by Scott Mehl
Navigating Fear and Anxiety in the Age of Covid
Fear, stress, anxiety, worry…call it whatever you want, it’s everywhere right now. There’s nothing like a global pandemic, a government-imposed shutdown, record levels of unemployment, and civil unrest to bring anxiety and unsettledness to even the most stoic of us. And for those of us who already tend to be anxious or afraid, our stress levels have likely shot off the charts. And we haven’t even mentioned the heightened, divisive political environment that uses fear as its most effective weapon. Fear is everywhere and we are all experiencing it.
For Christians this presents a particularly difficult conundrum. Not only are we navigating a world where it seems like danger is around every corner, but we open up our Bibles and find that the single most common imperative in all of Scripture is some version of: “Do not be afraid.” This leaves many of us confused about how to think about what we’re feeling, confused about what God wants from us, and confused about how to navigate the fraught and dangerous world we inhabit in wisdom and faith.
Some seem to believe that being concerned at all about one’s physical health is a lack of faith at worst, or an act of cowardice at best. On the flip side, some seem to believe that putting one’s physical health at risk, even in the smallest way, is fundamentally unwise and unloving. And most of us find ourselves floating somewhere in the middle, confused about where to wear a mask, when to go back in to work, how often to see friends and family, and a hundred other decisions we now have to make every single day.
What we all ultimately need in this moment is less of the world’s “talking points” and more of Scripture’s light. God’s word gives us everything we need to navigate the confusing nature of life, and this moment is no exception. I believe that all of us could use a bit of clarity on how God’s word encourages us to pursue what I’ll call “godly concern” and to flee “self-focused anxiety.” When we recognize the difference between these two, we find wisdom for the journey forward.
Godly concern flows from a confident trust in God, not an insecure trust in self
Too many of us read God’s commands to not fear (1 John 4:18) and hear them as an impatient command from an exasperated Lord. But that is not the way that God intends us to hear them. They are the instruction of a loving father for his children, reminding them that since he is on their side, they have nothing to fear (Romans 8:31-39). Godly concern flows from a heart that is centered on and captivated by God. The self-focused anxiety we experience doesn’t contain such a firm foundation.
Godly concern stems from a desire for the glory of God, not preservation of self
A heart that is captivated by God possesses not only confidence but passion as well. A heart that trusts in itself will passionately pursue the preservation of itself. But a heart that trusts in God will passionately pursue the glory of God. God’s call is not for us to be disinterested or unmoved by the situations in this world. He wants us to be engaged, and passionately so.
Too often our greatest passions—and our greatest concerns—are for our own personal preservation, or the promotion of our own glory. Knowing this tendency, Jesus wrapped up his instructions on anxiety by exhorting his disciples to: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
Godly concern is focused on today, not tomorrow
Immediately after calling his disciples to “seek first the kingdom of God” Jesus sums up his entire teaching on the subject by telling them: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). If you want a simple way to identify the difference between godly concern and self-focused anxiety, the timeline of your concern is an excellent indicator. Self-focused anxiety is obsessed with the future. The problem is that anxiety is an incredibly untrustworthy prophet. Only God knows the future and only he has ultimate control over what it holds. God wants us to be concerned, but he wants us to be concerned about today. How can we bring glory to him today? Who can we love and serve today? What does faithfulness look like today?
Maybe something we do today is for the purpose of some desired future outcome. Maybe we’ve determined to make an investment today that we hope will grow larger “tomorrow.” Maybe we’ve written an article extolling the seeming benefits of one political candidate over another for an election that will take place “tomorrow.” Maybe we’re working on a large-scale project that won’t be completed until some distant “tomorrow.” These can all be good things to do as faithful outpourings of our efforts “today,” but we don’t need to spend time fretting over the outcome of the investment, the election, or the project “tomorrow.” Instead, God calls us to focus on the faithful efforts in front of us today, entrusting “tomorrow’s” outcomes to his sovereign control.
Godly concern seeks (first) the good of others, not the good of self
Evolutionary theories posit that we developed the capacity to fear as a survival technique. Fear is the natural response to perceived danger. And while fear is a natural response, it is not an arbitrary product of evolution. It is a capacity given to us by our Creator as a fundamental aspect of our humanity. It first sparked in Eve’s brain when she began to consider the thought of eating the fruit.
But like every other capacity God has given us, the greatest way to utilize our instinct to fear is not to serve ourselves but to serve and love those around us (Philippians 2:4–5). Self-focused anxiety obsesses over how to preserve yourself or how to assure that you do not lose the things you most deeply desire. Godly concern has a different aim. It longs to see the ultimate good of others, even if it comes at the cost of significant personal sacrifice. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” (1 John 3:16).
Ultimately it is this love, the love of Christ, that can free us from our fear and anxiety. The gospel of Jesus frees us from the need to preserve ourselves or pursue earthly desires. Through faith in Jesus we have been preserved forever, given eternal life, and saved from the sting of death (1 Cor 5:56-58). Through faith in Jesus we have been given every spiritual blessing and everything we could possibly desire in him (Eph 1). In this way we experience the reality that perfect love truly does cast out fear (1 John 4:18).
God reminds us of his perfect love and calls us forward in courage during this fearful season, with dire warnings and potential dangers flying by every day. He calls us to meet the challenge without anxiety or fear, but with a peaceful, patient, godly concern. He calls us to put to death that which is earthly in us: trust in ourselves, preservation of ourselves, and a focus on tomorrow for the ultimate good of ourselves. And, empowered by his Spirit, calls us to put on a confident trust in him, a desire for his glory, and a focus on today for the good of those he has placed around us.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians we hear the classic exhortation to “not be anxious about anything…,” but the power of the verse comes in what follows. It’s a call to desperate God-dependence that frees our hearts from the fear that so often takes control: “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).
May your God-dependent pursuit of God’s glory today begin with the simple, humble, yet powerful act of prayer. And through that prayer may “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding…guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:7)