Today we are looking at the second most popular false narrative people in St. Luke’s identified in a project led by our young adults two years ago. They asked us to state things we are tempted to believe about ourselves that are counter to God’s promises and one that many people face is anxiety and the belief that anxiety will define them.
That’s not really surprising when you consider how many people in our country struggle with anxiety. In 2018 treatment for anxiety was over $16B and is expected to be close to $21B by 2025. Nearly 1/3 of Americans struggle with anxiety, and that’s actually a little higher in Indiana. It is especially rising among young people today. In the last 10 years there has been a 17% increase among high school students treated for anxiety. Many young adults talk about struggling with feeling anxious.
To get ready for this message I asked people who either struggle with anxiety themselves or live with someone who does to respond to a survey. 80 people immediately responded. 80% had been treated by a professional for anxiety. People described their anxiety as an obsessive worrying about all kinds of things, what’s going on in the world, their personal lives, their family. They said anxiety looks for something to worry about. You can imagine how Covid has affected people this year.
One person described it this way, “It feels like creeping vines growing inside me choking out my joy.” I find that description very interesting because the Greek word in the New Testament for worry means “to choke.”
Questions to determine if you have anxiety include these. In the last two weeks have you:
--Felt anxious or on edge?
--Worried excessively about something?
--Had trouble relaxing?
--Been so restless it’s hard to be still?
How many of you didn’t feel anxious until this sermon but now you’re not so sure?
I like the story of the two stock brokers who were talking in the early days of the pandemic when the Dow Jones dropped by close to 40%. One of them said, “I’m worried sick.” The other said, “Not me! I hired a professional worrier who does all my worrying for me. I don’t worry about anything.” The other one said, “How much does it cost to hire someone like that?” He said, “About $200,000 a year.” The guy said, “How can you afford that?” He said, “That’s not my worry.”
Come on, that’s funny!
Wouldn’t it be nice if it were that easy? Don’t you wish you could hire someone to do your worrying for you? How many of us wouldn’t love to have some help when it comes to anxiety?
Well that’s what Paul wanted to do for the Philippians. The theme of the letter is joy. It’s Paul’s second shortest letter in the New Testament, just 4 chapters, 104 verses total. Joy is mentioned 16 times. You would think that if people talk about joy that much then life must be pretty easy for them. They couldn’t have any worries if they talk about joy that much, because anxiety chokes the joy out of you!
But Paul knew their lives were not easy. He spent time in Philippi. He knew people worried over all kinds of things: whether their business was going to succeed, what they would do if invaded from the north where they were constantly under threat; as a Roman city, what would rulers do that could affect them. After all Philippi is where assassins of Julius Caesar were tracked down and killed. The politics of Rome had a way of reaching their doorstep. They had a lot to worry about!
So Paul gets to the end of the letter and to make sure the people don’t miss his point he says, “Rejoice! Again I say rejoice!” Now, if you were the Philippians, and you were someone struggling with anxiety, how would hear those words?
To get ready for the message today we sent out a survey a couple weeks ago asking people who struggle with anxiety or have a loved one who does to respond to some questions. We asked what others did that was helpful. The top three helpful things people said others did were:
2-Be Present without judgement
3—Remind people what they are good at.
We also asked what were the things people did that were not helpful. The top there were:
1—Tell people to just push through it.
2—Minimize my experience. Just tell me to think positive thoughts.
With that in mind, how do you think the Philippians would have found Paul’s words: “Rejoice!...The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Remember, that Paul not only knew the Philippians, they also knew Paul. They knew what happened to him when was there; how he was unjustly arrested for trying to help a slave girl; how the authorities beat him and put him in prison; how he had every reason to get angry and panic. But instead, chained to a damp prison wall, he and Silas started singing hymns at midnight, and as they did an earthquake caused their chains to fall off and the prison doors to open.
They would have known about other events in Paul’s life; how he had been beaten and left for dead in Lystra, arrested in Ephesus, and again in Jerusalem. They would have known he was writing them while chained in a prison cell in Caesarea and was saying, “Rejoice.” Perhaps they would have thought that maybe Paul understands something that could help them when he says, “do not be anxious.” Maybe we should listen.
