Don’t Let Stress, Anxiety and Worry Dominate Your Life!

By Neil Earle

This Broadway Play from the 1960s has an amazing relevance years later to the way many feel.

“Why do you worry?” Jesus Christ asked his disciples (Matthew 6:28).

He made it real: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6:26).

Food, drink, and clothing – these are the very things we DO worry about, right? These are the items that keep banks, insurance companies, realtors and retailers in business.

So it’s easy to accuse Jesus of shallowness and say, “True, Lord, but you’ve never had to face the 24/7 news cycle, my shaky 401Ks, my receding retirement, my kid’s college bills and my mom needing an expensive care home.”

Okay. Point taken. But remember Jesus was predicted to be the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 41-45 and boy did he have trials aplenty. There was the stigma of an unusual birth while growing up in a small town, the terror attack of a vicious King while still a baby, fleeing as a refugee, the rejection of his brothers, the misunderstandings of his disciples, contempt from the establishment of his day and the ultimate cruelty – death by Roman crucifixion (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus faced it all and he still tells us, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34).

When Even God says “You’re Finished!”

Another example of improving on the worst is the case of King Hezekiah of Judah who lived 700 years before Jesus’ day. This good king had contracted a wasting sickness and was about to die. The worst of it was that the servant Isaiah had been sent to him with the worst possible news from heaven: “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover” (Isaiah 38:1).

“You will not recover!” Wow. What’s worse was the Source of this woeful decree. It was God himself saying, as if in a telegram: “The jig is up. You are going to die. There is no relief coming. Signed, God.”

That’s pretty bleak. Most of us hope God will help us in sickness but Hezekiah was a cocky young king and probably had offended God with his stubborn schemes and self-reliance (Isaiah 30:1). But like Daniel, like so many before him – most notable his ancestor David – King Hezekiah had one ace in the hole: he knew the power of prayer. This young king prayed his heart out with one of the finest petitions to God in the Old Testament. “Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes” (Isaiah 38:3).

Like us, Hezekiah had besetting sins and weaknesses which had finally caught up with him. But Hezekiah knew enough about God to cast all his anxieties upon his heavenly Father. Peter would record that very promise from God years later: “Cast all your anxiety upon him because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7).

My Greek class instructor told us that the phrase here, “Do not worry” or “do not be anxious” has the force of the strongest possible negative, something like you’ve seen in those signs downtown that blare out “Don’t even THINK ABOUT parking here!!”

That is a vital part of the man from Galilee’s everyday teaching, “Don’t even think about worrying!”

But, let’s face, it that’s hard for all of us human beings to live up to all the time, isn’t it?

Help is Always Near

When I’m going through my own times of stress and unexpected (or self-inflicted!) worries I like to turn to the Bible but also to some wise, experienced counselors, people such as Dr. Archibald Hart, former Dean of the Graduate School at Fuller Seminary. In 1999 he published The Anxiety Cure where he admitted to being an adrenalin junkie, stressing through life and telling himself he was thriving on it. A medical emergency finally disabused him of this fallacy. In his helpful and practical book he repeated strategies that are tried and true. They helped me learn to pace myself and get a handle on stress and anxiety.

You can’t escape all stress and anxiety, nor would you want to, but here are some things Dr. Hart advises, self-talk to calm you down when you sense your mind and body tensing up:

1. I will survive. I’ve been through stress before and I will win this one. Get professional advice if you must but think about these points as well.

2. This too shall pass. I have more control over these things than I think. Is there someone who can help me alleviate the load I am carrying? Hmmm. Let me think.

3. When this is over, I’ll be glad I stood up to it. At least I can wait ten or twenty minutes before going off in panic.

4. Feelings are like weather patterns – they come and they go. They never last. Meanwhile I need to focus calmly on the task at hand. Work usually beats worry.

5. Many of the “feelings” I have don’t make sense anyway, so from now I will learn to carry them with me and not react to them until they pass.

6. A fast-beating heart doesn’t mean a heart attack is coming. “A healthy heart can beat very fast without sustaining any damage,” Dr. Hart advises.

Thanks Dr Hart.

Dr. Archibald Hart

Pacing Ourselves

His comments remind me of a lecture I heard from a Blue Cross lady in the 1990s.

She related how she was taking a BA and an MA degree at the same time and holding a job while raising a family. Suddenly she broke down. Panic. Chest pains. The whole deal. She was rushed to the hospital and the year was so bad, she said, that the two weeks in hospital were the best part of the year. She had no symptoms of heart disease but was forced to rest, pace herself, learn techniques of coping with stress.

