Christians do not worry, right? Theoretically, the Bible tells us yes. Practically and realistically, the Bible tells us the history of worrying among God's people.
When the people who have the least to panic about panic...
The book of Exodus tells us the story of God miraculously delivering his people. The people of Israel had front row seats to a series of miracles that would have astonished, amazed and terrified them, all performed for the purpose of blessing them. They saw God exercise complete control over the natural world, animal, microbe, weather, geography (Exodus 7-10). They saw God punish sinful rebellion with death in the plague of the firstborn and bring them deliverance through faith in his means of grace – the blood of a lamb (Exodus 11). They saw God deliver them through the Red Sea by parting the waters and destroy their enemies by allowing the water to fall back again (Exodus 14). By the end of these experiences, you would have said that here were a people who could be confident in the gracious power of the Lord at work for their good and for their protection.
Yet when they reached the wilderness where God had led them, the same God, who was there present, visible to them in a pillar of fire or smoke, who had delivered them from slavery and death, within days they were begging to be returned to slavery (Exodus 16). For to be in the wilderness was to be unable to provide for themselves in any way and their immediate reaction was not, “we have a powerful God who has promised to bless us”, but panic. Graciously and miraculously, God fed them in a way that not only did not depend on them, but actively prevented them from storing up security for themselves in terms of food. Every day manna appeared and every night it was filled with maggots if they tried to keep it (Exodus 16). Yet, when another need confronted them, lack of water, they once again longed for their slavery rather than turning to their gracious God who was committed to blessing them (Exodus 17). Again, however gracious and miraculous was the provision, and again and again. Every time there was a need the Lord met it with abundance and grace, without effort or merit on the part of his people.
They reached Sinai and God there provided the rules by which they were able to live in covenant relationship with a Holy God, but these people who had been delivered, led, fed, watered and protected in the ‘vast and terrifying’ wilderness (Deuteronomy 1) entirely by the hand of the Lord, these people had seen miraculous provision upon miraculous provision aimed at bringing them to a place of blessing, these people melted down their gold that God had provided to them on fleeing Egypt and built the statue of an animal to worship and pray to (Exodus 32).
The human heart as it is
This is the human heart. The Israelites were not particularly sinful, faithless or anything else. They were us. This is what people do. It is no coincidence that the first of the ten commandments is, “I am the Lord your God… you shall have no other gods but me,” and the second is, “You shall not make for yourselves any idols” (Exodus 20:1-6). The fundamental question posed to Eve and Adam in the garden was, “who will you trust to provide you with blessing and satisfaction in life, God or yourself,” and the answer they made has been the answer of every human ever since apart from the Lord Jesus, “I will trust myself”. The creation of idols is an attempt to create gods that we control, that we can placate or that depend on us in some way. We want control of the means of our survival and happiness at the deepest level of our nature and this is a problem.
When all control is delusion
The issue of course is that the control we crave is based on a delusion. There is precious little in this life that we can control, and if our sinful hearts seek to rule out God as the one to whom we can turn that leaves us scrabbling increasingly desperately around looking for something that will bear the weight of our need for security and safety. We fly from empty, filthy, broken cistern to empty, filthy, broken cistern, bypassing with closed eyes the stream of living water (Jeremiah 2:13).
This is not a problem confined to the Old Testament, although we do find the pattern repeated there over and over again, but we find it also in the disciples of Jesus, who watch him calm a storm, feed the hungry, raise the dead but still flee and cower in fear when the betrayal he has told them will come actually happens. We find it in the warnings and teachings of Jesus, “Do not store up treasures for yourself on earth… for where your treasure is, your heart will be also,” (Matthew 6:19-21) and “Do not worry about your life… for your Father knows you need these things. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:25-33).
You are a human, of course you are anxious. It is the condition of sinful man to be anxious because he is building his house upon the shifting sands of himself and those things he deludes himself he can control. The whole basis of your security in life rests upon no foundation whatsoever and to the extent that you are honest enough to look upon that fact and not live in denial, you will be afraid.
