By Martin Carey
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious for your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on, for life is more than food, and the body more than clothing” (Lk. 12:22–23).
She sat very still in her chair across the room, her face without expression. “The attacks come suddenly without warning,” she said. “My heart races, my chest hurts, and I can’t breathe.” She was a young mother who stayed home with her baby while her boyfriend was mostly gone, supposedly working. She had no outside help, no social life, and no church family. The panic attacks at 1:00 AM finally drove her to seek help from a therapist. I was fresh out of graduate school, eager to apply what I had learned, and on that day, I was to be tested.
We looked over her life situation as I tried to show concern for her suffering. With a new baby, a self-absorbed boyfriend, and a sense of being abandoned by everyone, her life was bleak. I encouraged her to remember her friends and family, to get enough sleep and exercise, and I referred her to our psychiatrist for possible medication. Although she answered all my questions and seemed agreeable, I worried for her safety. Gently questioning her intentions, she denied wanting to hurt herself or her baby. Her mood never seemed to change, though, and her fear and despair filled the room. This session wasn’t going well; I was clearly out of my depth. I was selling therapeutic cough drops to someone dangerously choking in deep water. After the session ended, she left and never returned.
As a secular therapist I didn’t have the answers the desperate young woman needed. A more skillful counselor may have helped her feel better, but at a deeper level, something important was missing. We mental health professionals are taught to offer solutions—retraining worried thought patterns, talking to friends, deep breathing, exercise, and good diet, and these may bring temporary relief. When our solutions are exhausted, however, the deep roots of our anxiety remain, only to sprout up again and again.
Now I know what I didn’t know that day long ago: the real solution for emotional despair must strike anxiety’s spiritual roots.
The Impossible Command
We will look closely at Luke 12 to find some answers to this human dilemma of worry and anxiety. We don’t choose to be anxious—to feel weak, worried, irritable, and out of control—but those feelings can overwhelm us. We live in a perilous world with our media constantly streaming disaster, crime, and suffering. In the midst of it all, we desperately need real answers. Jesus’ words still ring out, “Do not be anxious for your life!” How can His words help us, and what do they reveal about our needs?
It is common knowledge that anxiety is an affliction of the mind that brings suffering. Merriam-Webster defines anxiety as “an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate).”1 Anxiety’s symptoms are not only troubling to us; others also suffer when we are impatient and irritable. In our therapeutic culture we like to say, “Don’t judge me!” We resist others’ moral judgments, especially on how we express our emotions. But remember that guy on the freeway? He expressed his anxious mood with his car, cutting suddenly into your lane. You felt he was wrong, and you delicately said so.
If we are honest, we know that emotional responses to stress are deeply moral. They cannot be separated from our motives nor from our trust in God, and we all fail those tests that trigger our anxieties.
Now as a Christian professional, I am convinced that many followers of Christ who suffer from the strongest forms of anxiety need our understanding and prayers. Some anxiety conditions, such as panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, can have severe effects on ordinary life functioning, such as earning a living or caring for children. We may even thank God for psychotropic medications, small gifts of common grace to help with our physical symptoms. Changing our brain chemistry may alleviate pain, but bad chemistry is not our root problem. Anxiety is a soul problem that needs regular doses of faith, repentance and forgiveness, trust in God’s promises, and living obedient lives.
Nevertheless, it may also be God’s will not to remove some afflictions, but to show His power made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:7–10). Sometimes the Lord teaches us to trust Him and to act with integrity instead of rescuing us from our pain.
For all of us, life is hard and dangerous, so who can avoid anxiety? Jesus anticipated our objections to His commands not to worry or to be anxious, and as the One who bears our afflictions and carries our sorrows, He is most sensitive to our pain. Furthermore, He doesn’t just give us commands and then step back to watch us struggle. He knows our minds better than we do, and He knows exactly how to help in every crisis. He is always there to supply all our needs (Phil. 4:19). In Luke 12:22–23, however, Jesus teaches us why we don’t have to be anxious.
First, let’s look at the words. What did Jesus mean by “anxious”? The Greek word used in Luke 12 is merimnao. It means to be distracted, fractured into parts, and to be over-concerned with cares and troubles.2 That word gives us a clue about the spiritual battle underneath our suffering—we worry because we forget what is truly important. This passage is not focused on our body’s reactions or even our feelings of apprehension. Our Lord is peeling back our self-protective layers of worry and revealing that underneath our fears is a lack of faith.
How Much More!
