Three Words Which Absolutely Destroy Worry

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Worry is the act of imagining a future without God.

When you strip it down to its bones that’s what it really is. I worry when I imagine a future devoid of God. I worry when I project my current feelings and discouragements and struggles into the future. I worry when I take God’s love and faithfulness out of the equation. When I imagine a stark and bleak future, a screaming void in which my faithful and loving Father does not exist or act on my behalf. Underneath all the anxiety and fear and confusing emotions worry is actually a form of atheism. It’s acting as if God does not exist.

Psalm 18:46 provides three words which destroy worry and fuel faith: “The Lord lives…”

Don’t pass over those words too quickly. The. Lord. Lives.

My budget is flatlining and we are financially tanking and I don’t see hope for the future! But the Lord lives. The same Lord who owns everything and provides for ravens and sustains galaxies and calls us his children is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t provide for yourself but your budget is not too tight for God. The Lord lives.

Worry is the act of imagining a future without God.

My child is not doing well spiritually and I’ve tried everything and I don’t have any hope that anything will change! The Lord lives. The same Lord who has saved murderers and prostitutes and Pharisees and drug addicts and money addicts and pastors kids is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t save your child but your kid is not too hard for God. The Lord lives.

My marriage is on the rocks and we’ve tried counseling and we’ve read all the books and I don’t see things getting any better! The Lord lives. The same Lord who created a bride for himself out of rebellious, wicked, God-hating sinners is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t rescue your marriage but your marriage is not too hard for God. The Lord lives.

My spiritual life is dry, and I’ve tried a thousand different things to get it kickstarted, but nothing seems to work, and honestly, I don’t think things are going to get any better. The Lord lives. The same Lord who caused you to become spiritually alive is real and alive and active in your life. You can’t breathe fresh life into your heart but your heart is not too dry for God.

Your circumstances may be bleak. You may not see a light at the end of the tunnel. You may not see any silver lining. But circumstances and tunnels and silver linings are not the basis of our hope, God is.

Don’t be a functional atheist today. The Lord lives. Let’s live in light of that reality.

 

The Anxiety-Killing Power of Creation

Anxiety drains the life from your soul. It’s spiritual death by blood loss: a slow, steady drain on your vitality and passion and joy. It ends with helplessness and hopelessness. How do we fight it? How do we stop the bleeding so that our souls don’t shrivel and shrink under anxiety’s constant squeeze?

While God has given us numerous remedies for the malady of worry, there’s one we often might forget: the created world. All around us, every day of our lives, there is overflowing evidence that God rules his world and rules it well. Creation quietly and constantly reveals the power and wisdom of God. Consider the seasons: The colors of fall are an art display on a grander scale that uses a more glorious palette than any human art exhibit – and God pulls it off year after year without a single hitch.

There are birds by the hundreds flying over our heads or in our backyards (and stealing our leftover French fries at McDonald’s). Have you ever stopped to consider that not one of them will die without God’s knowledge (Matt. 10:29)? Or watch a hawk in flight and think of God’s pointed question to Job in Job 39:26: “Is it by your understanding that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south?” Job’s answer: silence. God’s answer: “Yes, it is by MY understanding that the hawk soars!”

Or ponder an oak tree growing in the middle of a field.  To reach mature size that oak has had to grow from a tiny acorn, pushing a taproot down into the soil and sending a single flimsy stalk and pair of leaves up towards the light. It has had to survive marauding deer, rabbits, and birds, to escape being trampled underfoot, and to absorb enough water and minerals from its tiny patch of soil to keep from starving to death. It takes at least twenty years to grow past sapling size; mature, shade-tree size oak won’t be reached into the 50-100 year mark. And there are millions of trees in God’s world, quietly proclaiming the power and wisdom of their Maker with every cell in every leaf and branch and root.

Here is good medicine for your soul. The next time you’re outside, particularly if cares are weighing you down, look around you at God’s creation. Thank him that the tree or bird or insect that you see was created by him, and is now being sustained and held together by his mighty hand. Praise him for the wisdom on display in creation, the theatre to his glory. And then recognize this: the same God who made the grandeurs of the universe is watching over your life with the same infinite care.

Grace For Today, And Not A Drop More

My imagination is terrible at predicting the future. I mean seriously, it really stinks.

I’ve always been prone to worry and fear. When I was little, my brother and I would pray every night that we would have “no fires, no fear, and no bad dreams”. As I’ve gotten older, my fears haven’t gone away, they’ve just gotten more sophisticated. Now I fear things like cancer, and miscarriages, my children getting seriously hurt.

