We’ve all been there. Maybe we inexplicably woke up in the middle of the night and the thoughts came. Maybe they came out of nowhere in broad daylight. Maybe some situation in life got things going. Maybe it was a good situation. Maybe it was a hard situation. Whatever the starting point may have been, and it could have been anything, we are anxious. We are scared. We are worried about tomorrow. With that comes guilt. We know we are not supposed to be worried and anxious. So more fear and more guilt. However, now the fear isn’t just that something might go wrong tomorrow, now it’s fear disguising itself as certainty that when it does, it’s because God is out to get us. Perfect fear is driving out love, or it’s trying to anyway.
When all of this starts, when we dream up some scary future or face some real challenge, when the anxiety comes for whatever reason, we only have so many options for how we can respond.
We can start arranging our life and everything in it in order to avoid the situation. In this way we make ourselves slaves to the fear and anxiety.
We can start arranging everything in our life in order to brace for the situation we see as inevitable. In this way we make ourselves slaves to fear and anxiety.
We can resign ourselves to the pain, do nothing, and just sit in our fear and anxiety about the future, letting them have their way with us. But this also makes us slaves to fear and anxiety.
We can start trying to take control of everything and everyone around us, calling it spiritual-discernment or self-discipline or something else false but pious sounding so no one can fault us. Yet another way we make ourselves (and everyone around us) slaves to fear and anxiety.
We can try and find an escape: booze, drugs, and porn seem to be the big three. Or, if we are lucky, something seemingly more positive like productivity, making money, having fun, or good food might do the trick. Or maybe we actually escape, on a vacation, where more booze, food, and fun than is acceptable in normal life is overlooked. In all of these ways, we make ourselves slaves to fear and anxiety.
But there is another option. We can confess. I don’t mean we can apologize or grovel because we have gone and gotten anxious again. I mean we can confess. We can be honest. We can tell God how scared we are. We can say things like, “I am scared to death. I don’t think you see me. I definitely don’t believe that you can handle this situation. I know I can’t, and I’m the one actually in it. It feels like I’m screwed, like there is no way out. I’m pretty sure you are just waiting for one misstep so you can smack me good. I think it is all on me. I feel like I am being ripped apart from the inside out, and I don’t think you care all that much.”
We don’t have to leave things in general terms, either. We can say exactly what we are scared of. Maybe it has to do with our spouse or kids. Maybe it’s our job. Maybe it's finances. Maybe it’s not knowing how to handle a difficult relationship. Maybe we think God won’t give us the grace we need for what he calls us to do. Maybe it’s how embarrassed we are because we feel like we are so much less than everyone around us. Maybe it’s how ashamed we are because we are actually sinners. Maybe we’re mad at God because of something that has happened to us. Maybe it’s all of those things.
Honest confession is modeled for us throughout the Psalms. David calls out,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night but I find no rest” (Ps. 22:1–2).
That’s honest. And David keeps going on like that for eighteen verses. Go read it. It’s astounding.
What does this kind of honest confession do for us? It brings us into the Fatherly care of God. In a similar Psalm we read,
“Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never permit
the righteous to be moved” (Ps. 55:22).
These words of encouragement come after words like,
“My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me” (Psalm 55:4–5).
However, for some of us, confession itself is anxiety inducing.
What’s more? Jesus picks up on the idea of casting our burdens on God and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and by burden is light” (Matt. 11:28–30). Likewise, Peter, writing to a bunch of Christian who have been forced to leave their homes, says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:6–7). These verses are calling us to honest confession. That’s how we cast our burdens on Jesus.
However, for some of us, confession itself is anxiety inducing. Admitting our false beliefs, failures, and fears, naming the promises of God that we don’t believe, being honest with God may seem scarier than the hell of the fear and anxiety we’re trying to deal with. Indeed, when we forget who our God is, confession itself can drive us to fear. So, we need to remember what we know about God. We need to remember that God loved us while we were still sinners, and the Father sent his Son to die for us while we were still sinners. We need to remember that he is not going to stop loving us now or take Jesus away just because we aren’t getting it all just right. We can let go of that fear. Even better, we can know that it’s God’s perfect love that is driving out that fear and leading us to rest in Christ, not our flesh. Our flesh will never drive out fear; it’s far too self-protective for that. Our flesh will never lead us to rest in the finished work of Christ; it’s far too self-promoting for that. When fear is driven out, it’s always God’s perfect love. When we are being drawn into the rest of Jesus, it’s always the Spirit.
John talked about confession in this way, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This of course includes confessing our false beliefs, which is what we are really talking about when we talk about anxiety and fear. Honest confession brings us into the fatherly care of God where we are always greeted with grace, mercy, peace, love, and forgiveness in Jesus Christ.
The Bible repeatedly calls us out of anxiety and into the fatherly care of God. In Matthew 6, Jesus commands us not to be anxious, but I think many of us read Jesus’ command in Matthew 6 about not being anxious in the wrong way. We read it as a finger-wagging command. That gets the nature of Jesus’ instruction all wrong. We should read it as a permissive command. Before you say that’s an oxymoron, let me explain what I mean. A finger-wagging command is like when one of your parents would see the state of your room and say, “Get in here and clean this room up right now.” A permissive command is when, on Christmas morning, they would say, “Okay, it’s time, open your presents!” Both of these statements are commands, but one is giving you permission to enjoy a blessing. When you read Jesus’ teaching about not being anxious in its context, it becomes clear that he is not finger-wagging. Jesus is not saying, “You better not be anxious, or else.” He is saying, “Guess what? You don’t have to be anxious. You don’t have to worry about that. Your heavenly Father knows that you need it, and he will provide it. Go to him.” Jesus’ command to not be anxious is a Christmas-morning permissive command: “Go and open the gifts that await you. When Jesus commands us not to be anxious, he is calling us into the fatherly care of God, and the entrance into that fatherly care is honest confession.