Who among us has not felt anxious over the last year? Will we get sick with the coronavirus? Will someone we love get it? How long will our offices be shut down? Will we still have jobs a few weeks or months from now? How am I going to work and home-school my kids? Even if I still have my job, will my spouse? Will we have enough toilet paper and groceries?
Anxiety exists on a spectrum. At the one end, anxiety informs us of important information that keeps us safe. When we stumble upon a wild animal, the heart-pounding, palm-sweating, adrenaline-pumping reaction we have is anxiety telling us we need to respond quickly to get ourselves out of harm’s way.
At the other end is anxiety out of control. When those physiological responses become chronic and extreme, we literally cease to be able to function normally. We may be unable to concentrate, sleep, eat properly and regulate ourselves to such a degree that we cannot carry on normal, everyday activities. When we get to that stage, we need outside spiritual, psychological and/or medical intervention – counselling, medication, relaxation tools and deep healing prayer are some examples.
What we are experiencing these days lies somewhere between these two extremes. We are not in acute, sudden danger nor are most of us completely unable to function. But we may fall somewhere on the spectrum. How do we deal with anxiety over things that are real, not imagined, uncontrollable and yet possible? It is possible that we or someone we know will get sick, lose a job, have difficulty balancing all of life’s new demands or even run out of toilet paper.
Looking at Scripture
What do believers in Jesus do when we have anxiety? What has he invited us to do?
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34)
“He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, ‘Quiet! Be still!’ Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, ‘Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?’” (Mark 4:39-40)
“‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:22-26)
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
The antidote for anxiety is trust
The common theme in these verses is trust. Trust that there is a higher plane, a higher purpose, a higher being who ultimately has this in control. Whole sermons have been given on each of these passages, so this is really just a summary: Trust that God is in control, trust that he will protect, provide, supply, so we can relax, have peace and wait on him. And being human, we need to be reminded of this repeatedly both by ourselves and by one another.
Here are a few ideas for reminding yourself to trust God:
- Pick a few favourite verses and memorise them, so you can remind yourself when you feel the physiological symptoms re-emerge.
- Start a gratitude journal than reminds you all the ways that he has been faithful in the past.
- Hearing other people’s stories and reminders is equally encouraging as well. If God did that for them, it makes me more confident that he will do it for me as well.
- Connect with friends with whom you can be real, authentic and honest, knowing they’ll point you back to the faithfulness of God; and vice versa, that you can be that encouragement to them.
Trust is not passivity
But we need to be cautious. I don’t know about you, but personally I have found that if I am not careful, trust can lead to passivity. I can become a little jaded, a little defeatist, a little complacent, which sounds a bit like this in my inner thought life:
“OK, so I know I am just supposed to trust God. And I know that I don’t have control over anything anyway. And I know that whatever will happen will happen no matter what I do. So, I will just sit here and try to be calm and let things play out however they will play out. Nothing I do will matter anyway. So, I am just going to do what they tell me to do. Stay inside, work from home, keep my family safe; it’s all about us.”
Passivity can be defined as acceptance of what happens without active response or resistance.
I will be honest enough to tell you that I did not initially respond to this crisis this way, but I definitely slipped into it for a period of time around when I started to work from home. I would lay in bed at night, wondering, worrying, thinking there was nothing I could really do, so why even try? My temptation was to just be a lump of mindless cooperation. After all, I told myself trying to sound spiritual, “God is in control; I am not, so what can I do?”
But after a little while, I was convicted that this passive attitude was not really trust in God, it was really just being lazy!
I found this passage in J.I. Packer’s book Keep in Step with the Spirit described what I was experiencing very well:
“Passivity means conscious inaction – in this case, inner inaction. A call to passivity – conscientious, consecrated passivity – has sometimes been read into certain biblical texts, but it cannot be read out of any of them. Thus, for instance, to ‘yield’ or ‘present’ oneself to God (Rom. 6:3; 12:1), or as it is sometimes put, to ‘surrender’ or ‘give ourselves up’ to him, is not passivity. Paul’s meaning is not that having handed ourselves over to our Master, we should then lapse into inaction, waiting for Christ to move us instead of moving ourselves, but rather that we should report for duty, saying as Paul himself said on the Damascus road, ‘What shall I do, Lord? . . .’ (Acts 22:10) and setting no limits to what Christ by his Spirit through his Word may direct us to do. This is activity! Again, being ‘led by the Spirit of God’ (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18) is not passivity. Paul’s meaning is not that we should do nothing till celestial promptings pop into our minds, but that we should resolutely labour by prayer and effort to obey the law of Christ and mortify sin (see Gal. 5:13-6:10; and Rom. 8:5-13, to which v. 14 looks back). This too is activity!
“Surely we need not go further. The point is plain. Passivity, which quietists think liberates the Spirit, actually resists and quenches him. Souls that cultivate passivity do not thrive, but waste away. The Christian’s motto should not be ‘Let go and let God’ but ‘Trust God and get going!’”
Some wise people once told me that we should “work like it depends on us but pray like it depends on God.” I believe that this attitude is the better way to exercise real trust in God, which puts our anxiety to rest. So, in our present situation, we look at the real risks – if we are going to run out of toilet paper, we try our best to buy some, not hoard away enough for the next two years! If our hours get cut, we look for new jobs or ways to economise. If we cannot physically be near those in our lives, we get creative about alternate ways to help people. We do what is in our power to do and we pray that God will exercise his control over what we cannot.
But we don’t remain passive observers of what is happening around us, as if we have no part in it. God calls us to be active partners with him.
Since pulling myself out of my days of temptation to be passive, I honestly feel better. I am a planner by nature and I thrive when I can make a plan and execute it. This is really difficult to do right now. But by figuring out what we do know, assessing what we can do even when we cannot do everything we might like to do, I feel like I can continue to work to my best ability and trust God for what I do not know and cannot do. This really does help keep my anxiety in check as I trust that God is ultimately in control.