What could I say? We are looking at a number of pastoral issues which different people struggle with. In each case we are asking two questions. What does the Bible have to say on the subject and how does the Bible help? This will be useful to anybody who is battling with that particular issue. And then we will think about what could we say as Christians to help somebody else who is wrestling with that problem? This will help us to help other people. Last week we thought about dealing with guilt. This week our subject is anxiety. How should we cope with worries? And what could we say to somebody who is burdened with anxiety?
Worry is that sense of insecurity, unease, and fear over what might happen in the future. It can be a very unpleasant emotion. Worries are a natural part of everybody’s life. Their beneficial function is to help us to think ahead so that we can cope better with all kinds of situations and avoid lots of problems. Worrying is useful when it stirs us into appropriate actions. But inappropriate or excessive worrying can impair our functioning and even leave us incapable of responding to genuine problems.
In general conversation people tend to use the words worry and anxiety, being worried and being anxious to mean the same thing. Counsellors and therapists tend to make a distinction to say that worrying is normal and neutral and harmless but anxiety is a bad and damaging thing. Sometimes our worries are rational. At other times some people have worries which are completely irrational. Sometimes our worries are completely unrealistic. As we saw last week about guilt, sometimes worry is unwarranted, or inappropriate. Sometimes worry is exaggerated or disproportionate. Sometimes worrying can become damaging and debilitating. When it gets out of control, this chronic worrying is given the label of anxiety.
Anxiety presents itself in a number of common signs and symptoms. These include feeling nervous, or restless or tense. Having an increased heart rate and/or breathing rapidly. Sweating or trembling. Feeling weak or tired. Feeling a sense of impending danger, or panic or doom. Having trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present cause of concern. Sometimes people experience what are termed anxiety attacks. More generally, anxiety can affect a person’s self esteem and their mental health. It contributes to stress and can cause burn-out. Anxiety is aggravated by all the pressures of modern life and particularly by rapid changes.
People worry about different things. One survey by the Daily Mail compiled a list of the Top 10 things people worry about, starting with the greatest. 1 Work. 2 Money. 3 Being late. 4 A friend or relative’s health. 5 Our own health. 6 Relationships 7 Missing a plane or bus. 8 Not waking up to our alarm. 9 Our appearance. and 10 our family’s safety.
Another survey found that the top worry people had was just about generally growing old and about what life will be like in retirement, and about the prospect of death. That survey also said that with regard to work, people worry about job security, especially if their job becomes more demanding or is going badly. People worry about changing jobs or finding a new job or meeting work deadlines. As far as money is concerned many people are worried about paying their bills, particularly the rent or the mortgage, in the face of increasing costs and inflation. They worry about debts and credit card bills, about their savings and their financial future. In relationships people worry about whether their partner still loves them, Whether they will find the right partner or whether they are with the right partner. Am I a good parent? Am I raising my children properly? People worry about a friend or family member they’ve fallen out with.. People can be worried not only about their immediate health but also the long-term expectations of their own health, and as well the health of loved ones, including pets. As far as appearance goes, many people are worried about their body shape, or their diet. People worry about wrinkles or ageing appearance and whether or not they are attractive. Especially as folk get older, many are worried about the area they live in and particularly about crime.
So if you find that you are worried about any of the things I have just mentioned – take comfort. You are not alone! Studies show that at any one time maybe as many as 1 in 12 people are struggling with serious anxiety.
So what could I say? When we are trying to help somebody who is trapped and burdened with anxiety, we will begin by listening sensitively to their problems so that they know that somebody else cares and understands. This is the starting point to “bear one another’s burdens”. We will pray for them and offer to pray with them. Next, we will try to help them recognise that some of their problems may be apparent but not real. We will try to help them to stop worrying about things that are not worth worrying about. We will want to reassure them that worry is NOT a sin. Being anxious is NOT a “lack of faith”. We must make absolutely sure that we NEVER add to the burdens other people are facing by making them feel guilty that they are worrying!
Then we will try to help the person to find the right way forward for them in their situations. Sometimes this may include helping them to recognise and come to terms with situations where there is actually nothing they can do. But often when somebody is worrying about something, the difficulty is that their anxiety is preventing them from seeing the obvious solution to their problem. So we help them to find practical answers to their situation. Their solutions – not the solutions we might impose.
For example, when worries are about money or debt the best thing to do is to work through the person’s finances with them so that they have an accurate picture of their situation. If you don’t know how to do that with them yourself, ask a friend who does, or point them to Citizens’ Advice Bureau or to one of the Christian groups which can help, like Christians Against Poverty. Often the financial problem is not as big as the person thinks it is. Then help them create a plan and a budget to help with their immediate financial situation and with longer term planning. When a person is feeling anxious then seeing a way forward is very helpful.
