read Luke 21. What is anxiety? Plain and simple, anxiety is fear. It’s not trendy to tell people, “I”m so afraid.” We’re much more likely to announce, “I feel anxious today.” But the fact is that when we’re anxious, we’re suffering from fear. I would bet good money that most of us are far more afraid during each day than we’re aware of. But what are we afraid of?
According to statistics published on the National Institute of Mental Health website, 18.1% of the U.S. adult population suffers from an “anxiety disorder” during any given 12 month period. Collectively anxiety disorders are among the most common mental disorders experienced by Americans. NIMH website. Those are just the diagnosed “disorders”. People who are in tune with their minds and spirituality know that 100% of the population suffer from anxiety. It’s the human condition.
We express and deal with our anxiety in different ways. We overeat. We undereat. We don’t sleep. We oversleep. We obsess over minor things. We obsess over major things. We lose focus. We overfocus. We isolate ourselves. We go out all the time. We compulsively exercise. We vegetate in front of the television. We lie on a couch and consult a therapist. We pop pills.
Anxiety makes us feels like something is eating us up on the inside. It can feel like something is tearing into us. It can make us feel lonely. It can make us cry. It can make us shout. It can make us feel irritable. Every little thing bothers us when we’re anxious. We know we’re overreacting, but sometimes we feel helpless to stop the anxiety.
So if anxiety is our most common disorder, it should come as no surprise that every time an angel appears on the scene in the Bible, the first words out of the angel’s mouth are: “don’t be afraid.” You know this; if you’ve been to church at Christmas, you’ve heard those angels announce, in Old English, “FEAR NOT!!!” Jesus, too, tells us not to be afraid over and over, in very specific ways. The 21st chapter of Luke is no exception. What is curious is the story he tells before he gets into the issue of anxiety.
The chapter begins with Jesus pointing out a widow who has put two pennies into the Temple collection box. Jesus says that she gave more than anyone else: “For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has.” Luke 21:4. That’s it. He doesn’t discuss anxiety, he just praises someone who gave everything she had to live on. It’s pretty stunning. The poor widow has left herself no margin at all. She gave everything to God.
Jesus spends the rest of the chapter prophesying about the end of the world. In verse 9, he says “don’t panic” about the wars to come, even though by verse 11, he says that there will be “terrifying” things – wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues and signs from heaven. How can we not “panic” at “terrifying” things?
Then Jesus goes on to explain that there will be a time of “great persecution.” His followers will be “dragged” into prisons and stand trial. They will be betrayed by those closest to them. They will be killed. And “everyone will hate you because you are my followers.” But he tells us not to “worry” in advance about how to answer the charges against us, because Jesus will give us such wisdom that no one can reply or refute us. He says not a “hair of your heads” will perish – even though he has just said that some of us will be killed.
He goes on to talk about how “terrible” it will be for pregnant women and nursing mothers. He says there will be “disaster” and “great anger” against his people. There will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars – so strange that nations will be “perplexed” and people will be “terrified.” He says that when this happens, Jesus will return the way he is about to leave, coming down from the clouds. He says we are to stand and look up when all this happens, for our “salvation is near.”
How can Jesus tell us not to be anxious in the very same breath as he tells us about war, famine, plagues, earthquakes, persecution, betrayal, hatred, death, roaring seas and strange tides? How can he tell us not a hair of our heads will perish even though some will be killed? How can he ask that we look up into the clouds even as the seas roar at our feet?
Jesus doesn’t seem to explain. And yet, the answer seems to linger in the story he tells just before these prophesies. The answer has something to do with the woman who has lost her husband. It has something to do with giving God “everything.”
Maybe the reason Jesus doesn’t explain why we are not to worry, panic, or be anxious about the end of the world, is that He knows some things we don’t.
He knows, first, that we spend most of our time being afraid of the wrong things. As Tim Keller explains in such detail in his wonderful book, Counterfeit Gods, much of our anxiety stems from making “Must Have’s” out of things that were never meant to be ultimates. We make little “gods” out of success, romance, being liked, having happy and successful children and realizing our ambitions. Those things, however, are inherently unstable, always shifting, never staying still. If we think we “have” to have something we can never really have, we will always live in anxiety. Only the one true God “never changes.” He is the only ultimate that really is ultimate.
But Jesus also knows that our hearts are idol factories. We can’t help ourselves. We make little gods out of the wrong things all day, every day. He knows that about us, because he knows us intimately. So because we needed His help, He came down to rescue us from the middle of our anxieties. He loves us in the midst of our panic attacks. He knows that even when we know and love Him, we will still have some anxiety.
The strange thing is that we are perhaps most afraid of the solution to our anxiety. We fear giving God everything. We prefer to hold back. After all, we think we have to hold back with other humans. We have learned the hard way we can’t trust everything we have with people. What makes us think God is any different? Why should we trust Him?
The answer is that we can trust Him because He gave us everything. God is different. He is Love. He can’t lie, cheat or steal from us – it’s not in His nature. That’s the enemy’s way: Satan came to steal our enjoyment of life, but Jesus came to give us an abundant life. In fact, when we start to trust that God will give us what we need, we discover we can even start to give everything to humans – because we trust God to give us more. We trust Him because we start to get it. We get that God loves us so much He came down and died to give us peace. He died to reconcile us to Him. The very thing that we fear most – giving God everything – is the thing that can save us from fear.
The widow who gives all that she has, therefore, is a model for each of us. She is a model for how our peace comes from trusting God completely. The more we give to God, the more peace we will have. One of the things that steals our peace, and causes us anxiety, is when we disobey God’s laws. One of the ways to get our peace back is to honor God and his Word.
The widow is also a model in that she is poor. We are not generally willing to trust God with everything until we, too, discover we are poor. Only the poor in spirit will “see” God – only those who recognize their need will have all their needs met.
God knows this is hard for us. That’s why he helps us no matter where we are. He helps us when we’re only mildly worried. He helps us if we’re shivering on the floor, our hearts pounding, our eyes glazed, our minds frozen with fear. He asks only that we come to Him, the Prince of Peace, just as we are.
Jesus can tell us not to worry about the terrors at the end of the world, because he knows how it all ends – it ends with the Prince of Peace returning. We are to fix our eyes on Jesus – not just at the end of the world, but today, right now, right this minute. When anxiety attacks, we can ask for Christ to come in and save us. Anxiety is a clue that something is off in our thinking. Something is suffering in our relationship with the Prince of Peace. Something may be wrong in our behavior and in our heart. So we can use our anxiety as a sign that we need to turn our eyes away from earthquakes in our careers, plagues in our relationships, and our stars not seeming to align, and instead look up to the clouds. We can remember that we can give Jesus everything – all our problems – because He has already given everything to us. He gave his life for us, to ensure that even if we are killed, we will live again.
We don’t need to be afraid of anxiety. Anxiety can lead us deeper into intimacy with the One who came to free us from all fear. It can help us to start living a freer life. Sarah Young writes in her beautiful devotional “Jesus Calling” that anything “that tends to make you anxious is a growth opportunity.” She says that instead of running away from challenges that make us anxious, to “embrace them, eager to gain all the blessings” God has “hidden in the difficulties.” (Jesus Calling, Jan. 22). Perfect love casts out fear. Jesus is the only perfect one, and His love is able. It’s able to do more than we can ask or imagine. So when we imagine the worst, we can invite in the best. God specializes in the impossible. He specializes in calming every stormy sea – in our oceans and in our hearts.
posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com on February 23, 2012