A sermon by Graham Agnew
There’s something that unites us all today, something we’ve all experienced at one point or another. It’s inescapable and it’s brought on by a number of factors. That common bond is worry and stress.
Some may be stressed and anxious even now about a whole range of things: health, finance, relationships, some aspect of our job or career…
We all experience worry and anxiety but the point of differentiation between people is how we handle and manage stress – that certainly varies from person to person.
And it seems the levels of stress in our society is rising, with the sale of anti-depressants having doubled in the last decade.
Yes, stress management is a big issue today but for those in the family of Faith, for members of the Body of Christ, for those seeking to follow Jesus Christ, stress management has special significance and requires careful attention. The reason? Well, how we handle stress and anxiety in our lives has the potential to either strengthen or weaken our relationship with God through Jesus. It’s as simple as that…
In my work as a pastor I’ve observed the lives of hundreds of people over the years and have come to the realization that how we handle stress, from a faith perspective, will either take us to deeper levels of intimacy and reliance on God or to a place of doubt, fear and distrust.
The question is: where would you rather be? Living in defeat and despair or living in victory, joy and fulfilment? To a very large extent, these outcomes are determined by our responses, our openness to God in the area of stress management.
There are specific instances in the Bible where worry was the primary reason people missed out on the blessing of God – in a couple of instances, they actually missed out on the Salvation that was being offered.
In the parable of the sower recorded in three of the four gospels, we’re told that the seed which fell among the thornbushes represents people who hear the message but worries about this life choke the message and they don’t bear fruit.
Then there’s the incident involving the rich young ruler. Jesus tells him to sell all he has and give it to the poor. Now that’s not a prescription for everybody, but he refused to do so and the Bible says he went away sorrowful, because he was very rich.
It’s clear he was worried about the implications of losing his money.
In Luke 10 there’s the incident involving Mary and Martha in which Martha receives a firm rebuke from Jesus because she failed to see the significance of the moment; she got her priorities confused and missed the opportunity to learn from Jesus. And what does Jesus say (it’s in Luke 10:41). “Martha, Martha. You are worried and troubled over many things, but just one thing is needed…”
These are just a few examples of many in the Bible where a person’s preoccupation with worry or their inability to handle the stressful experiences of life prevented them from receiving the blessing of God. That’s why this topic is so vital.
Of course, at the heart of most forms of anxiety is fear – fear of the unknown; fear of the consequences; fear of the outcome.
If I’m anxious about flying, I have a fear the plane will crash. If I have pre-exam anxiety, I’m fearful of failure. If I’m worried and stressed at work, chances are I’m fearing the possibility of retrenchment or not finding a job if I decide to leave.
Stress in marriage can involve fear of being alone if the marriage breaks up (or alternatively, fear about the prospect of staying together!). Fear of rejection is a cause of stress in relationships, while fear of not being able to survive is at the heart of financial stress.
Stress and anxiety in relation to health leads to fear of severe illness or even death. Most forms of anxiety involve fear – that’s the enemy we have to contend with. But for the person of faith…for the one who believes in the power of God…who’s seeking to follow Jesus: the greatest weapon against fear is trust…Trust in God!
Christians make the assertion that the greatest weapon against fear is trust in God! But man, that’s a phrase sometimes used very casually, very loosely – I would even say recklessly in some Christian circles. “Just trust in God and it’ll be OK” “Don’t worry – just give it all over to God” It all sounds very spiritual – sounds like the right thing to say and, in reality, it is!
But it all depends in what we mean by trust in God. You see, trusting in God is not sitting back and doing nothing, expecting others to pick up the pieces. At the same time, trusting in God is not behaving like we’re totally bereft of the ability to think, plan and act.
This is where people say: “I’m not anxious – even though there are those trying to help me see the problems ahead in the approach I’m taking, but I’m just going to press ahead anyway. No, I haven’t studied or prepared, but let’s see what God can do.”
In other words, trusting God is not behaving irresponsibly, believing somehow God will “sort it all out”. I saw this kind of thinking at work many years ago. My church was the home base for an itinerant ministry which involved its members travelling around the country in vans. This group had very little money but would proudly declare they were operating by faith.
