This last session is a reflective one. So why not take half an hour to yourself, wait quietly before God, reflect on His Word and listen to what He says to you. You can access the words and music here.
This last session is a reflective one. So why not take half an hour to yourself, wait quietly before God, reflect on His Word and listen to what He says to you. You can access the words and music here.
If you would rather listen to than read the content of these sessions, you can find them on audio here.
This was Hannah’s experience. Her identity? She was the wife who couldn’t bear children.
Here is how we are introduced to her: ‘But to Hannah he (Elkanah, her husband) gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb’ I Samuel 1:5. Hannah was probably Elkanah’s first wife and, because she couldn’t have children, he took a second wife because failure to produce an heir was a major problem in the ancient near East (cf Abraham and Sarah who couldn’t have children until the Lord gave them Isaac).
As if this wasn’t bad enough, Elkanah’s second wife, Peninnah, who is described as Hannah’s rival, ‘provoked her grievously to irritate 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.’ Gen.16:4).
Hannah had several things to deal with:
Disappointed, rejected and provoked.
Hannah was disappointed
What do we do when life doesn’t turn out the way we had imagined? I remember when I lost my first baby, lying in hospital wondering if I ever would have another one. It had taken me a while to conceive and I so desperately wanted this baby. Now I was grieving the loss, and didn’t know if I would ever conceive again. But at the same time, I was almost overcome by a sense of God’s love for me and the certainty that, in the midst of the tremendous sense of loss and grief, God loved me and always would. Although I couldn’t understand what had happened, God had allowed it in love. Nothing had changed that. I was secure in His love, even though my circumstances had changed so painfully.
There is a God of awesome grace who meets his children in moments of darkness and difficulty. He is worth running to. He is worth waiting for. He brings rest when it seems like there is no rest to be found. Paul David Tripp
What was Hannah’s reaction? She ‘wept and would not eat’. It is normal for us to respond 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 – not by her husband but by the culture
She had failed to produce an heir and she would have been seen as a failure. Elkanah still loved her, but his emotional support was inadequate because he didn’t understand the depths of her despair.
Hannah desperately wanted to have a child and her disappointment that that had not happened was very profound. Some of you have probably been there and know what it’s like to wait expectantly every month, only to be disappointed again. We see every mother with a baby as we walk down the street, we notice every happy family in church, it seems that all around us there are reminders of our disappointment. and so it must have been for Hannah.
Every day she was reminded of her failure. Every day she sensed the rejection of those around her. Did she ever question God? Did she ever ask why? The sense of rejection is a very difficult one for us to deal with. We were made for relationships and we feel it keenly when we are rejected.
How many Psalms are cries of the heart, cries of pain and anger and confusion? That is why we identify with them so easily. God wants us to be honest like the Psalmists were. He knows the cries of our hearts anyway. What do we do when we are rejected? Again, we take time to process the pain, to allow ourselves to grieve the loss 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 the Redeemer to transform our hearts and our minds.
Hannah was provoked
Peninnah, who is described as Hannah’s rival, ‘provoked her grievously to irritate her’.
Can you imagine that, day after day? Not only was Hannah nursing her own disappointment and her feelings of rejection, but now she was provoked day after day by her rival. This added insult to injury. She was taunted, made fun of, teased.
I don’t know if you have ever been provoked in this way by anyone. Some of you will have had this experience, when there has been someone in your life who seems to have gone out of their way to provoke you, to irritate you, to make fun of you, to tease you or taunt you. Others of you will at least have known people you find it hard to get along with – people who always seem to irritate you without even trying, people who just ‘rub you up the wrong way’. And all of this can happen in your family, in your neighbourhood and even in the church.
But often it is the very things that cause friction and tension among us which God uses to help us grow. That sister in Christ who is like a fly in the ointment; that brother in Christ who constantly and consistently irritates you – have you ever thought that God might have permitted them to be in your church to allow you both to grow in grace?
Just as God used the painful situation in which Hannah found herself with Penninah to cause her to run to the Lord for help, so He wants to use our difficult relationships to help us to grow in Him.
Hannah was disappointed, rejected and provoked.
We have a Redeemer who has suffered all of these things – for us.
He was disappointed
He said to His disciples: ‘Oh ye of little faith!’; He asked the three closest to Him to stay with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane and when they had fallen asleep He asked ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’
He was rejected
Isaiah tells us that ‘he was despised and rejected; He was a man or sorrows and acquainted with grief’.
