I might have thought that the long, steady march of sanctification would mean I’d only see progress against sins, struggles, and temptations. But I am learning that there may be some areas where I actually experience a kind of regress. One of these is anxiety, for the older I get, the more I find myself prone to it. I dare say I may struggle with worry more now than I have at any other time in life.
What’s especially frustrating and disheartening is that much of what I worry about and much of what keeps me up at night is minor and inconsequential. One night last week I laid awake for hours fretting about what pants to wear for an occasion that’s coming up. Another night I tossed and turned endlessly as my mind raced about a minor decision I’ll need to make six months from now. There are some big things too, of course. But so many small things. And together they highlight just how weak I really am.
I guess I should’t be surprised. I’ve often studied Ecclesiastes and especially chapter 12. I’ve often expressed my view that this chapter contains a kind of universal biography that describes each one of us. Through the metaphor of a broken-down house it describes the decline and decay of the aging human body and mind. In the Preacher’s poetic words we see the eyes growing dim and the ears losing their ability to hear, the hands beginning to tremble and the legs becoming increasingly unsteady. And then this: “one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way.” That seems to speak to fears and anxieties that plague the mind and interrupt a good night’s sleep.
Now I’m not saying that the author of Ecclesiastes had someone in mind who was merely in his late forties as I am. But I am saying that he was sketching out a realistic perspective on aging and indicating that we are all on the trajectory toward it. And just as it is natural to have the aging body be afflicted with physical weakness, it is natural to have the aging mind be afflicted with emotional weakness. Just as you should count on losing some teeth (“the grinders cease because they are few”), you should count on losing some resilience. Just as you should count on your hair going white (“the almond tree blossoms”), you should count on your confidence getting weak. Life will beat you down in body and mind and leave you not only weak, but facing new struggles, new trials, new temptations.
So what are we to do? What am I to do when my mind is racing, when my heart is troubled, when another night is quickly slipping away? There are many strategies for coping with anxiety and each can be effective in its own way. But I am partial to one I came across in a dusty old book from a different era. Anxiety, after all, has plagued every generation of Christians.
Charles Ebert Orr has counseled me to speak to my anxieties and tell them that if they are going to take up residence in my heart and mind, they are going to need to first secure permission from the owner of my heart and mind. In other words, if those worries want to trouble me, they’ll need to get the nod from Jesus. It’s simple counsel but clever, and effective, and true.
Have you given your heart to the Lord? Have you given him ownership of your body and mind and all that you are? Then anxieties have no right to take up residence unless the Lord grants them permission to share what is rightly his. Sinful humans were barred from the Garden of Eden and gentiles from the temple of Jerusalem because these were the places God had chosen to dwell. Today he dwells within his people and he is no more willing to share his dwelling now than he was then. And certainly he is not eager to share it with worry, anxiety, fretfulness, fear.
What we need to both understand and practice is an active resistance to anxiety—an active resistance that will compel us to cast our cares upon the Lord. It is not enough for a fisherman to stand passively with a hook in his hand. It will do him no good to stand on his boat and pray, “God, please put a fish on my hook.” He must cast it into the water if he is to catch a fish. And it is not enough for us to lie passively in the dark wishing that God will take our anxieties from us. It may not be enough even to pray, “God, please take them.” We are told to cast them upon him. And we can do this by speaking to our anxieties and telling them they are welcome to stay only if the owner grants them permission. For in speaking to them, we are really speaking to ourselves, we are really reminding ourselves that we have been surrendered to the Lord who rules and reigns, the Lord who grants peace and rest, the Lord who surveys every square inch of his people and declares “Mine!”