However, on more than one occasion, some of the volunteer mechanics from my church would check the vans periodically and find serious problems which could have resulted in tragic accidents. When the question was asked: “why wasn’t this reported earlier?”
More often than not they would simple say: “Oh, we’re just trusting God for safety, we’re trusting His provision”. Now, that wasn’t trust, it was irresponsible behaviour.
On another occasion, I recall offering counsel to a man who’d been convinced by the pastor of his previous church to significantly expand his business. The pastor had supposedly had a word from the Lord that this would be a good idea, because God would bless and reward his faith and his increased capacity in business would lead to an increase in support for the church! (how convenient!)
The only problem was the idea of expanding the business flew in the face of advice being given by the man’s accountant and other business savvy people. The move failed and the guy lost his business, resulting in an enormous amount of stress and worry.
Here’s the thing: the greatest weapon we have as Christians as we seek to cope with worry and anxiety is trust in God. However, this is not a blind, reckless trust, it’s a trust based on rock solid assertions about the faithfulness of God and his ability to provide the strength and resilience we need.
The first assertion is this: I am not designed to live in a permanent state of anxiety. Now, that’s as much a medical statement as it is a theological statement. The wear and tear on our bodies caused by stress is well documented – but the damage spiritually and emotionally can be just as severe.
Dr E. Stanley Jones was a well-known missionary and theologian of the 20th Century. In one of his most famous quotes he said this:
We are inwardly fashioned for faith, not for fear. Fear is not our native land, faith is. We are so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. We live better by faith and confidence than by fear, doubt and anxiety. In anxiety and worry our being is gasping for breath – these are not our native air. But in faith and confidence, we breathe freely- these are our native air. We are inwardly constructed in nerve and tissue, brain cell and soul, for faith and not fear. God made us this way. He concludes: To live by worry is to live against reality.
Here’s another assertion to help us manage stress (and it may seem like a contradiction): I won’t be surprised when faced with stressful situations. That’s a huge part of the battle when it comes to the control of worry and anxiety. The realisation that, part of being alive is the inevitability of situations which will cause worry.
Jesus said: “in the world you will have trouble.” Fortunately, he added: “Be not afraid, I have overcome the world.” Here’s the third faith assertion: I won’t confuse escape from worrying circumstances with strength for worrying circumstances.
The only prayers many Christians pray are: “Lord get me out of this”; “Lord deliver me from this”; “Lord remove this problem.” However, following on from this last point, about the inevitability of problems and challenges, sometimes a more appropriate prayer is: “Lord get me through this; give me the strength to bear this disappointment; to press on despite this setback…to keep going, even though I want to quit.”
In Philippians 4:13, Paul doesn’t say I don’t have to face anything because Christ protects and delivers me – no, he says I can do/ I can face ALL things through Christ who strengthens me. Here’s the fourth assertion: In God’s strength, I will try and ascertain what is my part in a worrying situation and what is the part only God can play.
Now, this calls for industrial strength trust and in fact represents the very heart, the very core of what I’ve been trying to say. Should we be praying about the stresses and strains in our lives? The answer is an unequivocal yes! Because in the process of praying we may receive insights into what we should do about the situation/how we should respond – and we’ll certainly be inviting God to do what only He can do.
For instance, when supporting someone who is looking for work, we may advise them to get out and start looking for a job, but at the same time urge them to leave room for God – for that surprise offer or unexpected meeting with a prospective employer.
There’s one final faith assertion and it’s this: I will affirm peace with God is my destiny and anything that robs me of that peace, in an ongoing way, is not His perfect will for my life. It gets back to that first assertion. We’re not designed to be burdened with stress all the time – that’s not our destiny. We are inwardly fashioned for faith, not fear; it’s in faith and confidence that we breathe freely.
Stress and worry are inevitable in the journey of life but through Jesus Christ we can find effective ways to manage these potentially harmful problems; there are a series of strong faith assertions we can make.
The final word should come from Jesus himself: In John 14:27 we read: “Peace is what I leave with you; it is my own peace I give to you. I do not give it as the world does. Do not be worried and upset, neither be afraid.”Life’s just too short to be always worried and stressed…“Father when worry and stress seem to overwhelm us, remind us constantly you are there…your peace, strength and grace are available to get us through even the toughest times. Amen.”