He was provoked
The Roman soldiers stripped Him of His own clothes, put a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns on Him and taunted Him, saying ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ Bystanders at the cross taunted him ‘He saved others! He cannot save Himself!’
He went through all of this – for us.
Unable to share the depths of her sorrow with anyone around her, Hannah goes to the temple and pours our her heart to the Lord. ‘She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.”’ (v.10-11).
She took her distress to the Lord and poured it out to Him. She knew that only the Lord could give her what she wanted so much. Eli gives her his blessing: ‘“Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition that you have made to him.” (v.17).
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.’ (v.18). Her appetite comes back and she is no longer sad. She has left her problem with the Lord and trusts that He is going to answer her prayer.
This is a very good example of Phil.4:6&7: ‘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.’
Hannah brings her prayer and supplication to God, she tells Him her request, and she receives the peace of God. Now she is able to join the rest of the family; she is able to eat again; and she is no longer sad.
The next morning, ‘They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord’. Hannah is able to join the others in worshipping the Lord – and this is before she is pregnant. She worships the Lord because she trusts Him and knows that she has left her problem with Him and He is in control.
It is easy to worship the Lord when He gives us what we ask of Him – but not so easy when we are still waiting for the answer to our prayers. That is when we need to trust God, to recognise that He is in control of all of our circumstances and to know that, whatever happens, however He chooses to answer our prayers, we can worship Him – a bit like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who said ‘our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.’ (Dan.3:17-18). They were still going to worship God, no matter what – even if it meant they would be thrown into the fiery furnace.
God’s grace doesn’t always come in comfortable forms. But it’s still grace, and it’s still evidence that He loves us. Paul David Tripp
Hannah waits until baby Samuel is weaned and then she brings him back to the temple, where she leaves him with the old priest Eli, as she had promised she would do. In I Samuel 2 we have her prayer – a beautiful prayer of praise to God, much like the prayer of Mary the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:46-56). Far from being a song exulting over her rival Peninnah, her prayer has been described as a ‘hymn to the God who reverses human fortunes by his mighty power, the Creator beyond all human understanding who protects the faithful’.
This is the kind of women we want to be. Hannah is a woman who:
We will look at this verse in context – Phil 4:4-7.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Joy is a theme of this letter. Paul is calling the Philippian Christians to an attitude of joy, so that they replace anxiety with expectant, grateful prayer. How is this possible? Because our joy is ‘in the Lord’, as we have just seen with Hannah.
It is not possible to rejoice in the inability to have children or in miscarriages or in other kinds of losses or in illness or in any kind of human suffering. But it is always possible to rejoice in the Lord, which is why Paul can say ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ to his audience of believers who were enduring suffering at the hands of the Roman empire. This is key to this passage and to how we handle anxiety.
Let your reasonableness (or gentleness or gentle forbearance) be known to everyone. Reasonableness is crucial to community. It is that attitude that seeks what is best for everyone and not just for oneself. We can all think of people who are ‘reasonable’ in this sense – and what an example they are to the rest of us. It is something for us all to strive towards, for it makes such a difference in a Christian community.
But Paul means for it also to be something which is displayed by us towards others – it is to be known ‘to everyone’. Thus he is calling on the Philippians Christians to display this ‘gentle forbearance’ to one another but also to those who are opposing them and making them suffer cf the example of Jesus as described in I Peter 2:23 ‘When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.’
The Lord is at hand. The meaning of this sentence is unclear. On one hand, it could refer to the fact that Jesus is coming back again. As such, it is a word of encouragement and affirmation. The Philippian Christians were suffering at the hands of those who proclaimed Caesar as Lord but Paul is reminding them that the true Lord is near. On the other hand, it could mean: ‘Because the Lord is always near, do not be anxious about anything, but let your requests be made known to God’. Perhaps Paul intended both meanings. In any case, both meanings are biblically true.
Then we come to Phil 4:6, Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. It is one of the best well-known verses in the Bible. We quote it to each other and we remind ourselves of it often – yet I wonder does it have a ring of encouragement and exhortation to us or do at least some of us hear in it a ring of challenge and rebuke?
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. This is an echo of the verses we have already looked at in Matthew 6 in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. We are not to be anxious but to entrust ourselves into the hands of our loving heavenly Father. We are to tell Him all of our needs – in our requests, prayer and supplication. ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything…’ Don’t be anxious about anything but pray about everything.
