Is There Good Anxiety?

Bethel College Chapel | Minneapolis

In retrospect, as I look back on reasons for why I left Bethel College to go into the pastorate, one of the deeper reasons that came to my mind yesterday was this. Problems that get under my saddle most are problems of the heart rather than problems of the mind. Orthodoxy, in my set of values, is penultimate; personal faith is ultimate. Reasoning to and from God is penultimate; joy in God is ultimate. Ethics is penultimate; love is ultimate. Hermeneutics, no offense sweetheart, is penultimate; obedience is ultimate. Theology is penultimate; doxology is ultimate. And as I try to understand what’s been happening to me over the past five years or so, I sense a movement, a gravitation along a continuum, pushing me, spiritually and vocationally, closer and closer to the place where the flower of the ultimate bursts forth on the stem of the penultimate.

Now of course, I don’t want to imply that I spend all of my time sitting at the base of a tulip flower, though I am still a five-point Calvinist. In fact, just like you, I still spend almost all of my time in the service of the penultimate because that’s just the way this age is. And I suppose — in fact, I know — that there remains in me a restlessness that I don’t think will go away until I see God face-to-face and everything I do is swallowed up in the immediacy of the ultimate. I’m looking for more satisfaction, but I’m sure that I won’t find it all until that day.

States of the Heart

Now, the reason I mention all of this is to set the stage for what I really want to talk about today, namely, some states of the heart that the Bible encourages us to have that are very perplexing to me. Every time I’ve spoken in chapel, I’ve always given you what’s on the front burner of my own mind, and that’s all I’m doing today.

I read an article by David Hubbard about a year ago on the text 2 Corinthians 11:28. David Hubbard is the president of Fuller Seminary and I’m always reading his little things in today’s Christian publication they put out. The text says:

And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28; all Scripture quotations are from the RSV).

And Hubbard’s point in this article was that it was good for Paul to be anxious for all the churches because he loved the churches, and their spiritual welfare weighed upon him very heavily, so that he could speak of being in anxiety over these churches. And Hubbard called me and all of us to share Paul’s burden for the churches of Christ.

But now, that’s a problem for me, a big problem. It hasn’t let me go ever since I read that article. Paul claims to be anxious for all the churches, and he doesn’t want to hide it. Hubbard is right, it seems. He considers it to be exemplary behavior to be anxious, to have anxiety about the churches. But of course, all my red flags go up at the word anxiety, right? Because Paul himself said:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:6–7).

Anxiety for the Churches

So what’s all this talk about this constant anxiety for all the churches, Paul? You’ve told us not to be anxious for anything. My first thought was that it can’t be the same Greek word. It has to be a different word. So I whipped out my Greek New Testament and that wouldn’t work. It’s the same word.

Then my next thought was, well, this text in 2 Corinthians 11:28 has to be an isolated example, as if this really is not something that he considers exemplary behavior, but it’s just kind of a lapse or something like that, and Paul doesn’t want us to follow him in that pattern. That was shot down because as soon as I started pondering it, I thought of a bunch of other texts where he says something very similar. Consider these. In 2 Corinthians 11:2–3, he writes to the church there:

I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

There he puts it even more strongly. He’s afraid. He has fear in his heart of what Satan might be able to do to these churches to bring their spiritual downfall. And that reminded me of 1 Thessalonians 3:5 where Paul writes to the new church:

For this reason, when I could bear it no longer (you can see him wringing his hands there), I sent that I might know your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor would be in vain.

He’s saying, “For fear, I’m sending my friend to see how it’s going.” Then here’s one more. In Galatians 4:19 he says to the churches there in Galatia:

My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you!

Paul says he has emotional labor pains until Christ comes to full term in the Galatian churches. Now how in the world can this anxiety, fear, and emotional labor pain fit together with the command, “Have no anxiety about anything.” That’s my latest problem and that’s the kind of problem that has kept my mind going for the past 10 years.

Defining Anxiety

Let’s start with a definition. I’m just going to take you as far as I’ve gotten in a solution and leave you there to think the rest of the way. We’ll start with a definition of anxiety. It seems to me that anxiety in Paul’s mind is a desire for something, a very intense desire for something in the future, accompanied by a fear of the consequences of not having that desire fulfilled. We don’t say that we have anxiety about not getting a toolbox for Christmas. Now we may desire to have one very strongly, but we don’t talk about anxiety because we don’t fear the consequences of not getting that toolbox. But we do say that we have anxiety when our wife is a half an hour late, then an hour late, and then an hour and a half late with no word. Why? Not only do we desire her to come home, but we fear the consequences of what a car accident and a phone call from the police might mean for our lives.

So I think Paul has in mind, when he talks about anxiety, both the desire for something in the future and a fear that it might not happen. Now, Paul knew what the consequences would be if his churches opted out of the faith because he had already experienced it. He says in Romans 9:2–3, when he was talking about his unbelieving kinsman:

I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race.

