Great Texts of the Bible
The Antidote to Anxiety
In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.—Php 4:6.
1. Who was he who here said to the Church at Philippi, “In nothing be anxious”? A prisoner in a Roman prison; and when Rome fixed its claws it did not usually let go without drawing blood. He was expecting his trial, which would probably end in death. Everything in the future was absolutely dark and uncertain. It was this man, with all the pressure of personal sorrows weighing upon him, who, in the very crisis of his life, turned to his brethren in Philippi, who had far fewer causes of anxiety than he had, and cheerfully bade them, “In nothing be anxious; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” Had not that bird learned to sing when his cage was darkened?
We are like men that live in a narrow alley in some city, with great buildings on either side towering high about their heads, and only a strip of sky visible. If we see up in that strip a cloud, we complain and behave as if the whole heavens, right away round the three hundred and sixty degrees of the horizon, were black with tempest. But we see only a strip, and there is a great deal of blue in the sky; however, there may be a cloud in the patch that we see above our heads from the alley where we live. Everything, rightly understood, that God sends to men is a cause of thanksgiving; therefore,” in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”1 [Note: A. Maclaren, Leaves from the Tree of Life, 284.]
2. This is a double precept or exhortation—it forbids us to indulge in a certain habit which is evil and pernicious, and then it enjoins upon us a certain other habit, which is not only good in itself, but is also the effectual cure of the former evil one.
“In nothing be anxious.”
“In nothing be anxious.” How exacting is the ideal! Harassing care is to play no part in the believer’s life. Worry is an alloy which always debases the fine metal of the Christian character. It mars and spoils it. And so the counsel is unconditional, and covers every period and sphere in human life. Anxiety is to be banished from everything. It is not to be permitted the smallest foothold in the Kingdom of our Lord.
The root idea of the Greek word which is here translated “anxious” is a divided mind. The mind is looking two ways, is vibrating between two attractions; and it has found no place as yet where it can settle down and be at rest. Hence the sense of weariness caused by anxiety. The root idea of the English word “anxious,” like that of “anger,” is choking. It is obstruction, distress, pain, carried over from the bodily conception of it into the sphere of the mind. Under the pressure of this anxiety one becomes apprehensive, solicitous, confused; and every cloud becomes a darker cloud, and every weight becomes a heavier weight, and every outlook more ominous and dreadful. To yield to anxiety is to turn evil conjurer and play all kinds of alarming tricks on one’s own heart. It is to be a prophet of night rather than sunshine, of tears rather than songs.
The text does not mean that we are not to be industrious and economical and prudent and forethoughtful. Rational exertion to gain suitable ends is not denied to one, but urged and encouraged. The man who quotes, “In nothing be anxious,” in justification of laziness, or a supine folding of the hands in presence of services to be rendered and duties to be done, must not forget that the author of these words is likewise author of the words “diligent in business.” Neither the indifference of the fatalist nor that of the sensualist has any warrant in the Word of God. “If any will not work neither let him eat.” But the thing which is condemned, and which ought to be condemned, and from which the great Apostle and our Lord before him sought to deliver us, is the over-solicitude which burdens and benumbs the heart, and saps energy from brain and hand, and makes men forget that God is over them, and will provide for all the exigencies of their lives.
The word “careful,” used in the Authorized Version, “Be careful for nothing,” has somewhat changed its meaning since that translation was made over three hundred years ago. We use the word to describe that wise prudence and thoughtfulness which is the plain duty of man, a being possessed of a reasonable soul “looking before and after.” But originally “careful” had a different meaning. It meant to be burdened and fretted with care. It had much the same meaning as we express now by the word “careworn.”1 [Note: J. C. Lambert, The Omnipotent Cross, 142.]
1. The prevalence of anxiety.—There can be little doubt that we belong to an anxious and careworn generation. Never was the world so rich in material things, never did it possess so many mechanical appliances for lightening human tasks and toils. But as the world grows richer, it seems to grow more and more anxious. And while steam and electricity, and all that extraordinary development of machinery and locomotion and means of communication to which they have led, have multiplied our powers enormously, they seem also to have multiplied our cares. They increase the speed at which we have to move, the high pressure at which we have to live, the dangerous complexity of the social organism of which we form a part. It reminds one of the old tale of Frankenstein’s monster. Doctor Frankenstein, through his wonderful knowledge of chemistry and biology, was able to put together the figure of a monstrous man, and to galvanize it into life. And then this dreadful creature of which he was the author became the haunting terror of his own life, almost driving him mad by its tyranny, and at last tragically cutting short his days. And sometimes it almost appears as if the tremendous powers of nature which man has summoned to his aid, and infused into the great fabric of modern civilization which he has gradually built up, were threatening to become our masters and our tyrants, instead of our willing servants. Certain it is that life is not so plain and simple as it used to be. The burdens of existence and duty seem to grow heavier and heavier; and at the same time the men and women of to-day seem to be getting more nervous and highly strung than those of other generations, and less able to bear their burdens calmly and silently and patiently. Thus, on every hand, we are told that nervousness and worry are amongst the chief banes of modern life; and that it is worry, and not work, that wears out so many people before their time.
