How do you deal with worry, frustration, and discontentment? The world’s way of facing up to these universal human struggles is to accept them, fight them, or relish in them. Only a dolt like MAD’s Alfred E. Newman can deny them. Everyone has to face that worry is a part of life. No one can say, “What, me worry?”
What did Jesus teach, in Matthew 6:25-34, about how believers should respond to anxiety (worry)? It is wonderful to be able to read the words of Jesus in the gospels because it is the closest thing we have today to being able to hear his voice. I am almost hear him teach his disciples about their anxieties, which Jesus ably illustrates as pointless and foolish. In these verses, Jesus taught that we should respond to worries with faith in our loving heavenly Father. Not a blind faith, but a faith informed by creation and the evidences surrounding us that God cares for those that are less valuable to him than us. Jesus also teaches that anxiety accomplishes nothing, therefore it is useless and fruitless to spend our time and energy worrying about our needs. Again, our heavenly Father knows our needs and is faithful to take care of us. Finally, Jesus instructs us to replace our worry for earthly and physical needs with a proper heart-attitude: seeking after the kingdom of God and his righteousness. According to Jesus, when we have our heart in the right place, seeking God, his kingdom, and his righteous favor, we will have all of our needs met in the process. I find it comforting that Jesus concludes this discourse on worry by acknowledging that anxiety is real, and that we should not just ignore our needs and worries about them. He says “tomorrow will be anxious about itself” and “sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” So it is true that there are troubles in this world, and that our needs are sometimes not immediately met, which leads to fear and anxiety. Jesus knows our trials. But he also knows that our trials need the hand of God to subside, and that is in fact his promise to his children. Take a moment to read the words of Jesus for yourself:
Matthew 6:25-34 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? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. 34 Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Matthew 26:39 and Philippians 4:6-7 show us our need to pray for relief and deliverance from whatever tempts us to be anxious. Matthew 26:39 provides us a window into Jesus’ soul, and what we see is at first shocking. Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord and Giver of Life, experienced anxiety! This demonstrates that merely experiencing anxiety is not sin, but rather it is what we do with our worry that can make it sinful. Jesus bared his soul before his Father, confessing his anxious thoughts regarding his coming passion, yet gave those worries over to God, trusting himself to the care of divine providence and the predestined plan of God. He could do this without fear because he understood that God is a good God. He believed (and exercised) the principle that Paul taught in Philippians 4:6-7, making his requests known to God by offering up thankful prayer and supplication for the state of his soul. Jesus knew that to entrust oneself to the care of his Father would lead to inner peace (the peace of God). We ought to follow the example of Jesus. We ought to be honest in our anxieties and fears before God in prayer. We ought to ask God to take our worries from us, and be ever thankful for the privilege to approach him in humble boldness, with meekness and holy reverence. And we ought to expect that God will reward such spirit-filled trust in the providence and plan of God in our circumstances with the peace of Christ which will guard our hearts and minds.
But when our faith falters and our situations loom larger in our minds than God’s promises, how should we obey Jesus’ command in Matthew 6:34 and find hope in Luke 12:6? The key insight to this question is found in Mark 9:23-24. When we lack faith to believe, we must pray to God to increase our faith! Like the pitiable father of the demon-possessed child, we must cry out to God, “I believe! Lord, please help my unbelief!” Our faith is frequently weak and falters. Often our troubles and situations in life seem to usurp the promises of God, so much so that God and his word quick fade away like a feather on the gentle breeze. But we must remember that God does not (cannot!) forget his children. He even knows when the most insignificant sparrow dies. Like the hymnwriter says, we must remember that his eye is on the sparrow, and he cares for me. Our God is ever-ready to raise us from unbelief to great faith in the midst of trials and difficulties. We are commanded to believe, and to ask for strong faith to overcome our unbelief. God grants what he requires.
