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Anxious People and A Sovereign God

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Worry give small things big shadows—ancient proverb
It pays to worry. Ninety percent of the things I worry about never come true.

We Are Anxious People

We live in a world shot through with worry and anxiety, angst in the deepest and most pervasive sense. We worry about yesterday. We worry about today. We worry about tomorrow. We just worry.

We worry about our children; the kind of lives they will lead and the moral problems they will encounter in the 21st century—problems spanning from abortion to euthanasia to genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. We worry about their future education. Will we be able to afford it? Especially in the face of rising tuition costs. We worry about our children and their safety on the streets, playgrounds, and indeed, in the very schools in which they spend six, seven, or eight hours a day. We worry about the kind of teachers they will have and the evil that is so prevalent in our school system. We worry about their health and the quality of the food they eat. We worry about the friends they choose and will those friends influence them for good or evil.

We worry about money. Will we have enough? What happens if I lose my job? We worry about making more money. It has been said that we worry about money more than anything else. I’m not sure that’s true, but I do know that anxiety over paying the bills, meeting commitments, saving for the future, roller coaster stock markets, giving our kids good things, etc., has engulfed many people I talk to. Many, if not most, people in this country are over committed financially and suffer under a self-induced delusion involving the pursuit of life, liberty and the purchase of happiness.

We worry about our relationship with our spouses. We worry about our relationships with in-laws and extended family. We worry because we don’t have extended family or we’re at odds with most of our relatives.

We worry about our own lives and will we ever amount to anything. We constantly ask questions like, “Does my life really matter?” or “What will become of me?” or “What’s the purpose in all of this?” Indeed, if a person never consciously asks these questions, it’s only because they’ve become so engrossed in the here-and-now that any thought about deeper issues has been squelched. This situation is even more dangerous as C. S Lewis so cunningly portrayed in his Screwtape Letters.

The Reason for So Much Anxiety

We Have Turned to the Idols Our Hands
Have Made in an Attempt to Forget God

Now it is not my point here to go through a litany of reasons as to the nature, causes, effects on the human body, chemical or otherwise, etc. of worry and anxiety. It is simply to go to the root and reason for its prevalence. I think the answer is simple (though in no way simplistic): we have turned to idols and forgotten our sovereign God! In short, then, in our misguided folly and zeal—being instinctively and incurably religious—we have run after other gods (sex, power, money, happiness, whatever, etc.). But these gods are puny idols, indeed impotent, and unable to save us from our miserable plight. And now, lost in the forest, so to speak, with night descending upon us, we (our culture) have begun to run faster thinking that that will surely extricate us, like the man who thinks that by yelling louder, his foreign counterpart will understand his English better. But, can money save us from death or the death of a loved one? Can buying another vehicle stave off the guilt of a life poorly lived? Can drowning oneself in busyness deaden the pain caused by an errant child? Face it! Our gods—if they even deserve that title—cannot help us. We have turned our backs on God and summarily forgotten the One and Only true and sovereign Lord of the universe! Therein lies the cause of our deep-seated angst.

Forgetting God is a choice fraught with dangerous and many unforeseen consequences, at both the personal and national level. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his 1983 Templeton Prize address commented: “Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: ‘We have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read numbers of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by the upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’”1

The Uncertainties of Life, Anxiety, and God’s Design

The choice to forget our Maker and turn to lifeless idols leads to upheaval at the national level as well as to upheaval, anxiety, stress, and worry at the personal level. And, it is particularly the uncertainties of life that bring this sense of despair to the surface. You see, life is just predictable enough to make some sense out of, but disruptive enough to give us cause for deep concern. The same gentle breeze that cools hot summer days providing relief from oppressive heat, is the same breeze that once turned into a hurricane, is destructive and deadly. Like the relationship between trainer and Bengal tiger; there is always a sense of uncertainty in this life. And this is precisely what God has designed into our experience in order that we might reach out to him. It is in this uncertainty and reaching out to Him that we discover meaning, purpose, strength and assurance. But, forget him—his character, will, and ways—and walk a lonely road through a lonely, and what often feels like, a dangerous place. It is to live with gnawing anxiety.

But how did people living in twentieth century America develop such a deluded commitment to independence and aloofness from God? Well the answer to that question is complicated and multi-faceted. One thing is for certain, it is directly related to Enlightenment rationalism/naturalism and stunning developments in science and technology. We who live in the 20th century have benefited greatly from scientific discoveries and technological advances. I, for one, am glad that should I get my finger cut off, there’s a good chance, under the right circumstances, it can be sewn back on. But with the scientific method came the unfounded illusion (worldview) that life is purely material and that we are the masters of our destinies. The so-called “scientific worldview” has led to a misplaced optimism in human ability which two world wars and the further threat of global, nuclear conflict has only begun to dismantle. Many other catastrophes and human failings have helped in the dismantling process—for those who are listening anyway. But there are others—still the vast majority, I think—who in spite of the crumbling of unfounded optimism, want to convince us that we actually all live in one giant Burger King having life our own way. This is a lie.