The things that never happen are often as much realities to us in their effects as those that are accomplished.1 [Note: Charles Dickens.]
The heart which boldly faces death
Upon the battle-field, and dares
Cannon and bayonet, faints beneath
The needle-points of frets and cares.
The stoutest spirits they dismay—
The tiny stings of every day.
And even saints of holy fame,
Whose souls by faith have overcome,
Who wore amid the cruel flame
The molten crown of martyrdom,
Bore not without complaint alway
The petty pains of every day.
Ah! more than martyr’s aureole,
And more than hero’s heart of fire,
We need the humble strength of soul
Which daily toils and ills require.
Sweet Patience, grant us, if you may,
An added grace for every day.
2. The folly of anxiety.—It accomplishes nothing and it weakens us and wears us out.
(1) It accomplishes nothing.—There would be some justification for anxiety were there any good in it, but there is not. Nothing is accomplished by it. The train does not arrive a single minute earlier because one goes to the station an hour before it is due; and the long waiting is only tenfold longer and more dreary if we fancy that our expected friend is surely sick or that some accident has occurred. If there is an encouraging word to be spoken, or a helpful deed to be done, let us speak or do; but to sit still, and paint pictures of disaster, and forecast ruin to friends and enterprises, does not help forward anything.
I have learned, as days have passed me,
Fretting never lifts the load;
And that worry, much or little,
Never smooths an irksome road;
For you know that somehow, always,
Doors are opened, ways are made;
When we work and live in patience
Under all the cross that’s laid.
He who waters meadow lilies
With the dew from out the sky,
He who feeds the flitting sparrows,
When in need for food they cry,
Never fails to help His children
In all things, both great and small;
For His ear is ever open
To our faintest far-off call.
(2) It weakens and wears one out.—Charles Kingsley well says: “Do to-day’s duty, fight to-day’s temptation, and do not weaken and distract yourself by looking forward to things which you cannot see, and could not understand if you saw them.” Under a habit of anxiety the body loses its vigour, the mind loses its tone, the will loses its force, and the heart loses its resiliency and sweetness. The innocent old farmer who wound up his alarm clock and fixed it to go off at six in the morning, and then sat up all night so as to be sure to hear it when it struck, but who was so exhausted by his tedious vigil that when the morning came he could not start on his projected journey, is a fair illustration of the mischief done to one by extreme anxiousness. Generals fight better; business men handle their business more successfully; teachers get more into and more out of their pupils; mothers conduct their households with greater ease and satisfaction, if they do not let any of their energies run to waste in anxiety.
Anxiety has no place in the life of one of God’s children. Christ’s serenity was one of the most unmistakable signs of His filial trust. He was tired and hungry and thirsty and in pain; but we cannot imagine Him anxious or fretful. His mind was kept in perfect peace because it was stayed on God. The life lived by the faith of the Son of God will find His word kept: “My peace I give unto you.”1 [Note: M. D. Babcock, Thoughts for Every-Day Living, 7.]
I desire to submit myself entirely to the will of God, and moreover that He would sanctify this trial both to me and mine. On coming to Brechin, I was led, through my youngest boy’s behaviour, to see what a blessed thing it is to receive the kingdom of God “as a little child.” My little fellow, about four years old, whom I brought with me, gave himself no trouble amid the boats, omnibuses, and railway coaches, on sea, land, and in dark tunnels: his father was at his side, and never a care, or fear, or doubt, or anxiety had he. May we have grace to be led by the hand, and trust to the care and kindness of a reconciled God and Father!1 [Note: Thomas Guthrie.]
