We’re all prone to worry from one degree to another. Do you remember the song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? The singer says that same phrase “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” more than 20 times in one song, and it won awards and sold millions of songs. It must have struck a chord.
We all have a tendency to be anxious and worried over issues of life. God knows this. He’s knows that we’re prone to worry, so He’s given us some very logical and theological reasons not to be overcome with worry. That’s what we’ll examine here. First I want to make some general observations about worry.
General Observations About Worry
1. Worry affects a person physically.
Proverbs 12:25 says, “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down.” What are some ways that anxiety might way a person down and affect them physically?
Trouble sleeping at night
And for some people it could even lead to a dependence upon drugs or alcohol.
2. Worry chokes out the message of God’s Word in our lives, making us spiritually unfruitful.
We see this illustrated in the parable of the sower, where Jesus says that the cares (the anxieties) of the world choke the Word, and it proves unfruitful.
3. Worry produces a complaining spirit and a distraction from devotion to Jesus.
In Luke 10, we see a contrast between Mary and Martha. Mary was at Jesus’ feet listening to Him, and we see a picture of devotion there. Yet Martha was stressed out, and Jesus lovingly admonished her that she was anxious and troubled about many things.
4. Worry is having a “divided mind.” The original Greek word for worry (merimnao) stresses the action and the effects of worry. Worry simply means to divide or distract. It’s becoming so preoccupied with the temporal things of life that you actually lose proper focus of God. You forget that God exists. Sometimes when people come to us for counseling, they’re all shook up about life and sometimes I’ll gently say to them, “Where do you think God is in all this? Where do you think God is in this whole scenario in your life?” And at times you’ll hear the response, “Oh, that’s right. I forgot all about Him.” They may not say those words, but they give a double take when you remind them of the Lord in the midst of their trial.
5. Differentiate between proper concern and worry. Worry is not to be confused with diligent care and concern toward our responsibilities. There is such a thing as a legitimate concern for a legitimate need—worry is not to be equated to planning for the future. Of course, we always make our plans with the stipulation: Lord willing. As James says, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” There’s nothing wrong with preparing for the future—that’s being wise. There’s nothing wrong with developing a God-honoring plan to try to keep away potential adversity that might happen.
What’s wrong is when we anxiously focus our attention on what may go wrong in the future, as though the Lord is not going to provide for you, or is absent from this situation. For example, a man who lost his job should have a legitimate concern to be able to provide for his family. That legitimate concern is going to motivate him to look for another job. But there’s a temptation there for that man, or even his wife, to go beyond that normal concern and become anxious and fret about the future.
We must be careful because every legitimate concern can become a temptation to worry sinfully. We’re overcome by worried and anxious thoughts when we become so focused on the cares and concerns of life, that God has no longer in the picture.
The question is: How do we recognize the difference? Normal concern is accompanied by a trust in the sovereignty and faithfulness of God in the midst of a problem. In normal concern, you still have an inner peace, for you know God is at work in some way and He’s going to provide for your future need. Worry is only focused on the problem, and you become filled with anxiety, panic, and fear. In other words, when you worry there is a loss of hope and a loss of trust in God.
Christ’s Instruction on Worry
A key passage that deals with worry is Matthew 6:25-34. Jesus gives us some logical and theological reasons not to be overcome with worry and anxious thoughts. The passage starts,
“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?”
Three times in this broader passage, Jesus says, “Do not be anxious.” The first is in verse 25 above, and we see it again later in verses 31 and 34. He’s counseling us against worry that’s rooted in a lack of trust in God. He wants His followers to be free from the enslaving effect of worried and anxious thoughts. He wants us to have an unwavering trust in God’s sufficiency and fatherly care. He gives us three examples in verse 25 of what we’re not to worry about: food, water, and clothing. Why do you think He singles out those three?
They’re legitimate needs. They represent the basic necessities of life; these are the things that we need to live in this world. In our day and age, maybe we can expand them to include other things such as shelter, money, a job, and transportation.
Jesus doesn’t want His followers to be overcome with worry and anxiety over legitimate needs and concerns. He goes on to give us some very logical and theological reasons why we’re not to worry.
Worry is Losing Sight of God’s Fatherly Care
Matthew 26:26 goes on to say, “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?”