But another element is introduced here – thanksgiving. This returns to the exhortation in verse 4: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 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.
I have found that, in a very practical way, an attitude of thanksgiving relieves anxiety. For it gets our focus off the thing which is making us anxious – which is normally something we can do nothing about anyway – and gets our focus on to the Lord, who is the one who is in control and who loves us as His own children. It also helps us get things in perspective – for there is always something we can be thankful for.
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. In my experience, an attitude of thanksgiving also adds to the enjoyment of whatever it is we are being thankful for. When I pause for a moment – just in my thoughts – to thank God for something which I am enjoying, whether that is a meal with my husband or a coffee with a friend or a chat with a colleague – it adds to the enjoyment in that moment, as well as giving glory to God.
Pray about everything; worry about nothing; and be thankful. I recently used this verse in a counselling session with a woman who is recovering from depression. She came back 3 weeks later greatly improved. No doubt there were several factors but she said, ‘Well, you told me to pray about everything; worry about nothing; and be thankful – and that’s what I’m doing’. The very practical use of this Scripture had really helped her on a daily basis.
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. ‘The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding’ could mean it is ‘beyond all human comprehension’ but more likely it means that this peace ‘totally transcends the merely human, unbelieving mind’ which is full of anxiety because it cannot think higher than itself. His peace totally transcends our merely human way of looking at the world. Peace comes because prayer is an expression of trust and God’s people do not need to have it all figured out in order to trust Him!
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.
This peace is not only an individual thing but also a collective thing for Paul. It is something which should characterise the community of God’s people, wherever they are found. Even for the Philippian church, who were going through opposition, Paul encourages them that together they can know the protection of God’s peace in the midst of that conflict. And as they have been urged to ‘have the same mindset’, the peace of God will protect their thoughts as they live out the gospel in Philippi.
In a post-modern, post-Christian world, this kind of spirituality can be the key to evangelism. There is so much to fear in our everyday lives and our non-Christian friends and neighbours don’t know the peace of God. They are perhaps not likely to come into our churches to hear the gospel. They maybe won’t ask us why we believe what we believe. But they may well wonder what it is that gives us peace in our daily lives when we are surrounded by the same anxiety-producing things which surround them. They get bad news from the doctor or they don’t know what to do with a rebellious child. They have a relative who dies or someone close to them loses their job. Every time they listen to the news there is more to make them afraid.
Our privilege is to live out the gospel of true shalom, wholeness, and to point our friends and neighbours to its source. It is only the God of peace who can give us this peace. What would it mean to become known as a community of Christians who know this kind of peace? How would it affect how you reach out to your friends and neighbours when they are in distress?
What steps would your church have to take to become this kind of community? How can you reach out to those around you who are anxious?
What about your neighbours or your work colleagues? When someone is having a hard time, where do they run to? Is your house or your office known to be one where they will find a listening ear, a cup of tea, a shoulder to cry on, someone to listen to their worries and ultimately to lead them to the One who has promised to take all our worries and give us His peace?
If you would rather listen to than read the content of these sessions, you can find them on audio here.
“What do you regret when you look back on your life?” That’s what hundreds of older people were asked in a survey. The conductor of the survey was unprepared for the answer he so often received: “I wish I hadn’t spent so much of my life worrying.” *
Main Scripture focus: Matthew 6:25-34
John Piper: One of the greatest things about Jesus is that he does not want his people to be anxious. The main point of today’s text is that God does not secure his kingship by cultivating anxiety. On the contrary, the aim of God’s kingship is to free us from anxiety.
First Reason not to worry: Worry cannot clothe or feed us
Jesus is saying: if God gave us life – the greater gift – is he then going to deny himself and his own methods by failing to see to it that life is sustained and enabled to continue? I need never be concerned that suddenly there will not be sufficient to keep this life of mine going. That will never happen to me; it is impossible. But note this: he is not arguing as to how this will be done; he is just saying that it will be.
Thankfulness for the Gift of Life
Martyn Lloyd Jones says ‘There is nothing of which this modern generation needs to be reminded so much as just this. The main trouble with most of us is that we have forgotten first principles, and especially this vital one that the things we enjoy in this life are the gift of God.’