3. The cause of anxiety.—The cause of anxiety is distrust of God. Faith in God and a soul overwhelmed with misgivings come pretty near being mutually exclusive. At any rate a heart filled with the worry which narrows our spiritual horizons, and turns the sweet light of the stars into horrible darkness, has small place in it for any living and sustaining confidence in Him who notes the fall of a sparrow, and who has assured us that He is ready to take upon His own heart all our burdens of care. God has not promised to do everything for us; there are some things we must do for ourselves. But He has promised never to leave or forsake His own. He has promised to save unto the uttermost all who come to Him through Jesus Christ. He has promised that all things shall work together for good to them that love Him. Our necessities, our straitnesses, our wants, our natural burdens, are not surprises to God. He understands them all, feels them all. But in the midst of them all, and with reference to them all, He wishes us to trust Him.
Froude’s religion, so far as it depended upon his conception of God, was a religion of almost unmixed fear. So far as it was of something better, it was purified, first, by a love and admiration for “the holy men of old,” such as the founders of the Oxford Colleges, in whose steps, after his election to his Fellowship, he aspired to tread; secondly, by his affection for Keble, for whom, in the prayer written at the same time, he thanks God, as one who had convinced him of the error of his ways, and in whose presence he tasted happiness; but above all, by his devotion to his mother, in whose recollection he found a consciousness of that blessedness which he had been taught to look for in the presence of Saints and Angels. These were feelings which were better than his religion, and which, if they could have developed and grown with the latter, might have delivered it from fears, and have converted it into a source of peace as well as of activity: but whether from the irremediable taint of the past, or owing to influence that proved too strong for Keble’s, this growth did not go on.1 [Note: E. A. Abbott, Anglican Career of Cardinal Newman.]
Missing the Infinite, man grasps the finite good, clings passionately to it, and struggles with a melancholy earnestness to become his own Providence. But with faith in God—the belief that He has not launched a world into existence from which thereafter He sits remote, merely watching it, or now and then interfering to help a stumbling creature when it calls; the belief that He remains within His own creation, as its inmost and essential life; the great Sustainer, in whom it lives and moves, and has its being—with this faith, I say, the heart of the creature who is also a child, may well disburden itself of care. It is careful for nothing, simply because it believes that God is careful for everything; that His tender mercies are over all His works; and that the laws by which He governs the world are but the expressions of His living will, the signs of His immediate agency; not the handiwork of a retired Artificer, but the manifestation of an ever present God.2 [Note: W. Knight, Things New and Old, 101.]
The crosses which we make for ourselves by over-anxiety as to the future are not heaven-sent crosses. We tempt God by our false wisdom, seeking to forestall His arrangements, and struggling to supplement His Providence by our own provisions. The fruit of our wisdom is always bitter. God suffers it to be so, that we may be discomfited when we forsake His Fatherly guidance. The future is not ours: we may never have a future; or, if it comes, it may be wholly different from all we foresaw. Let us shut our eyes to that which God hides from us in the hidden depths of His wisdom. Let us worship without seeing; let us be silent, and lie still. The crosses actually laid upon us always bring their own special grace and consequent comfort with them; we see the hand of God when it is laid upon us. But the crosses wrought by anxious forebodings are altogether beyond God’s dispensations; we meet them without the special grace adapted to the need—nay, rather in a faithless spirit, which precludes grace; and so everything seems hard and unendurable. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” our Lord has said; and the evil of each day becomes good if we leave it to God.3 [Note: Fénelon, Letters to Women.]
“Let your requests be made known unto God.”
Relief can never be obtained, and the Divine command of the text obeyed, by a mere effort of will. No man can shake off care simply by trying to do so. Neither can it be done by arguing with ourselves as to its uselessness and hurtfulness; nor yet can it be done, nor should it be attempted, by hardening ourselves into an unfeeling stoical indifference. Here is the better way, the only legitimate and effectual way of getting free from care. It is to cast our care on Him who cares for us. It is to bring the burden which we can neither bear nor shake off and leave it at the Lord’s feet in prayer. Prayer is the only real and thorough cure for care. To be full of faith is the only effectual way to be empty of all fear. To flee with it within the veil, and to fall with it at the feet of God, is the only mode of being truly eased of the burden of anxiety and gloom. So “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”
A lady reports that, after the solemnities of a communion season, she and a friend were walking along Union Terrace, Aberdeen, behind Dr. Kidd and several of his brethren who had been assisting, when they heard him say—“Can you tell me how it is that, though I can bear great troubles as well as most men, the petty annoyances of life irritate me so that I say things which cause me much grief and shame afterwards, bring discredit on my Saviour’s cause, and give the enemy cause to blaspheme?” The answer came from Mr. Rose, of Nigg—“Yes, brother; you carry your great trials to God, but the little ones you try to manage for yourself, and so fail.” “Aye, aye; that is the true cause, I believe.”1 [Note: J. Stark, Dr. Kidd of Aberdeen, 259.]
