Don’t Worry Be Happy

Or Could There Be a Better Way to Address Anxiety?

In every life we have some trouble
But when you worry you make it double
Don’t worry, be happy
Don’t worry, be happy now

Bobby McFerrin sang it in 1988, and the song was a grammy award winner, so it must be the way to deal with worry. Just stop worrying. Just decide to be happy. Hmm. Or maybe not.

So if not that bouncy advice, then what? One way to get help with worry seems like no help at all at first, and that’s to ask the question, is there a link between anxiety and pride?

Maybe even asking the question seems a bit offensive. For some Christians anxiety seems like something that comes over you—from outside. It’s a mental health issue and more and more people recognize the need for mental health breaks—entertainers and even athletes have made it acceptable. The theory claims that we didn’t ask for the anxiety, so we cannot have responsibility for it.

This view is akin to anxiety being like a virus that comes from outside and makes us sick, or it’s like a genetic condition that we inherited. Some people are just wired by personality or background to be more anxious than others. In other words, we think of worry as something that happens to us, not necessarily something we do. Or at least we think of the extreme types of anxiety as coming upon us from the outside. And if it comes from outside of us, how could it be related to pride at all?

I’m using anxiety and worry as synonymous terms. Some see anxiety as distinct from worry,[1]Maybe because the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes it and therefore, professional counselors talk about it as a medical condition. but I believe that what we call anxiety Scripture calls worry. Seeing them as distinct results in Christians assuming worry is sin, but anxiety isn’t. Anxiety might not be sin in all cases, but in some it must be. The Apostle Paul says,

do not be anxious about anything…. Phil 4:6a (ESV)

And that is a command. So, we can be compassionate, sympathetic, and understand some nuance is necessary to apply Phil 4:6, but we cannot claim that anxiety is never sin. Some must be or else why would Paul command us not to be anxious about anything?

So… is it possible that worry/anxiety is related to pride? Us worriers (I’m the worrier in my family. My wife seems incapable of worry 😉 ) don’t like to consider this.

1 Peter 5:6–7 (ESV) 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.

Verse 6 commands humility and verse 7 talks about worry. First Peter 5:6-7 are one sentence in the Greek New Testament, so verses 6 and 7 have to be related thoughts somehow. Isn’t this a strange juxtaposition?

But how are humility and worry related? We tend to think of anxiety as something that cannot be helped. It’s the view of your heart being passive, rather than active. But Scripture doesn’t describe humanity that way. The Bible says that your sin comes from inside of you (Mk 7:20-23.) When it’s actually sin, it’s not something that comes upon you from the outside that you cannot prevent. When we’re talking about sin, we’re talking about something that is inside of you—it comes from your heart.

You have a dynamic heart that responds to circumstances and situations around you. Sometimes the way a person responds is with worry and anxiety. And 1 Peter 5:6-7 is saying that at least some worry is a manifestation of pride.

Is that hard to swallow? I think it might even be rude to some of us that are great worriers. If that characterization offends you, well, just look at 1 Peter 5:6-7. The humble cast their cares on God. That means the proud don’t. They worry over them.

So if worry is linked to pride as the Apostle Peter says, how might we see that link? I think there are three beliefs and three resulting accusations against God that show the link between pride and anxiety.

  • Worry is the belief that God can’t take care of it so I must do it myselfGod is impotent. [God can do lots of things, but I guess not this.]

The worrier says that were I all-powerful, I would handle this far better than God does. He’s loving and wise, but I guess not powerful. I would do it better.

  • Worry is the belief that God won’t take care of it at allGod is apathetic. [If God cared, he would deal with this. I guess he doesn’t care.]

Who will care for me if I don’t worry about these things? God will. That’s what verse 7 says. You can give him your cares because he cares for you.

Think about how astounding that claim is. What world religion teaches that God cares for you? I think only Christianity (and maybe Judaism). Islam doesn’t; Hinduism doesn’t; Buddhism doesn’t. Christianity says that God actually cares for you. Your concerns out of 7 billion people on this piece of dust we call earth in the vast expanse of the universe matter to God. Yes, they do. Put your concerns on God. He cares for you.

