I have often struggled with anxiety. To some, it might seem a little strange that a psychologist would have mental health challenges, like knowing a cardiologist who has heart disease. Regardless, my base nature is to worry. It has been a source of distress for many years but has also been an opportunity for growth and insight. One of my ongoing stressors has been concerns for the future. I find myself worried about our children, our finances, our livelihood—just about anything that is not within my direct control. Fortunately, my wife has great faith, and her steadiness usually counteracts my panic. Yet even then, I often get overly worried about what tomorrow holds and whether everything will still be okay.
I recall an incident when I was in graduate school. I was working on my master’s degree and looking forward to pursuing a doctorate. I was very worried about whether I would get in to the program I wanted to, whether my academic performance would be sufficiently competitive, and even whether I had chosen the right career in the first place. I met with one of my professors and expressed my concerns. I related my fears of disastrous potential futures. He, a veteran psychologist, looked me in the eye and said, “David, the Lord has cradled you in His hand for more than 20 years now. What makes you think He will stop at this point?”
His logic was inscrutable. He was correct. As I reflected on my life, I realized the Lord had blessed me at every turn. Notwithstanding many difficulties and challenges, things had always worked out for the best. I knew my Father in Heaven loved me. I knew He had a plan for me and my young family. I had ample evidence to suggest that my future would be as bright as it had always been. Yet I was ignoring past successes, which fueled unreasonable fears of the future. I decided to trust in my professor’s wisdom and trust in the Lord’s track record.
Now more than 20 years later, things have worked out. I have been at many crossroads since then when outcomes were uncertain and anxiety was high, but I have tried to choose faith. In every case, looking back only confirms that I’m still cradled in the hand of the Lord, as we all are. Even in the midst of our most troubling difficulties, the Lord sustains and blesses those who seek to do His will.
“Take Therefore No Thought for the Morrow”
Some years after my graduate school experience, I read a New Testament scripture that puzzled me. It is found in the Sermon on the Mount: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:34). I had often wondered what that meant. Was the Savior saying that we didn’t need to think about the future? Was He teaching we didn’t need to plan for likely or unlikely events yet to come? I’ve spent many years considering this, as I have always been one to plan and organize my life. Before the internet, I was a faithful user of my Franklin day planner. Now, practically my entire life is either scheduled or documented in "the Cloud." If “taking no thought for the morrow” is counsel to be unplanned and unscripted, then I am wildly out of compliance. But I don’t think that’s what it means.
I believe what the Lord is teaching is that we don’t need to have anxiety about the future. While we should make appropriate plans for the coming days and weeks, we should not panic about how things will eventually work out. Joseph Smith taught the following: “Let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (Doctrine and Covenants 123:17).
There are two principles in this teaching. The first principle is to do all that we can. Fill your day planners and digital calendars with goals, designs, and appropriate activities. We should be concerned about making the most of our time on Earth, charting our course to return to live with our Father in Heaven.
The second principle is to have faith in God. We need to relax our grip on the wheel and let Him navigate. I believe this is one of the meanings when the Lord said, “Take no thought for the morrow.” In other words, He might have said, “Make your plans. Keep your covenants. But don’t panic if I decide that we’ll take a slightly different direction to get where you’re going. Trust me.” Let’s consider these two principles at greater length.
You are responsible to plan
The gift of moral agency is not simply the right to choose between good and evil, but the responsibility to choose between good and evil. This involves making daily choices of how to use our time, what behaviors to do or to avoid, and what things to focus upon. Abdicating our duty to choose for fear of making a poor choice is a poor choice in and of itself. Remember the parable of the talents. The individuals who increased their talents through risk and industry were rewarded by the Lord. But the fearful individual who buried his talent and returned it to the Master safe yet unmultiplied was condemned.
In my experience, anxiety tends to grow when we feel we have little control of a situation. I remember being in college and coming to the end of a semester. Typically, there would be many large projects due, in addition to final examinations. The workload increased along with my stressed desire to get things done well. As I would consider the many, many things that needed to get done in just a few short weeks, my feelings of anxiety would increase. Then I’d sit down and make a calendar of everything that needed to be done. I would organize tasks by hour, day, and week. If I followed the plan as organized, the end result would be completion of all necessary tasks. Just doing that helped reduce anxiety, for now what seemed an impossible task appeared doable. I was in control of the situation instead of the situation being in control of me. I think I was unwittingly applying the principle taught by the Savior when He said, “Sufficient is the day unto the evil thereof.” In other words, He taught, “Take things a day at a time. Worry about today’s worries today and tomorrow’s worries tomorrow.”
If we spend today concerned about the collective worries of the next 10 years, of course it will feel overwhelming! As we make effective plans for our future, this helps break down complex tasks into more manageable pieces. Those smaller pieces, which are more simply and easily accomplished, can produce less anxiety on a day to day basis.
You are responsible to trust God
Have you ever made considerable plans for a situation, only to find later that the Lord takes you in a completely different direction? Some have even remarked, “If you ever want to make the Lord laugh, just tell Him about your plans for the future.” So, if our well-laid plans are subject to “rerouting” by God, then why does He ask us to plan in the first place? Wouldn’t it be easier for Him to just reveal the plan and we follow it? I think that would be much easier. But it would result in less growth on our part. We are expected to work out our own salvation, not because He cannot do it for us, but because we are here to learn to become like Him.
Parents know this principle very well. If you’ve ever tried to involve your young child in a task, you know that it’s much easier to do it yourself. I’m ashamed to admit there were many Cub Scout Pinewood Derbies where I merely let my sons touch the car at some point, but only under very close supervision. I was so invested in the win that I missed the opportunity to help them learn how to build something of their own.
Heavenly Father asks us to be actively involved in planning our futures but then asks that we defer to Him for any changes or redirection. That’s where the trust and faith come in. If we follow this brilliant strategy, we grow on two fronts. We are blessed by exercising our agency to “bring to pass much righteousness” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27). In addition, our faith is strengthened as we realize the truth that “the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Although fear of the future is a natural and common experience, we can reduce our anxieties by taking control of our situation while simultaneously trusting that God will lead us along His chosen path.