The ones closest to hand are family, friends, rest, exercise, books, hobbies, prayer and meditation. These are within everyone’s purview.

Even during the darkest valleys – and we all have them – wise men and women offer some tightly condensed advice for all of us when passing through extreme trials. Especially an incurable disease, death in the family or the traumas of wind, rain and fire. They offer a clarifying three-step formula: What is the worst that can happen? Can I improve upon the worst? Can I accept the worst?

In Deadly Peril

A problem correctly stated is sometimes half-way to being solved. There is wisdom in this little paradigm. The Bible is full of case histories of examples 2 and 3. In Daniel 2 we see how the King of Babylon sent out a decree that all the wise men of Babylon should be killed. (BTW: How would you like a boss like that?) This decree meant death to God’s servant Daniel and his three friends. To the King’s Commander in Chief who was dispatched coming to kill him, Daniel applied paradigm Number Two. He simply asked if there wasn’t any way to improve on the situation.

After all, the “worst” here was death – something Daniel wanted to avoid if at all possible.

“He asked the king’s officer, Why did the king issue such a decree?” The King James Version translates it, “Why is the decree so hasty?” (Daniel 2:15). Sounds like a typical crisis at work eh? Often we have a decree from a bank, a court house, a doctor or a boss or a government official (the IRS?) that seems rather arbitrary and unfair. The apostle Paul described facing “the sentence of death” (2 Corinthians 1:9) which he did more than once.

What did Daniel do? He tried to improve upon the worst. He simply went to the King and asked for more time (Daniel 2:16).

This is good advice. Often in facing our fears and worries we need to have more time to think things through. And pray it through. I sometimes wonder if God doesn’t get weary of me coming to him with yet another stressful situation – or one that feels like it. At such times I pray with Philippians 4:5-6 open before me:

“Rejoice in the Lord always…The Lord is at hand. 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 minds in Christ Jesus.”

“Thank God for God!”

I know some of you may be saying right now, What is there to be thankful for in the situation I am in? A wise man answered that. He said, “Be thankful there is a God to turn to, at the very least begin praying by thanking God for God!” Often people standing over us are ready to extend mercy to us more than we think.

Back to Daniel. He asked for more time and used it wisely. He asked his three friends to join him in earnest prayer (2:18). Two excellent tactics. In times of anxiety and worry we need to remember to turn to our friends. Daniel got his answer and later poured out his soul in thanks to the Great God who had granted him deliverance from death: “Praise be to the name of God for ever and ever; wisdom and power are his…He reveals deep and hidden things; he knows what lies in darkness” (Daniel 2:20-22).

God does know the future. He already lives in the future we are so worried about. He sees us through our dark times of fear and anxiety. He offers light and help and hope. That’s a great key to “improving on the worst.” An, yes, he never tires of listening to our pleas for help. James 1: 5 says, “If anyone lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach (he won’t chide us for our sins) and wisdom will be given.”

Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus faced his most stress-filled hours.

Accepting the Worst

Here were cases of servants of God who had to face the worst and were able – with God’s lavish, never-failing help – to improve upon the worst. This should be encouraging to us amidst our fears and worries. In fact, these examples are written to encourage us (Romans 15:4). But what about when we can’t improve on the worst, when we have a sentence of death, when we have to pay the piper? It’s time to turn to our greatest example of all – the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the Garden of Gethsemane before his horrible beating and crucifixion, Jesus faced the sentence of death and passed through it admirably.

He frankly confided to Peter, James and John that ghastly night in the garden that he was “overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). He knew what pain and horror awaited him. Understandably his prayer that night included the very human request for this bloody ordeal to be taken from him if possible (Matthew 26:39).

After three hours of prayer that fateful night Jesus was ready to face the worst. His next words to his disciples bristled with faith, courage and resolve. “Look, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinful men. Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!”

Jesus had faced the worst and had passed through the crucible of testing. He was once again the Master. His sentences were spiked with words of command and action – “Look,” Rise,” Let’s go.” As expositor R.T. France commented: The words imply advance not retreat as of a general going into action fully prepared for the shock of battle (Matthew: Tyndale Commentary, page 374). And thus Jesus became faithful to and through death, even the death of the cross and achieved our reconciliation with God.

These examples of facing intense fears and worries to the point of death – and beyond – are written for us. The Bible redounds with aid and comfort as we face the many anxieties and downturns bedeviling our lives. Scriptural case histories are ours for the asking, they are a spiritual heritage as we set out with renewed faith and hope to obey Jesus’ commands “Don’t worry, don’t even think about it!” That is our goal, achievable with the help of the Man from Gethsemane standing next to us.