Humility and Anxiety

May 26, 2015

The Bible’s solution to anxiety can seem a bit strange. The Bible impresses upon anxious souls the importance of humility. In writing to Christians undergoing severe persecution, the apostle Peter guides them to a place of confidence and rest outside of themselves. We see this in 1 Peter 5:6-7. Humility is the key to overcoming fear, worry, and anxiety.

The context in which the Christians of Asia Minor found themselves would naturally lead any of us to some level of anxiety. They had been exiled from their home in Jerusalem and scattered throughout the empire. They were experiencing intense religious and political persecution in their new contexts. The details of this persecution are not entirely spelled out in the text, nor is the specific context known—though many scholars believe that the letter may have been written during the reign of Domitian, an emperor who was very hostile to Christianity.

Peter writes this letter to encourage their faith in the midst of this oppression. Peter knew how tempting it might be to abandon the faith as the pressures mounted and obedience became exceedingly costly. As their brothers and sisters were losing homes, finances, families, and even their lives, it would have been very understandable to develop some serious anxiety. Yet, Peter has a word to them about how to deal with their anxiety, and it starts with these words: Humble yourselves.

Humble Trust in God

Humility seems like a strange starting place for those who are already emotionally low. Anxiety depresses us, overwhelms us, pushes us down until we simply wear out. It seems somewhat insensitive for Peter to begin with “humble yourselves.” Yet, that is precisely what he says to these men and women experiencing persecution. Peter can say this because he knows that one of the deep roots of anxiety is a lack of trust in God. We get anxious because we do not trust in the character, power, and presence of God.

Throughout the Bible, we see the relationship between anxiety and a lack of trust. Jesus Himself makes this connection in Matthew 6. Jesus gives His disciples the command: do not worry. He supports this command with compelling reasons. He tells them to look at the birds and see how they don’t do anything to guarantee their future preservation, and yet God cares for them. He tells them too to look at the grass which has such a fleeting life span, and yet God arrays it in magnificent beauty. He concludes each example by insisting that we are more important to God than either birds or grass. So, if God cares for these things, why should we worry? Worry is rooted in a distrust of the God who cares and provides.

Similarly, the apostle Paul shows the relationship to the Romans, when he says that they have not been given a “spirit that makes you a slave again to fear,” but rather they have been given a Spirit “of sonship,” which compels us to cry out, “Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15). The Spirit that compels us to cling to God leads us away from fear. Paul says the same thing to the Philippians, writing:

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

Crying out to God is the opposite of being anxious, the apostle says. There is a strong relationship between worry, anxiety, and a lack of trust in God.

Is all worrying a sinful response to God? No. There may be some organic causes that cultivate hyper-anxiety (like heart arrhythmia, imbalances in thyroid, etc.).

But even more to the point, not all worry is sin. After all, worry is a God-given emotion that motivates us to action. I worry about losing my job, so I break the bad habit of showing up for work late. I worry about being fined, penalized, and audited, so I file my taxes on time. I worry about burning my house down so I go back home to check and make sure I turned off the oven. Worry becomes sinful when it dominates my life, leads to other sinful responses, or becomes detached from truth and reality. In such cases I must investigate more earnestly what I believe, what I want, and what I trust. That’s why Peter tells the church to quell anxiety by humbling themselves before the Lord.

Humility Surrenders Control to God

Anxiety seeks control. William Berry, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, agrees. He writes:

“The use of control is paradoxical: we believe taking control will bring us security and happiness, yet its overuse causes unhappiness, anxiety, and malaise. In the treatment of clients with addiction problems, depression, marital issues, anxiety, and anger issues a common thread is control.”

The desire for control can cultivate all kinds of negative, sinful (though Berry doesn’t say this) responses in us. Worry is related to control. Berry continues:

“Behavioral psychology purports that every behavior or action has a reward. In the case of worrying, the reward is to foresee a problem and take action. Unfortunately worrying continues when no action is possible. Worry then becomes an attempt to control, or a wish to control, what is uncontrollable” (“Let Go, Be Happy” in Psychology Today).

When we can’t control things, we worry. We worry because it gives us the illusion of control, but in reality it only escalates our problems. In this way, then, worry can actually be related to arrogance. Worry says, “I should be able to control this situation. I should be able to manage my world, my spouse, my kids, my health, my life.” Worry is frustration at our inability to be God.

So, Peter’s counsel applies: humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand. The key to right humility is to see God’s “mighty hand” correctly. For many people, humbling ourselves under God’s mighty hand sounds more like submitting to His oppressive rule. We think of it more like His heavy hand weighing us and keeping us down. In such a picture, submission seems more like God keeping us under His thumb.

But that is not Peter’s point. To submit to God’s mighty hand is to understand His great love for us. He tells the church the reason they can cast all their anxieties on God is because He cares for them (v. 7). This paints a different picture of God’s “mighty hand.”

In this case, we might think of God’s hand like that of a parent who is preparing to help their child cross a busy intersection. The child might fear the roar of the traffic, be anxious about crossing the road, and even worry that she might be struck by a speeding car. A good parent will stick out his hand and take hers, wrapping his strong fingers around her tiny palm. She submits to his hand, takes those steps off the curb, and follows his lead because she trusts that her daddy cares for her. This is what it looks like for us to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

Anxiety seeks to be in control.

Biblical counsel says submit to God, not simply because you can’t control your world, but because your world is in the hand of one who loves you greatly. Humility is the opposite of anxiety. That’s why the apostle John can say that perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Trust in the perfect love of your Savior for you, and don’t be anxious.

Question for Reflection

In battling against sinful anxiety and worry, how can you apply the truth of humble trust in God?

2 thoughts on “Humility and Anxiety

  1. Thanks, Dave! I struggle with anxiety and really need to examine how much of it comes out of a deeper trust and control issue. I appreciate the solid Scripture to anchor in as I work on it.

  2. This was great reading for me. I am on a mission to understand humility and assigned myself to read on this subject every day for a week or longer. I like the analogy of Abba Father God holding my hand and leading and protecting me as I navigate through situations which are difficult for me. In my case it in in my office where I sometimes have problems with my coworkers which makes me angry and defensive; this has given people the wrong impression of me and caused some alienation and mistrust. I am on a journey to allow God to reshape me-make me a new creature in the area of humility and personal relationships. This article is reminding me to stay humble, remember that I do not have to defend myself and that God is holding my hand and walking me through all the pitfalls and workplace gauntlets that I see everyday in my path.

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