Jesus knows what anxiety feels like, and He offers strong medicine, not merely suggestions to feel better. In this passage, He gives us the ultimate reasons not to worry.
First, life is much more than food and clothing, the stuff of physical life. The Greek word used here for life is psuche, which means your soul life, your core self. We can worry a great deal about the ingredients of our food and whether it will contaminate our bodies, but life is greater than any physical ingredients, Jesus says. Our true life, who we are as persons, is much more than what we eat or wear!
Second, God is sovereign. He rules over all the earth’s creatures and cares for the least of them. How much more will He care for His children! We are much more valuable than birds or flowers. He is also sovereign over our lives, especially when we are born and when we will die. We cannot add one hour to our lifespans by worrying, as many people try to do. All of us have an appointment with death, set by God Himself. Before we were born, all the days that He formed for us were already written down in His book (Ps. 139:16). God reveals this reality not to depress us, but to give us confidence in His loving care. His sovereign rule of our lives is much better than ours could ever be, so we are to be grateful.
God’s sovereign care over us, however, does not mean we are to be reckless with our lives and health. As Jesus says in Luke 12:30, He knows what we need in order to live; it’s important to Him, and He lovingly supplies it. Nevertheless, Jesus isn’t teaching us to be fatalists, but to trust our heavenly Father who holds our eternal life in safe keeping (Jn. 10:28–30).
A third ultimate reason not to be anxious is that we are not pagans. “The Gentile nations eagerly seek after these things.” We should not act like people with no God, constantly chasing after material things—food, clothing, and money, as if those things defined the good life. The pagan gods are worshiped for the purpose of getting things and reaching success in this life.”3 Our Father truly cares for us and offers us a life much more abundant than a big house, a luxurious car, or the best food. When prosperity preachers teach us that we can live our “best life now,” they are talking like pagans. The nations without God anxiously seek these things. We have a Father who knows what we need to live.
A fourth ultimate reason not to worry is that our greatest pursuit in life is the kingdom of God and His righteousness. In the gospel, we learn that the infinite, perfect righteousness of Christ is counted as ours. The sinless One was made to be sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21) who have faith in His sacrifice for our sins. We can add nothing to His righteousness, for it is complete. Then as justified sinners, our faith in Him is lived out in righteousness towards everyone around us, living as citizens in His kingdom here and now. That is “the good life” we pursue first. Then, He will add those other things.
The Father’s motive is very personal. “Fear not little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” This is a picture of how our Father looks at us, like a little flock of sheep, vulnerable and weak, but greatly loved. We remember the good Shepherd pictured by Isaiah:
He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young (Is. 40:11).
It is His joy and pleasure to give His kingdom to His sheep, so why are we so desperate to chase after things that will decay, depreciate, or be redistributed? A wiser investment is to store up treasure in heaven by giving to people in need—without fear.
What we treasure most reveals where our hearts are set. If we treasure Christ more than anything we own, we have something we cannot lose. We must ask ourselves, what do we love most?
Casting All Our Burdens
We saw how Jesus’ great answer to our anxieties in Luke 12 is the sovereign care of our heavenly Father. Every aspect of our lives is in His hands, so it is not rational to worry about our lives here. In short, anxiety is irrational for Christ followers! So why is this so hard for us? Peter gives us some inspired wisdom into the psychology of anxiety and its link to pride. He urged church leaders not to be domineering to the members, and for younger members to humbly submit to their elders. But then he says,
Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Pet.5:5b–7).
“Clothe yourselves” uses a Greek word that suggests putting on a servant’s apron or sash that showed everyone a person was there to serve. That servant-apron is for all of us to put on, regardless of our status.4 What does this humility look like? Does it mean to lower ourselves by pretending to be weak and incompetent?
No, we are to estimate ourselves with “sober judgment,” according to our “measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3). We tend to be very concerned, even anxious, about how much respect and service people owe us. The humble person, by contrast, is more concerned with how she is showing concern and honor to others. Most important, prideful people are resisted by God in a very formidable way, as with military force. There is no winning a prideful battle with God!5
How can I arrive at church in the morning, ready to show my humble attitude and behavior? Not easily! This humility requires divine power, and Peter tells us how we access that grace. Instead of putting on our royal robes of pride, we humble ourselves, for God “gives grace to the humble.” He has given us this instruction:
Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
Notice the chain of thought, “Humble yourselves…casting all your cares.” How do we humble ourselves? By casting all our cares and anxieties on Him, the one who cares for us. We have to throw, fling, give over, or cast, all our cares on Him. Peter is citing Psalm 55:22,
Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved.