  • Worry is the belief that God won’t take care of it my wayGod is unkind. [God will take care of it, but he won’t consider what I want. That’s not compassionate. That’s not kind.]

We’re told to bring our cares to God in verse 7, but no one would tell his concerns to someone cruel or unkind. But someone that cares for you…. And God is kind; he does care for you. In our pride we think we are the only ones that care about ourselves, but that’s not true. God cares. And his kindness makes the difference.

These three beliefs are all actually arrogance, aren’t they? “Well God won’t handle it as I want it, so I must do it myself. I know best.” Are you god or is God, God? He is not about making your kingdom work. He wants you to submit to his providential rule in your life. He is King.

Anxiety seems like something that comes over us, but Peter makes clear that anxiety is often pride. It doesn’t come from without—our circumstances. It comes from within. You will never grow in your battle with worry as long as you won’t admit it’s coming out of your heart.

But… it’s okay because God cares for you! That’s the promise of verse 7. So we have far more than Don’t Worry Be Happy. We have a God that cares; He actually cares!


1 Maybe because the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes it and therefore, professional counselors talk about it as a medical condition.

I Hate Neediness. Do You?

My family has driven tens of thousands of miles for vacations and visiting family. We’ve driven to Florida, Maryland, Arizona, Wyoming—you get the picture. Our cars have always been iffy. We’ve never owned a new car or even a newer used car. However, we’ve also never been in an accident, and we’ve never had any real mechanical problems. We did have three flat tires within a few hours on one excursion, but that’s another story. 😉 We’ve trusted God and prayed for safety, and God has been gracious—especially with the amount of miles we have driven. One Spring break we drove from Minnesota to Maryland to North Carolina to Florida and back to Minnesota—over 3500 miles!

Last week we drove 10 hours home from Wyoming. At one point in Iowa the opposite lanes were completely blocked because of a motorcycle accident. The person was life-flighted out right from the highway. We saw the helicopter on the interstate. Less than 10 miles later we came across another accident that had just occurred where the interstate split—cars were in the opposite direction and blocking one of our lanes.

My kids are grown and we now drive to see them. They’re all over the country—from Florida to Washington State. I’m now fighting a spiritual battle that I don’t remember fighting as often when my kids were in our house. Maybe with how I introduced this, you guess I’m anxious about a car accident. No. That’s not really the case. However, my heart is anxious about a car breakdown. That’s far less serious, and yet it causes me far more angst. I pray and worry about our car having a mechanical problem on the highway. I pray, but I dream of getting a newer car that I wouldn’t have to fear might have mechanical problems. I want a dependable car rather than trusting my dependable God. Certainly it can be good stewardship to sell a car that’s too risky and buy a more dependable one. But in my heart it’s an exchange. I want a newer car because then I won’t have to trust God. That’s what I see in me.

It’s remarkably similar to why I maintain the balance in my savings account that I do. If a financial emergency comes, I will pray, but I don’t want to have to depend upon prayer. I want to know that I already have it covered in my savings. God has provided my savings, so certainly I’m dependent upon him somewhat. However, I don’t like to be unprepared. Maybe, rather, I don’t like to be needy.

Yet neediness is good in Scripture. It doesn’t seem good in my heart, but God likes it. I want to depend upon God when I know it will work out as I want. But that’s not really dependence, is it? God wants his people to call out to him. He wants them to depend upon him. If Proverbs 3:5-6 means anything, it means that.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Proverbs 3:5–6 (ESV)

Consider also,

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Psalm 121:1–2 (ESV)

I can have a full bank account and a new car, but it’s all unsuccessful if God is not watching over me. And he is.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep. Psalm 127:1–2 (ESV)

I think as a family we’re done with the long trips for the summer. We have another one over Labor Day weekend, and I will need to trust God. I need to be needy. I must know and live as if dependence upon God and not my own plans is better. God, help me love neediness.

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8 to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. Psalm 113:7–8 (ESV)

Showing Up Mattered

Every Christian who serves sometimes wonders if his or her efforts are having any effect. With some people it’s not obvious that God is working. Am I really helping this person change? Does my faithfulness really matter?