I have a friend – a lady of around 80 years old who was widowed after a few years of marriage when she was a mother of a small girl. She has lived her life well, raising her daughter while pursuing a career in order to support her, and all the while refusing to be sorry for herself. She once told me that as soon as she wakens in the morning, she thanks the Lord for the new day, as a discipline to get herself into the right frame of mind. I think that is a wonderful example to follow.
The Birds of the Air
Jesus now moves from the general to the specific – the question of food and drink. ‘Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.’ God is not their Father. God is the Maker and the Creator and the Sustainer of everything in the world – yet Jesus says ‘your heavenly Father feeds them’. If our Father takes such care of the birds, how much greater must be his care for us. It is inconceivable that a man should provide sustenance for mere creatures and neglect his own children. How much more so our heavenly Father! He is our Creator, our Sustainer, but He is much more than that. He is our heavenly Father.
But not only is God my heavenly Father. I am His child. ‘Are you not of more value than they?’ Birds are created beings and their Creator is committed to looking after them. But we are not only created beings; we are made in the image of God; we have become His children through Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He is committed to taking care of us.
Worry cannot add an hour to your life
’And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?’ We want to do all we can to extend our life. Money cannot extend it; medical knowledge cannot extend it; science cannot extend it; good food, exercise and all the things we do to maintain life are good – but in the end of the day they cannot extend life one second longer than God has planned. Our times are in His hands. Life is a gift from God. He starts it and He determines the end of it. If that greater thing is in His control, I can leave the lesser to Him too.
The lilies of the field
‘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?’
Solomon’s riches were proverbial amongst the Jews. He had marvellous clothing, palaces of cedar wood, furniture overlaid with gold and encrusted with precious stones. The Queen of Sheba went to see it all for herself and said ‘Half the greatness of your wisdom was not told me; you surpass the report that I heard.’ II Chron 9:5&6.
But all of that, says Jesus, fades into insignificance compared to the flowers of the field. Think of a graceful orchid; a bright yellow sunflower; a simple daisy; a red rose. Sometimes when I walk in my garden and enjoy the flowers, I wonder why God created such variety. It was for His pleasure – and for ours. ’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?’
Flowers are here today and gone tomorrow. If God clothes them with such beauty, even though they are so transient, will He not much more clothe us? We are immortal. God ‘has set eternity in our hearts’. We, who are made in the image of God, have eternal souls which will live beyond death and the grave. The God who made me for that is not going to neglect my body while I am here in this life and this world.
Paul Tripp calls this the Gospel of Creation: When you’re struggling with anxiety, Jesus tells you to look around at creation. Embedded in the physical world are constant theological reminders that God doesn’t abandon the work of his hands. The birds of the air, the flowers of the field, and countless other living organisms point to the loving care of God…..You have reason to rest because creation preaches to you a gospel of divine faithfulness.
‘O you of little faith’ – the crux of the problem
Some of us have saving faith but we tend to stop at that. The real trouble with ‘little faith’ is that it does not think (Martin Lloyd Jones). Life throws something at us and we are overwhelmed, incapable of thinking, helpless and defeated. We need to think – think about what God says, what it means, behold the birds, consider the flowers, think about what they mean. When we worry, when we go round and round in circles about something, we are not thinking. Our thought is being controlled by worry.
Second Reason not to worry: Worry cannot care for us
‘For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.’ The Jews were God’s chosen people. They had been given the oracles of God, the special revelation of God and from them had come the Messiah. The Gentiles had none of this. The pagan view of life was therefore either that things which happen are accidental; or that what will be, will be. Sometimes we unwittingly hold to one or other of these views. Have you ever said or thought ‘What will be, will be’? Or something like ‘That’s just the way things are’?
The biblical view is that our times are in God’s hands. He is in control. He is sovereign. All of our days were written in his book before we were even born.
Sometimes we live with a right view of the gospel but with a wrong view of the rest of life. We live in essence like the heathen, worried about food and drink, consumed by the cares of this world. It is as of the gospel gets us eternal salvation, a home in heaven, but it has no bearing on how we live here and now.
Why shouldn’t we live like this? ‘Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.’ Your Father knows. He knows. And if He knows, He will take care of it. That’s it.
Like the children of Israel when they were journeying through the desert and God provided manna for them (Exodus 16). Each morning when they got up, there was manna on the ground and they went out and gathered it and made their food from it. There was enough for each day. What a beautiful picture of God’s daily provision – and of our need to trust Him.
