Being an adult is easy. It’s like riding a bike—except the bike is on fire, and you’re on fire, and everything is on fire and you’re in hell.Anonymous
Looking back on my life, I should have known it. But there I was somewhere in my early twenties with far too much on each of the multiple plates I had spinning, and suddenly the plates began to fall. What I can see clearly now is that most of my life has been characterized by stress, by nervousness, by “generalized anxiety disorder.”
After I took some time to really reflect on all of this—and to process it as a spiritual issue in my heart, rather than a physical issue in my body—I realized that (at least for me) my anxiety wasn’t really an anxiety issue; it was a control issue. So, when a drone strikes has everyone talking about World War III, when the stock market plummets, and when a new viral strain is bringing countries all around the globe to a standstill, I start to panic; because I am not in control of any of these things.
I don’t have a hot take on the Coronavirus. I don’t have any new tips for how to germ proof your home. I have a few Biblical truths I repeat myself when I am feeling overwhelmed, stressed, anxious, and—yes—powerless.
1. I am NOT in control
The biggest thing I had to get over to move away from the unlit parking lot of crippling anxiety into the safe harbor of functional anxiety is the fact that I’m not in control. Here’s what I’ve learned: I am not in control and neither are you.
But when something bad happens we feel less in control—why is that? It’s because we’re all under the illusion that we’re actually in control of our day-to-day lives. We function so well within our routine that we begin to think that keeping a schedule, balancing the checkbook, and eating healthily puts us in the driver’s seat. One of the most liberating experiences I have ever had was the moment I realized that all of this was an illusion—that there are infinitely many variables all flying around my little, narcissistic world just waiting to crash into each other at breakneck speed.
What if the biopsy doesn’t come back benign? What if the Republican/Democrat wins the presidency? What if North Korea starts firing off missiles again? What if they run the red light and you don’t see it in time? What if the tornado hits your home? What if your loved one doesn’t recover? What if the bills keep stacking up? And on and on I could go—none of these things are under my control, and yet I have felt so powerless in the past year because all of these things have been a possible reality and there was nothing I could do to change any of them.
2. I am NOT in control, but that’s okay
In our hearts, I think we all know we’re not in control—but it’s seeing this simple truth as a good thing that’s challenging. Because even though we know we’re not in control, part of accepting our powerlessness is surrendering rather than trying to control everything anyway.
Think about the what-ifs I listed above. How many of those things would you trust yourself with if you could control them? Do you actually think you know best in those circumstances? Do you know the potential chain reactions that deciding something today has on another person born fifty years from now? And those are just the decisions you’d have to make for your circumstances—are you powerful enough and smart enough to answer those questions on a global scale?
No, you are not. I’m not either. Even if we could control our circumstances, we’d just mess it up—if not for ourselves, for someone else… for everyone else. There’s a reason we’re not in control; it’s because we’re not God.
At the end of a long line of suffering mixed with really bad counsel, Job cries out to his friends that he just wants a chance to plead his case before God. “Oh, that I had one to hear me! (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!) Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!” (Job 31:35, ESV). Chapters later, God answers Job and challenges his puny, human perspective over and over again. Here’s a brief sample, but you should reread Job 38-41 to see just how comprehensively God shows his power:
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, 11 and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’? “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? It is changed like clay under the seal, and its features stand out like a garment. From the wicked their light is withheld, and their uplifted arm is broken.Job 38:4-15, ESV
Question after question, God reminds Job that he is human. Though Job is made in the image of God, he’s not God; he’s a created reflection of God’s glory. These chapters are an unending barrage of reminders that Job is not in control, that he is not big enough, strong enough, old enough, wise enough to be in control. Because Job is not God. You are not God. I am not God.
3. I am NOT in control, but that’s okay, because God is
Though we are not in control ourselves, the good news is that someone is. There is a God who is big enough, strong enough, wise enough and powerful enough to comprehensively rule and reign over his creation. When I say that God rules and that he reigns, what I mean is that the Coronavirus didn’t catch God napping. To state the matter very plainly, this is not—as many of my brothers and sisters from other denominations may say—something that God allowed to happen; it is something that happened because God decreed it1.
For I am God, and there is no other;Isaiah 46:9-10
I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose,’
I think the difference between God allowing things to happen and God ordaining or decreeing them to happen is important. It’s certainly important if you are looking to find a burial site for your anxiety by resting in the sovereignty of God. A god who merely responds to the brokenness of the world is not all-knowing and all-powerful. He would be a god who is working in conjunction with some other “bad” cosmic force, a god who we don’t know for certain will come out on top in the end—this is not a god on whom you can cast your all your care and anxiety, because this is not the God of the Bible.
The God of the Bible says that he, “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11), that he “forms light and creates darkness, makes well-being and creates calamity” (Isaiah 45:7), that he decides every roll of the dice (Proverbs 16:33), and that he is before all things, created all things and holds all things together (Colossians 1:15-20). He doesn’t have partial sovereignty. He doesn’t seek approval or reelection. He is God, and he is God on his own terms.
4. I am NOT in control, but that’s okay, because God is, and He’s good
If you’ve been following my progression of thought, you may be wondering how this becomes good news. I’ve admitted that I’m not in control, that I would ruin things if I were in control, and that God is in control and the only being capable of exercising this control. But that’s not a good thing if God is not himself a good god; He is.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges people to not be anxious by demonstrating the goodness of God (see Matthew 6:25-34). Jesus explains that the birds of the air don’t grow their own food, nor do they store up food in barns—God feeds them. The lilies of the field don’t adorn themselves in beauty of their own making; they don’t spin cloth or sew fabric—God clothes them; he makes them beautiful. And God counts you as infinitely more valuable than the birds he feeds and the grass he clothes. He knows our needs and he meets them. Our task is not to be anxious, but to seek Him.
What has made all the difference in my anxiety is trusting that God is in control and that he’s good—even when things are really, really dark. To find rest in him, we must believe that God is big enough to work in the midst of the darkness he has ordained; that’s how we come to trust him during troublesome times. After all, the single greatest miscarriage of justice and arguably the darkest moment in recorded history took place when Jesus Christ was crucified at the hands of sinful men. Yet, we read in Acts 4:27-28 that these men were doing exactly what God’s hand had predestined to take place. Not only that, this was the moment used by God to accomplish redemption for his elect (2 Corinthians 5:19).
God is purposefully working at all times because he never ceases to be God. He never relinquishes his throne—not for any king, not during any war or plague or natural disaster, and certainly not for me, not for you. He is always God, and there is great comfort to be found in knowing he is God and trusting in his goodness.
1 I find confessional theology to be helpful here. The 1689 Baptist Confession well summarizes the idea of God’s decrees. It’s available at this link: https://www.arbca.com/1689-chapter3