Let’s just get this out of the way right off the top: Hollywood has ruined the idea of courage for the rest of us. Don’t get me wrong; I love movies, especially stories of heroism. But think about how heroes in popular movies often behave: They show no fear as they leap across gaping chasms without a rope, or walk calmly into battle zones as bullets spray and bombs burst all around them. We watch, and think, “That’s real courage.” We feel like cowards in comparison. But that’s not courage; it’s foolishness. In real life, people who behave that way die within seconds. Courage isn’t a lack of fear; it’s feeling afraid, but doing what needs to be done anyway.
I bring this up now because we’re in a time of uncertainty, which no doubt has many of us very anxious. If that’s how you feel right now, or if you are close to someone who does, please understand that the answer to anxiety is NOT “Hollywood courage.” Christians especially need to hear this, because we often misinterpret the biblical command to “fear not.” For instance, many of us love to quote Philippians 4:6-7,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
That’s a great promise, but we misuse it when we say, “Just stop worrying. Pray instead.” Quite frankly, most of us can’t stop anxious feelings from tormenting us, no matter how much we pray. That’s especially true in our current moment, when we’re all living through a crisis like nothing we’ve ever experienced or imagined. I heard an illustration in a sermon once that I’ve never forgotten. The preacher said, “I have a challenge for you. For the next ten seconds, I want you to not think about red monkeys. Alright? No red monkeys, for the next ten seconds. Ready…go.” Of course, no one could do it, because the harder you try not to think of something, the more certain that one thing–red monkeys–would pop into your mind. His point was that trying to stop worrying cold turkey doesn’t work. But there is an answer: Instead of trying to empty your mind of anxious thoughts, focus on filling it with other, better things.
Perhaps that’s why, just after Paul tells us to be anxious for nothing, he writes these words (Philippians 4:8-9):
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
I think what Paul is saying is that the God of peace doesn’t work through magic; He doesn’t make our fears go away. Instead, He works through faith. When we choose to think on the things of God instead of the things we are afraid of, we experience peace. For example look at the phrase, “whatever is true.” Anxiety prods us to think of possibilities that may never happen–“What if I get this disease? What if someone I love dies? What if I lose my job, and we can’t pay our mortgage?” It’s only reasonable to be afraid of these things, but obsessing about them does no good. But there are things we KNOW are true–“God is in control. He loves us enough to die for us. He will do something wonderful through all of this pain and anxiety.” When we are focused on those things, those “true” thoughts push out the “what ifs” that drive us crazy.
But it’s not just about what we think. It’s about what we do. As Paul says, “practice these things,” referring to the Christian life. Paul is saying, “Live the way I’ve been teaching you to live.” So read God’s Word, and put it into practice. Every day you read it, there is something in there for you to work on. Checking up on your neighbors, forgiving your enemies, being generous to those who have less, praying for those who are hurting, writing encouraging letters to people who are struggling…these are all things we can do even in a time of quarantine that will align our lives with the instruction of Scripture. When we think this way and live this way, “the God of peace will be with” us. In other words, God’s peace comes to those who obey Him. He works through faith.
But I must add one more thing: There are people among us (more than you may know) for whom anxiety is a daily struggle, even in good times. If you are one of them, I hope you are getting help from a mental health professional. There is no shame in that; anymore than a person with a stomach ulcer should be embarrassed to take an acid-blocking medication. But for the rest of us, how do we comfort our friends and family members who struggle with anxiety? Pray and listen. Pray for them to experience peace. And listen to what they say. Ask them, “What specifically are you afraid of?” Then sit and listen, without judging or trying to “fix” their issue. For instance, a friend may say, “I can’t stop thinking about what might happen if one of my kids gets this. I am just terrified.” You can certainly tell them that this disease seems to be much harder on the elderly than the young, especially kids. But even knowing that may not “cure” their anxiety. Just listen. If, when they share their anxieties with you, you can show them that you care, it is a great way of bearing their burden. Their load gets lighter, because they finally feel that someone else understands what they are going through.
At First Baptist Church, we have a vision to bring peace to chaos in our community through transforming relationships. There is no better time to pursue that vision than now!