I added a Youth Ministry Concentration to my M.Div. while in seminary and the primary faculty member suggested that I teach a Youth Sunday School class at my church. He warned me, however, that this particular group of 7th grade boys was notorious. Several teachers had quit over the past year, and he didn’t want me to be another one–these boys didn’t need that. He related to me that the teacher just before me was another seminary student who naively promised the guys on his first Sunday that he wasn’t going to quit on them—he lasted about a month.

The youth pastor at my church was a friend of mine; we had worked at the same Christian camp one summer and were now in seminary together, so I wanted to help him out while also investigating if youth ministry was for me.

While my wife attended an adult S.S. class, coincidentally taught by the father of one of the 7th grade boys in my class, I made my way to my class on that first Sunday. It’s not my default to be optimistic, but I was certainly naïve. I wondered how bad could they really be? I was a little late finding my way to the classroom—this church had famously labyrinthine hallways, and by the time I got there, the boys had arrived and had locked me out of the classroom. They saw me and heard my knocking, but wouldn’t open the door. I had to get my youth pastor friend so he could unlock the classroom for me! He gave them a talking to that morning before I could even get into the day’s lesson.

On one of the next Sundays they stole my curriculum and hid it. For a while they wouldn’t tell me where it was. They were a rambunctious lot: interrupting me, not listening, intentionally creating distractions, speaking out of turn, trying to sidetrack me—it seemed they were purposely trying to annoy me. I continued to invest in them primarily on Sunday mornings, but I also went to Winter Retreat Camp with them as their counselor (they loved shooting me with paintballs!). We did work days and other teen activities together. I was their teacher for 7th, 8th, and one half of 9th grade. By that time I was done with seminary and was moving away to my first ministry. This isn’t a Hallmark story. They didn’t come up and hug me on my last day, and there are a few whose lives since then have proved they were never believers. But they knew that I didn’t quit. I was their longest serving teacher.

Picture taken on my last day teaching them.

About ten years later one of those boys that was married and on the road representing a Christian college stayed at our house. He confessed that all the boys decided that first day of class to see if they could make me quit. They literally plotted this together! It wasn’t personal; they really didn’t even know me until that first day. It’s just that others had quit, and they suspected they could make me quit too. They were, as my wife said at the time, “naughty little boys.” They were hoping to set a record for how fast I would quit; they actually discussed that. I’ve had others in that class confirm that story since then. It’s funny now, but it was certainly difficult at the time.

A surprising number of them went to seminary and into vocational ministry serving as pastors and at least one as a missionary in a closed country. Others are active in their churches. I don’t live on the East Coast where I went to seminary, but over the years I’ve run into a few of them and now we laugh about their antics. Their spiritual growth had very little to do with me; I don’t remember one lesson that I taught them those 2.5 years. But they had parents that had the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon and a youth pastor that loved them. And, most importantly, they had a God that was working in their hearts even when I couldn’t see it.

I thank God for those 7th grade boys. They taught me dependence upon God. I found out that God’s grace could keep me serving even if it were difficult. Sure, probably most people could have endured an hour a week (although several teachers that quit belie that claim) ministering to ungrateful little rascals. It wasn’t that impressive. But it is an example of God’s faithfulness to me. He gave me strength and actually joy (?!) every week as I anticipated serving them.

I was just trying to be faithful as God commands.

Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. 1 Cor 4:2 (ESV)

Faithfulness is not all that is required for effective ministry. Other attributes are important too. However, sometimes that’s what ministry is. Being faithful in the little things and trusting God even when His work seems invisible or impossible. The little things are where we show faithfulness. For those boys and for me, just showing up every Sunday mattered.

Are You Having a Good Day?

I’ll bet you’ve been asked this question or a question like it in the past week. Have you ever wondered how to answer? It seems a bit superficial for a believer to base their evaluation of a day just on how circumstances have worked out so far, right?

