For a time of anxiety

One challenge of lockdown is understanding exactly what’s happening out there in the big wide world. So I was grateful for the recently published Office of National Statistics survey results on the UK’s reaction to coronavirus. Click here for the survey results.

Two things struck me. First, over 4 in 5 adults in Great Britain said they were ‘very worried or somewhat worried’ about the effect that the coronavirus (COVID-19) is having on their life right now. Second, nearly half of adults (46.9%) reported ‘high levels of anxiety’.

My first thought about this is that it’s not unreasonable to be anxious at the moment. After all, we face an invisible, persistent and lethal enemy about which even the experts seem to know little, and we are all increasingly hearing of those close to us who have caught the virus and of those who have died. And there are other, but no less significant, worries: when will this end? Will my job survive? One of many major differences with the Blitz of 1940 and now is that then everybody was kept so busy on ‘the war effort’ that they had too little time to worry; now we have too much.

Anxiety has become really bad. We would be very foolish to live our life without having some concern for the future but anxiety is more than concern; it’s a worm that gnaws away in our mind, a shadow that hangs over everything which never seems to go away. In fact, anxiety feeds on itself; it’s easy to become anxious about our level of anxiety. As Charles Spurgeon said, ‘Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.’

Anxiety is bad news in so many ways. Medically, it’s a stress that, over the long term, harms the body. Psychologically, anxiety turns difficulties into insurmountable obstacles and makes sensible people do unwise things. Anxiety erodes away at the good things in our lives: it’s difficult to be generous when you are worried about paying the bills in six months’ time and it’s hard to be kind if anxiety clouds your vision. Anxiety poisons life: in a phrase, it’s hard to be cheerful when you’re fearful.

So how do we defeat anxiety? Some people trust in statistics and decide that because they are fit, young, isolated, the probability of a serious infection is low. Others put their faith in luck: they cross their fingers or stroke their rabbit’s paw. Others appeal to fatalism: if I’m going to get it, I’m going to get it. Still others put their faith in positive thinking and endlessly repeat, ‘I’ve survived so far, I will survive!’ Personally, I don’t find any of these much comfort; to me they all look like a form of Russian roulette!

Speaking personally, I do get anxious for myself and my loved ones but I try to make sure anxiety is a visitor not a resident in my mind. My response is based on my faith in a God to whom I have access through Jesus. In fact, it’s Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount that help me most. There, Jesus says, ‘What is the price of two sparrows – one copper coin? But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows’ (Matthew 10:29–31 NLT).

I hang onto two things from this. The first is that in this mention of two biological processes – the death of sparrows and baldness – God is telling me that he is in control of even the smallest things and that includes viruses. So, in this present pandemic, God does not sit in the heavens frowning in frustration that someone, somewhere ate a badly cooked bat (if that is indeed what happened). He knew about it and, for his own reasons, allowed it. Yes, I need to take precautions and apply common sense. As the psalm writer says, ‘My future is in your hands’ (Psalm 31:15 NLT).

That powerful if somewhat cool view of an all-powerful God in supreme control of everything is balanced by the second truth in this passage: God can be known as someone who is our loving Father; as the one who views and values us as having greater value than sparrows.

God is in charge, and he loves his children. I know that leaves all sorts of issues open. Given the number of Christians in the caring profession I don’t doubt that this dreadful epidemic has taken many of them directly into the comfort of his presence. Yet it says that ultimately anxiety is unnecessary. God our Lord is in control and God our Father cares for us. And that is what I believe and trust.

As a summary remedy for anxiety let me offer you a quote from John Newton, the eighteenth-century sailor and slave trader who, after his remarkable conversion, became a much-loved clergyman and social reformer. Drawing on a life in which he had experienced more than his fair share of anxiety, he wrote this in one of his hymns:

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds,
In a believer’s ear!
It soothes their sorrows, heals their wounds,
And drives away their fear.

That’s a remedy that worked for him and I have to say it works for me. Every time. May it work for you too!

Revd Canon J.John


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