By Matt Stromberg
What do you worry about? I’m sure if I took a survey of this congregation, no one would have any difficulty answering that question. We all worry and we all feel anxious for the future at times.
Each of us is touched by the ordinary stresses of life. Work, family, bills to pay, errands to run, health concerns, political concerns, religious and spiritual questions. Everything that makes life worthwhile and rewarding can also be a source of anxiety.
While all of us have anxieties and worries, it is a chronic and even debilitating problem for some of us. Whether it is by temperament, biology, or upbringing, some of us suffer from various anxiety disorders. In fact, it is pretty common and increasingly more so. Recent statistics suggest that 40 million Americans over the age of 18, or roughly 18 percent of the population, suffer from an anxiety disorder. Many of those who suffer receive no treatment at all.
It is not God’s will that we should be overcome or oppressed by anxiety. Although a certain degree of worry is inevitable, he does not wish us to succumb to our anxieties or be defeated by them. For chronic sufferers of anxiety, therapy and medication can help. They are a good thing and should never be stigmatized or dismissed. The Wisdom of Sirach says, “Give the doctor his due!” and “The Lord created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not despise them.”
As Christians we also should gain strength and encouragement from our faith. St. Paul exhorts those who are anxious, “The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything!”
He assures us that we are always — even now — under the gentle guidance of our heavenly Father and in the loving presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit. If you could see Jesus walking beside you in your struggles, if you always felt the power of the Holy Spirit, if you had a continual sense of your Father’s watchful gaze and knew that everything he has is yours, wouldn’t you feel you feel less anxious? Yet we walk by faith and not by sight. We don’t always experience these realities in a tangible way, but we are asked to trust them by faith.
Paul tells us — he commands us, actually — to not be anxious about anything. Now one thing we must not do in response to this commandment is to become anxious about our anxiousness. Some of us worry about our worry. We worry that our worries are an indication that our faith is deficient. The fact is, however, that God does not expect us to free ourselves from anxiety by sheer force of willpower. That is not what St. Paul is asking us to do. Instead, he gives us practical strategies for combating anxiety on a spiritual level.
Philippians 4 is a treatment plan, and like any treatment plan it is not a magical cure. Nor should we expect instant and immediate results. It is a plan for the long term. I want to highlight three strategies that St. Paul believes that we should turn to again and again in our struggle with anxiety.
The first is to rejoice! St. Paul is emphatic in his commandment: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!”
There is a scene from HBO’s John Adams miniseries that I think of often. Adams faced tremendous challenges in his life. He helped lead the American Revolution for independence, he served the newly formed nation as president during a time of anxiety and uncertainty, he lost his daughter to cancer, and he suffered a strained relationship with his alcoholic son. In the scene he is an old man giving advice to his other son, Thomas, on an evening stroll. He says,
“Still, still I am not weary of life. Strangely. I have hope. You take away hope and what remains? What pleasures? I have seen a queen of France with 18 million livres of diamonds on her person, but I declare that all the charms of her face and figure, added to all the glitter of her jewels, did not impress me as much as that little shrub,” he says, pointing with his walking stick to a small white flower in the field. “Now my mother always said that I never delighted enough in the mundane, but now I find that if I look at even the smallest thing, my imagination begins to roam the Milky Way.”
He begins to speak to himself in his revelry, “Rejoice evermore. Rejoice evermore!” Thomas looks at him puzzled and he snaps back, “It’s a phrase from St. Paul, you fool! Rejoice evermore! I wish that had always been in my heart and on my tongue. I am filled with an irresistible impulse to fall on my knees right here in admiration.”
When you look back on your life in your final days, what do you think you will be more likely to regret? Will you regret that you didn’t spend enough time worrying about the future, what people thought of you, or will you regret that you didn’t take enough time to rejoice in the simple pleasures of life?
Neither St. Paul nor John Adams were strangers to anxiety; they both knew great sorrow and loss, and yet their advice to us is to “Rejoice evermore!”
The second strategy St. Paul offers for dealing with anxiety is this: in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.
It goes without saying that if we wish to have a more abiding faith in God’s presence with us, that we need to grow and deepen in our prayer life. Do we pour out our grief and care to God in prayer? Are we ever, like John Adams, filled with the irresistible urge to fall on our knees in admiration, or are we contented to have a merely formal relationship with him? We should regularly open our hearts to God like we would a trusted friend or a wise father.
Why should we make our requests known to God? Doesn’t he know what we need already? Yes, of course he does, but our supplications are more for our sake rather than God’s. He wants us to bring our concerns to him, and in so doing to trust them to his provision and care. He wants to carry our burdens. If I take a heavy load from my back and hand it to another, it means I am no longer carrying it! I have entrusted it to the strength of another. That is what God wants us to do with our worries and anxieties. He wants us to place them in his hands.
The third strategy for dealing with anxiety that St. Paul offers us is this: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
In recent years, many people have found cognitive behavioral therapy helpful in combating anxiety. The goal is to help individuals change unhelpful patterns of thinking, behavior, and self-talk and to replace them with healthier patterns. The stories we tell ourselves shape the way we think and feel.
St. Paul wasn’t a cognitive psychologist, but some of the strengths of that approach are reflected in his wisdom. What could be better than to fill our minds with the beauty, the goodness, the love, and perfection of God? Instead of dwelling on what is wrong with us, we should turn instead to one in whose light we are revealed, because in him is our joy and salvation. Yes, we need to honest about our sin and our need for redemption, but we don’t dwell on our wretchedness or guilt, but rather on God’s grace and mercy.
Think about these things, St. Paul says, give your cares to God, rejoice evermore, and the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard our hearts and minds from all assaults of anxiety and despair.
The Rev. Canon Matt Stromberg is rector of St. George’s, Schenectady, New York.