1. The means by which God would have us lay bare our hearts to Him—“by prayer and supplication.”
(1) Prayer.—The word which is here translated “prayer” refers not to the petitions, but to the mood of the petitioner. It describes a frame of mind. The soul can be in a prayerful attitude, even though it refrains from making requests. All real prayer begins, not in words, but in moods. The great mystics have ever been experts in the knowledge of this secret. They have disciplined their souls to a reverent and receptive pose, until, at all times, their souls have been frankly open to the Divine. They have bowed in silence before the Lord, rejecting, in the first place, the clumsy expedient of words, and they have quietly drawn in breath in the fear of the Lord. It is here that we find the explanation of Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing.” If essential prayer be a matter of words, the counsel is impossible; but if essential prayer be a spiritual posture, it is possible to obey the counsel throughout all the changing hours and moments of the years.
Prayer is the great lever of the spiritual life: nay—to speak in various figures—it is the lung by which it breathes, it is the atmosphere in which it floats, the wing by which it speeds its flight, and the language by which it daily communes with its own Original.1 [Note: W. Knight, Things New and Old, 114.]
Years ago an ingenious inventor tried to build a vessel in such a fashion that the saloon for passengers should remain upon one level, howsoever the hull might be tossed by waves. It was a failure, if I remember rightly. But if we are thus joined to God, He will do for our inmost hearts what the inventor tried to do with the chamber within his ship. The hull may be buffeted, but the inmost chamber where the true self sits will be kept level and unmoved. Prayer in the highest sense, by which I mean the exercise of aspiration, trust, submission—prayer will fight against and overcome all anxieties.2 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
(2) Supplication.—Actual petition for the supply of present wants is meant by “supplication.” To ask for that supply will very often be to get it. To tell God what I think I need goes a long way always to bringing me the gift that I do need. If I have an anxiety which I am ashamed to speak to Him, that silence is a sign that I ought not to have it; and if I have a desire that I do not feel I can put into a prayer, that feeling is a warning to me not to cherish such a desire. There are many vague and oppressive anxieties that come and cast a shadow over our hearts, but if we could once define them, and put them into plain words, we should find that we vaguely fancied them a great deal larger than they were, and that the shadow they flung was immensely longer than the thing that flung it. Put your anxieties into definite speech. It will very often reduce their proportions to your own apprehension. Speaking of them, even to a man who may be able to do little to help, eases them wonderfully. Put them into definite speech to God; and there are very few of them that will survive.
Some weavers were working diligently in an Eastern palace. The men and women wondered to see a little child amongst them, whose work always went smoothly on, without a break or even a snarl in the thread. They asked her how it happened that they could not succeed so well; their silk constantly got frayed and broken, and the beautiful pattern was worn and soiled by their mistakes and tears. The child answered: “I only go and tell the King.” They declared that they did the same, going to Him once a week. “But,” she softly answered,
“I go and get the knot untied
At the first little tangle.”
That is the secret of perpetual peace. If we were only careful always to take our little anxieties to our King—and to leave them there—we should form habits strong enough to carry us triumphantly through every great crisis.1 [Note: Dora Farncomb, The Vision of His Face, 142.]
We tell Thee of our care,
Of the sore burden pressing day by day;
And in the light and pity of Thy face
The burden melts away.
We breathe our secret wish,
The importunate longing which no man may see;
We ask it humbly, or, more restful still,
We leave it all to Thee.
The thorns are turned to flowers;
All dark perplexities seem light and fair;
A mist is lifted from the heavy hours,
And Thou art everywhere.2 [Note: Susan Coolidge.]
(3) Thanksgiving.—“With thanksgiving.” This may be taken to indicate both the general spirit in which suppliants should approach the Throne of Grace, and also an important and indispensable part of their worship. It may teach on the one hand that when we go into God’s presence, however distressful our circumstances may be, we should not be moody, morose, doubtful; but rather, in respect to Him and His help, full of hope, and full of gratitude. It may teach on the other hand that while engaged in asking new blessings and fresh supplies of grace, we should not fail to call to mind and to record with thanks those that have been already received.
“With thanksgiving”—Paul would never omit that element from his receipt when giving his cure for care. Half our worries would immediately melt away if we began to sing a psalm of praise. Some anxieties can resist everything except thanksgiving. When that begins, they melt away like icebergs in tropical seas. The life that is ungrateful is very cold, and icebergs abound in its atmosphere. Let us raise the temperature and we shall be amazed at the results. A really thankful heart is so crowded with the sense of God’s mercies that it can offer no hospitality to worry and care.
