I hate fear.
I literally hate the feeling that I get in the pit of my stomach right before I walk towards the pulpit to preach, or that moment before I have to make a decision that I’m unsure about, or the frantic second prior to doing something I hadn’t planned for. I am far too familiar with the words “anxiety,” “worry,” and even “dread.”
I don’t let the fear out, either. I am afraid of many things but I keep those feelings inside, having learned (and the military is good for teaching this) that plowing through an obstacle will bring you to the finish line faster. You’ll even probably be alive and well, ready to live another day of uncertainty. Meanwhile, those knots of fear keep getting stuffed farther and farther down into your soul…far away from other people.
But having a stockpile of pent-up fear (whether shown or not), doesn’t do great things for the body, the mind, one’s emotional state, or, (surprise, surprise,) one’s spiritual life. Fear can make you sick, make your brain perform poorly or gravitate towards untruthful thoughts, can make you react to your circumstances with depression, and can cause you to sin–a whole lot. For me, the presence of fear causes me to want to flee. Maybe not physically (although California always looks inviting to me) but certainly mentally. I want to escape into video games instead of loving my family, I want to dive into a book instead of responding to personal e-mails, I even want to run (what!?) if it could keep me from having to deal with something even remotely taxing. Sleeping is my shangrila – a place where nothing can interrupt me and nothing is asked of me (unless that chaplain phone rings with something that I won’t be able to handle!!!). When projects loom, I want to avoid them, preferring to procrastinate and then blame my circumstances for any delay.
In short, I want a god whose name is “safety,” not a savior whose name is Jesus.
But fear doesn’t have to spiral into sin. Anxiety and worry and much of what we call “fear” can lead to praising God for faithful grace—past, present and future. One passage that has ministered to my heart is the ever-well-known Philippians 4:6–7. Here is a technique that forges the shield of faith. Here is where we can turn worry into praise. The passage says this: “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.”
For someone who struggles with anxiety, the phrase “do not be anxious” seems impossible. It feels like the insult to our injury! We struggle, battle and wrestle with anxiety but that’s not good enough? Now we need to eradicate it altogether? Truly, it seems impossible.
But this is not what the apostle is saying. You see, commands have no power to accomplish obedience. No, Paul doesn’t give this command in order to stop your anxiety. Rather, he is stating an alternative to the anxious person’s current state of mind. “Look!” he says, “you can pray and give praise instead of living in fear!” Prayer and praise are those actions you can immediately turn to when anxious thoughts first flit across your consciousness, wanting to infest your day with unwanted preoccupation. It’s that first anxious thought that triggers the opportunity to either be fearful or to be prayerful. If we choose fear we will meditate on the fear-causing situation, if we pray and praise God, we’ll follow a different path. Here is that path:
Acknowledge the Fear
“By prayer and supplication…let your request be made known unto God.” We don’t ignore the anxious thought or try to escape it. Instead, look at it squarely and state, “Yes, I am afraid of [insert fear here].” Then immediate pray about it. Big or small (i.e. finding a parking spot when running late or waiting for a serious medical diagnosis), serious or stupid, immediate or in the future we take that fear directly to God who sits on his sovereign throne of grace (Heb 4:16). Here, at this throne, we will find grace to deal with, endure, accomplish the impossible, be protected from our enemies, power to overcome sin or any other actions needed to face our fear. Many of us live in anxiety because we don’t ask God to intervene, so that God’s glory will be most clearly seen. Having made my requests, I know I will still be tempted to think about the roots of my anxious thoughts. That’s ok. Making my requests was not about “making myself feel better” but about securing God’s help in trouble or entering into the safety of our refuge and strength (Ps 46:1).
But there is more to my prayer.
I am supposed to pray “with thanksgiving.” With thanksgiving for what, you may ask? Here is where the temptation to dwell on anxious thoughts leads to praising God. We give thanks for grace given and received in the past (Ps 136); We give thanks for a God who is willing to hear us and help us in this present trouble (Ps 17:6–7); We give thanks for the future grace that will meet us every day of our lives (Ps 23:6). We give thanks for an inheritance that awaits us in glory (1 Pet 1:4). We give thanks for all of the spiritual blessings we have in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:3). Let your anxious thoughts be the occasion to go to God with requests and thanksgiving.
Wait for Peace
Enter now the guardian of God-peace, which surpasses all understanding. I had a science teacher who always told me that “if you don’t learn [insert science thing here] you’ll end up living under an overpass in Phoenix, Arizona.” Now chances are that ignoring that particular science concept would not have eventually led me to homelessness, and in fact the chain of events needed to lead from an unlearned scientific concept to life under an overpass is nonsensical (I suppose there is still time for those forgotten concepts to catch up to me:-). But anxiety is like that, nonsensical. Anxiety begins with a local fear which spirals into a greater fear, however unlikely that greater fear might be. The peace of God comes to us via the faithful practice of taking that local fear and instead of spiraling into greater anxiety spiraling up to praise. In this way, 100 different anxieties are redeemed, they becomes occasions to praise God (potentially 100 times a day!). In effect we don’t even fear fear itself. We know exactly what to do with it.
All of these things are possible only “in Christ Jesus.” The peace that comes from prayer ultimately comes from the good news that mercy and grace have been secured for me thorough Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven’s throne. He opened the door for us to enter the holy throne room of God. Because of Christ, sanctification (for anxious ones like you and me) means that the God of peace will guard your hearts by faith.
And “Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13:20-21)