Sunday, 8 January 2012
Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)
This sermon was preached on 5/1/2012
We are all aware that we live in a society marked by anxiety. People are worried about their finances, their families, their health, their security in the face of terrorism, their possessions because of the crime rate, and about many other things. Peter’s readers had their own concerns which affected them, although it may seem that Peter does not analyse their needs in depth when he gives them this piece of advice. So what can we say about his instruction as we approach the topic of dealing with worries.
First, Peter’s comment is a reminder of the bigness of God. It is as if Peter has a measurement tool and he compares all other possible remedies with God. The other remedies may be helpful in one or two area of concern, but they cannot deal with every source of worry. But God can, says Peter. So his words remind us of the bigness of God.
Second, Peter’s words are a reminder not to expect human leaders to be able to do what is beyond their abilities. He has just instructed his readers to obey their elders as they face the difficult circumstances they were about to enter. Those elders would do their best, but even their best is not enough. They are limited in their capabilities, even although they are shepherds who care for their spiritual flocks. But we should not regard them as if they had the caring capabilities of the Chief Shepherd.
Third, Peter’s advice reveals that holding on to our concerns is not an expression of humility. Alexander Nisbet, a Scottish seventeenth-century author, wrote: ‘Misbelieving anxiety, whereby Christians break themselves with the burdens of these cares which God requires to be cast upon him, is one of the greatest signs of pride in the world; and to trust God with the weight of these in following our duty is a prime evidence of true humility.’
When a person retains them, it indicates self-sufficiency, which is an aspect of pride in any creature. Peter links ‘casting’ with humbling ourselves. Doing so is admitting that we cannot deal with any of our cares, be they great or small in our estimation. We might admit that we should hand big concerns over to God, but we are reluctant to hand over small ones because we imagine we can deal with them, and that is an expression of pride.
The sinfulness of anxiety
What is wrong with worry? Of course, we need to distinguish between acceptable concern and illegitimate worry. Paul, for example, had many concerns about the churches to which he wrote, and these concerns were right. Of course, we know that Paul prayed about the causes of care and responded to them appropriately. It is appropriate for parents to worry about their children if they have got lost or are taking part in an exam or are being bullied at school. It is valid for an employer to be worried about his company in an economic downturn. It is normal for a sick person to worry about his health. Yet we also know that we can respond to worries in wrong ways.
First, anxiety can lead us to doubt whether or not God cares for us. Such anxiety is our opinion on divine providence and it reveals that we do not think God has the wisdom or the power or the commitment to deal with it in the best way. So when something seems to go wrong, instead of taking the matter to God, we start to fret over it and suspect that somehow nothing good can come out of the circumstances. We can easily see how Peter’s readers could have reacted in this way as they faced the prospect of persecution and its effects.
Second, anxiety can lead us to take matters into our own hands in a wrong way. Peter has already warned his readers about the danger of certain sins that were liable to appear in their difficult circumstances (1 Pet. 4:14-15). Because they were deprived of goods, there was the danger of stealing; because they were physically abused, there was the danger of responding with violence. Such responses could appear among Christians at all times of difficulty.
Another possible wrong response is to trust in the advice of humans rather than in God’s promises. If we go into a bookshop, we often find that the self-help section is beside the spirituality section. A similar proximity can occur in our lives when we place the opinions of humans above the promises of God. Of course, good advice is to be welcomed. But if the human advice is valued more than counsel of God, then we are sinning.
Third, anxiety can delude us into thinking that we are not in a world affected by sin. Previous generations were perhaps less likely to have this problem because they lived in circumstances where problems were expected. It was normal to live with poverty, ill health, and danger. They realised that humans were liable to all the miseries of this life, as our catechism puts it. Yet we are liable to them. If an earthquake occurs, the houses of Christians and non-Christians will be affected.
Fourth, anxiety can lead to a distorted perspective of events. It has been observed that in the past, when something went wrong, Christians would ask, ‘What is God teaching me in this circumstance?’ Today, even Christians respond by saying, ‘How could God allow this to happen to me?’ or even with, ‘What right has God to allow this to happen to me?’ When we respond with such questions, it is a sign that we have lost a true perspective on life.
Fifth, anxiety can cripple our souls because the concerns we have become the all-consuming focus of our thoughts and we are unable to do anything else. They are with us when we waken in the morning, and they have prevented us from getting to sleep at night. Physically we end up exhausted, and spiritually we are of no help to others because we are pre-occupied with our own concerns. And yet all our worrying does nothing to help the situation. The problems remain, and so does selfishness.