Perhaps we all remember that famous quote: “Yes, lady, God himself could not sink this ship.”2 Famous last words. The sinking of the Titanic—an event published worldwide—spelled the beginning of the end for the Enlightenment delusion of living in a world in which we can completely control our destinies and where God is simply not needed or wanted. Thomas Hardy captured the bitter irony of the event well:

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the
Iceberg too.

Alien they seem to be:
Nor mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august

Till the Spinner of the Years
Said, “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two

That night in April 1914, 1493 passengers and crewmen lost their lives because of a large piece of ice, even though the Titanic was an 8-million dollar technological marvel. The point is simple: No matter what we create with our own hands we cannot overcome the burden of death or somehow extricate ourselves to a land flowing with only milk and honey all the time. It seems that this is, in part anyway, the lesson of the Tower of Babel. Therefore life without God commits us to life with our impotent idols (ships that sink) and therefore anxiety in terms of what the past means, what the present means, and what lies in wait in the future.

Again, my point thus far is simple. We have turned our backs on God and we are, therefore, practicing unbelievers. That is where our anxiety ultimately stems from and Christians have fallen into the same trap. The world is at times an inviting place, but other times it turns a severe, cold, and indifferent shoulder to our pain. The Titanic is proof enough of this; we put our best technological foot forward only to have it trampled upon. So then, life with its uncertainties fosters anxiety in our hearts and we, in our foolishness, turn to idols to make life work. But God purposely designed the world that in the midst of certainty and uncertainty we might reach out to him, not idols, for he is our highest good and the one to whom we must turn for assurance and guidance. The apostle Paul said in Acts 17:26-27:

17:26 From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, 17:27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. (NET Bible)

The fact that anxiety stems from our idolatry, that is, our misplaced trust in the figments of our imagination (so Calvin), is made clear by the Master himself in Matthew 6:24-34:

6:24 “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? 6:26 Look at the birds of the sky: they do not sow, or reap, or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? 6:27 And which of you by worrying can add even one hour to his life? 6:28 Why do you worry about clothing? Think about how the flowers of the field grow; they do not work or spin. 6:29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! 6:30 And if this is how God clothes the wild grass, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the fire to heat the oven, won’t he clothe you even more, you people of little faith? 6:31 So then, don’t worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 6:32 For the unconverted pursue these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 6:33 But above all pursue his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 6:34 So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own. (NET Bible)

Jesus says that the trust of an anxious heart is misplaced; it is idolatrous. People worship and serve money (= anything other than God) rather than the only sovereign and good God. The bottom line to Jesus’ message here in Matthew, is that life is much more than running after possessions, whether they be things one simply wants or even things one deems necessary for life—things such as clothes and food. On the contrary, life consists in knowing and trusting our heavenly Father who not only provides all those things as well (Rom 8:32), but also draws us through Christ into his kingdom to participate in his presence, peace, power, and reign (Matt 6:33; Rom 3:22-26; 14:17). Life consists in the knowledge that I was not designed to live apart from God and at enmity toward him. I cannot bear the burden of the guilt. Thus anxiety is overcome when we return to God through Christ (by faith) and trust in our Father’s sovereign and providential care for us. Only in this way is the insatiable desire to run after things cured. Anything less gives tacit approval to the idea that God is either unable to provide (impotent) or doesn’t care (cruel), or both (cf. Heb 11:6). But Jesus proclaims the opposite. God is in control and we are not. Anything less than this is another delusion of the flesh.

The Scripture, Sovereignty
of God, and Our Anxious Hearts

The Scripture resounds with the truth that God knows how to care for his people and we need not lead anxious lives. Our responsibility is to trust and obey him, confident that his grace will carry us along (Phil 1:6). The following is a list of ideas and passages that encourage us as believers in Christ to trust him more and refuse to submit to the oppression of sinful anxiety. Christ has come to inaugurate a reign of righteousness and to put an end to the reign of such sin in our lives. The point of these passages is that our gracious heavenly Father, about whom Jesus spoke in Matthew 6:24-34, is sovereign and to be trusted (i.e., He reigns unchallenged). He is sovereign:4

(1) Over the entire creation.

Psalm 103:19 The LORD has established his throne in heaven; his kingdom extends over everything.

Daniel 4:34 But at the end of the appointed time I, Nebuchadnezzar, looked up toward heaven, and my sanity returned to me. I blessed the Most High, and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever. For his rule is an everlasting rule, and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next. 4:35 All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he wishes with the army of heaven and with those who inhabit the earth. No one slaps his hand and says to him, ‘What have you done?’

Ephesians 1:11 In Christ we too have been claimed as God’s own possession, since we were predestined according to the one purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will.

(2) Over the physical world

Psalm 135:6 He does whatever he pleases in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all the ocean depths.