He offers two bits of advice. One is this: Rely On Your Lifeline. It’s like the show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” When you got stuck and weren’t sure about a question, and the tense music is playing, the host would ask, “Do you want to use a lifeline?” And one of them was you could call a friend. Paul says, “The Lord is near.” Remember, you always have available help.
This is where forming habits that keep us in touch with the truth that God is near makes all the difference. We look at a story like Daniel being lowered in the lions den unafraid, not anxious, and think, “I don’t have what he had.” But we forget that the Bible tells us at the beginning of Daniel’s life he prayed three times a day every day. Three times a day he paused, went to his window, bowed before God and remembered he was not alone.
Now let me be clear, I’m not saying that just because you pray you won’t face challenges or that they won’t cause you to be anxious. No, but it can keep your feelings from defining the way you face a crisis. There are so many practices we can use to develop this confidence in God’s presence. I want to offer just a few. You might want to write these down or take a picture of the screen with your phone and then google these and learn ways to practice them for yourself. There are dozens of books on any one of these to help you develop this.
• Breath Prayers
• Praying the Scriptures
• Centering Prayer
• Lectio Divina
If you have been involved in your faith much at all in your lifetime, you’ll learn about these practices and feel like, “I already know this. I know these things.” In my office I have shelves full of conference notebooks and resources I have attended across the years. They are full of good stuff. Every now and then I read some of them and realize, “My problem is not that I don’t know enough. It’s that I don’t remember what I already know!” I just need to remember and practice what I’ve already learned in my life.
That can be true in our spiritual lives. We forget what we already know. What keeps us from doing what we already know? The heat of the moment. When we get out of the habit of doing things we know, the moment always decides. When we lose our conviction that God is near, the crisis of the moment shrinks our confidence in the greatness of God. We face a big problem and someone says, “pray about it,” and that sounds like the most trivial advice in the world, because we think, “what good is prayer against this?” And our thoughts turn inward and all we can see is “I don’t have what it takes to face this.”
I’m not one to talk about the devil a whole lot. I think there are Christians who give the devil a lot more credit than he deserves. But Jesus talked about the devil and took the devil seriously. And if you think about it, what is the one thing the devil would want to do when fighting us? Get us to fight out of our strength alone. Would that not be a victory for the devil. I mean that battle that’s over before it begins. That would be like me playing LeBron James one-on-one. I’m going to stand in front of him and wet my pants. What chance do I have? The devil would want me to forget that I have on my team: Stephon Curry, Kevin Durrant and the Greek Freak. All I got to do is call them, and they’d be there in a minute and it would be four on one. In fact, I can imagine Kevin Durrant saying, “Pastor Rob, you know if you don’t even touch the ball that would help us. Just let us handle this.” But what chance do I stand if I forget that?
Look at this verse from 1 Peter: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” Notice the connection between anxiety and the devil. What is Peter’s point? Well, look at the word ANXIETY. What’s in the middle of it? I. When I focus on just myself I am filled with anxiety. I become easy prey.
Corrie ten Boom has a wonderful quote about facing challenges: “When I look around me at the world, I get discouraged. When I look within me, I get depressed. But when I look to God I’m at rest.”
Now hear me out. I am not saying that if you struggle with anxiety you are evil, or that God judges us because we have anxiety. No! Listen again, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.” God says I want to help you. I want to give you strength. But there is an adversary who wants to see you fail, who wants you not to succeed. You can’t fight that battle alone. Let me in.”
I’ve shared some of this story before about a time shortly after I went to serve a church at Lake Junaluska, NC. Lake Junaluska is a big retirement community for pastors and we had like 30 pastors and several retired bishops in the church. Now, here is a true confession of my own false narrative. I’m tempted to believe I’m not smart enough or talented enough. Whenever I preached at this church I wondered, “Do they think I’m good enough to be here.” I can’t say I’ve ever suffered great anxiety, but I was pretty anxious in those days. Susan remembers how I would fret on Saturday afternoons. I would send her off to take the girls somewhere by herself because the sermon wasn’t coming together.
I developed a routine during that time of going to the sanctuary when I finally finished the sermon to pray. I wouldn’t turn on any lights. In the darkness I would kneel at the altar. My prayers were pretty simple. They usually started “Please God…” I said that a lot. Please God make this sermon great. Do something with this sermon. Please!” Of course, my prayers were really about me. “Don’t let them think I’m stupid. Please make them think I’m great.”
