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Can I be a Christian & be a worrier?

22/07/2016

‘Every single person who ever lived is personally familiar with fear. It is an inescapable feature of earthly life….Fear is natural to us. We don’t have to learn it. We experience fear and anxiety even before there is any logical reason for them.’[1] Some level of stress is good. It’s what helps a student submit their assignment by the deadline. But too much stress can cause that same student to sink into a debilitating depression.

Chronic stress can weaken the immune system and has been linked to heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer; and more than 40 million American adults have a full-blown anxiety disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders.

Joseph LeDoux is professor of psychology at New York University where he works in the Center for Neural Science and Department of Psychology, and he is also director of the Emotional Brain Institute, which aims to understand how emotions affect mind and behaviour. Ledoux differentiates between what he calls everyday anxiety and an anxiety disorder. For example, he would say that everyday anxiety is when you worry about paying bills, getting a job and other important life events, while an example of an anxiety disorder would be constant, unsubstantiated worry that causes you significant distress and interferes with daily life.

As Christians - not least in a Bible College community - we are always looking to see how the Bible intersects with the issues of our everyday lives. So what does the Bible have to say about anxiety and fear?

There is a popular myth that the command ‘Do not fear’ occurs 365 times in the Bible – one for each day. Although it is a myth and the numbers come a long way short of adding up, nonetheless it occurs often enough for us to understand that God is encouraging us not to be afraid.

Nonetheless, the Bible acknowledges that there are times when we are afraid: ‘When I am afraid, I put my trust in you’.[2] It is not wrong to worry. Indeed, all of us have legitimate concerns. There would be something wrong with us if we did not worry when illness strikes or when we hear of yet another world disaster. But when we do worry, we can learn to process our anxiety and fear and move through them to a position where we can trust God again.

Philippians 4:6 is one of the best well-known verses in the Bible and tells us to how to replace our anxiety with prayer and thanks: “.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Often it is easier to mull over our worries - like a dog with a bone - than to pray about them. This verse encourages us to take all of our worries - big and small - to God.

But another element is introduced here - thanksgiving. We may not be able to thank the Lord for what we are going through - but we are always able to thank Him for who He is, in the midst of our suffering.

Paul’s own life was accentuated by thanksgiving and for him it was one of the marks of a normal Christian life. Thanksgiving acknowledges that everything we have is a gift from God and is a verbal expression of our dependence on Him, as well as of His generosity and goodness.

Thanksgiving is a powerful antidote to worry. We cannot underestimate it. It will change our attitude instantly as we choose to turn from the circumstance which is causing us anxiety and concentrate instead on the things for which we can thank the Lord.

Worry about nothing; pray about everything; and be thankful.

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

It is called ‘the peace of God’ because God is ‘the God of peace’ (v.9). He dwells in total shalom (wholeness, wellbeing) and He gives that shalom to His people.

As we thank God for His gifts to us, we will experience the peace of God - which surpasses all understanding - guarding our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Paul was writing to the Philippians from prison. Perhaps he was chained to a guard. And Philippi was a Roman colony with a military garrison. But it is not Roman soldiers who guard believers: it is the peace of God Almighty - the One who is in control and who is our heavenly Father to whom we can bring all of our requests in an attitude of thanksgiving. That peace will be God’s garrison around our hearts so that we do not fall into anxiety. It will also guard our thoughts - it will protect our minds from those very thoughts which lead to fear and distress and which keep us from trusting prayer.

The Old Testament gives us a vivid example of someone who turned painful emotion into prayer. We are introduced to Hannah in I Samuel 1. Hannah was the wife who couldn’t bear children. As if this wasn’t bad enough, her husband Elkanah’s other wife, Peninnah, who is described as Hannah’s rival, provoked her – taunted her, teased her. This is reminiscent of Hagar’s attitude to Sarah after Hagar became pregnant (‘And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress’[3]).

Hannah was disappointed

Disappointment is common to all of us. Life doesn’t work out as we had imagined it. Things happen. People change. Relationships are broken. Health fails. Our hopes are dashed.

What was Hannah’s reaction? She ‘wept and would not eat’[4]. It is normal for us to respond to disappointment emotionally as well as physically - weeping and not eating. We cannot short circuit our reaction to great disappointment in our lives. That’s why it doesn’t work when someone just gives us a Bible verse. First we must work through the sense of loss, the grief, the disappointment. Eventually we need to get to the truth of God’s Word - but it’s a process.

Hannah was also rejected

She had failed to produce an heir and she would have been seen as a failure in the eyes of the culture. What do we do when we are rejected? Again, we take time to process the pain and to get to the point where we can begin to let the Lord heal us and to speak His Word into our lives. Always we are working towards being able to receive the truth of the Word of God and to allow God to transform our hearts and our minds.

Hannah was provoked

Peninnah, who is described as Hannah’s rival, ‘provoked her grievously to irritate her’[5].

Not only was Hannah nursing her own disappointment and her feelings of rejection, but she was provoked day after day by her rival.

We may not have been provoked in this way but we will certainly have known people who are hard to get along with - people who always seem to irritate us without even trying, people who just ‘rub us up the wrong way’. Often it is the people we find difficult who cause us to grow the most, showing us the ugliness of our own sinful reactions and causing us to change.

 

Hannah was disappointed, rejected and provoked. But she brought all of her disappointment to someone who understood. She went to the temple and poured out her heart out to God[6].

As Hannah leaves the temple, she is a changed woman: ‘Then the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.’[7]

The next morning, ‘They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord’.[8] Hannah is able to join the others in worshipping the Lord - and this is before she is pregnant.

Hannah took her troubled emotions to God; as she left them there, she was able to worship God. She teaches us how to deal with our worry; to pray about everything; and to be thankful.

 

Pauline Wilson works in administration and pastoral care at BBC and she also has a private counselling practice. If this subject interests you, you will find more about it on Pauline’s blog at www.talesfromtaughlumny.wordpress.com/category/worry-to-worship/

 

[1] Ed Welch, Counsellor and Faculty member at CCEF (Christian Counseling and Education Foundation)

[2] Psalm 56:3

[3] Gen 16:4

[4] I Sam 1:17

[5] I Sam 1:6

[6] I Sam 1:10-11

[7] I Sam 1:18

[8] I Sam 1:19

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