The Burden We Were Never Intended to Bear

“Worry is carrying a burden God never intended us to bear.”

Author unknown

What’s the biggest worry in your life right now? Are you worried about your financial circumstances; whether you will have enough to pay the mortgage, to retire, or just to buy the necessities of life? Perhaps you’re worried about your children: their friends, their grades, their behavior, or their future? Health issues can also be very worrisome. Other stresses come from strained relationships with a family member, someone at work, or a friend.

Then there are just the hard circumstances of life. Sometimes bad things come out of nowhere, like a pink slip at work or when a car breaks down. At other times we can see difficulties coming and know that we will somehow have to get through them. When our son Nate was deployed to Iraq as a scout platoon commander at the height of the surge, we knew he was going to be in harm’s way in a combat zone for fifteen months. Only those who have loved ones deployed can understand this particular burden.

We worry about little things. We worry about huge things. There are things we worry about for a few minutes and there are things that we worry about every day.

As we embark on developing a new mindscape, we must take a closer look at what to do first when the worries of life press in upon us. In order to do this we must step back and look at the verses that immediately precede Paul’s description of a godly mindscape:

Do not be anxious 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 surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6–7

Speaking in Absolutes

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear absolute terms such as “always” or “never” it gives me pause. This is particularly true when someone complains about another person, saying that they “always” this or “never” that. When I hear these words in a counseling situation the speaker is usually (notice I didn’t say always!) overstating the case.

In this passage, however, Paul uses absolute terminology. He writes that we should be anxious for nothing. In fact, in the Greek text the word translated “nothing” comes first for emphasis. To make his point even clearer, the word translated “be anxious” is in the imperative mood, giving “Be anxious for nothing” even more force! Paul is saying that we shouldn’t worry about anything . . . anything at all. Was he some kind of Alfred E. Neuman (“What? Me Worry?”), or the precursor of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”? Was he advocating his contemporary stoics’ acceptance of life’s circumstances as fate?

All of us have worries and concerns. Let’s call them “worry weeds” popping up in our mindscape. Paul says, “Be anxious for nothing. Don’t worry about anything.” How is this possible?

When the Weeds Take Over

Worry weeds are stubborn. If something isn’t done they can overtake our whole mindscape and impact all that we do. Anyone who has driven in the southeastern United States has seen the kudzu plant. It was introduced to the United States in the late nineteenth century and has literally run wild. It covers more than seven million acres of the Southeast and can grow as fast as sixty feet per year. It all began innocently enough but by 1972 the USDA declared kudzu to be a weed!

Our worry weeds can begin to take over our minds the way kudzu is taking over parts of the United States. Worry can smother the joy right out of our lives as it shields us from the light of the truth of God’s love for us. Today’s anxiety immobilizes us as our thoughts get tangled in what might happen tomorrow. What can we do?

Lots of people suggest that to overcome worry we merely need to “believe in ourselves.” Sounds noble but it just so happens that it is “me, myself, and I” who generates these worries and their very existence demonstrates my frailty and inability. To say that I should be able to handle it by myself when I am clearly not handling it by myself merely makes me worry that much more. Let’s return now to what Paul says.

Paul follows his “be anxious for nothing” with an “everything.” He writes, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Paul isn’t telling us to just “stop worrying.” Instead, he is pointing us in a different direction. When we face circumstances that cause stress or anxiety—whatever they are—the first thing to do is to go to our heavenly Father and tell him about all of our troubles. Paul calls that “prayer.” Prayer is the reset button we need to engage when things go wrong in life.

One day my television set just stopped working. I was frustrated because there was something I really wanted to watch. So I called my son-in-law, who is very savvy with technology. He said, “Just unplug it, wait a couple of minutes, and then plug it in again.” I thought, “How could that be the answer?” Nonetheless, I took his advice and, voila, it worked! I have learned to try this with most gadgets and it works, more times than not. Of course our minds are not electronic gadgets that we can just unplug and reboot. So how does prayer work to “reset” our minds? “Everything” is an absolutely comprehensive term. We are to pray about everything—all of the worry weeds that spring up in our mindscape, everything on the short list we looked at above, and anything else that comes along. But how can prayer be such a powerful antidote to anxiety?

Prayer Puts Things into Perspective

On a recent trip Barb and I visited a beautiful property. One of the features on the grounds was a huge hedge maze consisting of lots of misleading turns and dead ends. It would really be easy to get lost in there. At the maze we visited, as at most similar mazes elsewhere, there was a tall platform overlooking the hedges. From this platform, an overseer could see the whereabouts of anyone in the maze. I’m sure it is there to give direction to someone who might panic as they are trying to find their way out.

