Feeling anxious as fall approaches?
When I was a kid I would sometimes go with my dad to his place of business on a Saturday morning. He would catch up on paperwork, and I would skulk around the vast warehouse with a plastic gun and pretend to be James Bond.
There was an old relic of an elevator in the middle of the warehouse that had open cage doors, and I could see the crumbling walls of the elevator shaft as I traveled up and down between floors on mission and in full character. There was a great big red button amidst a sea of other elevator buttons, and once, having spent the whole morning going up and down and jumping out to surprise Goldfinger, I asked my dad what would happen if I had pressed that button (which I confess I had been very curious to do!). He looked at me very seriously and said, “Son, whatever you do, don’t ever touch that red button!”
I could not sleep for months. What if I had pressed it? Would I have been trapped in that elevator forever? Would it have fallen like a stone to the bottom of the elevator shaft with me in it? Literally, night after night, I was consumed with anxiety over this wretched red button.
Mystery thriller writer Arthur Somers Roche wrote, “Anxiety is a thin stream of fear trickling through the mind. If encouraged, it cuts a channel into which all other thoughts are drained.” No matter what kind of worry we have, the response in our body is always the same: anxiety increases our cortisol levels. Increased cortisol levels compromise our immune system and, as a result, we become more susceptible to disease. Worry keeps us out of the sunlight, consumes our joy, hope and peace, and can empty us of love. Worry brings our dreams crashing to the ground, shrinks our world, makes us timid and turns us in on ourselves.
Jesus hates worry, but he passionately loves worriers. He sees the hidden battle that many of us fight with anxiety. Too many of us (over 18 percent of American adults) secretly battle chronic anxiety and panic attacks, daily fighting an inner battle that no one else sees. But God sees. God knows the pain and witnesses your inner battle, and God cares.
There is some horrible teaching out there that impliedly blames the worrier (“If you only had more faith!”). This only adds shame to our burden and something else to worry about — which is probably why so many of us feel we cannot even talk openly about this subject. Instead, we use semantics like “I am very busy” or “this is a tough season” because we feel we have no one to whom we can confide that we are daily crushed with anxiety.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.”
Peter reminds us of Jesus’ heart and that we can cast all our anxieties on him, because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). Jesus also said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10). So, when we come to Jesus’ famous sermon known as the Sermon the Mount and hear Jesus say, “Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life…” (Matthew 6:25), remember that these are words spoken with exactly this heart. Jesus’ desire is that we let him help us live our lives beyond worry. How is that going to happen?
Jesus asks us to first lean into him. He says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and these things will be added to you.” (Matthew 6:33). This is not a nebulous kind of searching (“On top of all my problems, I now have to go on some esoteric of pilgrimage.”). We seek first because — whatever else is going on in our lives — we can know for certain that we are not alone, and that right here and now God is with us and for us. Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26). When Jesus says “look,” the word he chooses literally means “fix your eyes on / take a really good look.” Our circumstances can attempt to make him out to be a liar, but he is saying, “Take a good look.”
Take a good look at these promises: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1). “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2). “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20). Upon the strength of these and other similar promises — take a good look. Theologian and author John Shea wrote, “There are signs of his presence. People find them in the ordinary and in the extraordinary. They are open to argument and refutation but their impact on the ones who receive them can only be welcomed.” God would encourage us to look up and allow our hearts to be honest about the impact.
And then there is gratitude. Let’s imagine your house was surrounded by enemy forces whose desire was to wreak havoc and destruction. What if you were to discover that there is a song which the enemy cannot tolerate or approach? Biblically speaking, that “song” is gratitude. The apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7, emphasis mine). Gratitude is the titanium of spiritual armor. Thankfulness was never about getting on God’s “good side.” Gratitude before God is truly for our benefit and not his.
As I compile my gratitude list (and in the midst of the storm often through gritted teeth), I find that two things happen. Firstly, the list gets longer and longer. And secondly, my anxiety level decreases, while my faith and assurance in God’s goodness increases.
And finally, there is the matter of timing. We generally eat between three and five pounds of food each day. This means that an average person eats about 35 tons of food in a lifetime. Imagine walking into a barn filled with all that food! A little overwhelming! How do we manage to consume 35 tons of food? One bite at a time, one day at a time. In the same way, how will we handle all of the heartbreak, pain, grief, disappointment, and challenges in our lives? Imagine another barn filled with all of that! How will we deal with this? In same way: one day at a time.
Jesus is not saying, “Don’t worry about tomorrow because if you have enough faith, tomorrow will be good!” Rather, he says to the crowd, “Therefore, do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:43). “One day at a time” is about seeking his presence daily. Because God has promised to faithfully inhabit each second of every “now.”
Back in the day when I was a little boy — still unable to sleep because of the elevator anxiety — my dad came into my room one night to say goodnight and found me crying. I told him about my fear and anxiety over the elevator and that wretched red button!
He said, “Drew, if you had touched that button, it would have sounded an alarm and I would have known exactly where you were. And I would have straight away come and gotten you out of there!” I said, “Really?” He replied, “Yes, truly…” I questioned, “Even though you told me not press the button?” “Yes! Truly.” Never did I worry about that again and I recall how it felt for the anxiety to lift off of me. This was such an important lesson, because in my father’s comfort that night, there lay my heavenly father’s heart.
The Rev. Drew Williams is the senior pastor of Trinity Church.