Refuse to take the concerns of tomorrow. Refuse to take them on board. Replace them with the promises of God.
Paul Tripp calls this the Gospel of Family: Unlike the pagan Gentiles, Christians have a heavenly Father who willingly, faithfully, and eternally takes on the burden of our provision. It makes sense that pagans worry, because they don’t have the assurance of divine provision, but Christians shouldn’t be anxious. We have a Father who knows exactly what we need and is in the process of delivering exactly what we need, exactly when we need it, and in the exact location where we need it.
Replacing anxieties with the promises of God.
I do some biblical counselling and by far the single biggest problem which women come to me for help with is anxiety. I believe that one of the biggest lessons which Christian women need to learn is that our lives do not have to be ruled by our feelings. We have been given our emotions by God and they are a natural part of who we are. They often indicate to us when something is not right and we do well to listen to them. They can help point us to the cause of our anxiety or our anger or our fear. But we do not have to be ruled by our emotions. We must not allow anxiety to take the driver’s seat. We have a very powerful tool with which to combat the evil one. What did Jesus use in the temptations in the wilderness? He used the Word of God. Three times, He said to Satan, ‘It is written….’
So, too, when we are anxious, we start by recognising the lie which we are believing – and then we replace the lie with the truth of God’s Word. I cannot emphasise enough the power that we have at our disposal in using God’s Word in this way.
When I went through my own depression and I was at my lowest ebb, there were mornings when I could hardly face getting out of bed. All I could do on those mornings was recite to myself the verse ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’. That got me out of bed. I kept reciting it while I had my shower, got myself dressed, got my two little girls up and got the day underway. It didn’t change my feelings right there and then – but it didn’t allow my feelings to rule my day.
Third Reason not to worry: Worry cannot advance God’s Kingdom
Seek first the kingdom
‘But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ This is what we are to worry about, what we are to focus on, what we are to spend energy on: our relationship with our heavenly Father. ‘Seek’ carries the meaning of seeking earnestly, seeking intensely, living for it. And seek it first. Cf the Lord’s Prayer – Thy kingdom come before Give us this day our daily bread. And of course this reminds us of the story of Mary and Martha – ‘Mary has chosen the better part’.
Dr David Hawkins says ‘our fears offer the opportunity to explore what we place our trust in and how much we really trust Jesus to guide us through the storms of life.’
What these verses seem to be saying, therefore, is that when we worry we are forgetting that God is the King, He is in control, and we can trust Him with everything. We are taking the reins of our own lives, we are taking control, we are replacing God, we are becoming mini-gods of our own lives, seeking our own ends, striving for what we desire instead of trusting God to know and to do what is best for us.
Paul Tripp calls this the Gospel of Kingdom: The call to seek God’s kingdom is itself a grace, because it’s only when I seek God’s kingdom that I’m free from seeking my own. I don’t know if you’ve recognized this or not, but there’s a direct correlation between the kingdom of self and anxiety. Most, if not all, of your anxiety results when you’re attempting to sit on the throne of your life.
Each day has its own problems
‘Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.’ Why does Jesus add this? He wants us to see the power of anxiety. When we try to help someone who is worried about one specific thing, how often do they say ‘But what if….?’ Worry has an active imagination. It has tremendous power.
If the present is bad enough, Jesus says, why worry about the future? We are powerless to do anything about it. Its threatened catastrophes are imaginary.
And the result of worrying about the future is that we are crippled in the present. Every day has its problems. We must live every day in and of itself. The God who helps us today will be the same God who helps us tomorrow.
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow Heb 13:8.
*Karl Pillemer, professor of human development at Cornell University, founder and director of the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging, and author of “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans” and “30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage,” asked this question as part of Cornell University’s Legacy Project.
More than 40 million American adults have a full-blown anxiety disorder and women are twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Worry is by far the most frequent topic which women come to me needing some help with. And I am a worrier by nature. So I thought that those three reasons were enough for me to choose Worry as my topic when I was invited to speak at a women’s retreat in Munich in October 2015. The theme was actually ‘From Worry to Worship’, for as Christian women we are all on a journey. While many of us worry, we feel guilty that we worry, so we heap guilt on top of the worry. We would like to learn how to cope better with the anxieties of life.
