From Anxiety To Peace

Stephen A. Johnson, Ph.D., Th.D.

Copyright © 2000 Revised ed. 2001 SJEA

It doesn't seem to matter in which profession or area they work—people are anxious about the future. Since the September 11th, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, prescriptions for tranquilizers have soared. There seems to be a flood of unseen dangers, never before imagined in our America. People are threatened with the loss of personal status and approval, their health could be compromised by germ warfare, and their general ability to work and succeed in life is no longer "secure". Many are anxious about the state of their souls and whether they are in right standing with God.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus dealt with anxiety more than any other topic:

"So why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, "What shall we eat?" or "What shall we drink?" or "What shall we wear?" For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Matt. 6:28–34)."

The words anxious and anxiety aren't found in the Greek. Usually, we find the word worry, such as in this version: "Do not worry." The concept of anxiety, however, is found throughout the New Testament. In Greek the word merimna generally means "to take thought."

The life-issues that Jesus raised aren't even to enter our minds, but if they do, we are to give them no lodging. That is, "Don't give a second thought."

And yet, how many of us spend anxious moments pondering what we will eat, drink, or wear, or how we will meet other daily practical and material needs in our lives? God knows our basic needs. He is capable and desires to provide them.

The Attitude of Anxiety

An attitude of anxiety goes beyond moments of feeling frustrated. When anxiety begins to rule our lives, we are being pulled in two directions. It is an inner war. We are faced with choices about which direction to go, or which consequence to endure. We have a divided mind and a degree of fear that we may make the wrong choice.

Often people blame certain events, people, or situations for their anxiety. But anxiety lies within. It is an emotional response to a situation that can be controlled through the exercise of the will. Every emotional response to life has a positive and negative side.

Consider the example of speaking before a group. Some people delight in public speaking. Others cringe at the very thought. Their palms get clammy, their heads spin, they feel nauseous, and they start looking for an exit door. Public speaking, in and of itself, does not produce anxiety. Rather, the consequences a person perceives related to public speaking create anxiety.

On the positive side, a little anxiety can motivate us to action. On the negative side, however, is the possibility of deep-seated despair. When anxiety is allowed to build or develop into a pattern in our lives, it can be tragically devastating.

Some will attempt to numb the pain with booze or drugs. Others look for pleasure in illicit relation-ships, spending sprees, or eating binges. These bad choices bring not fewer, but only more hurts.

Three Causes of Anxiety

1. People perceive that they won't be able to meet or resolve their needs. Jesus addressed this cause of anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount. Around a.d. 30 when Jesus preached this truth, the Hebrew people were consumed with the daily activity of earning enough just to meet the basic needs: food, shelter, and clothing.

Today, this cause of anxiety might be worry that people won't be able to pay the bills, find or keep a job, or provide sufficiently for their families. The causes of anxiety at this level are very real, practical, and material.

2. People set standards that can't be met, resulting in repeated failure and frustration. Much of this anxiety is rooted in intangible expectations, ideas, dreams, or self-set goals. Sometimes unrealistic standards are set by others—such as supervisors, parents, or spouses—but when that is the case, the response is usually not anxiety as much as it is anger or resentment. Only if people internalize the unrealistic expectations of others does anxiety take over.

Perfectionists struggle with this type of anxiety. Some people set standards for themselves that are far higher than those set by God! They expect absolute perfection in everything they do as well as everything others do.

3. People have unresolved hostility. When people feel anger, bitterness, or resentment over a period of time against a particular person, institution, or circumstance, they feel a constant agitation or irritation in their spirits. Again, this cause of anxiety is internal. However, just because anxiety is rooted in high expectations or unresolved hostility does not mean that it is any less real than anxiety rooted in the meeting of basic material needs

Signs of Anxiety

Proverbs 12:25 tells us, "Heaviness in the heart of man maketh it stoop." Anxiety pulls us downward.

