Pray Your Way Out of Worry

Worry is sin.

Most of us probably don’t believe that. And even if we do, it can seem near impossible to quit worrying. For some of us, it seems like a normal part of life.

There are other sins in life that have clear, practical steps that can be taken to stop. If you struggle with drunkenness, don’t keep liquor in your house, and never go to the bar or a place that serves alcohol. These clear steps will make a radical difference.

But with worry, the steps do not always seem as clear and easy. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a switch on your mind or heart that you could simply flip to a “stop worrying” setting? Worry is a more complex issue than drunkenness or other sins, but still, God’s word does have something to say to our worry.

Playing God

There certainly is a righteous way to be concerned for people and events: Paul praised this in the Philippian church (Philippians 4:10). However, we cross the line into sinful worry when we begin to think or feel that it is up to us to guarantee a good result. Someone has said, “Obedience is our responsibility; results are God’s.” When we start to take the responsibility for a certain set of results off of God’s back and place it onto ours, we are worrying.

In one sense, when we worry, we are trying to play God or at least momentarily do his job. That will never work out well. Your soul is not strong enough to bear the weight of running the universe or even one small corner of it.

To worry is to have a conversation with yourself about something you can’t do anything about. After we’ve done all we can in a day to be faithful, we should go to bed and rest. And yet often we lie awake, sweating and worrying about what will happen next, replaying hypothetical situations in our mind of what might happen and how bad it might be.

From Worry to Worship

In Philippians 4:6–7, Paul commands us not to worry about anything. Instead, we are to pray. That seems too simpleminded, we might think. But in reality, Paul is telling us exactly how to combat worry. If worry is a conversation we have with ourselves about something we can’t do anything about, then prayer is a conversation we have with God about something he can do everything about.

Whenever we feel like a situation is out of our hands, or out of our control, there is always something we can do: we can always move toward God in prayer. If worry is the anxious, unproductive conversation between a problem and ourselves, prayer brings God into that conversation.

Paul also notes that we are to present our requests to God “with thanksgiving” (Philippians 4:6). What does this mean? At a minimum, it means we should thank God for all the good he has done, is doing, and promises to do. That’s a lot to thank God for. This thanksgiving in prayer is part of what forces worry to begin to fade.

Problem, Preaching, Praise

This is precisely what we see from David in the Psalms: the shortest route from worry to worship is to walk from our problems, to preaching, to praise.

1. Problem

Over and over, the occasion for David’s psalms are problems in his life, some severe. For example:

The wicked who do me violence, my deadly enemies who surround me . . . they close their hearts to pity; with their mouths they speak arrogantly. They have now surrounded our steps; they set their eyes to cast us to the ground. He is like a lion eager to tear, as a young lion lurking in ambush. (Psalm 17:9–12)

2. Preaching

With such enemies, how many of us would turn to worry? But this is not what David does. Instead, he presents his requests to God (Philippians 4:6):

My steps have held fast to your paths; my feet have not slipped. . . . I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness. (Psalm 17:5, 15)

Basically, he is reminding himself of all the past ways God has taken care of him. It is as though he is saying to himself, “This situation is not unknown to God, and he can deliver me.” This type of meditation leads David to focus more on God’s goodness and less on his present problematic circumstances.

3. Praise

As David remembers God’s past protections, he then moves away from worry towards worship. This praise often leads him to bold prayers for present deliverance:

Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry! Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! From your presence let my vindication come! Let your eyes behold the right! (Psalm 17:1–2)

I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God; incline your ear to me; hear my words. . . . Show your steadfast love. (Psalm 17:6–7)

So many of his psalms seem to start at a low point of trouble, but end with a high level of optimism that God will come through for him. His prayer life turned panic into praise.

Guarded by Peace

David gives many examples in his life and psalms of how to “not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). In my job, I often need to remind myself of Paul’s instruction. I will quote it to my Father in prayer, reminding him of the promise he made to me, that his peace would guard my heart (Philippians 4:7). It may not happen instantly, but as I preach that verse to myself and pray in light of it, my focus begins to shift from myself and my circumstances to God and his promises.

The promise of Philippians 4:6–7 is clear and powerful: if we are faithful to turn worry into faith-filled prayer, God will protect our hearts from fretting. It is as though he will post a guard by the door of our hearts that refuses to let any anxiety enter. It may not make sense to us, but the peace will be real. Our joy in God will be sure, not because we are so sure of our mental stability, or so confident that we will conquer the problem, but because God’s promise is so great. God knows our requests, and he will give us peace.

is director of Campus Outreach Birmingham, Alabama, at Briarwood Presbyterian Church. He is a husband and father of four.