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:
- The seriousness or unpleasantness of the threat.
- How far into the future it is. For example, a dental appointment/mammogram that is initially 3 weeks in the future – fear increases as it gets closer.
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:
- along the path where birds came and devoured them
- on rocky ground where they quickly grew but then withered because they had no roots
- among thorns where the thorns grew up and choked them
- on good soil where they bore fruit
When the disciples fail to understand the meaning of the parable, Jesus interprets it for them:
- when we don’t understand the word of God, the evil one snatches it away before it has time to take root
- others receive the word immediately but, because they have no root in themselves, they fall away when tribulation or persecution comes
- others hear the word but it is soon choked by the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches
- others receive the word, allow it to take root and it bears fruit in their lives
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.