When my imagination injects itself into my fears, that’s when things get really bad. Suddenly a little shortness of breath isn’t a sign that I’m out of shape, but a sign of early onset heart disease. Which means that I might die suddenly of a heart attack. Which means that I won’t be around for my kids. Which means…

It goes on and on and on. And it’s not only about health issues. My imagination can run wild with worry over just about anything, from difficult situations in the church to concerns for my children to paying the bills.

But here’s what I’m learning. First of all, my imagination would make a terrible psychic. Most of the things that I worry about never come true. I waste so much time and energy churning over things that probably won’t happen. Mark Twain hit it on the head when he said:

I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.

I’m also learning that God gives grace for today. Period. I will meet troubles today and God will give me grace for those troubles. He does not give me grace today for troubles that will come tomorrow. God doesn’t give me grace for imaginary troubles, he gives me grace for real troubles. That’s why worrying is such a stupid waste of time. I don’t yet have the grace for tomorrow, and when I look at tomorrow through the lens of today, it seems overwhelming. In Matthew 6:34, Jesus said:

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

When I get to tomorrow’s troubles, God will be there with sufficient grace. The problem with my imagination is that it always leaves God out of the equation. It always imagines a future in which God has forgotten to show up.

But God showed up today with enough grace to get me through the day, and he’ll show up tomorrow too. So shut up imagination.

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Don’t Worry…Stupid

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Jesus knows that we’re stupid.

That’s why he spells things out so clearly. Like when he says:

And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? (Luke 12:25-26)

Worry turns me into a schemer. I squint into the future and try to foresee every possible circumstance. I mentally scribble out various contingency plans. I try to map out and solve every possible problem that could arise. If this happens, I can do this, and this, and this.

But it turns out that I’m a very powerless person. All my scheming and worrying can’t add even a single hour to my life. All my mental maneuvering about how I’m going to pay the bills is wasted time. It doesn’t add anything to my life. It just makes me sick to my stomach and unable to sleep.

Ponder for a moment: has worrying ever been helpful for you?

But it also turns out that there’s freedom in being powerless. That’s Jesus’ point. If I can’t add a second to my life by worrying, why worry? Instead, I need to place myself in the care of my loving Father, who really can add an hour to my life. Instead of anxiously spinning my mental wheels trying to figure out how I’m going arrange every circumstance, I must throw myself into the arms of the One who really does ordain every circumstance.

If I really understood how powerless I am, and how great God is, I wouldn’t waste my time with worry. I would simply rest in the arms of my Father, who controls what I can’t.

Which leads me to the question: If worry is so obviously foolish (which it is), why do we spend so much time worrying?

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Worriers Live In The Future

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Since I was a little kid I’ve struggled with the sin of worry. Some of my fears were normal little-kid fears like, “What if my mom and dad die?” But I was afraid of some pretty strange stuff too. When I was three years old I was convinced that Cookie Monster from Sesame Street was under my bed, which pretty much scared the pajamas off me. When I got a older I was terrified that a storm might arise during the night, causing a lightning bolt to come rocketing through my bedroom window, which would in turn electrocute me. I was also afraid that at some point a tornado might hit our house, even though the odds of that happening are about the same as Mr. Rogers getting into a fistfight. I admit, I had some strange fears.

Unfortunately, worry doesn’t go away when you grow up. It just takes on different forms. Now I fear for the safety of my daughter Charis, and my wife Jen. Sometimes I go into Charis’ room at night just to make sure she’s still okay. I worry about paying the bills on time, and being successful at my job, and the health of my parents and siblings. I’m a grownup now, but I’m still a worrier.

That’s why I’m so grateful for the book Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest by Ed Welch. This book was written for sinful worriers like me. At one point in the book, Welch says that worriers live in the future. He says:

Fear can be triggered by the past, react to crises in the present, or anticipate them in the future. It’s preferred time zone, however, is the future. Dread, panic, nervousness, worry, and anxiety all speak of our potential future vulnerability…Anxiety and worry are less oriented to the present. They say, “I think there will be a danger;” “Something or someone I love might be threatened in the future.”

These words spoke to me. Generally, my worries are future oriented. Will my daughter be safe? Will I have enough to pay the bills? Will I preach well next Sunday?

As I pondered my fears, God gave me a particularly helpful insight. When I worry, I’m imagining a future apart from the grace of God. For example, I worry that Charis might become seriously ill at some point in the future. I vividly imagine doctor’s appointments and doctor’s appointments. And yet in all my imaginations, God and his powerful, loving, sustaining grace is nowhere to be found. If Charis became seriously ill, it would be a trial beyond my imagination. But I also know that God’s grace would be present each moment, sustaining me, encouraging me, and refreshing me. The Lord would carry me through the trial.

