One pastoral goal is to make Scripture meaningful so that it speaks to everyday struggles. Among these everyday struggles, it’s likely that fear and anxiety top your list. These really are everywhere. Here are ways I encountered fear and anxiety over just the last twenty-four hours.
I celebrated with the parents of a ten-year-old whose child, for the first time, went to Sunday school without tears and panic.
I was asked how to help a four-year-old who simply will not leave a parent’s side without physical symptoms of anxiety. The parents are wondering how they will ever get him to go to school.
I spoke with a man who was overcome with worry about his finances.
I read again how addictions persist in order to “relieve tensions.”
I dreamed about being lost, losing luggage, not accomplishing what I said I would, and generally not knowing what I was doing—a typical version of my own anxiety dreams.
In other words, it was a day in which I didn’t get out much. Otherwise I would have had pages of stories to tell. I remember when I was writing a book on the subject and I asked people to tell me about their fears and anxieties. Out of a hundred or so people, only one person denied having any anxieties, but soon, with a few follow up questions, he was quickly able to identify dozens.
God has spoken to the fearful and anxious and he says much, which is hopeful in itself. Here are a few themes that emerge from Scripture.
Fear and anxiety express our fragility more than our sin. The world is a scary place and we are finite and weak people. Our power is limited to the Spirit’s enabling us to trust Jesus and love others. Other than our personal faith and obedience, we control very little. As such, a prominent passage on anxiety says, “fear not, little flock” (Luke 12:31). Little flock is an unequivocal reference to our frailty and weakness.
What might confuse us is the command, “fear not.” But the Greek command is much more than an imperious edict. In the Sermon on the Mount, such words are invitations to trust Jesus as he continually demonstrates his compassion for the poor and powerless.
So the fearful and anxious come to the God who is familiar with our weakness. He is our sympathetic and compassionate high priest. Expect to hear gentle encouragement. Expect to hear the patient repetition of his greatest promise, “I am with you.”
Also expect that you will have more anxieties as you get older. Our fears identify those things that are important to us—things such as acceptance, finances, love, health, and the well-being of those we love. These are best understood as ordinary human desires, which the Lord takes seriously. When these are under siege, we should expect to be anxious. The reason they might increase as we age is that health becomes more brittle, we are less able to fend for ourselves in the job market, and we love more people and have concerns for their welfare.
Turn to Jesus. If there is anything close to a command about fear in Scripture, it would be this. When we are afraid, and we will be, we are to turn to Jesus. This is God’s calling in our lives and it is our growing aspiration in the midst of worries: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). We can try depending on ourselves as if we can manage and control our world, or we can try to quarantine ourselves with our worries, as if worry itself might shield us from future threats, but it won’t work.
But trusting God in times of anxiety takes practice. It is a spiritual skill, and it is less automatic than we realize. With practice, we will be able to turn to Jesus more quickly and in ways that actually erode anxieties. Results will not be immediate. The ways of God are that we gradually grow in meaningful trust and confidence in him and love for him. If anxieties were immediately extinguished, we would turn to him less, which would be to our detriment.
And if we don’t turn to him? Then, and only then, can we add sin to the picture. We need to confess that we want other things more than him. We confess that our desires have become what are most dear to us. Then, we turn and humbly listen to his words, and, as little children, grow in the skill of truly believing what our father says.
Find a passage of Scripture. Since fear and anxieties are so present in everyday life, and since they are explicitly identified in over 300 passages, you will preach about these matters. Take a common passage (e.g., Psalm 56:3, Matthew 6:25-33, Luke 12:22-34, Philippians 4:5-7, 1 Peter 5:6-7) or an uncommon one (e.g., Joshua 1:6-9, 2 Kings 6:8-17). As a congregational response, provide a list of some accessible passages on fear and worry and ask that each person, you included, identify one text that can belong to him or her when fears and anxieties emerge. If you have small groups in the church, the groups could take a meeting or two and have everyone speak about these passages. Each one contains concrete ways of turning to the Lord.
Your preaching schedule is already full, so there is likely to be little room for it now, but keep this in mind as you consider your future plans. You might also be alert for those who are becoming more skilled at turning to Jesus even when their anxieties have barely diminished. Consider how that person’s story could be shared with others, if he or she is willing. The best stories are not those of victory over struggles but of a stubborn faith in the midst of them.