A Prescription For Anxiety

Delivered October 1, 2000 by Rev. George Antonakos.

Sermon Text:
Philippians 4:1-9
1 Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy
and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with
each other in the Lord.
3 Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have
contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement
and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!
5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer
and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will
guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever
is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if
anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.
9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in
me–put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Let us again come to God in prayer as we begin to look at the Scriptures together. Oh Lord, we do bless You, we do thank You, that Your word is alive like a two-edged sword that cuts through, separating our thoughts and intentions, helping to reveal the innermost being. And Lord, you desire truth in the innermost being and so we pray that You would help us to attend to your Word that that might happen more fully in our lives. We ask in Christ’s name, Amen.

A little survey to start us off today. Did anyone worry about anything this past week? Raise your hand, (my hand is really up). I’m not just trying to prompt your hands, my hand is up. Did anyone come today with some sort of worry on your minds? Okay, good, thank you for the honesty. And does anyone think they might worry about anything this week? Yeah, probably.

Well I hope that because of this sermon, the possibility of this week’s worry might be reduced because of what you hear today and hopefully you’ll be able to carry it with you. It’s my guess that a sizable minority of every congregation on every given Sunday comes to worship worried, comes with anxiety. It’s a propensity of ours as human beings to worry. In fact, the Scripture has a wonderful metaphor for humanity — sheep. If you know anything about sheep, you know that unless their circumstances are idyllic, they are very jumpy. And that’s what the Bible calls us — sheep. And so, as such, we are inclined to worry. It’s just part of our make-up.

Now, some are more advanced in worrying than others. Based on experiences in the home, perhaps in your family of origin, you learned a little bit more than other people how to do it, and it kind of invaded your mind and your heart more than for others, and it can strike at a very early age. I have a little excerpt from an Erma Bombeck piece who let a little boy named Donald express his views of education. This was before his first day of school. Listen to what Donald said. “My name is Donald. I don’t know anything. I have new underwear, a loose tooth, and I didn’t sleep last night because I’m worried. What if a bell rings and a man yells, ‘Where do you belong,’ and I don’t know? What if the trays in the cafeteria are too tall for me to reach? What if my loose tooth comes out when we have our heads down and are supposed to be quiet? Am I supposed to bleed quietly? What if I splash water on my nametag and my name disappears and no one knows who I am?” Isn’t that pitiful?

Now I don’t want to be glib. I really don’t, because I know that there are such things as anxiety disorders, and they are very real, and they are many times attributed to chemical imbalances which can be corrected, and I think we should do everything possible and get every source of help possible, to deal with anxiety. Yet in this text today, Paul commands his friends in Phllippi not to be anxious for anything. That’s a heavy statement to hear. This word for anxious, as it is in this text, used in other Greek literature, referred to and I’m quoting “those things that cause the person to lose sleep, from which refuge is sought in love or drink, the cares of this life which only death could end.” One person defined anxiety as a gap between one’s demands and one’s resources, and when the demand level is up here and you feel that your resource level is down here, anxiety is that gap. It’s easy to be anxious and yet Paul says there is a prescription for anxiety. He asserts, are you anxious? Then ask God. That’s very simple and yet complex.

One commentator said that anxiety and prayer are more opposed to one another than fire and water. I like the way a church sign said it, “If your knees are knocking, kneel on them.” That’s the same kind of idea that Paul is expressing here. Now it’s important to remember the context, Paul is in prison. If you know Philippians, you know that he is writing from prison. He is probably chained to a damp wall in a dark pit, and so it’s very clear from the context that perfect circumstances are not the clue, they’re not the key to freedom from anxiety. And that’s important because we think, many times, like a kid with a boo-boo, “Lord, if you’ll just take this away I would be fine.” But the Lord is more interested than just a fix-it approach to anxiety. He wants us to shift our anxiety. It’s not a fix-it mentality we’re after. Its a shift-it mentality that we’re after. God’s promise is that when we do shift our anxiety to God in prayer, the very peace of God will flood our soul and our mind. And when God’s peace comes in, worry gets put into its proper perspective.

Did you know, according to the National Bureau of Standards, that a seven-city-block area, a 100 feet deep when it’s foggy, (and it was pretty foggy today when we came to church). If you take a 100-foot, seven-block area of fog, it could be condensed into less than a glass of water. And that’s a good metaphor for the way worry is. It kind of fogs us in and it looks a lot bigger then we think, and yet, if we really shift our anxiety to God it will be shown for what it really is, something that is not much in God’s presence.