When I worry about the future, I’m essentially functioning as an atheist. I’m envisioning a future devoid of the almighty God who sustains me and carries me through trials. When I ponder the future, I must remember God.

What are you tempted to worry about? Today, as you consider these things, rejoice in the grace of God that will sustain you through every trial!

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Originally published April, 2008

Worry Never Ends

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You learn a lot when a baby enters your life (note: understatement of the century). I’ve learned that babies are cute, no matter how bad they stink. I’ve learned that “there’s always more where that came from”, if you know what I mean. I’ve learned that a baby can cause a mostly mature, grown man to dance around like a deranged clown in an effort to get his baby to laugh. I’ve learned that diapers cost more than gold…and oil. Babies are boat loads of fun.

I’ve also learned that babies give you lots of things to worry about. Sickness, safety, vaccinations. Household hazards and sleeping conditions. Spiritual health. The list never ends. There’s always something else to be worrying about. Charis isn’t crawling yet, and sometimes I worry that she’s not developing fast enough. But I know that as soon as she starts crawling, I’ll begin worrying that she isn’t walking yet. Worry is a sinful, endless, gut-twisting cycle.

And were not just talking about babies here. We’re talking about all of life. There’s always something else to worry about. Will I be laid off? Will I be able to provide for my family? Will my parents be in good health? Will my children follow the Lord? Worry doesn’t take days off. It’s relentless and ruthless.

Changing the circumstances doesn’t solve the problem either. When one worry vanishes, another quickly fills the void. Changing circumstances is a only symptomatic cure for a much deeper problem. Worry is rooted in a faulty view of God. When I’m worrying, I’m failing to see God’s good and sovereign care. In Matthew 6:25-26, 34, Jesus said:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?…Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

God cares about birds. Think about that for a second. Ravens are semi-ugly, annoying birds (sorry if you like ravens), yet God cares about them. He feeds them, clothes them, sustains them. Not a single one dies without him knowing about it. Now, if God cares for ravens, won’t he care for me? I’m his child. He crushed his precious son to make me his precious son. He bought me with blood. In light of all this, won’t he take care of me each day? This is what I’m learning to rest in. Each day is going to have some degree of trouble. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that God will be there, caring for me.

What are you worried about today? What does this reveal about your view of God?

When Anxiety Attacks

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Where do you live? I don’t mean your street address. I mean in time. Do live in the present? Or are you preoccupied with the future?

In the Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis, senior demon Screwtape gives his disciple Wormwood advice on tempting his human subject:

“The humans live in time but our Enemy destines them to eternity. He therefore, I believe, wants them to attend chiefly to two things, to eternity itself, and to that point of time which they call the present…He would…have them continually concerned either with eternity (which means being concerned with Him) or with the Present—either meditating on their eternal union with, or separation from Himself, or else obeying the present voice of conscience, bearing the present cross, receiving the present grace, giving thanks for the present pleasure.”

“Our business is to get them away from the eternal, and from the Present… It is far better to make them live in the Future…thought about the Future inflames hope and fear. Also it is unknown to them, so that in making them think about it we make them think of unrealities. …Nearly all vices are rooted in the future. Gratitude looks to the past and love to the present; fear, avarice, lust, and ambition look ahead.” — C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Satan wants us focused on anything but eternity or today. Worrying about the future is a futile exercise, because most of what we are concerned with will never happen. We spend all kinds of time consumed with and fearful of “unrealities” – things that don’t even exist. We work out all kinds of scenarios in case of this or that contingency, most of which won’t materialize.

But Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Mt. 6.34).

Jesus doesn’t say don’t be concerned about tomorrow or plan for tomorrow, but not to be anxious, worried or fearful about tomorrow. If we’re anxious about tomorrow, we’re really thinking that God won’t be there, he won’t be faithful, he won’t supply grace. But for Christians, there will be grace. So rather than being anxious, cast your cares on Jesus, ask him for whatever you desire, and thank him for the grace he will supply.

Jesus would have you tend to today. What does Christ want you to do today? Ask Jesus for grace and wisdom to help you serve and glorify him today. Ask him for your bread for today. Then go and do the next thing.

photo by James Jordan

Worriers Love Information

StudyWhen I don’t have enough information I start to worry. Case in point. After the birth of our daughter Jen started getting pounding headaches every day, and we couldn’t figure out why. Nothing seemed to ease the pain and nobody could tell us what was really wrong. I started to get worried. What if something was seriously wrong with her? What if she had a brain tumor or something? Did she have some rare form of cancer? I needed more info. So I started doing research on the Internet, hoping to figure out what was causing the splitting headaches. But I couldn’t find anything clear. I just wanted to know what was causing the problem. Then I could plan appropriately. Then I would be back in control.