This phrase, “cast your burden,” is rich in the original Hebrew. It literally means that we cast our lot, our burden that has been given to us, on the Lord. Our “lot” is the burdensome circumstance in which we find ourselves.6 The ancients would cast lots as we would throw dice, tossing pieces of wood or stone randomly to obtain answers to difficult problems. They hoped for their god’s help in obtaining a truthful answer.7 We remember those brave sailors casting lots, trying to save Jonah, and God guiding their lots to find Jonah’s guilt. However, the Psalmist never gambles with his troubles. He says simply, cast your situation on the Lord, and He will sustain you. His children never cast their fortunes on chance.
Flinging our troubles on God is humbling, because we want to feel competent and handle things ourselves. The Greek word in 1 Peter 5:7 for “casting” is used in one other place in Scripture, when Jesus arranged to enter Jerusalem on a colt as recorded in Luke 19:35:
And they brought it to Jesus, and throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it.
The donkey was a humble beast of burden, and the disciples were able to cast their cloaks on that donkey that faithfully carried the Lord. The King of the Universe is also asking us to fling all our burdens on His back so He can faithfully carry them. Jesus has made it clear that those worries are not our load to carry, no matter how strong we think we are. He asks us to humble ourselves by bringing to Him all those anxieties, without hiding any from Him. If they bother us, they concern Him. We are to name each one and tell Him we cannot carry them. He promises to take them all, right now. We may feel low and depressed now, but notice His words (1 Pet. 5:6). He has promised that He will lift us up again at the right time.
Facing the Roaring Lion
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world (1 Pet. 5:7-8).
I was raised to greatly fear Satan, and I mean really be afraid of what he could do to me. Before I went to bed, I wanted the closet door shut and the night light on. I was trying to resist and be watchful by keeping lights on and my eyes wide open, but really, I was just scared. There wasn’t much reassurance in hearing those Ellen White passages before bedtime. I didn’t know the weapon of God’s word.
The devil does prowl around like a hungry lion, looking for victims, as Peter says in this text. He is much smarter and stronger than we are. Are we to fear him? No, not if we resist him, being firm in the faith. What is that faith that makes us strong to resist so powerful an enemy? Peter tells us in the first chapter:
According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Pet. 1:3–5).
The death and resurrection of Jesus is ours to claim by faith alone. He dwells with us, and we have his promised inheritance as a living hope. That inheritance cannot die, be defiled, or fade away. It is kept safe for us forever. The gospel gives us that assurance. God promises to guard us by His power, no matter how bad things are, for salvation at the last day. Even scared little boys can effectively use God’s promises to wield as a mighty weapon in the dark.
What does Peter mean by “sober and watchful”? The sober man does not allow anything to dull his awareness or distract him from approaching danger. The Bible does condemn being drunk with wine, but Peter is warning us of spiritual dullness. We can be drunk with pride in our own strength and importance, as he mentions in the previous verses. Pride is a kind of spiritual stupor, for proud people are out of touch with reality. The more we inflate our own importance, the more we will minimize very real dangers. The sober and watchful believer, therefore, is the humble believer who knows his weakness for sin and trusts in God.
The devil also attacks our confidence in God and our hope in the gospel promises. Jesus promised never to allow anyone to snatch us out of His hand (Jn. 10:28). Our adversary the devil is the slanderer who attacks us by accusing us day and night (Rev. 12:10). He tries to break our trust in God’s word, in His promises, in His love for us, and by attacking our assurance when we are most vulnerable. He will try to convince us that God doesn’t really love us and that our guilt is greater than God’s forgiveness. When he attacks, draw out a sharp weapon from its scabbard, such as this:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).
When we resist the slanderer with such a fierce weapon, he will flee from us (Jas. 4:7). And finally Peter reminds us, we are not alone in our suffering. There are brothers and sisters all over the world who suffer the same way. A good answer to our fears is to pray for those who are suffering, and claim God’s promises for their faith and courage. That way, we will also be strengthened.
One of the hardest worries to bear is the anxiety over the salvation of our loved ones, especially our children. When they have grown into unbelieving adults while showing no inclination toward the gospel, even after our tearful prayers over the years, our hope reserve can become very dry. We believe in the priesthood of all believers (1 Pet. 2:9), especially as parents on behalf of our children, so we never stop interceding for them. We can ask God to do whatever it takes, no matter how difficult, to bring them to Himself. Ultimately, salvation is the miracle of God bringing the spiritually dead to life. No matter how effective we may have been as parents, only God can call the dead to life (2 Cor. 4:6). The salvation of our loved ones is in His sovereign hands, so we keep giving that burden over to Him.