Three times in this text, before we get to the passage of Scripture that’s printed in the bulletin today, Paul talks about being in the Lord, that’s the key. That’s the key to the whole dealing with anxiety. He says to his friends, “Stand firm in the Lord.” He says to a couple of people who are arguing, “Agree in the Lord.” And then he says, “Rejoice in the Lord.” It would be futile to say, “Well just rejoice, just be happy, don’t worry”, like the song. But that’s not it, it’s rejoice in the Lord, because in the Lord we have strength that we don’t have outside the Lord, and a person who doesn’t know the Lord struggles much greater than a person who is in the Lord. But even we who are in the Lord have to see that being in the Lord is being in the place and presence and in union with the Supreme Ruler of the universe. That’s what it means to be in the Lord. The Lord is the Supreme Ruler, and when we have circumstances that threaten our belief that God is supreme, then we ought to remember that in the Lord, anxiety’s fog is a glass of water.

One person called worry unconscious blasphemy. We’re not willing or we won’t trust the Lord, or we think we are not able. Paul says no, we can do it, “in the Lord”. And this is why Paul says don’t be anxious about anything, because of that theological understanding, and the shift, the emphasis when he says do not be anxious, it is a very strong negative. No way, not at all, let anxiety rule, and so he starts to say that we have to shift our thinking, and that’s where we start. It’s kind of a two-shift process; one we shift in mentality, and then we shift in action. Shift in attitude and action.

When he says don’t be anxious about anything, it reminds us of the Henny Youngman joke. You know, “I went to the doctor and I said, ‘Doc, when I do this, it hurts.’ And the doctor said, ‘Don’t do that’.” I mean sometimes when you hear don’t be anxious it’s like oh boy, what kind of a goofy thing is that to say? But there’s something here. For some of us, worry is like an imaginary friend that’s hard to lose. Worry is, (a couple of weeks ago I talked about control), if you think about it, our way of trying to control something that feels very uncontrollable. But we think, if we can worry about it, we will somehow grab control of that thing which is out of control. Some people use worry as a bargaining tool with God. They’ll say, “Lord, You see how much I’m worrying. Now You wouldn’t really give me something big, would You?”. And they can use it as a bargaining thing. And you’ve heard the phrase how for some people, the only thing that keeps them living is the hope of dying. All those things have to do with Paul’s attitude, or call, to a shift in attitude.

Let me ask you this, what kind of question is it, of Jesus, to ask a man who’s sick for 38 years, “Do you wish to be made well?” I mean, that seems like a no-brainer answer. But the question is posed because of this human propensity to hang onto those things that we’ve adapted to. And so Paul is saying, “Are you willing to do without worry?” I mean, what would it be like if it wasn’t there? Would you know how to function? And so Paul is calling us to shift, to say, “Lord, to even let go of worry and fear, even if I feel that somehow I’ve illicitly used that to be a shield or a protection for me, I’m willing to let it go.” It’s an attitude shift. And then He calls for an action shift. Again, this is in the text that’s right in the bulletin today. He says, “Don’t be anxious about anything but in everything,” and here’s the action part, “by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God.”

Four terms concerning prayer in that short verse. The first is “by prayer.” This implies approaching God reverently. There is such a difference in prayer when we take the time to log-in, to settle down, to imagine as we sang today, the Lord who is lifted up and holy. That’s the first step, don’t just try to shoot stuff up to the Lord and say, “Lord, take this away.” It’s by prayer that we reverently, awesomely approach God. Number two, “by prayer and petition.” This calls for a specific supplication. A specific request is invited. It’s not just hand wringing. Murray’s famous for saying this, “There’s a difference between petition and worrying in God’s presence.” I’ve always remembered Murray Smoot’s statement about prayer not being worrying in God’s presence. And so it says, “prayer and petition”, a specific request is invited. It would almost be like imagining as you pray Jesus sitting across from you saying, “What is it exactly that you want Me to do for you? Name it. What do you want Me to do?” Thirdly, “with thanksgiving.” Recall God’s goodness, think of the past worries. You know, we’ve talked about past and present and future worries when we started this sermon today. Think about all the past times God has released us and freed us from things that we’ve been anxious about but He came through. So with gratitude, its like, “Oh I’m so grateful Lord that I can come and give this to You.” It’s like a person who hasn’t been able to get to a doctor and all of a sudden, finally, they have a doctor appointment and they say, “I’m so grateful to be here, now I can get the help I need.” And then four, “let your requests be made known to God.” Don’t hesitate or hold back, God wants to hear. The image that came to my mind was little kids and their parents in the line to see Santa. Some kids really hold back, and you can see the parents there saying, “Come on, come on, tell the man what you want.” And then I’ve heard so many people, so many adults say, “God isn’t concerned, I mean, I’m not going to bother God with that.” And it’s like Paul is saying, “Tell Him, tell Him. Let your requests be made known to God.”

