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David Powlison:

Do you want to hear a good description of what happens with anxiety? “A man who has no control over his spirit is like a city broken into and without walls.” That’s Proverbs 25:28. How do you get a grip when barbarians are rioting in the streets of your mind? Terrorist attackers, a gang of criminals, suicide bombers, cities invaded, fires everywhere, a lion in the street, chaos. Your mind loses its grip. Fear and anxiety have taken over. Nothing’s safe or certain.

Anxiety is a universal human experience, and you need to approach it with a plan. Notice this is not a formula. When Andy Reid coaches the Philadelphia Eagles, he doesn’t know a single thing that’s going to happen after the opening whistle. He doesn’t even know who’s going to kick off until they flip a coin. But he’s not unprepared. He goes in with a game plan, a basic orientation to the game ahead. I want to give you six things as a game plan for when you start to worry and obsess.

First, name the pressures. You always worry about something. What things tend to hook you? What do you tend to worry about? What “good reasons” do you have for anxiety? The very act of naming it is often very helpful. In the experience of anxiety, it seems like a million things. You’re juggling plates, round and round and round and round. But really, you’re juggling only six plates— or maybe obsessing on just one. It helps you to name the one thing or the six that keep recycling. Anxieties feel endless and infinite— but they’re finite and specific.

Second, identify how you express anxiety. Spot the signs. How does anxiety show up in your life? For some people it’s feelings of panic clutching their throat, or just a vague unease. What a huge step forward when you stand back and say, “Aha, a red light on the dashboard!” Rather than just indulging your worries, you can name them. For some people it’s repetitive, obsessive thoughts: “Oh, now that’s the fourth time I’ve repeated that scenario in my mind.” For some people the sign is anger. They get irritated, but when they work back, they realize, “I was fearful and worried about something.” For other people, worry shows up in their bodies (e.g., a tension headache) or in the cheap remedies that sin manufactures to make us feel better (e.g., gobbling ice cream, or an overpowering desire for a stiff drink). Spot the signs. How can those things become cues to you? “I’m losing it, I’m forgetting God, my flashlight is going dim.”

Third, ask yourself, Why am I anxious? Worry always has its inner logic. Anxious people are “you of little faith.” If I’ve forgotten God, who or what has edged Him out of my mind and started to rule in His place? Identify the hijacker. Anxious people have fallen into one of the subsets of “every form of greed.” What do I want, need, crave, expect, demand, lust after? Or, since we fear losing the things we crave getting, what do I fear either losing or never getting? Identify the specific lust of the flesh. Anxious people “eagerly seek” the gifts more than the Giver. They bank treasure in the wrong place. What is preoccupying me, so that I pursue it with all my heart? Identify the object of your affections.

Fourth, what better reason does Jesus give you not to worry? What were those promises we just talked about? Go back and pick one to take to heart. I listed sevenfor you, seven things Jesus guarantees about how God runs His universe. We highlighted the sixth, “Your father is God,” because it was the best of those better reasons. But they’re all good reasons. That’s why Jesus mentions every one. We’re pretty uncomplicated people. It’s tough to remember seven things at once, so pick one. For me, over the last month, the most helpful one has been, “If God feeds the crows, won’t He provide for you?” It makes me laugh even to think about it, and anxiety can’t coexist with hearty laughter! Those Crow Boys intercepted a lot of temptations to anxiety; they did me good. Grab one promise and work with it.

Fifth, go to your Father. Talk to Him. It’s not as though your Father doesn’t care about the things you worry about: your friends, your health, your money, your children, and so forth. Your Father knows what you need. You can go to Him with the things that concern you. Cast your cares on Him, because He cares for you. You’ll have to leave your worries with Him. They are always outside of your control! How will your kids turn out? Will you get Alzheimer’s? What will happen with the economy? Will you ever get married? Will there be an anthrax attack? Will your dad come to know the Lord? Will you have money for next month’s bills? You have good reasons to be concerned about such things, but you have better reasons to take them to Someone who loves you. Like that toddler whose mom trailed her, even the deep end of life is safe.

Finally, give. Do and say something constructive. Care for someone else. Give to meet human need. In the darkest hole, when the world is most confused, when there are barbarians in the streets, when life’s the toughest, there’s always the right thing to do. There’s always some way to give yourself away. The problem might seem overwhelming. You could worry, worry, worry, worry. But what you’re called to do is small, just a little itty-bitty thing. There’s always something to give yourself to, and some way to give. Jesus said more about this in Matthew 6, the parallel passage to ours: “Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day thereof.” Give yourself to today’s trouble. Be about the business of today. Leave tomorrow’s uncertainties to your Father.

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13 thoughts on “A Game Plan for When You Start to Worry”

  1. Joey says:

    By the way, not sure how intentional that you chose that play as your picture, but (in most circles) it’s called “Waggle.”

    It sets everything going one direction (a run play to the right), and then you reverse it up with a pass to the back to the left.

    I’m sure that this football/sermon illustration can be used, huh? :)

    Especially your 6th point. Especially in times when we start focusing on ourselves, that’s the time to re-direct, and focus on others (as an act of worshiping God).

  2. Greg Long says:

    “When Andy Reid coaches the Philadelphia Eagles, he doesn’t know a single thing that’s going to happen after the opening whistle.”

    I know a lot of Eagles fans that would say truer words have never been spoken.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist. This is a very helpful post.

  3. Being a serious football fan (despite my gender), your illustration about a ‘plan of attack’ on worry is great! A wonderful point you made is to become other centered and your troubles pale in significance. Check out our latest endeavor to enable to demonstrate the real meaning of Christmas at our company blog post:

  4. lois bracken says:

    my daughter in dayton had her car give out last tuesday and is looking for another dependable car .it needs to be reasonably priced she works from home 3 days a week but has to have a car 2 days.we are praying for the right car for her . i sent this item to her

  5. “Worry always has its inner logic. Anxious people are ‘you of little faith.'”

    Not always. Sometimes the amygdalae are conditioned to produce physiological responses to circumstantial stimuli outside of any conscious logic. These physiological responses often include anxiety. The admonition to be anxious for nothing begs the question that it is the anxiety that we can immediately control.

    1. Tim says:

      Great point. Anxiety caused by transitory circumstances is one thing. Anxiety that is a symptom of a medical condition is quite another. Of course, the Great Physician is the one we should rely on always, but sometimes that includes consulting a human physician as well.


  6. JB says:

    “Anxious people are you of little faith”

    Thank you for a helpful article with helpful biblical thoughts. Anxiety seems a growing hardship, including those who ‘inherit’ it from a family history. I would like to suggest, perhaps similarly to Jim Pemberton’s comment, that for those with a genetic disposition to anxiety, saying to them that “anxious people are you of little faith” is perhaps too stongly worded. These anxieties CAN coexist with a deep trust in God and yet still plague the sufferer. Sometimes such anxieties often can’t be identified within “what do I want, need, crave, demand, expect, lust after”, but are simply anxiety about feeling anxious. Your points 5 & 6 of prayer and doing good for today, are both helpful.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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