Jesus moves from the lesser to the greater. Since God takes care of birds (a lesser thing), then surely he’ll take care of us who are made in the image of God (a greater thing). That’s the idea here: Surely, He’ll take care of us if He takes care of the birds.
God’s fatherly care for His creatures is on display for us every day. I’m not a big bird watcher, but we live on an acre and half and have a conservatory behind us, so our family sees a bunch of different kinds of birds. Like most animals, they don’t plant seeds to grow food for themselves. They don’t store their food either. Yet in 70 years, I’ve never seen one bird fall from the sky of starvation.
Now think about it—this is a big task. It’s estimated that there are 400 billion birds in the world. Think of the monumental task it is to feed those birds! I think it would bankrupt Bill Gates to try to feed those birds in a short period of time, maybe just a few months. God feeds these birds every single day. If God cares enough to feed birds, how much more will He care for His children who have been redeemed by the blood of His Son? That’s Jesus’ line of reasoning here—moving from the lesser to the greater.
As we move onto verse 27, Jesus says, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?”
Worry is Futile and Unproductive
In other words, worry is a waste of energy. It doesn’t have the capacity to change anything. We can sulk in a chair for days with anxious thoughts and fret over things, but it’s not going to accomplish anything.
When I was a young boy a friend of mine had a pet hamster. It was kept in a cage and there was this big wheel in the cage. That hamster would just run and run. Do you know that a hamster runs on the average of five or six miles a day? In fact in their lifetime, they run anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 miles. Yet, it’s all inside that cage. And that’s the way it is with worry—a lifetime of fretful running with no destination in a cage of your own making.
The Apostle Peter exhorts us in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” As we face new challenges and concerns, we’re to cast our cares and anxieties on the Lord. We’re to refuse to be mastered by useless, unproductive, and futile thinking.
Worry is the Result of Little Faith
This really hits the heart of it. Matthew 6:28-30 says,
“And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
Christ again is using this line of reasoning that moves from the lesser to the greater. If God provides for the lilies of the field, which have a brief existence, then surely He’s going to provide for His people for whom Christ died.
Jesus clearly tells us what’s at the heart of worry: Little faith. Not no faith, but little faith.
The antidote for worry and anxiety is an unwavering trust in God’s fatherly care. This is one of the first lessons we need to learn in life, isn’t it? God allows problems to come into our lives to strengthen our faith. You probably know the old saying, “We’re kind of like tea bags—not much good until we’re in hot water.” Every time we exercise faith in Him in the midst of a trial, we’re growing spiritually as we believe the promises of God.
“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19
“I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Hebrews 13:5
Jesus is telling us here to think carefully and intently about God’s providential care until it sinks into our hearts by faith and stabilizes us.
Counseling a Worried Christian
So how do we counsel a Christian who is a habitual worrier? We don’t want to come out too strongly and just say, “Well, you’ve got little faith.” We need to tenderly communicate to them this idea of faith in God’s providential care. Most people like to think of themselves as having an anxious disposition that they don’t have any control over. We should show empathy, but gently exhorts them that they do not have to live that way—at least not without a battle.
Ephesians 6 talks very explicitly about how the spiritual life is a battle. The life of faith is a life of battle. Satan is called the father of lies, and lies are his number one strategy against us. And how do we combat his lies? Through the truth of the Word of God. Ephesians 6 tells us we can stand firm through the shield of faith, and the sword of the spirit, which is the Word of God.
Our counselees need to believe that this is a battle that can be won. They need hope. In other words, when feelings of anxiety come, they should look at it as an attack on their faith. The devil is wanting you to believe the lie that God is not in control and He won’t provide. That’s the lie: God will not keep his promises.
And if our believe in God’s promises waivers, how do we regain our firm standing? Through believing in God’s sovereignty. He’s in control and He’s willing and able to fulfill His promises. Once you find a place of refuge in Him, your heart will stabilize. Belief in the sovereignty of God has saved me from so many unnecessary worries and anxious thoughts.
A friend of mine is a great testimony to this. He lost his wife at a relatively young age—she was about 40 years old. When she died, he was left with three young children. After a while, he began struggling with anxiety. He started having anxious thoughts about the future, such as how he would care for his children while he has to work, and so on.
His bouts with anxiety lasted several months, until he began to replace his anxious and hopeless thoughts with thoughts about God’s faithfulness. He started to reflect upon the many ways God was faithful to him in the past. God was faithful him in many ways, and reflecting upon that gave him hope and increased his faith.