My wife and I worked with our kids when they were single-digit ages on what they meant when they said they were having a good day. How did they know whether it was a good day or not? As you could expect, often their criteria for having a good day included things like playing in the McDonald’s play-place or not having chores around the house.

I asked my six-year-old daughter one time if she could have a good day even if she got in trouble at school or if lunch wasn’t one of her favorite meals? She thought about it and said, “Maybe… if I got to go to a birthday party later that day too.” Her answer was different in the details, but not much different in the thought of many Christian adults. We evaluate whether it’s a good day or not by whether life goes as we planned that day.

My wife works in the student life office at the Bible College I teach at, and she has had opportunity to have this conversation with some female college students. She’ll ask them what makes a good day. Some have been surprised by the question; they’ve never thought about how God might define a good day. Recently a student answered Laura that a good day is a day when she gets all her to dos done. My wife wisely pointed out that if that’s your criteria, you are setting yourself up for failure because rare is the day when we get to check off all of our jobs.

So what’s a better evaluation? Well it can’t be based simply on fortunate circumstances. That’s how any unbeliever would evaluate their day. I like what the Apostle Paul said.

2 Corinthians 5:9 (ESV) So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.

Our ambition is supposed to be summed up in pleasing God. So it’s a good day if you can go to bed knowing that you pleased God that day.

So how does one please God?

  • Did you rest in Christ’s righteousness or did you try to earn favor with God through your work? (2 Cor 5:21) It’s an easy temptation to think our spiritual disciplines earn us God’s blessing. And since we’ve served God and worshipped God that morning, shouldn’t he make our day go the way we want it to? But the only reason God can bless you on your worst day or your best day is because you have Christ’s righteousness. Did you live today believing that?
  • Did you love your neighbor or did you have tunnel vision on your own problems? (Mt 22:34-40) I get very self-focused when trouble comes my way. Yet Jesus doesn’t tell me to love my neighbor only when my plans are thriving. During Christ’s worst physical suffering on the cross, he was able to specifically and practically love his neighbor (Jn 19:26-27). It’s often my closest neighbors—my family—that get ignored at best and blamed at worst when my plans are falling apart.
  • Did you trust God’s sovereignty or did you fret because your plans were thwarted? (Rom 8:28-29) This is the ground zero of pleasing God. Do you live what you believe? Do you hold your plans for the day with open hands allowing God to change them? Can you make plans and also think, “if the Lord wills…” (Jam 4:13-17)?

If you can answer those questions positively for any day—no matter how much suffering you experienced or how severely someone sinned against you or how many plans went up in smoke—then you had a good day.

So, are you going to have a good day today? Are you going to please God? I pray so.

Creatively NOT Trusting God

What Are Our Substitutes? What Are Our False Remedies? What’s the Almost Right Answer?

Christians know that trusting God is both important and hard. It’s a daily struggle in the little and big ways that our plans go awry. So we do some things that are the almost right answer, but we convince ourselves that they are the right answer. What are some of those? Here’s my observations.

I’m Not Worried, I’m Just Concerned–A Healthy Concern (Ps. 20:7)

Psalm 20:7 (ESV) Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Some will claim that they aren’t worrying, they just have a “healthy concern.” What does that mean? I want control. When I don’t have control over something, I worry about it. If I can get myself to a place where I have control, then I don’t have to trust God for it anymore. When I can pay my bills, I am tempted to quit trusting God for them. I see this in the Christian that does all they can do and then trusts God for what they cannot do. They don’t have control over what they cannot do, so they trust God for that limited part.

Here’s the problem: I need to trust God for even the part that I can do. I may do it wrong. I might not be as wise as I think I am. It might turn out differently than I planned. My circumstances might change, so I’m not able to do what I did before. I trust God for all of it. This is the “God helps those that help themselves” philosophy. No God doesn’t. He helps those that cannot help themselves.

So even that which I think is within my power and control, I must trust God with. I cannot depend upon my own efforts for any of it.

Any time I take the situation into my own hands and determine that I must solve this, I am in danger of not trusting God. I do need to make plans, but I cannot trust my plans (Jam 4:13-17). When I start thinking that my effort and plans are foolproof and I just need God to do the part I cannot do, I’m no longer trusting God. It might look like I am, but I’m really not.

