A woman exiting an airplane had walked all the way to the end of the walkway and entered the airport when she suddenly stopped and turned around. She started going back down the walkway again, against the flow of people coming off the plane, trying to get back on again. This caused a real commotion as people dodged her and tried to let her by, but she wasn’t making any progress getting back on. The flight attendants pulled her aside in the hallway and tried to calm her down. She had left something on the plane and it must have been something very important and valuable. “What is it?” they asked. “It’s a book!” she replied in a frantic tone. The attendants told her to relax and wait until everyone gets off, but she did not want to wait. She wanted to get back on right then and would not wait. Finally one of the attendants agreed to try to retrieve the book. “What’s the name of the book?” the attendant asked. The lady replied, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff.”
That humorous story illustrates how worry, even about small things, can overflow and cause big problems. There is a natural tendency to worry about the pressure and stress that life brings. We worry about deadlines. We worry about our family. We worry about our health. And this worry is not a bad thing altogether. Sometimes is keeps our lives in check. That worry can produce a drive that motivates us to do what needs to be done. And when things are not done yet, anxiety can produce a kind of illusion that we have control by worrying about it. Psychologists admit that anxiety is central to being human. Sometimes it is far from debilitating, it can be fertile territory for growth and change and maturity. When anxiety is managed, we stay concerned about what we need to do in our lives.
But when it is mismanaged, and even small things stack up, the anxiety level does not rise in proportion. It increases exponentially. Sometimes I wake in the middle of the night and my mind is filled with something I should do, and then
another thing I need to do springs into my mind. Suddenly I am wide awake with my mind racing around a track trying to catch up with a list of intentions or worries. This does not happen often, but when it does, my escape is to turn to God in prayer. A simple prayer like, “God, I am really stressed out about this. And I need your help. Remind me that you will help so I can get back to sleep.” Sometimes that works. When it doesn’t, I acknowledge the adrenaline released into the body that can be poisonous. I know that stress leads to poor health, depression, medications, even hospitalization, so I take a break from stimulants like coffee, depressants like alcohol, and try to exercise. Those are proven ways to relieve anxiety, but coming to God in prayer should always be at the top of that list for us. It works from another angle.
When anxiety begins to overflow, we need to manage it before it becomes destructive. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry recently reported that anxiety disorders are the most common mental health illnesses in our country. When we suffer from high anxiety, we are more likely to go to the doctor, and six times more likely to need hospitalization. Doctors agree that emotional stress can bring actual changes in the organs, glands, and tissues of the body. Bio-feed-back is telling us much more in this field. It’s not so much “what I’m eating” as “what’s eating me” that’s getting me down. It’s an age-old problem. High anxiety was recognized as becoming a problem by Jesus on the plain of Galilee and in the letters of Paul over two thousand years ago just as it is recognized today.
When Jesus said in Matthew 6:34, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble,” Jesus calmed the crowd by recognizing that it is natural to worry. The Greek word which Jesus uses is not referring to the general worries of the day. The word that he uses is for really serious anxiety. Extreme angst – an anxious worrying about the future that can immobilize anyone. You may have heard someone describe this kind of anxiety for the future as, “The interest we pay in advance today for trouble that may never come tomorrow.”
The reason we should turn to God in prayer as a first line of defense is because it reinforces a trust in God. The psychologist Erickson maintains that the basic emotional need of an infant is the development of a sense of trust. Adults need to have that trust as well. In order to turn to God when we become overwhelmed with anxiety, we need to trust that God really cares about us. There’s an old story of a woman who was so frightened by the possibility of an airplane crash that she would never fly. Finally, at the urging of her children in a far-off city, she nervously boarded a plane and flew to visit them. When she got off the aircraft, she was greeted by her family, who asked, “How was the trip?” She replied, “Well, I guess it was all right, I didn’t put my whole weight down the whole time we were in the air.”
She didn’t trust the plane and she didn’t trust the pilot. But when you put your trust in God and put everything in God’s hands, the anxiety level begins to plummet. You put your full weight upon God. One of the famous quotes of Fulton J. Sheen was “Anxiety increases in direct ratio and proportion as one departs from God.” Trusting in God means that sometimes we have to wait. Sheen was quoted to have said, “Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is “timing;” it waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way.”