The Prayer of Anxiety
Paul must have understood as well as anyone how it feels to be lost and hunted, with all his resources gone. He wrote his letter to the Philippians from a Roman prison. We could say Paul was an expert on offering up the desperate prayer. Even so, in chapter 4, we find a wonderful model of prayer for those overcome with anxiety. Paul knew that when we feel overwhelmed with apprehensions and troubles, we are likely to be unreasonable, irritable, ungrateful, and vulnerable. He begins his lesson on anxiety by saying, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice!” This is no easy assignment, but that is the command. Then he tells us, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” Being reasonable means gentleness, moderation, self-control—another difficult assignment! But then Paul gives us the most impossible command, and the gold standard of prayer that shows us how it all becomes possible, even for the most-anxiety ridden.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God (vs. 6).
As in Luke 12, the word “anxious” means to be overly concerned, distracted, even torn apart by troubles. Instead of our feeling overcome with them, however, we take them to our Father in prayer. The prayer is humble, honest, child-like, and holds nothing back. “Supplication” in the Greek describes a heart-felt petition that arises from deep, urgent, personal need.8 In God’s presence, we fully disclose what is burdening us, no matter how uncomfortable or foolish it makes us feel. We have to own our total dependency on Him, even as we can expect His daily mercies to us (Lam. 3:32). We fully surrender all those burdens to Him, knowing that He will make them His burdens. Then, we always include thanksgiving for His care for us, and that we know He always “acts for those who wait for Him” (Is. 64:4).
What can we expect after such a prayer? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). The peace that comes from God will become a mighty fortress for us, even though we cannot fully understand or analyze how it works. It is divine in origin, and it is real. All the mindfulness therapy in the world cannot bring us that kind of peace; this is a unique gift from Him who loves us.
Living The Good Life
When we imagine the perfect life, we tend to think of a stress-free existence with no threats of suffering or losses, no uncertainties, in a place that provides everything we could ever want. Most of our modern thinkers would heartily agree. The Psalmist did not share that philosophy. His ideal life was much simpler, and much more ambitious:
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple (Ps. 27:4).
The one thing he seeks above all is not edible or wearable, and it will not build his social status. He wants to be in that one place where he can dwell with the Lord and gaze on His beauty. David didn’t have to wait until death to visit God’s temple and gaze on His majesty. When he visited the tabernacle tent and witnessed the bloody sacrifices held there, he understood those services as a vision of God’s glory. He saw animals being violently offered on the altar; he saw the cost of sin answered with blood.9 David faintly saw in symbols what God would do, once and for all, to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Heb. 9:26).
David was confident He was granted what he needed more than anything he had eagerly sought after. He had access to God’s presence:
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you (Ps. 63:2).
God’s design for our troubles is complex, painful, and perfectly designed to prepare us to live with Him. At the end of all our troubles, when all our worries are finally taken out of our reach, anxiety will cease forever. Waiting for us on the other side will be the one Person who is able now to bring us fresh mercies for each of our troubled days.
When Mary, Martha’s sister, left her serving duties to sit at the feet of Jesus, Martha’s frustration and anxiety drove her to ask Jesus, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone?” Jesus answered her,
Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her (Lk. 10:42).
The one thing that is necessary is the best of all, which we will never, ever lose. Life is so much more than what our felt needs demand here; our life is a Person. There is nothing better than knowing Jesus, because He is infinitely more glorious than any other gift that we could ask from Him. He will be waiting to greet us by name, and with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and the vast crowd from every nation, we will sit down and listen. With Him, our joy will be complete. †
- Merriam Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/anxiety
- Helps Word Studies, BibleHub, http://biblehub.com/greek/3309.htm
- Kevin DeYoung, 7 Reasons Not To Worry, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevin-deyoung/the-cure-for-worry/
- Meyer’s New Testament Commentary, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_peter/5-5.htm
- Vincent’s Word Studies, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_peter/5-5.htm
- Benson Commentary, http://biblehub.com/commentaries/psalms/55-22.htm
- Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible,
- Helps Word Studies, http://biblehub.com/greek/1162.htm
- Tony Reinke, “Why Do We Envy the Wicked?”