And then he started thinking about the many ways that God has been faithful to him and his family in his present situation. He was involved in a church, and all kinds of people were helping them out. Some were going to pick up his children for different things when he had to work. He started reflecting upon how God has been faithful to him, and he discovered that his anxiety was being steadily replaced with confidence and trust in God.
As Isaiah 26:3 says,
“You keep him in perfect peace
whose mind is stayed on you,
because he trusts in you.”
Worry is Unbecoming for a Child of God
Jesus goes on to say in Matthew 26:31-32,
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”
Jesus is saying here that unbelievers are overly concerned about earthly, temporal things. This is how an unbeliever acts, and believers are not to act in the same way. God is omniscient. He knows all things. He knows our legitimate needs.
In verse 33, Jesus says, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
Unbelievers focus on earthly values, but Jesus says that a believer’s primary focus is to be on eternal values. God promises to meet our earthly needs, so worries are unbecoming of a child of God.
Worry Runs Ahead of God’s Provision
Matthew 26:34 says,
“Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”
I remember the first time I read that verse, I understood the first part—”Don’t be anxious about tomorrow.” But I wasn’t quite getting my arms around the rest. As I looked into this verse, I realized Jesus is saying that God promises His sustaining Grace for tomorrow and for every day thereafter. But He doesn’t give His sustaining grace early. He won’t give us today what we need for tomorrow. He gives it a day at a time.
I’ve written a paraphrase that expands the implication of what Christ says here: Don’t worry and fret about tomorrow, for today’s troubles are enough for today. Each day brings its own burdens; so, don’t bring the troubles and uncertainties of tomorrow into today. When and if a hard time comes, God will give you the grace you will need to deal with it, whatever it may be. In the meantime, trust Him today without being consumed with worry about tomorrow (cf. Deuteronomy 33:25; Psalm 68:19; Lamentations 3:22-23).
Worry and fear overwhelm us when we run ahead of God’s provision for that particular day. We’re bringing the concerns of tomorrow (or next week or next month or next year) into today and we tilt the scale.
Worrying about the future is similar to an overdrawn checking account. You’ll be penalized from the bank if you overdraw your checking account, right? Similarly, God promises a daily deposit of grace, but only enough to cover the challenges of that particular day. Worry is running ahead of God’s deposit of grace. We’re bringing the perceived troubles of tomorrow into today. And the result is that we’re overdrawn on God’s provision for that particular day.
In Matthew 6, Jesus gives us theological and logical reasons not to worry.
How to Prevail Over Worry — Philippians 4
The second passage that every counselor should understand is Philippians 4. We’ll draw out three points from this that you can use to help a worried counselee.
In Philippians 4:6-9, Paul gives us three exhortations as a prescription for overcoming worry: Pray biblically, think biblically, live biblically.
Philippians 4:6-7 says, “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.”
Paul reiterates Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6 that we are not to be anxious, but we are to entrust ourselves into the hands of our heavenly Father. We do so by prayer and supplication. In other words, we are to make a humble request before God to meet our personal need. If you want to overcome anxious thoughts, surround your circumstances with prayer. These should be not just general requests, but specifically praying for your particular urgent need like you see in the Psalms.
Commit every situation to God’s sovereign control. Commit it to His providential care, and then rest in that. You see this in so many of King David’s Psalms. There are times when he was going through so much, and he would talk about the situation, and then all of a sudden he starts talking about God—God’s nature, God’s attributes—and then David rests in that.
In Philippians 4, Paul says, “by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving.” Our prayer should be accompanied with thanksgiving.
Why do you think thankfulness is part of the solution for overcoming worry? God is sufficient. He’ll meet our need or He’ll give us the grace that we need to deal with the particular trial we’re in.
And then Paul says, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds.”
For a practical example, let’s say a person who’s been battling cancer has gotten some good news from the doctor. The cancer treatment is working. It’s in check. He has a peace. And this person says, “I am so thankful to God for putting my cancer in check.” But let’s say this same person has cancer that’s not in check—and he’s actually dying of cancer. The doctor gives him a month or two. That same person can still calmly say, “The Lord is still good. And he will see me through this until the end.” Isn’t that true?
As men and women face death, we can often see tangibly if they have a peace that passes understanding.