Sometimes we too feel like we’re in a maze and don’t know which way to turn. We fear that if we take a wrong turn, it will lead to a dead end from which we might not be able to escape. When we’re feeling lost and frustrated, the Lord knows our circumstances and is eager to direct us if we’ll just ask him. Prayer puts us in touch with the One who sees the beginning from the end. The One who can give us his perspective on our worries and fears. The One who promises to never leave us or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5). The One on whom we can cast all of our cares because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

Our verses from Philippians 4 also give us direction about the characteristics of prayer that smothers worry and how we can implement them:

Pray specifically

Paul uses different words for “prayer” in verse 6. The first is a general word for prayer, but the second word, “supplication,” refers to an urgent specific plea. This is reinforced when he adds, “let your requests be made known to God.” I’ve heard some folks say that when they pray they don’t ask for anything for themselves. This might sound very selfless and holy, but it is wrong! The prayer Jesus taught his own disciples includes specific personal requests. It begins with praise to our Father in heaven and ends with his kingdom and power and glory; but in the middle supplications Jesus teaches us to ask God to meet our important personal needs. “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” (Matthew 6:11–13). Requests for daily provision, forgiveness, and protection are quite personal, and we are urged to bring them before the Lord regularly. This includes things we are prone to worry about. Do not be reluctant to cry out to the Lord about anything and everything.

Pray remembering God’s goodness

You’ll also notice that Paul tells us to pray “with thanksgiving.” Praying with thanksgiving requires us to remember all of the good things the Lord has done for us and is doing for us now. After all, there are more things in your mindscape than just worry weeds. Worries might be in the foreground at the moment, but there are many other things to which you should draw your attention and for which you should be thankful. This isn’t easy because our natural tendency is to focus on our worries rather than to give thanks. When you are worried, bring your cares to the Lord, but also remember his kindness and goodness to you right now and in the past.

Pray expecting an answer

Another reason we can pray with thanksgiving is that we can expect an answer. Sometimes the answer might not be what we expect, but the Lord has promised to answer. As many have observed, the answers the Lord gives can be “yes,” “no,” or “not yet.” We might always like a “yes” but the Lord our heavenly Father knows what is best and he will not give us something that isn’t good for us. When I was in college I thought the Lord’s plan for me was to become a famous tuba performer. Yes, that’s right—I said, a tuba performer! He had given me lots of success up to that point and I was a performance major in my college. I decided that I would audition for the United States Marine Band (The President’s Own) in Washington, DC, and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. I didn’t make either one. It was “no” and “no” from the Lord. I was disappointed, but in closing those two doors the Lord was directing me elsewhere—toward the ministry.

Pray expecting that God will want your response, too

As we pray, the Lord might make it clear that there is something that we need to do. For example, if you’re worried about a relationship, God might lead you to have a conversation with the individual with whom you’ve had difficulties. He will certainly impress upon you the need to look for and apply for jobs if you have lost your job. New health challenges will require a change in diet, exercise, and lifestyle. Be ready to be directed toward things you might need to do regarding your situation. This leading will always be according to and consistent with his Word. If you feel that God is calling you to do something that is beyond you—pray about that as well. If he is calling you to do something, he will also give you his Spirit to do it. Pray for the Spirit to help you and direct you so that you can follow Jesus wherever he calls you to go. Fundamentally, Paul reminds us that the Lord will answer, and that we should be prepared for where that answer may lead or what that answer may call us to do.

Mindscape Frontcover

Mindscape: What to Think About Instead of Worrying

Mindscape builds a practical action plan for changing your mental landscape—and your life—based on Paul’s rich exhortation in Philippians 4:8. Author Tim Witmer draws from thirty years of experience in helping worried people apply Scripture to their lives to present a clear, biblical, and deeply pastoral guide to replacing worry with a new way of thinking.

Photo by yrabota on Freepik.

About the author

Timothy Witmer

Timothy Z. Witmer, MDiv, DMin is Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary where he serves as Coordinator of the Practical Theology Department and Director of Mentored Ministry and Master of Divinity Programs. He has also served for thirty-five years in pastoral ministry, currently as the pastor of St. Stephen Reformed Church. Tim is the author of Mindscape: What to Think about Instead of Worrying, The Shepherd Leader, and The Shepherd Leader at Home. He and his wife, Barbara, have three children, four grandchildren, and reside in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

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