When a person is feeling anxious about their job, good communication with their employer is vital. Sometimes extra training can help, or clearer expectations. Sometimes the support of a friend who is in the same line of work can really help, especially somebody who has aleady battled through the same challenges and succeeded. Or sometimes the best advice can be that the person should start looking for a different job, but ideally not leaving where they are until they have found one.
Very many people, some would say half of us all, worries about personal relationships. These can be romantic relationships, or relationships with family, or friends, or colleagues or neighbours. In any relationship, good communication is essential. If a person is worrying about a particular relationship, talking through their concerns with a trusted friend can often help. Don’t be slow to suggest that a person struggling in a relationship might benefit from a discussion with the minister. Sometimes the best way forward will be professional relationship counselling, and not just for couples but in some circumstances for families too.
When people are worrying about their health or that of their loved ones and even of their pets, do encourage them to consult the relevant professionals. When they are worried, some people become too scared to go to the doctor. Nowadays the abundance of medical advice on the internet can actually aggravate that problem. People become worried that they are suffering from all kinds of weird illnesses when usually a visit to the doctor would give them peace of mind, some simple medication and a rapid cure. If people do become ill, we must stand by them and support them through any treatments they might need. And if their deepest worry is about dying, we can sensitively share with them our Christian hope.
I have one more practical suggestion for all kinds of anxiety, especially if people are experiencing what are called anxiety attacks, with rapid breathing or elevated heartrate. You can learn a variety of coping techniques, from breathing exercises to taking a walk to meditation to stroking the dog or the cat. With practice these and other techniques can help people regain their calm and tranquillity and help people to see their problems and worries in proper perspective.
What could I say? When a person is gripped by anxiety we will try to help them to work through their worries. Where possible we will help them to find practical solutions and to practice helpful coping strategies. We will also be ready to encourage them to find help from whichever professionals are relevant to the issues they are grappling with. If nothing we say or do seems to be helping, then we will definitely want to refer our friend to professional help of their GP, or an anxiety counsellor or a clinical psychologist. Of course, all of these suggestions are things which any person could offer to another friend. So are there any distinctive things which Christians can say and do to help a friend trapped by anxiety?
We should point people to what Jesus said about worry and anxiety.
Matthew 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. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?
Jesus said that we should not worry about material things like food and clothing, because God knows what we need and he will never fail to provide for us. More than that, Jesus said,
27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
Worrying does not accomplish anything. Instead we should simply put all our trust in God.
28 ‘And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith. 31 So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
Again Jesus is saying that God our loving heavenly Father will provide for all our needs.
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Frequently people find themselves worrying about what is going to happen in the future. They worry about things which they can’t do anything about. Often it turns out, the things they were worrying about never actually happen. Another survey looked in detail at the things people are anxious about. It found that
40% of people are worrying about things that will never happen.
30% are things about the past that cannot be changed .
12% are things arising from criticisms by others, which are mostly untrue.
10% are worries about health, which only gets worse with stress and worry.
In only 8% of cases are people worrying about real problems that actually have to be faced.
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
Jesus encourages us all not to worry. So does the apostle Peter.
1 Peter 5 6 Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. 7 Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
We had a whole sermon on this verse last summer. It is a wonderful promise to cling to and well worth learning off by heart.
Good News Translation “Leave all your worries with him, because he cares for you.”
J.B. Phillips “You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him”
We can give all our worries and anxieties to God because he cares for us. He loves us with a love which never lets us go. In the midst of our worries we can experience God’s amazing peace. For that we need to bring all our anxieties to God in our prayers.
Philippians 4 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, 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.
We need not be anxious because we can always pray. This is a present imperative, keep on presenting your requests to God. Not just one prayer but continuing praying, persisting in prayer. Keep on handing your anxieties to God in prayer.
Message Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray.
For Christians, God’s answer to anxiety is prayer. I read this slogan on Facebook this week.
“Worry is a conversation you have with yourself about things you cannot change.
Prayer is a conversation you have with God about things He can change.”
As we hand our anxieties over to God, his wonderful peace will guard our hearts and minds.
Sometimes we can help people find their way through their anxieties. Sometimes nothing we can say or do seems to make a difference and they need professional help. We can cast our cares on the Lord in prayer, trusting in God’s provision, faithfulness and love, and this can help us as Christians to cope with anxiety. But sometimes there are problems which have no solutions and anxieties which seem impossible to let go of. If we are anxious about something which we cannot do anything at all about, we need to learn to let it go. For situations like that, I leave you with this short but profound prayer.
God grant me
the strength to change the things I can change,
the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen