Some years ago, I surveyed the entire New Testament looking for instances where various Christian character traits were taught by precept or by example. I found twenty-seven. It may not surprise you that love was taught most often, some fifty times. It may surprise you that humility was a close second with forty instances. But what really surprised me is that trust in God in all our circumstances was third, being taught thirteen or more times.
The opposite of trust in God is either anxiety or frustration, and Jesus had a lot to say about anxiety. The most prominent passage in which Jesus speaks about it is Matthew 6:25–34, in which He uses the word anxious six times. We are not to be anxious about what we are to eat, drink, or wear, or even about the unknown circumstances of tomorrow. Another expression Jesus uses regarding anxiety is “Fear not” or, as some translations render it, “Do not be afraid” (see, for example, Matthew 10:31; Luke 12:7). Paul picks up this admonition about anxiety with his words in Philippians 4:6, “Do not be anxious about anything.” And Peter adds his exhortation, “[Cast] all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
When you or I say to someone, “Don’t be anxious” or “Don’t be afraid,” we are simply trying to encourage the person, or admonish in a helpful way. But when Jesus (or Paul or Peter, who were writing under divine inspiration) says to us, “Don’t be anxious,” it has the force of a moral command. In other words, it is the moral will of God that we not be anxious. Or to say it more explicitly, anxiety is sin.
Anxiety is sin for two reasons. First, as I’ve already mentioned, anxiety is a distrust of God. In the Matthew 6:25–34 passage, Jesus said that if our heavenly Father takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, will He not much more take care of our temporal needs? And Peter told us that the basis of our casting our anxieties on God is that He cares for us. So when I give way to anxiety, I am, in effect, believing that God does not care for me and that He will not take care of me in the particular circumstance that triggers my anxiety of the moment.
Suppose someone you love were to say to you, “I don’t trust you. I don’t believe you love me and will care for me.” What an affront that would be to you! Yet that is what we are saying to God by our anxiety.
Anxiety is a sin also because it is a lack of acceptance of God’s providence in our lives. God’s providence may be simply defined as God’s orchestrating all circumstances and events in His universe for His glory and the good of His people. Some believers have difficulty accepting the fact that God does in fact orchestrate all events and circumstances, and even those of us who do believe it often lose sight of this glorious truth. Instead we tend to focus on the immediate causes of our anxiety rather than remembering that those immediate causes are under the sovereign control of God.
I have to confess that anxiety is one of my most persistent temptations. It’s not that I’m a Chicken Little who is always afraid the sky is falling. Rather, my most common temptation to anxiety occurs in connection with air travel, which I do frequently. Almost always, my travel to another city involves connecting flights at one of the airline’s hub cities. Often my first flight from the city where I live to the hub is late, resulting in a tight connection to the second flight. So I am tempted to become anxious. Will I make my connection to my destination city? And usually I am scheduled to speak within a few hours after my scheduled arrival, so it’s important to me that I make that flight. (Obviously, in the course of a lifetime, or compared to other people’s problems, this is a minor issue, but for me at the time, it is a major one.)
So my agenda is to arrive at my destination city on time and get comfortably settled before I am to speak. But what if God’s agenda is different? What if God’s agenda is for me to be late for that meeting, or miss it altogether? (I have had both experiences.) Will I succumb to the temptation to anxiety and fret and fume, or will I believe that God is in sovereign control of my travel and accept His agenda, whatever that may be? As I have struggled with anxiety in this area of life, I have come to the conclusion that my anxiety is triggered not so much by a distrust in God as by an unwillingness to submit to and cheerfully accept His agenda for me.
I tend to think, Lord, it’s important that I arrive in time to speak at that meeting. The people in charge are counting on me. What will they do if I don’t arrive in time? But I have learned to say to myself, But God, it’s Your meeting. If You don’t want me there, that’s Your business. And what the people who are counting on me to be there will do is also Your business. God, I accept Your agenda for this situation, whatever that may be.
I have been greatly helped in this issue of accepting God’s providential will, or God’s agenda, as I often call it, by the writings of John Newton, whom we’ve already encountered in chapter 4. In one of his letters to a friend, Newton wrote:
[One of the marks of Christian maturity which a believer should seek is] an acquiescence in the Lord’s will founded in a persuasion of his wisdom, holiness, sovereignty, and goodness.… So far as we attain to this, we are secure from disappointment. Our own limited views, and short-sighted purposes and desires, may be, and will be, often over-ruled; but then our main and leading desire, that the will of the Lord may be done, must be accomplished. How highly does it become us, both as creatures and as sinners, to submit to the appointments of our Maker! and how necessary is it to our peace! This great attainment is too often unthought of, and over-looked; we are prone to fix our attention upon the second causes and immediate instruments of events; forgetting that whatever befalls us is according to his purpose, and therefore must be right and seasonable in itself, and shall in the issue be productive of good. From hence arise impatience, resentment, and secret repinings [i.e., complainings], which are not only sinful, but tormenting; whereas, if all things are in his hand, if the very hairs of our head are numbered; if every event, great and small, is under the direction of his providence and purpose; and if he has a wise, holy, and gracious end in view, to which everything that happens is subordinate and subservient;—then we have nothing to do, but with patience and humility to follow as he leads, and cheerfully to expect a happy issue.… How happy are they who can resign all to him, see his hand in every dispensation, and believe that he chooses better for them than they possibly could for themselves!
An acceptance of God’s providential will does not mean we are not to pray about the eventual outcome. Paul’s command to not be anxious is accompanied by the instruction to pray about whatever situation is tempting us to be anxious (see Philippians 4:6). And Jesus, in dread of His impending suffering on the cross, which far exceeded any anxiety we will ever experience, prayed, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). So it is appropriate to pray for relief and for deliverance from whatever circumstance is triggering our anxiety, but we should always do so with an attitude of acceptance of whatever God’s providential will may be and a confidence that, whatever the outcome, God’s will is better than our plans or desires.
You may or may not be frequently tempted to anxiety as I am. But if you are, can you recognize the types of circumstances that tend to make you anxious? Do you identify with me in chafing under God’s providential will for you when it is different from your own agenda? If so, I encourage you to memorize and pray over some of the texts I have mentioned in this chapter, especially in connection with any recurring circumstances you identify that tend to trigger your anxiety. Above all, ask God to give you faith to believe that His providential will for you in these circumstances comes to you from His infinite wisdom and goodness and is ultimately intended for your good. And then ask God to give you a heart that is submissive to His providential will when it is contrary to your own plans. —
Jerry Bridges, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2007), 17–19.
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