And that’s why I put this off-loading stress prayer in the bulletin. There’s a little piece of paper that looks like this, and if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s a prayer that I stole from Karen Mains. There was a 50-day spiritual adventure that we did in a church that I served years ago. And the whole 50-day spiritual adventure was about dealing with stress, and this off-loading stress prayer was part of it, and I have it printed here for you because I want to give it to you when you’re inclined to worry about something. Let’s look at it. It says, “You are God, even in stress-filled times. On my own, I could feel overwhelmed but Scripture tells me You care about every detail of my life. Right now the stress I feel most intensely is,” and of course you just fill in the blank, now don’t miss this, “Show me the steps I can take and give me the courage to take them.” Maybe that step is faith, maybe it’s asking forgiveness, maybe it’s fasting, maybe it’s telling someone else about what your concern is. Whatever it is, ask the Lord, “Show me Lord what steps I can take. Calm my spirit Lord as I trust You to bring good in this situation.” Put it on your refrigerator, or in your Bible or pocket, carry it around. Every time you feel ready to worry, pull it out and use it. And if you do, the Scripture says if you do, that “the peace of God which surpasses all comprehension will guard your heart and your mind.”

Let me just say three quick things about the peace. One, it’s the peace of God. Is anything too difficult for the Lord? It’s the peace of almighty God, the Prince of Peace. Second, it surpasses comprehension. This simply means that no amount of human reasoning can manufacture this peace. No amount of trying to put yourself in different circumstances can create this peace. It is the peace of God which surpasses comprehension. It’s a supernatural experience of God’s peace, even in the midst of difficulty. And thirdly, it will guard your heart and your mind. You’ve probably heard it before, this word guard is garrison. It’s like a group of soldiers being built around your mind, like a fort being built around your mind. I was talking to somebody earlier this week and we were talking about going into the city and sometimes how people feel so insecure and anxious, and they said, “When I’m around Hopkins Hospital it seems like there’s a police presence on every corner, and I don’t feel as afraid there.” That’s what this is talking about, a peace, a protective shield as it were when we seriously come to God in prayer as he commands us to do.

I remember learning this in a very dramatic way, and it’s not that I learned it once and then that was it; believe me; but there was a very dramatic moment in my life when about 30 years ago, actually it was February of 1973, I was traveling from the East Coast to California. I had just been signed on with Campus Crusade and I was assigned to South Orange County, California, of all places. I was engaged to Ellen at the time, that created a great deal of anxiety because she lived in Ohio and I was praying, “Lord, get me close to Ohio,” and I got assigned to South Orange County, California. Well, I got over that and was driving across country and I got midway, in Oklahoma. That night I had stopped and stayed in a motel. It went to 8 degrees below zero, windchill, and the next morning I got up and I had a ’67 Oldsmobile, F85, a real lump, and I was traveling down the highway and I’m pushing for the heat and nothing’s happening. And when it’s that cold and there’s no heat and you’re traveling 60 some miles an hour, you’re getting a lot of frigid air, and my feet were just freezing, and it was early in the morning and I’m saying, “Lord, come on Lord, I’m starting to get angry, you know, I’m going to serve you Lord, I’m going to California and look what you’re doing to me, this heater won’t work.” And on and on like that. Also it was a long way between exits on the west side of Oklahoma City. So before long, I see a sign that says Hydro, Oklahoma. I never thought I would see Hydro, Oklahoma. So I pull off and there’s a little one-pump gas station, and I said to the person, “Do you repair cars here?” And they said, “No, we don’t.” And I’m thinking the next exit is like 20 miles away and I said, “Well, do you know anybody that does?” And he says, “Yeah, as a matter of fact I do. If you just go up to the stop sign, make a right, go about one mile over a hill, you’ll see a big green barn on the left, go in the back of that barn.” And I’m like, well, what choice do I have? So I did it, and I’m thinking this is crazy. I pulled in the back area of this barn and went through what felt like a barn door but when I walked in, it was an auto parts store, but that wasn’t the most important thing. When I looked over at the wall there was a plaque and on the plaque was Peter’s version of what Paul is saying, “Cast all your cares upon the Lord because He cares for You.” And I started to weep, I started to weep, I thought the Lord couldn’t possibly figure this one out. And there was that sign, and the man was a Christian, and he helped me get on my way, and since then I’ve learned what that word cast means. It’s used to slap a saddle on a horse, it’s used for one wrestler slamming another to the mat, it’s used to talk about a vine being wrapped around the tree, it means slam your worries to God. Why? Because He worries about you. Obviously God doesn’t worry, but God cares about you. More than you think you care about other things.

That’s it. I’ve worried since then but when I recall that moment, it reminds me, shift my attitude and shift my actions, and give it to God.

Let’s let David the King from Psalm 37 have the last word. We know that Psalm 37 is called the “Fret Not” Psalm. Fret not yourself. Trust in the Lord and do good. Fret not yourself, commit your way to the Lord, trust in Him and He will act. Fret not yourself, be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him.

Let us pray. Gracious Lord, we do ask that you would help us, that you would help us to do what your word tells us to do, and knowing that as we do that, the peace of God will be with us and the God of Peace will be with us as well. We ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.