God’s providential care for His people is seen on every page of Scripture. Jesus forbids excessive anxiety about life, for it betrays mistrust in the loving care of our Father. Inordinate concern for our worldly affairs uncovers who we really trust. Jesus directs our gaze to our heavenly Father’s care for the well-supplied bird. If He cares for them such that they boast more glory than Solomon, should we not be confident that He will supply our every need (Matt. 6:28–30; see Rom. 8:32)? Jesus further reminds us that excessive worldly anxiety is futile (Matt. 6:27). But Christ’s prohibition is accompanied by a comforting alternative, as Calvin notes: “Though the children of God are not free from work and anxiety, yet we can properly say they do not have to be anxious about life. They may enjoy calm repose because of their reliance on the providence of God.”
In that one word lies the key to living faithfully with nagging anxiety—providence. The Heidelberg Catechism defines providence as “the almighty everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth, with all creatures; and so governs them, that . . . all things, come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand” (Q&A 27). Our anxiety, then, is not by chance—it is not an accident. It comes from His fatherly hand. Do you believe that? We must if we are to squelch the grip of paralyzing fear. If properly framed and handled, anxiety affords an opportunity to cultivate dependence on and warm communion with the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3–4). Richard Sibbes tenderly proposes, “If we consider from what fatherly love afflictions come, how they are not only moderated but sweetened and sanctified in the issue to us, how can it but minister matter of comfort in the greatest seeming discomforts?” Paul gives an account of his affliction—a thorn placed in his flesh that God refused to pluck out. Instead, He comforted His servant: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul therefore resolved to boast gladly in his weaknesses, “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7–10).
The painful snare providentially accomplished the Lord’s redemptive work in and through the Apostle. So also our weaknesses can drive us to greater love for the Savior and distaste for the things of this world. Flavel offered this hope to the incessantly anxious and despondent Christian: “God’s wisdom has ordered this affliction upon His people for gracious ends and uses. He uses it to make them more tender—watchful, attentive, and careful in their ways, so that they may shun and escape as many occasions of trouble as possible. This is a barrier to keep you from straying. In great trials, that which appears to be a snare might be to your advantage.” Advantageous anxiety? How? First, Flavel continues, “illnesses of body and distresses of mind serve to embitter the comforts and pleasures of this world to you. They make life less desirable to you than to others. They make life more burdensome to you than to others who enjoy more of its pleasure and sweetness.” What’s more, they “may facilitate death and make your separation from this world easier for you. Your lives are of little value to you now, because of the burdensome clog that you drag behind you. God knows how to use these things in the way of His providence to your great advantage.” Second, anxiety drives us to closer communion with God: “The greater your dangers, the more frequent your approaches to Him will be. You feel the need for everlasting arms underneath you to bear these smaller troubles, which are nothing for other people.” Third, as Paul teaches, the Lord displays His power through our weaknesses. Therefore, Flavel concludes, “Do not let this discourage you. Nature’s infirmities might make death less terrible. It might drive you nearer to God and provide a fit opportunity for the display of His grace in your time of need.”
Counterintuitively, reframing our outlook on besetting anxiety from a burden to a fit opportunity is a significant breakthrough in living free from anxiety. The more anxieties come, the more occasions we have to cast them onto the One who cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).
John Bunyan, having admitted that “to this day” he experienced anxieties of the heart, concludes his autobiographical account with a curious perspective:
These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with; yet the wisdom of God doth order them for my good. 1. They make me abhor myself. 2. They keep me from trusting my heart. 3. They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness. 4. They show me the necessity of flying to Jesus. 5. They press me to pray unto God. 6. They show me the need I have to watch and be sober. 7. And provoke me to look to God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world.
We would expect the mighty English Puritan to end his memoir with a word of triumph and victory. Instead, what do we find? The thorn is still there. But so is the Savior.
Bunyan—like Luther and Spurgeon—believed fervently that the wisdom of God orders our afflictions and weaknesses for our good (Rom. 8:28). Painful anxieties afforded him a fit opportunity to fly to Jesus, who sympathizes with our infirmities (Heb. 4:15), carries us (Ps. 28:9; Isa. 4:11), and shows forth His sufficient grace through our weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9).
Whether anxiety is an occasional guest or a constant companion, we’re not alone in our battle. The Lord will not forsake His heritage (Ps. 94). He’s ever-present with His people, bringing comfort to the weary and brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18). Let us encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11), stirring one another up to love and good works (Heb. 10:24) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), reminding one another that the battle with fear, anxiety, and melancholy will cease. Until then, we strive by God’s grace to be faithful, temperate, and hopeful—for the day is coming when the anxiety-induced pit in the stomach will be a distant memory, and so too will be the remnants of sinful distrust. Indeed, tears, pain, mourning, and night itself will be no more (Rev. 21:4; 22:5).