Most of us know the physical and emotional ravages of anxiety. But those are nothing compared to the shocking warnings Scripture gives about the spiritual dangers. To overcome anxiety, we must be able to discern good anxiety from bad anxiety, and we must understand the spiritual dangers of the bad kind.
You Need Protection
Imagine a late-night knock on your door. You open to find a SWAT team in full gear. The commander tells you, “Don’t worry. You’re safe now. We’ll stand guard and protect you from what’s coming.” Your first question would be, “Why? What’s coming that I need protection from?”
That’s the question we should be asking when we read Philippians 4:7, because in that verse, God offers to guard us.
Guard my heart and mind from what? From the threat he just mentioned in the previous verse—anxiety.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but … let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds” (Philippians 4:6-7).
The threat God’s peace will protect your heart and mind from is anxiety. And where is anxiety produced? In your heart and mind. God’s peace is like a SWAT team sent to protect your heart and mind from your own heart and mind.
Anxiety is like spiritual cancer. Cancer is when the body destroys itself with out-of-control multiplication of cells. The bad kind of anxiety is when your soul destroys itself with out-of-control multiplication of thoughts and negative emotions.
We found in chapter one that anxiety is a gift from God. It’s a byproduct of love, it’s a sign of a healthy soul, and it shows that you care. It’s the spiritual adrenaline that powers us through life, provides the energy and motivation, supercharges our prayers, and mirrors the passion in God’s heart. Anxiety is essential for doing God’s will.
But it’s also dangerous. If you don’t have protections in place, it does damage. Even the good kind of anxiety wreaks havoc—physical, emotional, and spiritual havoc.
The physical effects are well known. High blood pressure, ulcers, cardiovascular disease, weakened immune system, muscle tension, insomnia, fatigue, respiratory problems, skin conditions—anxiety affects every system in your body.
We are also familiar with the emotional aspect. Distraction, mood swings, depression, panic attacks, irritability, obsessive thoughts.
Far worse than all of that, however, is the spiritual devastation. Ulcers and panic attacks are bad, but they are nothing compared to what runaway anxiety can do to your soul and your relationship with God.
Paul says both your mind and your heart have to be guarded. Both need protection because both can be damaged by anxiety. And for an example of how the mental distraction can cause spiritual harm, Jesus’ friend Martha is a good case study.
Case Study: Martha
“Mary … sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made” (Luke 10:39-40).
That’s understandable. You have an important guest coming, a big meal to prepare, there’s a lot of work to do to get ready—no surprise if you’re a little distracted. Perfectly normal. No one would consider Martha’s anxiety a mental disorder.
But it became a spiritual disorder because the stress she felt over the meal pressed her harder than her desire for personal, direct interaction with the Lord Jesus Christ. As a result, she forfeited what could have been the greatest experience of her life.
We found in chapter two that one way anxiety goes bad has to do with timing. When it comes too soon or stays too long.
The term for anxiety that comes too early is worry. Worry is when we import future trouble into the presence.
If a future problem requires planning or preparation today, then it’s today’s problem and we need to face it. This is good anxiety, pressuring us to take the action of planning.
However, if we don’t have enough information yet to plan properly, anxiety about it will do us no good. Jesus instructed us to leave future problems in the future.
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
If it’s too soon to make preparations, today is no place for tomorrow’s trouble. Nor is it a place for yesterday’s trouble. Once you’ve taken the action you can take and prayed hard, it’s time to let the anxiety go. Anxiety that arrives too early or stays too long is off limits. We could call that out-of-bounds anxiety.
There’s another kind of bad anxiety that’s even worse—out-of-balance anxiety. Caring too much about the wrong things. That is what Martha had.
Anxiety rises from caring, so your anxiety is a good barometer of your heart. It reveals what you really care about. A man who is grumpy and short with his wife because his team lost a game cares too much about sports and not enough about loving his wife. And if you’re more driven by earthly things than by the things of God, you love this world more than you love God.
Out-of-balance anxiety is the worst kind because godliness and sin are both defined more by what you love than by what you do. A righteous person loves what is good, and an evil person loves sin. And your anxieties tell the truth about what you love.
If a man has more anxiety when his secretary is unhappy than when his wife is unhappy, it shows his heart belongs to another woman. And if the things of this world move us more than eternal matters, our heart belongs to this world. This is why out-of-balance anxiety is the worst kind. It’s spiritual adultery against God.