The symptoms associated with anxiety generally involve one or more of these characteristics:

• Forgetfulness

• Inability to concentrate

• Irritability

• Inability to cope with small problems

• Vacillation in making decisions

• Misjudging other people

• Feeling persecuted

• Procrastination

• Gnawing dissatisfaction

These symptoms have dire consequences if they continue unchecked, including:

• A feeling of drudgery about life, especially toward work and tasks

• A loss of excitement and enthusiasm

• A loss of productivity, creativity, and energy

• Damage to the physical body

Nothing good comes from anxiety. Jesus referred to some of the negative results of anxiety in a par-able He taught:

"Therefore hear the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom, and does not understand it, then the wicked one comes and snatches away what was sown in his heart. This is he who received seed by the wayside. But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles. Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful. But he who received seed on the good ground is he who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and produces: some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matt. 13:18–23)."

The "cares of this world" choke off the productivity of a good seed sown in our lives. When we allow ourselves to become enveloped in anxiety, we become almost immune to any positive word, expression of faith, or insight from God. If you are anxious, you are so overwhelmed in looking at your problems that you don't even think about what you might pursue as solutions. When that happens, God's Word has very little impact in your life, which eliminates the very thing that can build faith and counteract anxiety.

Have you ever tried to read your Bible only to find that you've gone through several verses and don't have any clue what you have read? Chances are, anxiety was at work. You were seeing the words with your eyes, but other cares and concerns kept you from taking in the words of Scripture. Jesus taught this parable about the kingdom of God. He said that the "wicked one" snatches away some of the seed planted in our lives. But that isn't the case with anxiety. We are the ones who control what we will be anxious about. We are the ones who allow ourselves to worry.

If you have a loss of interest in life—a loss of enthusiasm, a loss of productivity and energy, a loss of output—consider whether you have developed an attitude of anxiety. If so, it's up to you to take action to break the hold that worry has over you. God will help you, but you must face what you have allowed to develop in your life and take action to counteract your response of worry and anxiety.

Some Action Steps

At the foundation of anxiety is the belief that either God can't take care of the situation, or God won't—and either way, you lose because God doesn't act. The only real lasting and healing solution for an attitude of anxiety is to place your trust in God.

1. Turn your heart over to God. If your relationship is wrong with God, you can't be right in yourself. If you are cut off from God's peace, you ultimately can have no peace. Confess that you have failed to trust Him completely. Ask God to forgive you for trying to continue to live your life according to your own plans, abilities, agendas, and talents. Developing trust is a process and you may need to confess this to God many times in your life. "I will say of the Lord, "He is my refuge and my fortress; My God, in Him I will trust" (Ps. 91:1–2)."

2. Tell God how you feel. Scripture admonishes you to "be anxious for nothing." This phrase is followed by a call to prayer: "But in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:6). The antidote for moments of anxiety is prayer—a conversation with God. Supplication refers to making petitions before God, asking Him specifically for what you desire. You are to accompany the prayer and supplication with thanksgiving; you are to give thanks even before you receive God's provision for the answer that you know is on the way!

The next verse in Philippians says that after you have made known your requests to God, "The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your [heart] and [mind] through Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:7). Through prayer, you become anxious for nothing and have the true peace of God ruling your heart instead of worry, doubt and fear.

"Let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Col. 3:15–17)."

3. Turn the anxiety-causing problem over to God. After you have prayed about your anxiety and the problem that gave rise to it, leave your problem with God. As the old saying goes, "Let go and let God."

That is what Peter meant when he wrote, "Casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). Trusting God to solve your problem or meet your need means that you give the problem to God 100 percent! Walk away, saying in your spirit, "I may not know how the answer will come, and I may not know when, where, through whom, or by what means. But I know the One who has the answer, and I put my trust in Him."

4. Turn your mind to the blessings of God.. The mind concentrating on God's presence and work in this world has no room or time to dwell on evil, problems, or negative situations.

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4:8 (NIV)

Direct your reading, your media watching, and your conversations to what is good. Discuss with others how the Lord is working in your life—how He is healing you, strengthening you, and bringing you to a higher plane in your spiritual life. Seek support from family, friends, a member of the clergy, or another caring profession.

I would, also, encourage you to have a physical exam and to initiate a regimen of healthy eating, exercise and rest. Finally, practice a daily time of prayer and Bible reading and worship regularly.

In His love,

Pastor Steve