Words for the Anxious Soul

I have been reading (and singing!) through the Psalms a good deal over the past year. One very valuable aspect of the Psalms is the way they give voice to a broad variety of human emotion. This is the inspired song book of God’s people, and it has a song for almost every mood. Here is one that has been very meaningful to me as of late:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation  and my God.

Deep calls to deep
at the roar of your waterfalls;
all your breakers and your waves
have gone over me. (Psalm 42:5-7)

These images well describe the turmoil of a soul racked by anxiety and fear. Everyone, it seems, has to experience it to some degree. For most, it is the result of some daunting task, a change of home or job, or some other common challenge. For others, it is all-consuming, wrecking their life with a worry that touches on almost everything. Their nerves are always frayed; stressors that others could shrug off can knock them flat.

Each of these levels of anxiety is a real burden. Worry is wearisome, a weight on body and soul. We can desire to say, “I have calmed and quieted my soul,” (Ps 131:2) but to do so can be difficult. While anxiety is so common, still so much of what we tell ourselves and others only worsens the load. Worse still, even the techniques, behaviors, and mindsets that actually do help break the power of worry can readily be subverted in ways that only strengthen the anxiety.

I will here focus on two flawed responses: commands and maxims. The former are simple, short injunctions like, “don’t be worried”, “quit it”, or “stop fretting over that.” They restate the problem, offering neither mercy nor direction.

Anxiety and an exaggerated sense of guilt go hand-in-hand. A barked order easily fuels both. It doesn’t give the strength of will to climb out of the slough of despond. It only highlights the sense of weakness and inadequacy that comes with anxiety. It is like the terror of Law, except that it drives one further away from mercy and reconciliation.

The maxim hands out insight without wisdom. As I said in my post “A Loving Father and Difficult Gifts”, these simple statements are more of conclusions than starting points. They only make sense in light of practice, reflection, and shared struggle. They need more than only assent, but also to be worked down into the level of habit and inclination. The good words that speak most truly to anxiety and grief are also hard words. Make them soft, and they become ineffectual. It certainly is not a one-stop, quick-fix, one-time-only jump directly to a happy conclusion.

But how do you get yourself, or someone else, on to a better path? By actions and with patient endurance. Often one has to move down the path towards wisdom one weary, half-blind, halting step at a time. If you try to skip straight to the end, you say things that are often true (“You can do this,” “God has a plan,” “It’s always darkest just before the dawn”), but not helpful to the present need.

A good signal of a bad approach to helping an anxious person (whether yourself or another), can be found by an analogy with James 2:15-16:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good  is that?

To say those words in that context is a form of callousedness disguised as compassion. It is an obvious refusal to do anything that is in your power to give practical aid. You might feel better after saying it, but nothing has changed.

There is the first half of our equation: what not to say and how not to say it. The question becomes, what approach should we use?

Paul gives a very direct answer. The first half of Philippians 4:6 says simply, “Do not be anxious about anything.” This seems like the “command” form at first, but context is, as always, key. Let’s back up and see how Paul got there. This is part of the conclusion of the letter, where Paul says words of general advice and encouragement:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything,

He tells us to be joyful, to be agreeable, and then not to be anxious. This is a set of exhortations to wise living. They are also words about how to live in community; recall that these statements come in the wake of Paul’s pleads to Euodia and Syntyche to “to agree in the Lord.”

So Paul means business. “The Lord is at hand;” God will take notice. But is this to be read as a stern word or as a word of fatherly advice, full of love and motivated by mercy?

What Paul says next is crucial:

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.

The word about anxiety is couched not just in exhortations for godly living, but specifically suggests a responsive action to anxiety, and a different way of thinking.

The first part is prayer and supplication. Pray and plead to God over whatever is the source of concern. God is not simply our heavenly shoulder to cry on or some cosmic punching bag. He is the creator of the universe. Yet strangely, he apparently does want to hear our concerns and our requests. God asks us to approach him with confident reverence and reverent boldness. Nothing is too grand for God to comprehend, nor is anything too small.

But Paul suggests more. He counsels “prayer and supplication”, but “with thanksgiving.” This connects well with “rejoice in the Lord always” from two verses back. However large or small the concerns, however little of joy or gratitude our hearts can summon at the moment, it is always a fitting to frame our requests and our bold wailings with a measure of thanksgiving. Even if only for the very breath of life that one still painfully breathes in and out.

And what is the outcome? “The peace peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This is not some callow, manufactured peace. This is not forcing a smile and repressing vigorously. It is a strong peace, stronger than what is within us, because it is a peace that can guard and protect. And it comes from a loving Father, by our joining with Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. This peace of God binds us to the One who became a human being like us.

So as we look to have our hearts and minds guarded in Christ Jesus, let us now look at the guidance that Jesus himself gives. The best go-to place is Jesus’ famous words about worry and toil in the Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew 6:25-34:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

This is calming and beautiful, and it calls us outside of ourselves in key ways.

First, Jesus refers to the beauty of the created world. The flowers are clothed more radiantly than Solomon in his splendor. (Without working a day in their lives!) The birds lack industriousness altogether. Yet they are beautiful and they well provided for. Be comforted, and know that God does not value you below wild plants and sparrows.

Jesus gently offers us a different way of thinking. We are not in control, and we cannot guarantee good results. Can you add an hour to your life? No, God has set that hour. I used to jokingly add (thinking it fit Jesus’ point), “In fact, you could subtract several hours by worrying!” But my former cleverness misses the point entirely. While my behavior and choices may be among the means God uses, He remains in control. I can plan with prudence but die in a freak accident, while some BASE jumper lives to retirement age.

Jesus bids us trust in the Father’s goodness. He loves us and gives us good things.  That is a hard truth and a blessed hope. We may not understand, but we can trust. More than that, we can have confidence that His promises will be fulfilled. We can walk through the valley of the shadow of death, and fear no evil. Or at least, start to fear less.

Jesus also points us to something greater. Right next to these comforting words, he points out where we should focus our attention: on God’s kingdom, and on God’s righteousness. This is not a prosperity promise. (I’m not asking you to send me a check, for starters.) Neither is this a claim that material poverty is the mark of a particular sin. It is a notice that focusing on God’s ends allows us to trust that our necessities will be provided.  C.S. Lewis gets close to this when he suggests that if we focus on Heaven, we may get Earth “thrown in”.

Jesus proclaimed very high standards. He denounced the falsely righteous with verve and vehemence. Yet Jesus also proclaimed mercy and forgiveness. As Isaiah 42:3 says, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” The same one appointed to bring justice is also the fountain of mercy. If we trust in Jesus, then God’s justice itself can be our relief, His faithfulness our protection, and His mercy our delight.

If you are facing the everyday anxieties and worries of life, I hope you take encouragement from these words of scripture. If you are suffering from a longer term anxiety that is keeping you from everyday functioning, please do seek help from someone who is trained to do so. There is a path through those dark woods, but it can be hard to find unaided.

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