Sixth, such excessive worry is a very bad Christian witness. Can we sing Psalm 46 truthfully if we are convinced that our troubles will destroy us? The words of Psalm 23, about knowing the presence of the Shepherd in dangerous locations (the valley of the shadow of death where wild animals lurked to attack the sheep), are expressions of confidence in God. What would an onlooker say if he saw a fretting sheep walking beside its shepherd? That may happen with physical sheep, but it should not be the case with spiritual sheep. What should concern the physical sheep is how close it should keep to the shepherd, and that should be our concern as well.
The attitude of God
Peter reminds his readers that God cares for them. No doubt he recalled the teaching of Jesus on anxiety as recorded in his Sermon the Mount. He would have remembered how Jesus used birds and flowers to illustrate God’s care, and since he cared for them he would certainly care for his people. We should learn from Jesus and deduce spiritual truths from everyday events. The sun rose this morning, a reminder that God cares about his creatures. In a few weeks, we will see flowers, but they will only appear because now God is looking after the bulbs that have been planted. His providence is everywhere.
In addition to God’s providences, we have his many promises. He has promised to be with us all the time, to work everything for our good, to lead us safely through this world to heaven, to provide for our daily needs, to strengthen us when we need it, and to protect us from our spiritual opponents. Of course, in order to have the comfort of the promises, we must know what they are. I suspect that one cause of anxiety among Christians is that we do not know our Bibles. Therefore we are ignorant of its promises and of the stories of individuals whom God helped in remarkable ways.
It is also important to keep reminding ourselves of who God is. He is the faithful God, the wise God, the loving God, the forgiving God, the prayer-hearing God, the present God, the God who has planned our days with great skill, the tender God. Think of what he has done for us in Christ: chosen us, adopted us, and promised us glory. At present he is sanctifying us, making us like his Son. Jesus remains our Shepherd, our Teacher, our Intercessor, our Defender. And the Holy Spirit indwells us and wants to comfort us. Jesus gave instruction about the ministry of the heavenly Comforter when he was also aware that his disciples were going to face troubles and tribulations.
Peter stresses here that God cares for his people. He care for them as a good father cares for his children, as a good doctor cares for his sick patient, as a good guide cares for those he is leading, as a good commander cares for his soldiers, as a good teacher cares for his pupils, as a good employer cares for his workers.
How can we know that God cares for us? Make a visit to the cross and see the suffering Saviour, and you will know that God cares for us. Take a look into the records of the heavenly councils and see the triune God deciding to save you from your sins, a reminder that God cares for us. Look ahead to the eternal world of glory that is to come, with a particular place assigned for us, and we will see that God cares for us.
The activity of the believer
Peter instructs his readers that they have to cast their cares on God. Here we have a picture of prayer. He does not mean that we cast them in the way that a fisherman casts his line, keeping hold of it. Instead we cast them in the way that a child will give an item to his parent for safe-keeping. The item may not seem much to an onlooker, but both the parent and the child have a shared interest that makes the item important to both of them.
In prayer, we have to ask God to deal with our thinking processes. The fact is that most of our wrong concerns arise from wrong thinking. We are to ask the Lord to teach us how to think in each difficult situation. No doubt we can imagine one of Peter’s readers worrying about what would happen on a particular day. He would ask God to help him to think in that circumstances as a Christian should.
Sometimes, we should ask God to enable us to think about something else whenever we find ourselves having worried thoughts. Paul deals with anxious thoughts in Philippians 4:6-7. He tells his readers to pray about them, and assures them that God’s peace can be known. Then he urges them to meditate on things that are noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report and praise worthy. Frequently, worried thoughts will disappear once we start thinking about spiritual matters.
In prayer, we also have to ask God to enable us to deal with the devil’s attacks. There is a connection between our concerns and the devil’s temptations because Peter will move next to tell his readers how to respond to what Satan is doing to them. Such a request is not for information about what the devil is doing, but for God to preserve us from being led into temptation and of deducing wrong ideas from what is happening to us.
It is also the case that we should pray specifically about illegitimate worries that we have. We should take each one of them to God and ask him to help us with them. This involves time, but it is time well-spent.
Further in prayer, we have to ask God to teach us how we can apply his promises to ourselves continually. No doubt we would all accept the general principle that God cares for his people. Often what we need is the assurance that he cares for me. One of the ways in which we can help ourselves is be praying the psalms. In many of them, the psalmists have fears and we can use their words to help us come through similar experiences.