That’s what Paul feared when he said he was always anxious for the churches and that he didn’t want Satan to lead them astray. He knew that if Satan led them out of faithfulness to Christ they would be damned and his heart would be broken again as it had been before. So anxiety for Paul meant a great desire that something very sorrowful and grievous would not happen in the future.

Does Sanctified Anxiety Exist?

Now with that understanding of Paul’s anxiety for the churches, I think we’re able to put our question in a new form, and putting a question in a new form is sometimes a great help for answering it. The first form of the question was, can Paul’s anxiety be squared with his command “Don’t be anxious for anything” (Philippians 4:6)? Another way to put it would be, can there be good anxiety?

The second form of the question now comes from this. We’ve seen that the only reason he’s anxious is because the real possibility exists that grief and anguish could be on the way if the churches committed apostasy. So the question now becomes, is it right to experience that kind of grief and unceasing anguish of heart? Because if it is right to feel that kind of grief and anguish, then I don’t think it would be wrong to feel anxiety about it coming. In other words, it would not make sense to me, it would be inconsistent, to say it’s okay for our emotions to respond negatively with regret looking back on an event, but that it would be wrong for our emotions to respond negatively with anxiety looking forward to the possibility of that event.

So if there can be good regret, there can be good anxiety. If there can be good grief, there can be good fear. So the real question for me became and is, how is it right for Paul to experience deep grief and unceasing anguish in his heart? Now you would probably say, compassionate as you are, “What could be more natural than to be grieved and have anguish in your heart when somebody is lost?” But Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “Rejoice always.” In Philippians 4:4, he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always. And again I say, rejoice.” In Ephesians 5:20, he said, “Always and for everything give thanks.” He doesn’t just say in everything (that’s 1 Thessalonians 5:18), but he says “for everything” give thanks. And these unlimited commands for unceasing joy are grounded in an unlimited promise that you’re all familiar with in Romans 8:28, that God is going to work together with all those who love him and are called according to his purpose for their good. And that’s why, evidently, they should be able to rejoice always and be thankful for everything.

So given Paul’s theology of God and given his explicit commands, it’s not at all obvious to me that it’s right for him to have unceasing anguish in his heart and great grief at the loss of his kinsman. That’s a problem for me. And that also is just another way of saying, can it be right for him to have anxiety about the possibility of such unceasing anguish in his heart?

A Constantly Happy God

Now, the pathway to a solution led me in a surprising direction. It occurred to me that since Paul’s commands to rejoice always flow from his conception of God as one who is powerful enough and good enough to work everything together for our good, that therefore this God should be a constantly happy God, a constantly serene God, free from all anguish and grief. If he’s that good and has that much power to take care of us, then he can handle his own problems very easily. But you who know the Scriptures know that the picture we have of God in the Scriptures is not always like that. In fact, the whole trinity is engaged in grief according to the Scriptures. Genesis 6:6, describing the evil in Noah’s day, says:

And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.

There’s God the Father. What about Jesus? What did he do on Palm Sunday? He walked up to Jerusalem and he cried his head off over the unbelief of Jerusalem, and it says in Mark 3:5:

And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart . . .

There’s the Son. Then Ephesians 4:30 says:

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.

The whole trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, grieve over sin and the loss of man’s righteousness and salvation.

My Counsel Shall Stand

Now, if I could account for how that can be right, then I think I could probably account for how it would be right for Paul, and then by way of analogy, how his anxiety might be right as well. So now I’m going to ask you to do something that’s going to require a good deal of sympathy on your part. I’m going to exclude two possible solutions for God’s grief here because they only give me 25 minutes and you can’t solve all the biggest problems in theology in 25 minutes.

I don’t exclude these because I haven’t thought about them. God knows I’ve thought about them more than anything else in the last 10 years. I’m going to exclude these two solutions. First, I don’t think that God grieves over sin because God lacks knowledge of the future acts of his creatures. There’s a book called Did God Know, which is a heretical book written by a fellow who lives about a mile away from here, and that’s his argument. He says God did not know what was coming and therefore it catches him off guard. He doesn’t want it and he wrings his hands is heartbroken when he sees this very unexpected and undesired turnabout of events, namely, sin occurring on the human scene. That’s one solution and I reject it. I will mention one sentence in a minute regarding why I reject it.

Here’s the second one that I reject, and this one most of you believe in, but I’m going to reject it anyway. I’m going to reject the possibility that while God knows the future of his creature’s decisions and he knows everything that’s going to happen — most of you believe in the omniscience of God — nevertheless he has given up control over his creation, at least his free moral creatures, and therefore they frustrate his designs and he grieves over the decisions that they make autonomously without his sovereign control.