The way the Bible says that we are to trust in God is to remember how God has blessed our lives in the past. Do we see God’s blessings in life? A study at nearby Northwestern University concluded that people told the story of their lives two ways, either by times of redemption or contamination. If the contamination side outweighed the redemption side, the people led lives plagued with high anxiety. As the people of Israel began to be filled with anxiety as they wandered in the desert, Moses told them, “The Lord your God is going before you. He will fight for you, just as you saw Him do in Egypt. And you saw how the Lord, your God cared for you again and again here in the wilderness, just as a father cares for his child.” (Deuteronomy 1: 30-31)
When anxiety overflows, we usually are worried about the future rather than walking down memory lane. Have you ever felt as if you had the Red Sea in front of you and the Egyptian army closing in behind you? Those are times we should not be immobilized by what could happen next. Those are times we should listen to Moses, trust in God, and begin to walk forward, and hopefully the Red Sea will part. God said something amazing to the Nation of Israel through the Prophet Isaiah. Listen to these words, “Listen to Me…all you who remain of the House of Israel, whom I have upheld since you were conceived…and have cared for you since before you were born.” (Isaiah 46:3) We need to activate trust in God more, especially when anxiety threatens to send us over the edge. We need to trust that God has cared for us, and cares for us still. God says in Isaiah, “I will still be the same when you are old and gray and I will take care of you. I created you. I will carry you and will always keep you safe.” (Isaiah 43:4) From the moment you were conceived, to the moment you die, God was there, God is there, God will always be there and He will take care of you.
In his famous book, The Courage to Be, twentieth-century theologian Paul Tillich gives a theological definition of anxiety as three kinds of non-being. There is the anxiety of death. We worry about when and how we are to die. Then there is the anxiety of meaninglessness. What really is the meaning of our lives, the meaning of God, the purpose of creation? And finally, there is the anxiety of guilt. What if I can’t support my family? What if my life is not relevant? When Paul writes for us to turn things over to God and think good things in our Scripture today, he is acknowledging that this awareness of our possible non-being, this acknowledgment of our finitude, is a part of the reality of God’s
creation. In high anxiety’s grip these questions become filled with heavy complexity.
Leslie Weatherhead, the famous English theologian, once shared that many times it is the fault of the driver rather than the fault of the machine when a car breaks down. Weatherhead declares it is the same with the human body. It is made to stand a great deal of stress. But frequently the “soul-mind,” the driver of the body, gets off track and the body gets sick and breaks down. Doctors and psychiatrists tell us this over and over again. Fear, worry, and anxiety are among the forces that attack the soul-mind and bring about the breakdown of the body. And it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Small stresses in life can accumulate. Just like little snowflakes eventually can cause an avalanche, little things can pile up and push us from our normal lives toward somewhere we do not want to go.
There is another antidote to high anxiety besides prayer. It is finding someone to help. That is what Paul meant when he wrote those encouraging words. Sometimes we may feel so down that God doesn’t even feel real. I’ve heard, “I’m all out of prayer. I’m so down I can’t even pray.” The church is here to help. This is what the hymn means when it says, “Precious Lord, take my hand.” We are the hands of Christ, and we reach out to help each other. Sitting right next to you, and throughout this church family, are people who are available to listen. Utilize the resources of the church when you are feeling anxious. We have a ministry of trained Stephen Ministers who are available to meet with you. Reach out and get help. Then suddenly the anxiety can be translated into a shared compassion. Whether you feel anxious about your employment, the economy, your family, a health issue, or world peace, there is someone who considers it a joy to be there for you and help.
We will never be completely free of anxiety. There is too much unfinished business in our lives and in this world. Struggle, perplexity, even defeat are the inescapable aspects of human life. We have to come to terms with it. Before our anxieties cause us to choose the wrong roads, to climb the wrong hills, and seek the wrong goals, we can get a handle on it. In prayer, let us bring our anxiety to God. Let us use the resources of our church family. Trust that God cares about you and will help you in your time of trouble. Let us do our best to manage anxiety and not let anxiety manage us. Amen.