Psalm 139:16 says, “All the days ordained for me were written in your [God’s] book before one of them came to be”? How hard it is for us to believe this, and live like it is true. What a wretched sinner I am when it comes to me being frustrated in my plans and desires. As I write this, a good friend of mine interrupted my work to inform me that he had just finished talking to a pastor-friend and coworker in Chile who had just experienced first-hand the devastating 8.8 earthquake that shook the country several days ago. It is the first phone-contact we’ve had with our sister church in Chile since the quake struck. While they are all safe, the situation in Chile on the ground is dire, with much looting, lack of housing, and other basic supplies for human needs. Yet my first thought upon being interrupted was that I’m falling behind in preparing for this evening’s Bible Study! Argh! Even reading and contemplating the respectable sin of frustration will not cure me of it—even in the moment. So it is obvious to me that I must be changed from within by the Holy Spirit to deal with frustration, which is a sin that I am prone to in the extreme. Even the name of this blog—Dangitbill!—is a monument to glorifying frustration, making a joke of our daily and persistent frustrations with the groaning of fallen creation. But while some frustration is godly and absolutely necessary, it is the ungodly frustration (that can even be baptized to appear godly) that I must be set free from. God indeed is involved in the circumstances that frustrate my plans and desires. Psalm 139:16 is instructive in that it notes that our days are foreordained (planned out and ordered) by God, whose plan is most wise and good. Knowing this must make me trust his providentially scheduled turns in my plans. They are his will, and they are for my good, therefore I must rejoice in them, accept them with joy, and alter my plans accordingly.
Discontentment is a close relative of anxiety and frustration. Discontentment is essentially not being happy or pleased with something. People can be discontent with a situation, with a person, with a relationship, with a thing. If our discontentment is aimed at something that is not right with the world (and for that reason desiring it to be right in God’s sight), then it is likely a holy discontent. But much more often our discontentment is sinful. When I am not pleased with the way life is going, I am living in the sin of discontent. When I am not happy with the cleanliness of my home, I am sinning by being discontent. When I covet my neighbor’s car, or home, or wife, or children, or job, or status, or bank account, or reputation, or family background, or life experiences, or whatever, I am breaking the tenth commandment, which is essentially being sinfully discontent with the life God has given to me. When I do all of these things, I effectively confess that God is not a good God, and that he has not given good gifts as blessings to me to be enjoyed and that he has broken his promise to take good care of me.
Jerry Bridges writes in Respectable Sins, “It is our response to our circumstances rather than the degree of difficulty [in them] that determines whether or not we are discontent.” This is an astute observation. It is possible to be mildly discontent while shouldering a very great difficulty. It is also possible to be severely discontent with a relatively trivial trial. By God’s grace, it is possible (and commanded) to remain free from sinful discontent in the midst of either severe or insignificant difficulties. What determines whether or not I am discontent with difficulties is therefore not in the size of the problem, but the degree of grace and faith in my heart that I choose to respond with. Jesus’ words regarding faithfulness remind me of a pertinent application to the temptation to be discontent: He who is faithful with little will be given much. And he who is faithless, even what little he has will be taken away.
How might Psalm 139:16 help us in dealing with circumstances that tempt us to be discontented? Just as frustration and discontentment are related, so faith in the good plan of God for our lives is related to combating the sin of discontentment. If I am tempted to blame God and pout in his presence because I’m not happy about whatever, then it certainly helps to remind myself that God is good all the time, and that he has ordained my days (to be good for my progress in growth in holiness and sanctification) to be just so. To speak in a cliché, thinking on this verse should be “chicken soup for the soul.”
Bridges writes, “We must believe that the Bible’s teaching about these attributes [God’s sovereignty, wisdom, goodness] really is true and that God has brought or allowed these difficult circumstances in our lives for His glory and our ultimate good.” Yes, we must believe this truth, for to deny it or to practically ignore it is to declare autonomy from our Maker. He is God, we are not. He is all-wise, we are not. He is all-good, we are not. He knows how to use difficult circumstances in our lives to mold us into the image of his Son Jesus Christ for his own glory. And despite what we think about what we know about ourselves and of life, we most certainly do not.