One Saturday night, I felt God whisper these words in my soul, “What’s important is not how good the material is you give me to use, but my power to use what you give me.” Those words changed my life. I felt a rush of peace. I didn’t to impress anyone, just trust God.
Well, some months later I was praying at the altar in a dark church on a Saturday night. I was in the middle of my prayer when a voice said, “What are you doing?” It was someone sitting on the organ bench. I about jumped out of my skin. I think I said a lot of religious words and then asked, “Who’s there?” It turns out it was a woman who had been hitchhiking on the interstate. The sheriff’s deputy picked her up and didn’t know where to take her, so he dropped her off at the church. She found an open door and decided to just sit in the sanctuary.
I made some calls and found someone to get cared for, returned to the church. I went back in the sanctuary and knelt again to pray, and I felt God speak again. Gd said, “Go to bed. I just wanted you to know I’m close by.”
The Lord is near. Paul also says that what helps us remember our lifeline is to Focus on Reasons to Say Thanks. By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
I read about a dad who became worried about son when he was a teenager. His son was coming under the influence of some kids that was leading him to make bad decisions. He just saw his son going a bad direction and started getting anxious about, but then he was challenged to take the anxiety to God and pray with thanksgiving. He said this is how it changed his prayers. He used to pray this way:
“Father, I ask you to protect my son from any influences that would separate him from you or those who care so much about him. In Jesus Name. Amen”
Then he started praying this way:
“Father, I thank you for the gift of my son, his love, his talents, his keen mind, his common sense, even though he doesn’t always use it. I thank you that you love him more than I ever could and have a wonderful plan for his life. I thank you for his faith and the gift of your Holy Spirit who seeks to guide him every day in the right path, even when I can’t be there with him. I thank you that your angels surround him and protect him from harm. Guide him today in his decisions. Give him your courage to stand firm against all that would influence him in a negative way. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.”
He said this way of praying changed him totally. Every morning when his son left the house he felt the panic rise up inside fearing what he might do, but then something stronger would push back the fear because he felt “God’s got this. He’s okay.” Then every evening when he got home he realized that instead of assuming his son had done something wrong and needed to be interrogated about his day, he assumed his son made good decisions and he treated him that way. He said it changed their relationship.
So if we rely on our lifelines and look for reasons to give thanks, here’s what Paul says will happen, “The peace of God…will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Paul uses a military term to describe peace. “Guard,” like a sentry. He was saying that what you will find is that God’s peace is standing over you like your personal sentry.
Let me close with this story. I like reading biographies of great people who did courageous things and learn that behind the scenes they struggled with fear and anxiety like the rest of us. One of my favorite stories is about just such an experience in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. It comes at the end of his sermon Our God Is Able. Let me share his own words…(Strength to Love, p113)
Do you face anxiety? Do you fear outcomes you can’t control? Does it take a toll on you? You can’t sleep. It eats away at your gut? I want to invite you to pray with me right now.
Lord, help me remember that my anxiety doesn’t mean something is wrong with me. sure me that you don’t judge me because I get anxious and upset. You love me and offer your courage and strength. You are here right now. You are standing guard over me. I’m not alone. My challenges might not go away, but neither do you. You can keep me at peace because you can work beyond my ability to see. Believing that is for me to have peace. You never let me out of your sight. Even though I get anxious, I am not defined by my fear. I am defined by my trust in you. Help me look for reasons to be thankful and celebrate the good things I can always claim. Amen.
Now, how many of you have a loved one who struggles with anxiety? And your struggle has been how best to support that person. If you are sitting with them right now, just take their hand. And if they are not with you, imagine they are, and pray these words with me. You might even pray them outloud…
“Forgive me for the things I have done that have not been unhelpful and maybe even added to the hurt. Help me show the love I have and get rid of any judgement or easy answers I’m tempted to offer. I can’t understand fully what others go through, but I don’t have to understand in order to love. I choose by your help, Lord, to listen and be present, and encourage the gifts and strengths I see. Remind me that I don’t even have to speak to be helpful, but when I do may I always let others know I care and love them no matter what they face. For this is how you love me. Amen.”