In his book Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest, Ed Welch says:

Anxiety asks for more information so it can be prepared for the coming apocalypse. It also asks for more information so it can manage the world apart from God.

Sick. That describes me to the letter. I want as much information as possible so that I can plan appropriately and control every facet of my life. I want to know all possible illnesses that my daughter Charis could contract so that I can then take the appropriate defensive measures. I want to know exactly how much my income and expenses are going to be for the next month so that I can make the appropriate budget. I want to know every detail of what’s going to happen at the church meeting that I’m leading tomorrow night. Why? So that nothing gets out of my control. None of these things is inherently wrong. Wanting to control my life apart from God is.

The truth is, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but God does. And God promises a tomorrow that’s both under his control and full of grace. I try to gather enough information so that I don’t have to trust in and rely on God. God calls me to rest in him, knowing that I’ll experience his grace tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after.

Are you an information hoarder? It’s not wrong to gather info, but if you find yourself driven by anxiety, stop and take a deeper look. Are you trusting in yourself and your ability to plan, or in your sovereign, loving Father? Let me close with these words, again by Ed Welch:

There is no sense devising future scenarios now because God will do more than you anticipate. When you understand God’s plan to give future grace, you have access to what is arguably God’s most potent salvo against worry and fear.

By the way, the headaches went away.

The Meaning of My Dreams

DreamsI’ve never been into interpreting my dreams. That’s because most of the time they are sheer nonsense – a sequence of confused and bizarre images. First I’m riding bareback on small pony, which actually turns out to be my scooter. I turn to my left and see that my dad is on a scooter next to me, and he’s wearing a sleeveless leather vest and leather chaps. The next thing I know I’m on a walk with my wife, and we’re being chased by wild pigeons with unusually large talons. We run, but the faster we run the slower we move. It’s like we’re in quicksand. The birds begin to attack and…I wake up. You get the point. My dreams are usually a bunch of nonsense, not worthy of a second thought.

Perhaps I should give some of my dreams a second thought. Listen to these words by Ed Welch from the book Running Scared: Fear, Worry, and the God of Rest:

Do you have any fear and anxiety dreams?…The content can be silly and inscrutable, but listen for the emotional tone of your dreams. What do they feel like? Being pursued? Missing deadlines? Spinning endless plates? Being exposed and embarrassed? Keep track of them and in the course of a week you will hear them speak: “I am afraid,” “I am anxious,” “I’m feeling pressure.”

Welch’s words struck a chord with me. I do have fear and anxiety dreams. On a semi-regular basis I have a dream that it’s Sunday morning and I’m supposed to lead worship. Church starts in ten minutes and I’m not even close to being ready. I don’t have songs picked out. I don’t know how I’m going to encourage the church. The band hasn’t even had a chance to practice. Things are spinning hopelessly out of my control, and it’s looking like Sunday morning is going to be a disaster. I usually wake up with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

What does this dream say about me? Is it just my imagination running wild, or does it really say something about the state of my soul?

This dream does in fact say something about the sinful cravings of my heart. It points to my self-sufficiency and desire for the approval of others. The truth is, there are some Sunday mornings where I really do feel anxious about how things will go. I want the band to play well, and I want to share some profound scriptural truth with the congregation that causes them to fall on their faces and cry ‘Holy!’. When things don’t go well in practice before church, I get anxious. I try to pull the band together by sheer determination. I try to exhort the church with extra energy, as if my words can create genuine worship in people. Instead of relying on God to meet his people during worship, I rely on myself to play well and lead well. Instead of caring solely about the glory of God, I want people to think that I’m an incredible worship leader. My Sunday morning dream helps me see what is truly going on in my heart on a real Sunday morning.

This is new stuff for me. I need to give some more thought to my self-sufficiency and anxiety. But I’m grateful for Ed Welch, and grateful to God that he wants to set me free from fear. Just so I’m clear, I don’t think we should analyze every single dream we have, digging deep into our psyche to discover our hidden desires. But I know that I struggle with anxiety and self-sufficiency on a regular basis, and so I at least want to give some thought to dreams that fit this category.

What do your dreams say about you? Do you have any dreams that reveal fears, cravings, or worries?