Anxiety. We all have it to one degree or another. Sleepless nights, panic attacks in the middle of the day. Racing heartbeat. Inability to focus on any one thing for more than a few seconds. Anxiety is symptomatic of our culture. The leading over-the-counter medications are for sleep and stomach disorders. Anti-anxiety meds are among the leading prescription drugs. We are an anxious society, an anxious people living in a constant state of anxiety, and it’s eating us up from the inside.
Spiritually speaking, anxiety is the litany we offer up to our false gods, the idols that promise us health, wealth, and happiness, identity, security, and meaning for our lives if we but bow down and worship them. Unlike the true God who wishes that His worshippers consume Him as the Bread of Life, idols consume their communicants. Anxiety is a consumptive cancer of the soul.
Jesus, said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat; nor be anxious about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” Food energizes life, but it is not life itself. You are not what you eat, except at the Lord’s Table. Clothing adorns the body, but it is does not make the man or the woman, no matter what the fashion industry may tell us, except for the robe of Christ’s righteousness that covers you in Baptism.
Remember the first article.
I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him. This is most certainly true.Small Catechism
Do we most certainly believe that this is most certainly true? If we did, then why are we anxious about our life? God created us. God takes care of us. God defends us. Why then, the anxiety?
Consider the birds of the air. The ravens. Or I like to think of hummingbirds. We have a couple of hummingbirds that have taken up permanent residence in our backyard. They feast on our flowers, bathe in our fountain, and perch on branches and wires in our yard. We don’t set out jars of sugar water; I don’t think that’s good for them. Instead, we plant flowers they like. Fucias and succulents and sage. They seem to prefer the red flowers. Those busy little hummingbirds didn’t plant the flowers, nor do they tend them. They just found them in our backyard, and they do so almost instantly, drawn by invisible forces it seems.
They visit our flowers every day for the nectar that keeps them going. They didn’t set up the fountain nor do they clean it or change its water, but they bathe and drink from it every day. They work hard, buzzing here and there in almost continual flight, but they didn’t provide the flowers and the water that keep them alive. We did that. We are the hands of God for them. Every once in a while, when we are sitting on the patio in the evening enjoying the cooling breeze and the sunset, one of them will come near and hover right in front of us, so close you can feel the buzzing of its wings, as if to say “thank you” and then fly off to the next sage plant.
Consider the lily of the field – delicate beauty, its color, its shimmering petals and green leaves. It doesn’t toil, it doesn’t spin, it doesn’t go to Nordstrums. And yet it is robed with greater beauty and splendor than King Solomon in his finest. It works, in a plant-ish sort of way, reaching deep into the soil and turning its leaves to the sun. And yet they wait in a prayerful stillness, open to the soil and the sun, waiting to receive nutrients and energies. They cannot fight or flee. They cannot move to better conditions. They can only be still and soak in what the soil and sun provide. They, like the birds, are a picture of faith before God.
Does your anxiety put food on the table? Does it clothe you or your children? Can your anxiety lengthen your life one moment with your anxiety? It might shorten your life, if that is possible, but does your anxiety add anything to your life except sleepless nights, anxious days, and indigestion? If God takes care of the ravens and the hummingbirds, if He clothes the lilies and the grass, why are you so anxious, dear child of God, His foremost creature made in His image? Why are you so anxious about food and drink and clothing and shoes, O you of little faith?
The question contains the answer and the diagnosis. Little faith. Our anxieties reveal the littleness of our faith and the largeness of our unbelief. When Jesus’ disciples were worried because they hadn’t brought any bread with them in the boat, Jesus called them “little faith” ones for not remembering the feeding of the five-thousand. When the disciples panicked in the storm and woke Jesus up as He was sleeping in the back of the boat, He called them “little faith” ones. When Peter cried out in panic as he began to sink while walking on the water, Jesus said, “Why did you doubt, O you of little faith?”
We trust God with the big things – forgiveness of sins, resurrection from the dead, eternal life, salvation. Those are so big we can’t begin to do anything much less wrap our minds and hearts around them, which is probably why we trust Him with those things. But the little things, food and clothing – why don’t we trust Him with these? Why are we so anxious, O little faith ones?
This doesn’t mean sit back, trust God, and do nothing. The birds of the air aren’t idle. My little hummingbirds are quite busy. The lilies of the field aren’t lazy either. They’re growing and flowing, reaching down into the soil and up to the sun. Faith isn’t idle; it’s living and active, drawing life from God and loving the other. The birds and the plants do naturally what we don’t do by nature. They trust their Creator. They live, move, and have their existence in the same God, the same creative Word, the same Christ, as we do. But our Sin-full self-centeredness, our inner thoughts and feelings betray us and tell us that we are the masters of our destinies and the captains of our ship. We shape our identity, and we’re solely responsible not only for our livelihood but our very existence. Stop and think. Did you work to be conceived and born? Do you labor to die? What about life, that time in-between? Our anxieties are the fruit of our desires to be gods in place of God. Idolatry breeds anxiety.