I reject that because I think not only does God know the future but he accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11). I don’t know of a better verse to sum up my conviction about the omniscience and the sovereignty of God other than Isaiah 46:9–10. See if you don’t think this states it succinctly:

     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 can’t escape a text like that. God is sovereign. He accomplishes all his purposes, and no man frustrates those purposes. So I reject those two and if that’s unpalatable to you, all I can ask is that you give me a sympathetic suspension of disbelief for the next 10 minutes and consider a possible solution that might remove some of the stumbling blocks to your accepting what I believe is a biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty.

God’s Purposes Never Thwarted

I’m going to assume that God is never frustrated in the performance of his ultimate purposes. And the question of course then is, how in the world, or why in the world, would such a God ever grieve over anything? That’s a big problem, and I want to acknowledge that my weak efforts to get into the heart and mind of God are not the least impressive to God. I think that God right now is looking down on this chapel and he’s kind of smiling in fatherly condescension, thinking, “There’s Piper again trying to understand my mind.” But there’s something I fear worse than that fatherly condescending smile, and that is not taking any of his summons to seek wisdom.

The Bible is thick and full and rich, and we think we’re going to tread too close into the mind of God if we try to understand it and put it all together. I think what he dislikes more than those who tread where angels may fear to tread is people who, in the name of humility, say all kinds of contradictory things about him and don’t really want to understand him very much. I’m going to push further up and further in until the signposts stop and there’s a roadblock that says, “No further.” And I’ve never run into that in the Scripture. Nobody has ever been able to show me, “Here’s the signpost. Stop trying to understand God. It says so right there.” So we’ll push it just as far as the Scriptures will let us go.

God’s View of Reality

This is my suggested solution. I think the reason that our sovereign God can grieve over sin is that he has the ability to view it and its consequences in a limited focus that excludes certain other aspects of reality. That’s my basic solution. God has the ability to view certain parts of his created order — sin, condemnation, and lots of other things — in a narrowed focus, which excludes the taking in of other things. And I think when he grieves and reveals his grief in the Scriptures to us, what he’s doing is revealing to us that capacity of the narrow focus and enabling us to understand our own ambivalent relation to sin, having grief and no anxiety about anything.

In relationship to its own ends, sin is hateful to God and grievous. Sin and the loss of salvation in his creatures in and of itself, considered for its own ends, is not delightful to God. He does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 33:11). The death and suffering of the wicked considered simply as loss and destruction of human life is not a delight to God, but a pang. God’s grief over sin and condemnation is owing, therefore, I suggest, to his ability to view sin and condemnation as ends in themselves, which thus considered are indeed grievous and ought to be grieved over by us as well. But he is not an eternally unhappy God. I don’t even think he could be God if he were an eternally unhappy God.

He is not frustrated in the fulfillment of his ultimate designs because he does not merely consider sin and condemnation for their own ends. He opens his lens, as it were, and takes in the whole universality of things. And when he does that and looks at redemptive history, not just in pieces but in the totality, he is able to look on it and approve of what he sees as a mosaic marvelously reflecting the full spate of his glories, as Romans 9:23 suggests.

Grieving with God’s Grief

If God has the ability of narrowing the lens of his attention onto some limited portion of reality and then responding emotionally in a way that is different than when he opens his lens and takes in the whole spectrum of reality, the universality of things, then perhaps we creatures share that ability in some measure. And that to me is the link between God’s life and our life.

And that possibility opens the way to see how Paul could speak of having great sorrow and unceasing anguish over the loss of his kinsman in Romans 9:2, and yet say, “Rejoice always. Don’t be anxious for anything. Be thankful for everything.” Sin, considered as sin and for its own ends, and the damnation of a sinner, considered for itself alone, are grievous and painful to us and should be when viewed in such limited relations. But if we leave our lens focused down on that narrow perspective, we’re going to despair and joy will be impossible, gratitude will be incongruous, and heaven, where all tears are wiped away and there is no more crying, will be unthinkable, utterly unthinkable.

Therefore, I think God intends for us to lift up our eyes to the whole panorama of reality and remember his sovereignty, and that all things will indeed work together for good, even sin and damnation. And when we attain that perspective of faith, then we can rejoice always and with full confidence.

A Good Place for Anxiety

And so, completing the circle then I would say that there is a place for good anxiety. The destruction that can befall a church through unbelief is a grievous thing from one very limited perspective. And therefore, the contemplation of that possibility happening ought to grieve us and we ought not to look forward to it, but be anxious about it. And that’s why I think Paul could say he has anxiety for all the churches of God.

Nevertheless, Paul also sees things in a larger perspective. He stands back, as it were. He is not immobilized by his anxiety, nor does his anxiety squelch the joy that rises persistently from his perspective on the eternal sovereignty of God’s goodness. He is able to say, in conclusion, this amazing word from Second Corinthians 2:

Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph . . . (2 Corinthians 2:14)

But now notice, notice what he describes the triumph as.

[He] always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.

Even when the fragrance of the gospel is the omen of damnation to people, Christ is leading Paul in triumph. And when he is able to attain that perspective, then he’s able to rejoice always and be anxious for nothing.