Thanklessness is a parching wind, drying up the fountain of pity, the dew of mercy, the streams of grace. It is a destructive thing, an enemy of grace, hostile to salvation. As far as I have any insight, most dear brethren, nothing so displeases God in the sons of grace, the converted, as ingratitude. For it blocks up the way against grace, and where it is, thenceforth grace finds no access, no place. Thinkest thou that to such an one greater grace shall be given, and not rather what he seemeth to have be taken from him? For doth not that rightly seem to be lost which is given to one ungrateful? or may not God repent to have given what seemeth to be lost? Grateful then and devout must a man be, who longeth that the gift of grace which he hath received should not only abide with him, but be multiplied.1 [Note: St. Bernard.]
The circulations of the ocean constitute a plain and permanent picture of the relations between a human soul and a redeeming God. The sea is always drawing what it needs down to itself, and also always sending up of its abundance into the heavens. It is always getting, and always giving. So, when in the covenant the true relation has been constituted, the redeemed one gets and gives, gives and gets; draws from God a stream of benefits, sends up to God the incense of praise.2 [Note: W. Arnot, The Anchor of the Soul, 90.]
I myself am exceedingly variable in spirits, and I always find nothing is near so delightful and inspiriting when I am in low spirits as praising and thanking God in the midst of His works. Often and often at the farm have I stood between the cottage and garden door and thanked God for making the world so fair and myself so susceptible of its beauty. I am generally quite happy after that.1 [Note: Bishop Walsham How.]
2. The scope of our intercourse with God.—“In everything.” There is absolutely no restriction as to the kind of business that is to bring us to the Throne of Grace; and correspondingly there is no excuse for keeping any kind of burden to ourselves. It is not about what we call religious matters only, or even about great and important matters, whether sacred or secular, that we are permitted to go to God. It is about all matters whatsoever that concern us. Whatever touches our interests, whatever raises a care within our bosoms, whatever is worth an anxiety or thought, may be made, and should be made, the subject of prayer. He to whom we go is indeed the Infinite Jehovah; but He is also our Father, deeply interested in all that affects our welfare and comfort; and as there is nothing too great for His power to accomplish, so there is nothing too small for His condescension to notice.
He is not a man of little faith who puts little things into his prayer. That very thing shows him to be a man of great faith. A feeble pulsation in the heart may keep the life-blood circulating for a while near the centre and in the vitals; but it requires a great strong life in the heart to send the blood down into the tips of the fingers, and make it circulate through the outmost, smallest branches of the veins. In like manner, it is the strongest spiritual life that animates the whole course, even to the minutest transactions, and brings to God the smallest matters of our personal history as well as the great concern of pardon and eternal life.
A multitude of little pimples may be quite as painful and dangerous as a large ulcer. A cloud of gnats may put as much poison into a man with their many stings as will a snake with its one bite. And if we are not to get help from God by telling Him about little things, there will be very little of our lives that we shall tell Him about at all. For life is a mountain made up of minute flakes. The years are only a collection of seconds. Every man’s life is an aggregate of trifles.2 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
The Antidote to Anxiety
Allon (H.), The Indwelling Christ, 107.
Barry (A.), Sermons Preached at Westminster Abbey, 313.
Dewhurst (E. M.), The King and His Servants, 160.
Gordon (S. D.), Quiet Talks on Service, 193.
Hare (A. W.), The Alton Sermons, 384.
Hickey (F. F.), Short Sermons, 2nd Ser., 9.
Jowett (J. H.), The High Calling, 180.
Knight (W.), Things New and Old, 109.
Maclaren (A.), Leaves from the Tree of Life, 219.
McNeill (J.), Regent Square Pulpit, iii. 375.
Martin (C. H.), Plain Bible Addresses, 199.
Pierson (A. T.), The Heart of the Gospel, 177.
Purves (P. C.), The Divine Cure for Heart-Trouble, 16.
Roberts (D.), A Letter from Heaven, and other Sermons, 211.
Roberts (W. Page), Our Prayer-Book, Conformity and Conscience, 253.
Yorke (H. L.), The Law of the Spirit, 269.
Christian World Pulpit, viii. 110 (Lamson); xii. 143 (Fleming); xvi. 205 (Goadby); xliv. 403 (Jefferis).
Literary Churchman, xxiv. (1878) 509.
Preacher’s Magazine, ix. (1898) 81.