Anxiety begins from within us; it’s a spiritual disorder. It’s a storm cloud going on in our heads and hearts, an endless spin cycle of thoughts and feelings that seek to define us and tell us who we are. It is the stress of our trying to be god, of kingdom building while ignoring the kingdom of God. It’s the stress of acquisition and debt and consumption and greed and covetousness. Anxiety is a stress disorder of the soul where we can find no rest, no inner peace, no quiet or stillness. Anxiety is spiritual PTSD caused by fighting a spiritual war with worldly weapons. Fight or flight won’t work here. We need stillness, prayer, and the Word of God.
This calls for a repentance. The life of a believer is a life of repentance. That doesn’t mean “stop being anxious.” “Don’t worry, be happy.” Unfortunately, when we hear the word “repentance,” we think in terms of “stop sinning,” stop doing what you’re doing and do something better. When you focus on not sinning, you sin more. When you focus your thoughts on not being anxious and try to talk yourself out of it, you’ll become anxious over not being anxious. Another spin cycle of the mind and heart.
Repentance in its biblical sense is “meta-noia” a change of mind, thinking of things in a different way, seeing things in a new light from a different perspective. Metanois is re-cognizing a reality you failed to notice. It is to rethink with the mind of Christ. To will with the heart of Christ. To see things in the light of Christ through faith eyes. To let go of your life, to be still and have Christ hold your life as He already does. To come to the realization that you are dead to yourself, dead to Sin and Death, dead to the cares of this world, and you are alive to God in Christ in an overflowing abundance of life.
Repentance is a reevaluation of your value to God. If He values the birds and the grass, of how much greater value are you, O blood-bought child of God? If He knows the number of the hairs on your head and the days of your life before one of them comes to be, don’t you think He cares about the bread on your table and the clothes on your back? If He feeds you with the Bread of Life, if He clothes you with the righteousness of Christ, don’t you think He cares about what you will eat and what you will wear?
Seek the kingdom of God. You don’t have to chase after it, and you certainly don’t have to build it. it’s already here and near for you to find. Seek and you will surely find it here in the Word and the Supper. That’s why you’re here. Here the King is at work in divine service, giving the gifts of kingdom life, and we, like the birds and lilies are on the receiving end of that giving. The kingdom sought is the kingdom found. Here your day, your week, your life is oriented to its center, to Christ.
The King and His kingdom is also within you, by the Spirit who dwells in you. The kingdom is both among you and in you, a glorious double entendre of grace upon grace. The antidote for anxiety is in Jesus who says, “Come to me, you weary, anxious, burdened, and I will give you rest.” So what about manic Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday? The kingdom of God is within you then too, even as Christ dwells with you. Seek the kingdom in prayer.
Before you occupy your thoughts with your calendar and your endless to do lists, before the spin cycles start, be still in prayer. I encourage you, I exhort you, I urge you to make this your practice each and every day, in the morning when you arise and in the evening when you go to sleep. Seek the kingdom and commune with the King in prayer. You will find the One who found you. Knock on that door, and He will open it Ask, and you will receive. Make prayer not a discipline (that sounds too much like going to the gym) but a practice, a way of life for each day. Consider the example of Martin Luther who said that the pressures and anxieties of the Reformation drove him to prayer no less than four hours a day! Four hours a day. Luther knew anxiety and depression, and he knew the prescription: prayer.
I can attest to the same. Anxiety and stress drove me to sabbatical at the beginning of this year. I could no longer read, write, listen, or even sit still. I could not stop my mind from racing, even at night. I didn’t do much over sabbatical except to busy myself to exhaustion. I didn’t read, write or pray all that much. It wasn’t until after my sabbatical was over, and I began to return to my routines that I realized what had been missing – the stillness of prayer. Praying without ceasing. Being in constant communion with Christ through prayer in the Spirit. When I learned to be still, I rediscovered the true ground and center of my life and being who had been there all along – Jesus.
As your practice prayer, you will learn to return to that still place when the pressures of the day get the best of you and anxiety begins to well up with in you. The spin cycles of thoughts and feelings begin. That’s the time to pray. Pray with words and without words. Pray in the Spirit with sighs and groans. Pray the psalms and pray in silent stillness. Pray as a child of God resting in your Father’s arms, nourished by Body and Blood, clothed with the splendid robe of Jesus’ righteousness. Prayer is Christ’s gift to you, His antidote for anxiety. If you don’t use it, you have only yourself to blame.
Prayer is no panacea. There will still be problems and troubles, accounts to balance, quotas to make, expectations to meet, but they will be sufficient for the day. You will come to recognize that your cares and concerns are held in the hands of Christ even as your life is in the hands of Christ.
In prayer, there is a transcendent peace that the world cannot give. A peace that calms our anxieties and frees us to do our work. A still peace in a raging storm. Hear the words of the apostle Paul, words penned from prison. “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.” (Philippians 4)
In the name of Jesus, Amen