Matthew 5:44 But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, 5:45 so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

(3) Over the brute creation

Psalm 104:27 All of your creatures wait for you to provide them with food on a regular basis. 104:28 You give food to them and they receive it; you open your hand and they are filled with food. 104:29 When you ignore them, they panic. When you take away their life’s breath, they die and return to dust.

Matthew 10:29 Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. 10:30 Even all the hairs on your head are numbered. 10:31 So do not be afraid; you are more valuable than many sparrows.

(4) Over the affairs of nations

Job 12:23 He makes nations great, and destroys them; he extends the boundaries of nations and disperses them.

Psalm 22:28 For the LORD is king and rules over the nations.

Psalm 66:7 He rules by his power forever; he watches the nations. Stubborn rebels should not exalt themselves.

Acts 17:26 From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live,

(5) Over man’s birth and lot in life

1 Samuel 16:1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long do you intend to mourn for Saul? I have rejected him as king over Israel. Fill your horn with olive oil and go. I am sending you to Jesse in Bethlehem, for I have selected a king for myself from among his sons.”

Psalm 139:16 Your eyes saw me when I was an unborn fetus. All the days ordained for me were recorded in your scroll before one of them came into existence.

Galatians 1:14 I [Paul] was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my nation, and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 1:15 But when the one who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace was pleased 1:16 to reveal his Son in me so that I could preach him among the Gentiles…

(6) Over the outward successes and failures of men’s lives

Psalm 75:4 I say to the proud, “Do not be proud,” and to the wicked, “Do not be so confident of victory! 75:5 Do not be so certain you have won! Do not speak with your head held so high! 75:6 For victory does not come from the east or west, or from the wilderness. 75:7 For God is the judge! He brings one down and exalts another.

Luke 1:52 He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position.

(7) Over things seemingly accidental or insignificant

Proverbs 16:33 The dice are thrown into the lap, but every decision is from the LORD.

Matthew 10:30 Even all the hairs on your head are numbered.

(8) in the protection of the righteous

Psalms 4:8 I will lie down and sleep peacefully, for you, LORD, make me safe and secure.

Psalm 5:12 Certainly you reward the godly, LORD. Like a shield you protect them in your good favor.

Psalm 63:7 For you are my deliverer; under your wings I rejoice. 63:8 My soul pursues you; your right hand upholds me.

Romans 8:28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose,

Romans 8:38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things that are present, nor things to come, nor powers, 8:39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(9) in supplying the needs and wants of God’s people

Deuteronomy 8:3 So he humbled you by making you hungry and feeding you with unfamiliar manna to make you understand that mankind cannot live by food alone, but also by everything that comes from the LORD’s mouth

Philippians 4:19 And my God will supply all that you need according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.

(10) in giving answers to prayer

1 Samuel 1:11 She made a vow saying, “O LORD of hosts, if you will look with compassion on the suffering of your female servant, remembering me and not forgetting your servant, and give a male child to your servant, then I will dedicate him to the LORD all the days of his life. His hair will never be cut.”… 1:19 They got up early the next morning and after worshiping the LORD, they returned to their home at Ramah. Elkanah had marital relations with his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. 1:20 After some time Hannah became pregnant and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, thinking, “I asked the LORD for him.

2 Chronicles 33:12 In his pain Manasseh asked the LORD his God for mercy and truly humbled himself before the God of his ancestors. 33:13 When he prayed to the LORD, the LORD responded to him and answered favorably his cry for mercy. The LORD brought him back to Jerusalem to his kingdom. Then Manasseh realized that the LORD is the true God.

Matthew 7:7 “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened for you. 7:8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks the door will be opened.

Philippians 4:6-7 Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, tell your requests to God in your every prayer and petition—with thanksgiving. 4:7 And the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

(11) in the exposure and punishment of the wicked

Psalm 7:11 God is a just judge; he executes judgment throughout the day. 7:12 If a person does not repent, God sharpens his sword and prepares to shoot his bow.

Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness…3:19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God.

Thus God is sovereign over all creation, personally sustaining it at all points (Heb 1:3) and directing it toward the final consummation and the realization of his universal, uncontested Lordship (Eph 1:10-11). Since this is true we ought to trust him and his sovereign, providential goodness. Our commitment by faith to God’s promise of sovereign care, if genuine and purified by testing and the Spirit, will prove to strike at the heart of the sin of anxiety. May God make it so in our lives.

1 These comments were made by Mr. Solzhenitsyn during a speech he made upon receiving the Templeton Prize at Buckingham Palace, London, May 10, 1983. As quoted in John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993), 383.

2 Spoken by a deck hand on board the Titanic before she struck an iceberg, just prior to midnight, April 14, 1912.

3 Thomas Hardy, The Convergence of the Twain, 1914.

4 For further discussion of this list cf. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th rev. and enlarged ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 168.

Related Topics: Theology Proper (God), Spiritual Life

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