What moves your emotions more—gaining a lot of money, or doing God’s will? Receiving praise from your boss, or pleasing God? Getting bad news about your health, or discovering a persistent sin in your heart? What do your anxieties tell you about what matters most to you?
Out-of-balance anxiety can ruin your life because it blocks your view of God. Hold a quarter close enough to your eye and it can block the sun. And anxiety over little things can eclipse the glory of God.
That’s what happened to Martha. She had to get the kids’ toys picked up. She was running out of flour, a broken dish—all the little worries that come with preparing for company. And she misses out on one of the greatest opportunities in all human history.
The preparations for Jesus became more important than Jesus himself.
Notice the effect Martha’s idolatrous, out-of-balance anxiety had on her attitude.
“Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40)
Her bad attitude turned what should have been the greatest moment of her life into a giant irritation. An anxiety-driven attitude can take the greatest vacation, the best family get-together, the sweetest blessings from God, the most wonderful things in life, and ruin all of it for everyone.
And it will spoil your service to God. Martha was irritable about making a meal for Jesus Christ. Anxiety will turn the grand privilege of serving the King of kings into a drudgery and burden that saps your joy and ruins relationships.
To make matters worse, attitude problems inevitably become anger problems. This is why we become irritable when we’re stressed.
It sounds like Martha was irritated with both Mary and Jesus. Selfish attitudes turn your attention inward, and you find yourself annoyed at anyone who isn’t on board with your agenda, which is usually the whole world.
This is why big anxiety over little (earthly) problems is so spiritually damaging. God designed anxiety to get us moving and drive our lives. So when the anxiety rises from the wrong sources, it steers the wrong way and can accelerate the trajectory of your life away from God’s will.
Twice Jesus gave direct warnings about how dangerous the everyday anxieties of life can be.
In Mark 4, Jesus told a parable about seed being sown in various kinds of soil. He said the seed represents the Word of God. The soil is your heart. And the goal is for the Word to penetrate your heart, germinate, and produce an abundant crop of righteousness in your life.
But anxiety kills that process. Consider this shocking statement:
“The worries of this life … come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful” (Mark 4:19).
Unfruitful? God’s Word is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword, dividing soul and spirit (Hebrews 4:12). God said, “The Word that goes out from my mouth will not return to me empty but will accomplish the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will never pass away” (Matthew 24:35). Acts 19:20 says, “The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.”
What could possibly be powerful enough to render God’s Word unfruitful in your heart? The normal, everyday anxieties of life. They can choke the work of God’s Word right out of your life, like weeds choking out crops.
Four Crop Killers
Jesus spoke of four different ways the Word can be prevented from producing a harvest in your life. The first is lack of understanding. In that case, the Word never even enters the heart.
The next two, trouble and persecution, cause you to doubt the Word.
But anxiety is different. It doesn’t make you doubt or reject the Word. Instead, it occupies a huge space in your thinking so there isn’t room for the truths of Scripture. The anxiety takes up all your emotional energy, a giant portion of your time and attention, and consumes your internal resources so there’s nothing left for God. His Word gets choked out.
The Cares of This Life
The ESV translates it, “the cares of this life.” How many cares do you have in your life? We’re worried about our relationships, family, daily chores, homework, friendships, all our stuff, health issues, shopping, finances, vacation plans, personal goals, the next election, cultural decline, traffic, what kind of hair day you’re having, problems at school, trouble at work, concerns about the kids—you could spend every waking hour thinking about the cares of this life.
Most people do. But those seemingly harmless cares can choke out the work of God’s Word in your life. All the time you spent reading your Bible, listening to sermons, and learning the truths of Scripture won’t do you any good.
Buried by Anxiety
Another place Jesus warns us about the anxieties of life is Luke 21:34.
“Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap” (Luke 21:34).
“That day” refers to Judgment Day. That’s the one day that you absolutely do not want to close on you unexpectedly like a trap.
And notice the three culprits. Dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life. Does that seem like a strange list? Does anxiety fit with those other two?
“Dissipation” is an extreme term. It refers to excessive carousing and debauchery, the most disgusting extremes of sinful excess that go along with drunkenness.