When I evaluate my own heart struggles, I begin to notice the types of circumstances that tempt me to become anxious, frustrated, and discontented. Actually, I am generally not an anxious person, but I admit that I do become a little worried when my to-do list becomes a little too long for my comfort. I like to be in control of my life and the problems that chronically pop up. And usually I am pretty good at managing my life so as to minimize anxiety in my heart. But as I reflect on the nature of anxiety, I see that it is not situations and problems that cause anxious moments, but rather it is from my heart where anxiety creeps up. Similarly, I do not tend to be a very discontent person, but I believe that much of that has to do with the financial security that follows from living below one’s means. I’ve noticed this year as I’ve taken a internship position at my church and thus a much lower salary than my family has been accustomed to, that I am sometimes tempted to be discontent with my lack of freedom to spend occasionally on myself (or my family). When the money’s not there in the bank account to buy that new book (I love to read and collect books!), then discontentment arises in my heart. So when that has happened, I’ve tried to make it a point to repent and “count my blessings”, remembering that God has blessed me and my family greatly, and that most things that I desire I don’t really need.
But the sin of frustration is a whole ‘nother matter. I have a strong tendency to become quickly frustrated with situations and people (mostly it’s my children) when things are going according to the way I envision. In fact, my frustration sometimes boils over into anger that I take out on people (or nonsensically inanimate objects). Thankfully, by God’s grace in sanctifying me in his work to make me holy (and it must be HARD LABOR for him!), I am a less frustrated person than I was even 5 years ago. But the idols of efficiency, work-properly, and don’t-bug-me still tempt me to bow to them and worship them by giving room in my heart and actions to frustration.
God has used my anxiety, frustration, and discontentment to teach me how to deal with it, rather than vent it and later (if ever?) repent of it. Most often he uses my wife or even my oldest daughter to show me that I’m acting sinful, immature, and hurtful toward others. Sometimes God uses reading the Bible to convict me and teach me how to repent and change by relying again on the power of his Spirit. Less often (but I can still think of a couple of times recently) God has used my reading of books other than the Bible to wake me up to see with new insight my sin (especially frustration and the venting of it) in order to prod my heart to repentance. It is a humbling thing to confess to me wife that I’ve sinned against her, but it is even more so to confess to my seven-year-old daughter. But I’ve done it multiple times, and I don’t hesitate to humbly confess when I need to.
What has stuck with me most in this meditation on anxiety, frustration, and discontentment is that by giving headway to these very common sins in my heart, speech, and conduct, I am in effect declaring to God that I do not trust him with my life. For if God is in control of my life and has ordained every one of my steps from the cradle to the grave, then he must have a good plan for everything that happens to me—even those things that tempt me to these particular sins. It seems clear to me now that God is testing/refining my heart through trials that push me to either succumb to anxiety, frustration, and discontentment, or that prod me to bow at the foot of Christ’s cross and begin to bear it myself in obedient discipleship.
O Lord of my heart, thank you for declaring, promising, and proving to be in control of my circumstances. I confess that often I don’t feel the certainty that your word and character assure. This unbelief is inexcusable, and I confess that there has been no reason at all for me to doubt your providential care and goodness to me. You have proved time and again to me, and to your people through all the ages that you are a covenant-keeping God, and that you are Lord, the God who is ever in control, who has infinite authority, and who is intimately present as your dwell in the midst of us. I pray you would grant me your Spirit and divine power to respond to your faithfulness in ways that serve and glorify your name. For if not, I certainly would spiral downward into increasing wickedness, giving more and more time to anxiety, frustration, and discontent. Heaven help me! Change my faithless heart from within. Grant me a heart of flesh in place of my stony heart, so I may love, trust, and obey you. Cause me to loathe my idols of ease and smooth-running-ness that I wish to serve me. Help me to recognize when I am tempted to bow to them, and to repent and cast them aside. By your power and grace, and for your glory alone I pray. Amen.