During the retreat, we looked together at anxiety – or worry – and its close ally, fear. We began by asking what worry is and what it does; then, in the second session, we looked at the other side of the coin – what it cannot do; in the third session we began to look at the Christian woman’s antidote to worry – prayer and worship; and we concluded with a look at entering into the rest of God in the last session.
If you would rather listen to than read the content of these sessions, you can find them on audio here.
Scripture verse: The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful – Matthew 13:22
Setting the Scene: The Universality of Fear and Worry
Every single person who ever lived is personally familiar with fear. It is an inescapable feature of earthy 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.’ Ed Welch, counsellor and Faculty member at CCEF (Christian Counseling & Education Foundation).
We stop experiencing fear when we stop breathing. To stop feeling fear means we’re either dead, well-anaesthetised, in denial, or living with a tremendous layer of insulation. Dr David Hawkins, quoting Susan Jeffers in his book ‘The Power of Emotional Decision Making’.
Fear is common to all age groups. Fear of the dark is what makes a young child unwilling to go to bed – so a parent provides a night light. Fear of being ridiculed can make that same child afraid to go to school – and bullying is becoming an increasingly well known phenomenon in our school playgrounds, to say nothing about online bullying. That same fear can run amok and produce a teenager with an eating disorder, as the young woman becomes a slave to her own perceived body-image.
I love the humourous and perceptive personnification of Fear in the recently-released movie, ‘Inside Out’.
‘As we look outward, we see real dangers: disease, death, war, economic collapse, and a host of other ills…..While ‘fear’ refers to the experience when a car races toward us and we just barely escape, ‘anxiety’ or worry is the lingering sense, after the car has passed, that life is fragile and we are always vulnerable.’ Ed Welch in his book ‘Running Scared’.
Women and Worry
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recognises that women are more anxious than men, and that anxiety is one reason that we still live longer, healthier, lives – our anxiety protects us from taking dangerous risks. However, there is a downside to our worry. Many of us worry too much; sometimes anxiety paralyses us and prevents us from functioning normally; and of course some women have full-blown anxiety disorders.
Understanding why isn’t easy. In the last two decades, researchers have examined hormonal fluctuations, genetics, environmental stressors and cultural factors. And they’ve concluded there’s no single reason women are more vulnerable to anxiety than men. It’s really the combination of all of these factors.
One psychologist has differentiated between anxiety, fear and panic as follows:
Anxiety – ‘yellow alert’
It’s a bit like being on ‘yellow alert’; anxiety is about looking out for possible danger, and often centres on trying to find certainty in uncertain situations. It’s an attempt to stay safe – a survival tactic – by foreseeing and planning for every conceivable outcome.
This worrying is often about the future, and because it’s too far away, the outcome cannot easily be determined. This leads to many unresolved ‘what ifs’, and a person seems to settle on the most catastrophic outcome, just in case.
This is very well illustrated by Anxious Piglet in this clip of ‘Winnie the Pooh’.
These are the anxieties common to those of us who are real worriers. My mother was one of these – we used to say that if she had nothing to worry about, she would worry. You know this kind of person – the person who is always imagining the worst and asking ‘What if…?’ just like poor Piglet.
Fear – ‘orange alert’
Fear is associated with more precise danger and starts to engage other survival tactics, like the ‘fight or flight’ response. Like stepping up a level to ‘orange alert’; fear is one stage away from panic. A definite threat of danger, or at least something unpleasant, has been sensed. This could be something tangible or something imagined.
The intensity of the fear depends upon several things:
This state of fear can be experienced for prolonged periods when it’s due to thoughts and not a real situation. That’s why anxiety and fear can be extremely tiring, and it’s not the way it’s supposed to work at all. Fear is intended for short term survival, not long term existence.
Panic – ‘red alert’
This is essentially an extension of fear, but in an extreme form; feeling totally overwhelmed by the physical and mental feelings of it. It happens when faced with sudden life threatening danger at this very moment. The panic response – ‘red alert’ – is vital in this situation because it gets the body instantly into the optimum state for survival; getting ready to fight or flee, or sometimes even freeze.
Panic is more often experienced in the context of a panic attack. In a truly dangerous situation the physical effects of panic are put to good use fighting or fleeing, and the person would be focusing on doing just that; not thinking about how they were feeling. It’s only when panic strikes for no apparent reason, that a person has a chance to become aware of its many physical sensations.