God Will Take Care of It; I Can Sit Back–Pious Fatalism (Ps. 127:1)[1]Jerry Bridges discusses this in his excellent book, Trusting God Even When Life Hurts (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988), 107, 112-113.

This is another thing that looks like trust, but really isn’t. If God’s going to get done what He wants done anyway, then I don’t need to do anything goes the thinking. I don’t need to witness to my co-workers. If God wants them to get saved, they will get saved anyway. So I do nothing, but I claim that I’m doing nothing because I’m trusting God. I make no plans. I’m negligent with my responsibilities, but I claim it’s because I’m trusting God.

“But the knowledge of His sovereignty is meant to be an encouragement to pray, not an excuse to lapse into a sort of pious fatalism” says Jerry Bridges. Because God is sovereign, He is able to answer our prayers. He is able to use our weak efforts to accomplish great things for His glory.

God’s sovereignty is not an excuse for us to do nothing. We don’t know what God’s sovereign plan is in a specific situation; therefore, we should use all biblical means at our disposal to work towards what we believe to be a good result. While we do that, we recognize that His sovereign plan will be accomplished with or without our efforts. God’s control over all things is not an excuse to shirk our responsibilities.

Trusting God is a razor’s edge balancing act. I do need to plan for retirement for example, but I cannot trust my plans. I also can’t do nothing (unless God hasn’t provided me the opportunity to do anything) and call that trust either.

Psalm 127:1 (ESV) Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

Psalm 127: 1 reminds us that it’s not if God blesses their efforts that the house will be built and the city will be secure. The psalmist speaks as if God must do it all. Yet the builders and the watchers would be negligent if they did nothing. They must do something. Bridges says, “We must depend upon God to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We must, to the same degree, depend on Him to enable us to do what we must do for ourselves.” “There are times when we can do nothing, and there are times when we must work. In both instances we are equally dependent upon God.”

I’m Trusting God for My Preferred Result–A False Savior (Is 45:9; Rom 9:21)

Isaiah 45:9 (ESV) “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?

Romans 9:21 (ESV) Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?

This looks like I’m trusting God. I will pray really hard that what I think needs to happen will happen. I will say that I’m trusting God to see my preferred result. But I’m not really trusting God because I will be discouraged if I don’t get my result.

Anytime I am trusting God only for a specific outcome, I’m not trusting God. I am trusting what I think will save me in this circumstance. That’s why I call it a false savior.

What does this look like?:

  • We’re trusting God that He will heal our relative’s cancer. What if it’s not his will? Some Christians die of cancer? Can you trust God with that outcome?
  • I’m trusting God to provide me a husband. What if He doesn’t?
  • I’m trusting God that I will get that job. What if God wants you to have a different job?
  • I’m trusting God that this conflict with my parents will be worked out. What if it isn’t (Rom. 12:18)?
  • I’m trusting God that we’ll be able to get a house closer to the church? What if you can’t?
  • I’m trusting God that we’ll be able to have children some day. What if you can’t?
  • I’m trusting God that my brother will trust Christ some day. What if he doesn’t? Is God still good?

This really looks like trusting God to us. In fact, we even say that we’re trusting God. But what we’re really saying is that we know what the right outcome is in this circumstance and God is the One that can provide that outcome; therefore, we’ll trust Him to provide that outcome and that outcome alone. But really trusting God means I accept any outcome as coming from His all wise, loving, and sovereign hands, not just the outcome I prefer.

So I can certainly pray for my preferred outcome. But am I trusting God if I’ll only accept that outcome from Him? He knows best, and I must submit to his will; not He to mine.

In my ministry these are some of the false substitutes for trusting God that I’ve seen in my heart and in others that I have counseled. They’re deceitful because they are the almost right answer. They sound like trusting God, but they are really trusting our own efforts, or trusting our plans, or just pious laziness.

Are there any you would add to this list?


1 Jerry Bridges discusses this in his excellent book, Trusting God Even When Life Hurts (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1988), 107, 112-113.
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