When anxiety takes root

Philippians 4 suggests four responses when anxiety begins to grow

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In the fall of 2019, my church offered a five-week home group study on the topic of anxiety. Little did we know just how vital these small groups would prove as 2020 rolled around the corner. To this day, I keep a handwritten note identifying three areas that stirred a sense of anxiety within me. The note serves as a reminder of God’s faithfulness.

Although I wouldn’t define myself as an anxious person, as I walk through life I realize the opportunity for anxiety to grow within me. Webster’s dictionary defines anxiety as, “an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating and increased pulse rate).” The reality of anxiety exists; I have experienced its impact. I have also walked with friends, family and church members who feel its negative impact on their lives.

The Scripture passage our home groups examined was Philippians 4:4-7: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Together we gleaned these four helpful observations.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Rejoicing doesn’t come easily when anxiety takes root. As a matter of fact, rejoicing often disappears when anxiety grows.

One needs to ask why the apostle Paul places this directive just prior to addressing anxiety. No matter how unnatural it feels to rejoice in the midst of anxiety, remembering to put into practice what is best helps in the battle, even when emotions tell us otherwise. Feelings need not guide a person flooded by anxious thoughts. If guided by emotion, rejoicing would seldom occur.

Since Scripture calls for rejoicing, one must heed this piece of instruction. Understanding the apostle Paul wrote these words from a prison cell cements the idea that even when life remains uncertain, rejoicing is an option worth taking. God lessens anxiety when adhering to this command. Could it actually work?

Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. The Greek word epieikes provides some difficulty when being translated into English. For this reason, a variety of words occur. NIV uses the word “gentleness,” ESV “reasonableness,” NASB “gentle spirit,” HCSB “graciousness” and ASV “forbearance.” The nuances of each of these words paint parts of a picture conveying a gracious and gentle spirit.

As rejoicing in difficulty seems out of place, gentleness may also seem odd. Yet, what if this is precisely the intent of the passage? Doesn’t it make sense that God sees deep into our greatest need? Should it come as any surprise that we often cannot comprehend what God reveals?

In this verse, a gracious spirit points a person’s focus outward on others; anxiety moves it inward on self. Remember the rest of this verse: a gracious gentle spirit keeps in mind the nearness of the Lord. A twofold implication follows. First, the Lord’s return is near. Soon that which breeds anxiety will no longer reign. Second, the Lord’s very presence is near. Even though life circumstances seem to produce anxiousness, the presence of the Lord never ceases.

Which implication is correct? How about both! Both are backed by Scripture and provide direction and comfort. Perhaps the apostle Paul intended to leave a sense of vagueness around the Lord’s nearness to allow the reader to realize both assurances.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. As the heart of these verses emerges, perhaps it doesn’t settle easily. “Do not be anxious about anything.” How can this happen? Can the apostle Paul just command anxiety obsolete? Does this passage imply that people flooded with anxiety can turn it off and on, like a light switch?

Certain anxieties should not be deemed as sensible while other anxieties thought of as shameful. Paul lays it out saying that all anxiety needs addressing.

While Paul’s admonition may seem oversimplified, I believe his straightforwardness is needed. Notice he says not to be anxious about anything. This communicates that all anxiety points to something within us that needs adjustment. Certain anxieties should not be deemed as sensible while other anxieties thought of as shameful. Paul lays it out saying that all anxiety needs addressing.

When plagued by anxiety, this passage teaches prayer, petition and thanksgiving. Elsewhere, Paul tells believers in Thessalonica to “pray continually” (1 Thess. 5:17). Keeping these words in mind, what often brings anxiety becomes an item of prayer. If a relationship spawns anxiety, pray about it. If concern over the future generates anxious thoughts, pray. If financial obligations set off anxiety, take it to God in prayer. Praying does not negate appropriately acting to combat that which stirs anxiety, but it does set a tone for how to move forward.

Petition and thanksgiving ought to mark the prayer of an anxious person. As seen in Jesus’ example of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8), petitions and requests make their way to God. His teaching serves as a reminder that petitions don’t stop with one prayer. Even when it seems God isn’t answering, continue on. The parable affirms a loving heavenly Father who sees that justice eventually occurs (v. 8).

Thankfulness gets lumped in with prayers and petitions. This unnatural response draws attention back to the apostle Paul’s directive to rejoice always. While thankfulness and rejoicing are difficult disciplines to practice when anxious thoughts flood our souls, does it not stand to reason that God knows it is part of the remedy? Intentionally choosing thankfulness redirects focus.

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Those flooded with anxiety long for God’s peace. How does this come? The apostle Paul makes it clear that one cannot explain or comprehend God’s divine work. It “transcends all understanding.” Although difficult to explain, God’s peace is able to meet and overtake a flood of anxious thoughts. It comes through rejoicing, practicing a gentle and gracious spirit, remembering the nearness of the Lord and choosing to bathe problems with prayer, petition and thankfulness.

What an unusual, yet intentional way to overcome anxiety!

Hear my heart and know I understand and believe the role medicine, counseling and other interventions play for those struggling with severe and crippling anxiety. I desire to emphasize the words of God. Scripture’s way of addressing anxiety may make us scratch our heads, but can we trust God that his method is part of the remedy?

I should point out one further thing regarding the note I wrote to myself in 2019. The list I developed has become irrelevant. The stressors in my life have become obsolete as resolution has come to each point of anxiety. Issues come and go. My response can remain steadfast, grounded in rejoicing, a gracious spirit and prayer.

Nathan Ensz is lead pastor of Kingwood Bible Church in Salem, Ore.

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