The word translated “weighed down” is used in contexts of being incapacitated by grogginess or sleep. A depraved, debauched lifestyle will put you in a spiritual stupor so that Judgment Day will spring on you like a trap. You won’t be ready.
And the normal cares of daily life can do the same thing. Jesus places anxiety with debauchery to wake us up to how dangerous anxiety can be.
No matter who you are or how much money you have, life is packed with anxieties. And Jesus’ warning is that those everyday cares can have the same effect as being buried under a mountain of vile immorality when Jesus returns.
A Sin Garden
Anxiety is one of the greatest spiritual dangers we face. It can distract you from God, cause bad attitudes, irritability, it can choke out the power of God’s Word in your life, and put you in a spiritual fog so that Judgement Day springs on you like a trap.
And that’s not all. It can also weaken your faith, sap your spiritual strength, dampen your joy, cloud your hope, diminish your perseverance, and drive you into prayerlessness, doubt, self-pity, and ingratitude.
Anxiety makes all our negative emotions worse. Insignificant difficulties feel like catastrophic setbacks. Little offences become massive assaults. Minor disagreements erupt into major conflicts.
The anxious heart becomes the soil out of which countless other sins arise. Worry about money can tempt us to covet or steal. Anxiety about what other people think of us tempt us to fear men above God. Performance anxiety can tempt us to elevate ourselves above others. Relational anxiety can make us withdraw or feel indifferent to the needs of others.
If you want to reduce your anxiety for health reasons, that’s fine, but realize there are much bigger issues at stake than your physical health. The spiritual side of anxiety is far more deadly.
What God Promises
That’s a lot of bad news, isn’t it? You picked up this book to get rid of anxiety, but all this chapter did was make it worse. Now you’re even more stressed than you were before because you realize the problem is even worse than you thought.
It’s important to understand the severity of the danger. But there is good news. Great news. You can protect yourself from all this danger. Remember the SWAT team? In Philippians 4:7 God provided something that will protect your heart and mind from the ravages of your anxiety. But in order to appreciate that protection, we must understand how deadly the threat is.
So what can protect us? The peace of God.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
The Peace of God
If we follow the steps in Scripture, the Owner’s manual for the human soul, God will give us peace that transcends human understanding.
That’s saying a lot because the human mind can understand a lot. We can conceive of what calmness feels like. We can imagine a relaxed vacation, job security, money in the bank, high self-confidence, the ability to sleep like a baby. This world offers countless remedies for anxiety, but what God promises here goes far beyond anything in this world. It exceeds anything we can even understand or imagine.
This is a peace that will not only protect your body and your mind, but also your heart. It will give rest to the troubled heart when nothing in this world can. God promises to lead you beside quiet waters, to make you lie down in green pastures, and to restore your soul.
The peace of God refers not just to peace that’s from God, but the peace that God himself experiences in his own being. This peace is a participation in the very nature of God.
How do you get that peace? We’ll take that up in chapter four. But first, it’s important to let the warnings sink in. To have success in finding the peace of God, we need to understand what’s at stake. So I urge you not to skip the godliness training exercises for this chapter.
Godliness Training Exercises
- Make a list of your anxieties that are arriving too soon, before you are in a position to act or prepare.
- List your anxieties that have overstayed their usefulness. You’ve taken all the action you can take, but the pressure isn’t going away.
- Jot down some out-of-balance anxieties. Something is bothering you more than it should.
- Are there any anxieties that are choking God’s Word out of your heart or that threaten to dull your sensitivity to spiritual things because they are taking up too much space in your mind?
- Note any good anxieties in your heart that, though they are good, they are causing problems for you.
The purpose of all these lists is to make it crystal clear in your mind where the bad anxiety in your life is. Before we learn the principles for eliminating anxiety, it’s crucial that we understand which anxieties are good and healthy, and which are deadly and sinful. Don’t be discouraged by what you’ve written. This is the first step toward the peace of God that transcends understanding.
- Begin memorizing Matthew 6:25-34. These are some of the most soothing words in Scripture for the anxious heart. You’ll be amazed how comforting it can be to simply speak these beautiful words from memory in times of stress. What you say verbally can steer the direction of your whole life (James 3:3-5). For now, begin with verse 25.
For the video of this session, click here.
 Greek merimna, the same word normally translated “anxieties.”