Martin Luther said famously: “Temptations, of course, cannot be avoided, but because we cannot prevent the birds from flying over our heads, there is no need that we should let them nest in our hair”. Apparently, the quotation originally referred to the lusts of the flesh, but it could equally apply to the matter of anxiety.
Anxiety, on one level, is simply a physiological response to changes in one’s natural environment. It is part of the “fight or flight” mechanism that prepares us to respond to threats to our survival and has no moral quality in and of itself in that sense.
Why then does Jesus forbid us to be anxious?
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25 ESV)
Part of the challenge for us in interpreting passages like this has to do with the difficulty of translation. The old King James Version used to render the Greek word merimnao as “take no thought” as in:
“Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” (Matthew 6:25 KJV)
The issue has to do with excessive focus and concern over matters with which God has proven himself trustworthy. D.A. Carson says helpfully:
“Fretting about such things betrays the loss of faith and the perversion of more valuable commitments”.
Fretting about things as if God cannot handle them and as if God is not in control of them and as if God cannot be trusted to administer them wisely for the end of his own glory and our everlasting good is sin; momentary discomfort due to a dramatic shift in personal circumstances is not. Our feelings have been affected by sin, but they are not in and of themselves sinful provided we respond to them and correct them, when necessary, in faith.
That is precisely the movement we observe in Psalm 77. There had obviously been a shift in Asaph’s circumstances. We don’t know what it was though it was clearly disconcerting to the Psalmist. It left him momentarily disoriented and depressed.
“In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. When I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit faints. You hold my eyelids open; I am so troubled that I cannot speak.” (Psalm 77:2–4 ESV)
Asaph admitted that initially the change in his circumstance troubled him. His soul was unsettled. He endured a sleepless night. He didn’t know what to think or what to say.
Had the Psalm ended there – or had Asaph lingered there – his actions would no doubt have been considered sinful. But he doesn’t linger there. Rather he begins to wage war upon his situational anxiety.
Then I said, “I will appeal to this, to the years of the right hand of the Most High.” (Psalm 77:10 ESV)
This is the turning point in the Psalm.
Asaph realizes that he must somehow get beyond his immediate perspective. He must take a wider and longer view. He must contemplate reality through the lens of eternity. He must look at who God is and what God has done across the ages.
That is how you mediate your way out of situational anxiety!
In verse 11 Asaph outlines his intended course of study:
“I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your wonders of old. I will ponder all your work, and meditate on your mighty deeds.” (Psalm 77:11–12 ESV)
Willem Van Gemeren says here:
“The psalmist chose his words carefully so as to create the impression that he is reflecting on the Lord’s works in their great variety: in creation, redemption, judgment, and salvation”.
The tonic was effective. As Asaph considered those things, his initial anxiety disappeared and was replaced by gratitude, worship and faith:
“Your way, O God, is holy. What god is great like our God? You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.” (Psalm 77:13–14 ESV)
This is the way commended by the Psalms. We must not merely shout platitudes at ourselves or at our brothers and sisters in Christ when facing legitimately destabilizing changes in our natural environment.
“Be anxious for nothing!”
That isn’t really what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 6 and it generally doesn’t help our friends and loved ones who are feeling anxious.
“Fret not yourself because of circumstances”; “Look not to yourself and to your troubles”; that might be helpful and that is closer to what is modelled for us in the Book of Psalms.
It is not a sin to ‘feel anxiety’ during a pandemic. It is not a sin to wonder what in the world is going on. Feeling like that is as natural as feeling a chill when a cloud momentarily obscures the light and heat of the sun. But you mustn’t linger in that feeling. You mustn’t fret over the change in your circumstance as if it and not God were in control. You must push back and you must wrap yourself in the thick, warming truths of Almighty God. W.S. Plumer says fabulously here:
“Good men know what a tormentor discouragement is. They flee from it. They war against it by resorting to the higher truths of religion”.
It is not a sin to be in the battle – but it is a sin to surrender.
Resort to the higher truths of religion. Speak to your soul about the nature and character of God. Remember his works, his wonders, his acts and his deeds across the ages. Remember creation and redemption; remember the cross and the empty tomb.
Think about those things!!
Muse and meditate upon those things.
And you will find rest for your soul – thanks be to God!
To listen to a recent podcast on Psalm 77 see here. The entire library of Into The Word episodes can be found on iTunes. For the most recent episodes see here.
 D.A. Carson, Matthew Chapters 1 Through 12 in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 179.
 Willem Van Gemeren, Psalms in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Volume 5, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1991), 502.
 W.S. Plumer, Psalms (Edinburgh: The Banner Of Truth Trust, 2016), 740.