Some people are dying and ask, “Why is this happening to me?” Others really display this perfect peace. A young woman in our church passed away in her early 40s. The day before she died, my wife and I came to say our goodbyes. She could barely talk, but as my wife and I leaned over she expressed how she looked forward to the streets paved with gold. We both walked out of that room thinking, “I think I could do it when it’s my time. She just showed me something. She taught me something.”
Another girl in our church was 38 years old, a mom to a boy and a girl, and she battled cancer for five years before she died. I remember she asked me, “I don’t know what to do. I’m dying. What’s my purpose?” I was stumped a little bit at first, but the Lord provided for me what to say, and I responded, “I don’t know what the Lord is going to do—if he’s going to heal you—but if not, teach people how to die well. That’s something you can do.”
She took that to heart, and even still today (after 10 years or so) you still hear people talk about her example in our church. She was dying and truly looked forward to heaven, and it showed in her words and actions. That’s the peace that passes all understanding.
Philippians 4:8 says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
In order to think on these things, the mind is going to have to be disciplined. The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10 that part of the work of ministry is to tear down strongholds of wrong thinking. We’re to take every thought captive to the conformity of Christ’s truth (2 Corinthians 10:5).
It can be helpful to guide a counselee to make a think list. In other words, “Don’t think this way, but think this way.”
When Christians are worried, they do the wrong thinking—unbiblical, faithless thinking. And they’ll have to replace those anxious thoughts with thoughts that reflect biblical hope. Our thought life influences and affects our behaviors. It’s hard to sustain an emotion without some kind of thought that’s going on behind it, even though we’re are not always conscious of it. That’s why David prayed in Psalm 139,
“Search me, O God, and know my heart!
Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting!”
Once you get your thoughts under the control of the truth of God and His Word, your feelings will follow. For example, let’s say that a husband and father of three young children lost his job due to company cutbacks. Unbiblical thinking would be, “My job is ending. I don’t have another one yet. What am I going to do? What am I going to do? My family is going to be ruined.” But biblical thinking would be, “Lord, you know my needs. I’ll do what I can to find another job and I’ll trust you to provide no matter what happens. I know you’re in control, and I know that you will provide for my family.”
And I’ve seen God do this in people’s lives. I remember one man in particular who was out of work when his company had cutbacks. He had a job that was more specialized, and it was about a year and a half before he could finally get another job. They have five kids, and God always supplied their needs. Their faith was a testimony to the church.
This was certainly Paul’s mindset. He says in Philippians 4,
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. … And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:10-13, 19
When anxious thoughts begin to rise, ask yourself, “Is what I am thinking true about God, particularly of what Jesus says in Matthew 6 of God’s fatherly care of me?” In the Psalms of King David, when he became anxious about his own safety and well-being he meditated on the nature of God and His promises. And it wasn’t long before David started praising God right in the middle of that trial.
The reason many Christians are so fearful and anxious about the concerns of life is because they lack depth and breadth of knowledge of God’s nature, attributes, and promises. The greatest study in the universe we can pursue is the study of God’s attributes. A great resource for a study like this is A. W. Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy. It’s a classic book with short little chapters, with each chapter focusing on a different attribute of God. This type of study can help build your faith and give you a depth of understanding of who God is.
Some Christians need to repent of sinful, worried thoughts and believe the truth about God. As you help counselees who lack a depth of understanding about the nature of God, some other passages you can encourage them to meditate on are: Psalm 27; 37; 46; 56; 73; 94; John 14; 1 Peter 5:6-7.
When anxious thoughts arise, ask yourself, is what I am thinking true about God, particularly of His fatherly care for me? Do these thoughts honor and trust God? Or do they cast doubt on His goodness and His promises?
Anxious thoughts happen when we look at our circumstances without factoring God and His promises in. When someone’s fretful about things in their life, we should gently ask, “Where’s God in all this?” and prompt them to remember Him.
Philippians 4:9 says, “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Many of our worries and anxieties are actually a result of wrong living. For example, some people are worried about their finances because they weren’t good stewards of their finances. Some people worry about losing their jobs because they’re not good workers. A student could worry about failing a test because he didn’t study sufficiently.
Counselees must make lifestyle changes. Discern where they are not fulfilling their responsibilities, and show them how to make appropriate changes and develop new habits of living. Put change into practice, and their life will begin to stabilize.