I struggle with all sorts of anxiety. The small kind, where you sit and try and remember what you forgot, and it nags at you, whether or not you actually forgot something. The mild kind, where your mind won’t stop thinking about what you have to do tomorrow. Even the worst kind, when you feel like you can’t breathe and that the world may cave in on you at anytime. But I am not a victim to it any longer; you no longer have to be, either.
Now, I want to start this post by stating plainly: not all of anxiety is sin. Therapist Peter Steinke says that anxiety is “a startle reaction” and it “protects you from potential risk or harm. Anxiety is a natural reaction designed for self-preservation. Our Creator has provided us with a strong urge for survival.” (Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, 1) Our anxiety can be raised when we need to respond to danger, which is a good thing! Many good, Jesus loving Christians can be anxious and not sin.
But there are times when my anxiety goes too far, and it does become sin. There are a few reasons why mine turns to sin, and I share them with you to keep tabs on your sin. If we want to grow in holiness, we must learn how to turn our anxiety over to God. But, as the Spirit dwells in us, he gives us the means by which we can undercut anxiety’s power through sanctification.
So, here are the things I need to look out for, and you can, too:
- My anxiety turns to sin when I trust in my power to provide over God’s (Matthew 6:26-34). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his listeners what they can do about anxiety. When they start to worry about what they are going to eat or wear, he tells them to change their mindset: consider animals. I frequently worry about paying for school. I’m not hard up for money, but if you want to make a donation, I can start a PayPal account. But, anxiety can still work its way into my mind and make a foothold, causing me to worry anyway. When I start to worry, I lose sight of God’s provision. I trust only in my ability to make money, and think that will ease my concerns. In reality, the Lord does not say: consider the bi-weekly paycheck. He does not say, look for odd jobs. Rather, he asks us to consider the ways in which God provides for us instead. He simply says, look at the animals which don’t gather: doesn’t God still provide for them? If so, and to add a Pauline embellishment, won’t he who provides for animals and gave up his Son not give us every good thing?
- My anxiety turns to sin when I don’t bring it to God in prayer. Paul, in Philippians, tells us to not be anxious about anything, but in prayer and supplication, bring our requests to the Lord (Philippians 4:1-5). When our anxiety becomes too much to bear, two things can happen: we can look for simple answers, or we can seek only immediate solutions (Steinke, ibid., 9). In seeking immediate answers, we may try and alter the events on our own accord. Whether or not this solved our problem, we still sinned: we never prayed about it! There are times the Lord does not work the way we would want him to, yet, we are called to be obedient. But our anxiety turns our prayerful obedience into self-autonomous actions. It is not wrong to act to solve problems – we are not called to be passive observers! But it is wrong to not pray about something, whether or not we act, because we are told to pray without ceasing! Without prayer, we are admitting that we trust in our own power again and not resting solely on Christ’s power.
- My anxiety turns to sin because it frequently makes me a proud person (I Peter 5:6-7). I hope you’ve caught the theme I suggested in the last two points: anxiety can cause us to trust in our power over God’s. This is, quite simply: pride. We trust that we know what to do in every circumstance over the God whose voice and right hand created the world and the one who upholds the universe by his power. Peter tells us that the proper response to anxiety is to humble ourselves and bring the anxiety to God. I might even add a subpoint to point 3: anxiety causes me to miss out on God’s good gifts for me. Notice that Peter lists two reasons to lift our anxieties to God. The first is that God cares for us. If we choose to take matters entirely into our own hands, we will miss out on letting God care for us. The God who voluntarily came to earth to die on a cross wants to serve us and take away our anxieties (Matthew 11:28). When we muddle through life without prayer, we refuse help from the God of comfort and the Prince of Peace. I know I don’t want that! But here I am, anxiously trying to solve all of my own problems. Secondly, we will miss out on God’s exaltation. It seems strange to think about looking forward to the benefits God gives us, right? Especially exaltation! But that’s what we are promised in Romans: because we were called, we will be glorified. But we will miss that if we stubbornly remain in our pride. God has promised to bring down the low and bring down the high; here Peter tells us how we can humble ourselves, making sure we find ourselves being brought up in the resurrection. Don’t miss this: the good gifts of God are available simply by praying about our anxiousness.
I don’t mean to belabor the point, nor do I want to make anybody whose body is predisposed to anxiety feel worse about themselves than they already do. I hate knowing everything listed above and feeling powerless about stopping my anxiety. But thank God for Jesus Christ, who condemned sin in the flesh and has given me freedom from living under the yoke of anxiety. The reason I point out where anxiety becomes sin is that I don’t want me or any of my brothers and sisters living under the power of canceled sin. Sin is destructive, but we are no longer slaves to it, but to righteousness. Hear this as a clarion call to step away from sinful anxiety and move toward the God who cares for us and will bring us up.