Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Worrying about Worry

I grew up in a household of world class worriers. We even learned to worry about not having anything to worry about, thinking we had forgotten some potential (and highly unlikely) tragedy that might happen! Thankfully, as you who read this blog know, I am learning a new lifestyle that is leading me, even in tumultuous times, to give up anxiety through collapse into God's caring embrace. I am still learning to rest in Him, especially right now in the midst of this great challenge with Jettie's health, but I am learning. And I want to pass along something that I think is solidified enough in me to share.

You see, I used to worry about the fact that I worried. I would read Philippians 4:6 and start feeling guilty. Most translations translate the first part of this verse with something like "Don't be anxious about anything" or "Don't worry about anything." What I was hearing Paul say here is that I should never, ever worry about anything. So...I found myself worrying about worry. So what? Well for me what that meant was that I started denying my anxiety, pretending that I wasn't worried when I was! And I got so good at this that I would often find myself unaware of how anxious I really was. This, of course, is not helpful. :-)

Thankfully, God eventually led me to discover that Paul is not saying in this passage, "Don't ever worry." In fact, a careful reading of Paul's letters revealed that Paul himself admits to worry and fear more than once (check out 2 Corinthians 7:5 where Paul writes of "fears within" and also 2 Corinthians 11:28 which the NRSV correctly renders "I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches"). And later on in Philippians, Paul clearly says that he had learned to be content in all circumstances--this clearly implies that he was not always peaceful and contented in all circumstances!

So if Paul didn't mean "Don't ever worry," what does he mean? Good question! What Paul is saying here is "Don't allow anything to cause you to go on worrying about it." Instead, he says, "When your anxiety detector lets you know that you are indeed anxious and filled with worry, make your concerns known to God, with all kinds of praying sprinkled liberally with thanksgiving for all the amazing things God has already done to reveal His love and faithfulness." In other words, Paul wasn't trying to make us feel guilty about the fact that we get anxious about things, he was simply giving us a way to walk away from our fears by pouring our hearts out to God.

I trust you see how this understanding is consistent with the rest of scripture and with a healthy understanding of life itself. Throughout scripture we hear the repeated admonition, "Don't be afraid" given to people who are indeed very afraid. It's as if God is saying, "Ok, you and I both know that you are afraid, but I want you to know that you can give your fears to me now." And this is a much healthier approach to life, I think. Instead of ignoring our fears or feeling guilty about having them, we can freely acknowledge them in God's loving presence and press into His love until we surrender them fully into His care.

Does this mean that we have to live with our fears? Not at all. We can indeed learn to live in deeper and deeper peace. In fact the "book ends" around Philippians 4:6-7 are practices that can help us be less prone to worry (live joyfully, live gently with others, live with increasing awareness that God is near as vv. 4-5 say, plus live in a way that your mind begins to dwell on the good, the positive, etc. as vv. 8-9 say). But even with these bookends more in place, there will come things that test us beyond previous things, and if we are honest our first response when it is a really big test may indeed be fear/anxiety/worry. But we need not worry about being worried. Rather we say to God, "Daddy, I am afraid!" and then patiently unpack our fears in His presence, surrendering to Him in an atmosphere of gratitude and wonder, until that incredible and "irrational" peace comes.

Still learning,

Tom, one of Abba's children

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