Understanding anxiety and fear from a biblical point of view
What Worry does
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23 – anxiety drains our spiritual energy
The good seeds fall on 4 types of ground:
When the disciples fail to understand the meaning of the parable, Jesus interprets it for them:
It’s striking to see that Jesus actually lists worry as something that can hinder the work God wants to do in our lives.
As women, we are all nurturers which means there are people in our lives whom we care for – whether that is children or parents or friends. In Philippians 2, the apostle Paul talks about being concerned because Epaphroditus was ill. There would be something wrong with us if we were not concerned when a friend is ill or there is something else wrong with a loved one. But it is what we do with our cares that is important.
Jesus explains in Matthew 6 what these worries can do. Like thorns in our gardens, the cares of life can choke the good seed in our lives as it starts to take root and grow. I have a garden and I love to see flowers blooming and growing. But I know the frustration of seeing thorns and other weeds choke the good, healthy plants. The thorns become entwined around the good plants. Unless you deal with them promptly and ruthlessly, they will choke the good plants to death.
So it is with our worries – we need to learn to deal with them promptly and ruthlessly and we are going to be sharing together about how to do that.
Psalm 56:3 says, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you”. Notice: it does not say, “I never struggle with fear.” Fear strikes and the battle begins. So the Bible does not assume that true believers will have no anxieties. Instead the Bible tells us how to fight when they strike.
And 1 Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you.” It does NOT say, you will never feel any anxieties to cast onto God. It says, when the mud splatters your windshield and you lose temporary sight of the road and start to swerve in anxiety, turn on your wipers and squirt your windshield washer. Deal with sin ruthlessly.
So we need to learn to deal with the cares of life. Although common to all mankind, although in many senses a legitimate part of what it means to be human – we must not allow them to choke the word of God in our lives. They will take over from the good plants, draining our energy and distracting our focus.
2. Luke 10:38-42 – anxiety distracts us from our spiritual focus
This passage is the well-known story of Mary and Martha, the two sisters who lived in Bethany with their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead.
The passage begins with the words ‘Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village’. He was on a journey and his time was limited. He wanted Martha to recognise that and act accordingly by choosing the priority of enjoying his company above other legitimate concerns. Notice that it is Martha who welcomes Jesus into their house. But she becomes ‘distracted’ with all the serving (not surprising if Jesus was there with his 12 disciples!) and not a little bothered to see her sister Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus instead of helping her.
Kenneth Bailey, author and lecturer in Middle Eastern NT studies, helps us to understand that in the Middle Eastern cultural context, this would have been understood like this: Martha was upset over the fact that her little sister was seated with the men and had become a disciple of Rabbi Jesus. What would people think?
When Martha asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her, his reply is: ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her’.
The word translated here as ‘anxious’ (about many things) has the same root as the word that was translated ‘choked’ (by the cares and riches and pleasures of life) in the parable of the sower.
So once again, it is a picture of the cares of life choking or distracting us from the impact of the word of God. In the parable of the sower, the cares of life choked the word; here the cares of life distract from the focus which is the most important for any disciple of Jesus.
Kenneth Bailey explains that Jesus’ answer to Martha meant: ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. I understand the entire list. One thing is needed. What is missing is not one more plate of food but rather for you to understand that I am providing the meal and that your sister has already chosen the good portion. I will not allow you to take it away from her. A good student is more important to me than a good meal.’
Jesus had no problem giving a place to women who wanted to sit at his feet and study the Scriptures – he had no time for the chauvinism which might have said that that was no place for a woman. Rather, he welcomed Mary and affirmed that she had chosen wisely.
Henri Nouwen says: `Oh, if we could sit for just one half hour a day doing nothing except taking a simple word from the gospel and putting it in front of us—say, “The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.” Say it three times, and we know it’s not true, because we want many things. That’s exactly why we’re so nervous. But if we keep saying the truth, the real truth—”The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want”—and let that truth descend from our mind into our heart, gradually those words are written on the walls of our inner holy place. That becomes the space in which we can receive our colleagues and our work, our family and our friends, and the people whom we will meet during the day.’
Perhaps Jesus would say to us today: ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary’. Maybe we need to come back to that one thing – to fellowship with Jesus – and let go of the rest. Fear of others and fear of everything else can only be treated with fear of the Lord – but in the fear of the Lord we will find true rest.
Ed Welch calls the battle against fear a ‘blessed struggle’ because in that struggle we have the beautiful promises of God to be with us.