Anxiety and sanctification

Photo by Irina Iriser on Unsplash

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.

Matthew 6:28–29

…As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.

Matthew 13:22

…casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.

1 Peter 5:7

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.

1 Corinthians 7:32–34

And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.

2 Corinthians 11:28

We live in an anxious age. Even before this whole Covid-19, general surveys and scientific studies prove what we all know: the ‘connectedness’ that Mark Zuckerberg says his company provides along with the rest of the industrial internet companies promote an anxiety. To the world, the message is that modern tech promotes relationships, but to counselors that have had to deal with increasing suicide rates, depression, narcissism, and destructive behaviors, something is amiss.

In the end the reason for our anxieties could be boiled down to a few things: Psychology Today, for instance, wrote up in 2018 a list of 5 reasons: 1. Technology insulates us from small uncertainties, leaving us vulnerable to the biggies (for example, we have conditioned ourselves to follow google maps everywhere and read millions of reviews which in turn makes it very difficult for us to make real-world decisions), 2. Technology allows us to avoid people (which means we never have to actually learn to live with difficult people), 3. On screen communication makes us unable to handle real-time face-to-face interactions, and flow with it, 4. Social media is judgment in public, and 5. Compare and despair, very little of our internet selves share the mundane and the down and out, and so we are comparing ourselves to the best of everyone else.

This is just one list. You could google it and find many more examples. The point is: watch what you eat (so to speak). But we have to ask, ‘How should we respond?’ A secular psychologist might have their ways of behavior modification, but it is helpful and important to consider what God’s word has to say about it. First of all, anxiety is not just a modern problem. Every age has had their own anxieties. During the time of Jesus, people might have only had one or two sets of clothing. Certainly most of us would have been anxious about clothing if winter were coming and our tunic had worn paper thin. So what do we do with anxiety? How should we respond?

Practically speaking, we must recognize that we are anxious. I have had friends who have had unknown pains in their chest. Eventually, they realized it was anxiety driven heart-burn. This is a physical side effect that helped identify the problem; we can’t address something unless we see it in ourselves. I can’t diagnose your anxiety in this devotion, but you can ask your spouse or close friends or even your children if they see anxiety in you, and you can talk through it with one another.

Beyond that I think there are two main responses to anxiety in scripture: 1. Trust in the Lord, 2. Look on it as a tool for your sanctification. It can sound trite to simply focus on the first of these two things. But it is essential that we start here. We must seek to always be growing in our understanding of faith and in faith itself. We believe and we grow in this belief through understanding. I could be anxious about my clothes, but Christ says: look at how God clothes the lilies, how much more will he clothe you? I could be anxious about tomorrow, but Christ says, worry about today. Our God is the glorious creator and sustainer of the world. He cares for you. Learn to trust his sovereignty. As grow in understanding his power and love, we can lean on Him. We are so easily duped into thinking we can rule our whole lives. We can research enough about the products we buy, we can take the right dose of supplements: all with the end to live a happy and stress free life. Product comparison is fine, but has this become how you live your life: seeking the ‘perfect’ in your life now?

It is at this point that the second response is crucial: 2. Use your anxiety as a tool for sanctification. Like anything else in our lives, we must consider how God will use this in our lives for growth. We cannot prevent the upcoming cancer diagnosis, heart attack, or pandemic. But we can respond by asking God to use this trial to help us grow. Paul asked for his thorn to be removed, but God let it remain. And because of it, we have Paul’s wonderful testimony, ‘God’s grace is sufficient for me. His power is perfected in my weakness.’ It isn’t wrong to have a certain concern for (anxiety) the family that you are responsible for, or other responsibilities. Likewise, Paul had a special anxiety for the churches, and I think most pastors have a sizeable and unique burden that they carry for the flock they shepherd. I can testify that this anxiety can be crushing at times, and can drive me to sin, but on the other hand it has been an effective tool in sanctifying me, reminding me of my weakness, making me more patient. Yes, I must ever learn to cast my cares on him, but God is also gracious in using these anxieties for real spiritual growth.

It is my hope that during this time of potential anxiety (i.e. when Covid-19 is spreading across the globe), that God will use whatever anxiety you do face for your sanctification and his glory.

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