am the more eager to send him, therefore, that you may rejoice at seeing him again, and that I may be less anxious” (Phil 2:28). He does so without repenting of his anxiousness, but recognizing that the kind of concern he felt for the Philippians (and even their concern for Epaphroditis) was an appropriate, God-honoring concern.

So how do we make sense of the command to not be anxious about “anything” in chapter 4 of this same letter? Like with all short proof-texts taken out of context, we can only understand what Paul means in Philippians 4:6 by reading the rest of the sentence and paragraph around this small command. The whole thing reads like this:

Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 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 4:5–7)

Paul’s intent here is not to convey that Christians should not have concerns. If we didn’t have any concerns we wouldn’t have anything to bring to God. Instead, Paul’s point is to call us to take our concerns, our worry, our anxiety to God, the perfect, loving, and sovereign one, for he alone has the power to take care of them. Our flesh tells us that the appropriate response to worry or concern is thinking. We look for solutions, we mull the situation over and over and over in our minds, we dwell on the uncontrollable and the unknown. But here God is reminding us that the spiritual response to worry or concern (the response fueled by the Spirit of God dwelling in us) is prayer.

This is the exact same response that David models for us in Psalm 56. He wrote simply: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Ps 56:3). The reason for David’s ability to put his trust in God was not because he didn’t have anything to worry about, and it wasn’t because he had achieved some sort of enlightened stoicism where he no longer felt worry. David’s concerns were real and his fears were justified.

   Be gracious to me, O God, for man tramples on me;
              all day long an attacker oppresses me;
  my enemies trample on me all day long,
              for many attack me proudly.
(Ps 56:1-2)

In a situation like this, worry was normal for David. It was the logical response to the implications of living in a fallen world surrounded by fallen people. The issue was not if David felt worried but what he did with his worry. And, just like David, each moment of concern or anxiety you and I feel—whether it comes in the form of small and subtle stress or a large and overwhelming panic attack—is an opportunity to say again:

“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.”

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