Building security on a different foundation
But there is excellent news. If you have come to follow Jesus, to listen to him, obey him, trust in him and be saved by him, your foundations have begun to change. A new person has been born in you, one born of the Holy Spirit and helped by him, one who has the armour of God to fight against the sin within, the world without and the devil who longs to keep us from the safe harbour of dependence on the Lord. You have the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, to fight back against the temptation that lives in your heart to build idols and worship them. Slowly, slowly, God is working by his Spirit to make you more like his precious Son, Jesus Christ, who with his eyes fixed on his Father, walked the lonely path to the cross, trusting in the gracious wisdom and mercy that told him the after the cross came the crown and a glory which far outweighed the suffering he must face.
Because our God is the same God who protected and provided for his people in the desert, the same God who welcomed back the disciples who had abandoned and denied him (John 21). He is the same God who could say to his people after their 40 years wandering in the desert that in that whole time “your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell” (Deut 8:4), who continued to feed a rebellious and proud people who had refused to trust him. The same God who tells us we have treasures in heaven that can never perish, spoil or fade (1 Peter 1:4) and to set our hearts on those things and not the perishable, insecure treasure of earth, our Father who “knows we need these things,” (Matthew 6:32) to whom we are, “worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:31), in fact to whom we are “precious and honoured in my sight” (Isaiah 43:4).
When anxiety continues
Inasmuch as you are in the process of being sanctified, of coming into the life in its fullness which is the inheritance you have in Christ and not yet a completed work, you will continue to build idols for yourself and continue to be anxious. We are all anxious. God would not spend so much time telling us and showing us that we do not need to be if it wasn’t a fundamental part of the human condition. But God is working in you to defeat this sin and he tasks you to labour alongside him in the work.
Take a U-turn
Firstly, he calls us to repent. To recognise that anxiety has its roots in idolatry. We worry because we do not trust. So, we need to ask honestly, what are the idols that lie behind our anxiety? What is it that we fear will happen? Ultimately, what are we worshipping? If our fears are social, perhaps we have made an idol out of the acceptance and respect of people and we fear that if people do not accept us we will be worthless and useless. If our fears are financial or work-related, perhaps we have made an idol out of our ability to provide food and shelter for ourselves, or perhaps of our status. God wants us to be honest with ourselves about our idols and to repent of them. To turn away from worshipping them and to entrust those needs to him. They are real needs, but he alone can meet them, whether he does so miraculously or through others or through our own efforts, he is the source. Repentance is powerful to change feelings and thoughts, and it’s where change starts.
Choose your weapons
Secondly, he calls us to fight with the weapons he has given us for this purpose, with prayer, accountability and the word. To cast your cares on him for he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7), to keep praying and not give up (Luke 18:1), knowing our father will not give us a snake when we ask for a loaf of bread (Luke 11:11), to rejoice and with thanksgiving bring our prayers and petitions to him (Philippians 4:6). To seek out Christian community, to confess our idols to one another, to have close relationships with people who love us and know us well enough to speak truth into our lives that we have been trying not to see. To cling to the truth, commit to memory the verses of promise that we are given, of comfort, of truth in the gracious, unchanging, steadfast commitment to blessing us that we are given by the Lord. I find it helpful, once I have identified the idol that lies behind an anxiety to memorise 3 or 4 verses which tell me how much better God is at providing for that need than anything else could ever be.
Work in progress
Finally, he calls us to perseverance. God is patient and he is kind. We are his workmanship in Christ (Ephesians 2:10), he is refining us with fire (Malachi 3:3-4) and building us into a temple for his Holy Spirit (1 Peter 2:5). What we will be has not yet been made known, but we know that one day we will be like him for we will see him as he is (1 John 3:2). He is gracious and compassionate and he is working in us, even as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). There is no need to fear exposing our sin before ourselves or him, there is grace to cover every part. So however hard it is, however slow the progress, however many times we fall down or feel like we are going backwards we fix our eyes on him and keep going, knowing that in the battle to trust in God alone, although painful and tiring we are truly seeking life in all its fullness (John 10:10).
I am a very fearful person. There are idols in my life that felt like stone pillars, planted deep into the ground which have come crashing down under the influence of the grace of God, there are idols that have been slowly, slowly worn down by patient prayer and hard work and there are idols that remain, flooding my brain with danger signals and panic when they are threatened. But I know that there is freedom to be had when idols fall and life to be enjoyed when I finally relinquish control to the one who loves me and who has the power to truly provide and protect.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” (Hebrews 12:1-3)