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Anxiety is mystifying and elusive. Some people have experienced debilitating anxiety that has found them in the back of an ambulance, while others have the occasional anxious thought that passes briefly through their minds before they fall into a peaceful sleep. For some, anxiety can make it difficult to perform daily rudimentary tasks. For others, anxiety comes around only a few times every year and doesn’t significantly disrupt everyday life. Whatever form anxiety takes, Christians need to know how to meet it with biblical directives and wisdom for our unsettled hearts. When anxiety rears its ugly head, what are we to do? When anxiety is a constant companion for the Christian, how do we remain faithful?

Before considering these questions, it’s worth noting that our God-given fight-or-flight instincts are good. God created our brains to alert us to potential danger. But our brains are subject to the effects of the fall, so our danger-sensing systems can sometimes lead us astray. Not all anxiety, therefore, is merely a failure to heed the commands and appropriate the promises of Matthew 6. Dr. R.C. Sproul observed: “Our Lord Himself gave the instruction to be anxious for nothing. Still, we are creatures who, in spite of our faith, are given to anxiety and at times even to melancholy.” We are creatures with both a body and a soul, and therefore, we are comprehensive and complex. We’re not gnostic, only focusing on the spiritual at the expense of the physical. The Bible doesn’t do that (see 1 Kings 19; 1 Tim. 5:23), so neither should we. Consider the man who barely survived a fatal car accident and finds it incredibly difficult to ride in a car again. Is the root of his struggle physical or spiritual? The answer is both. Everything we experience as embodied spirits is physical and spiritual.

We learn much about our physical experience through scientific investigation of God’s general revelation in nature. Given that all truth is God’s truth, we can freely accept the insights of scientific research in submission to the Word of God. When it comes to conditions such as anxiety and melancholy, research clearly suggests that some people have a greater tendency toward cognitive disruptions and misfiring brain circuits. Regardless of the specific mix of physical and spiritual causes of anxiety, Scripture offers a way forward. To that end, this article will focus on how Christians who toil with anxiety can live faithfully with anxiety, pursue freedom from anxiety, and discover the Lord’s redemptive purposes in and through anxiety.

In battling anxiety, we can be our own worst enemy. Anxiety, trauma, and melancholy are often perpetuated by unhealthy behaviors (e.g., poor diet, lack of exercise, lack of sleep), unhealthy thought patterns (e.g., self-pity, unprofitable thinking, unchecked emotions) and a lack of discipline (e.g., idleness, isolation). Richard Baxter observed, “Individuals already prone to melancholy are easily and frequently thrown even more deeply into it through undisciplined patterns of thinking or unchecked emotions.” The anxious Christian must be vigilant—perhaps more than others. We must keep careful watch over our thought patterns (1 Cor. 4:20; Phil. 4:8), behavioral habits (1 Tim. 4:16), and teaching influences (2 Tim. 4:3–4); devote ourselves to prayer (Phil. 4:6), self-control (1 Cor. 7:5; 9:25; Gal. 5:23), and discipline (1 Cor. 9:27; Titus 1:8); and measure our emotions, feelings, and reactions against God’s authoritative Word (1 John 3:20). Charles Spurgeon, having dealt with his own bouts of anxiety and despair, reminded his people often that feelings are fickle: “He that lives by feeling will be happy today and unhappy tomorrow.”

We might think that the solution to feelings and thoughts that spring up unbidden is simply to change our feelings—to rid ourselves of these uncomfortable alarms. But changing our feelings isn’t the goal; faithful obedience is. Sometimes that faithful obedience involves the long, painful process of learning to be a detached spectator of unsolicited feelings and thoughts. This kind of faithful plodding regardless of feelings can be difficult. We might struggle to get out of bed in the morning, pondering all that the day ahead involves—constant emails, potential bad news, monotonous tasks, needy children, outstanding bills. Prayerfully, we trust the Lord to sustain us as we take one step at a time. Jesus tells us, “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34). Sometimes, sufficient for the task is its own trouble. Putting one foot in front of the other, we press on.

The Psalms should be a frequented garden for the anxiety-riddled soul.

Freedom from crippling anxiety requires remaining in the presence of painful uncertainty while maintaining faith. Specifically, in the throes of anxiety-induced distress, it’s vital that we tap into our mystical union with the suffering Savior. Martin Luther, during episodes of emotional turmoil in which Satan would accuse his conscience, would visualize himself suffering with Christ in His affliction. Luther believed that the flaming darts of the evil one and the distressing spikes of anxiety are an occasion to suffer in union with our Savior, to mortify remnants of the old self, and to be stripped of our need for control and certainty. During the distressing onslaught of disruptive anxiety, we don’t give in to panic but instead work to objectively understand our mind’s responses. The psalmist reminds us to quiet our minds: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). We remain temperate and steadfast. As the old hymn reminds us, “When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.” In the stormy gale, Christians trust and obey. Regardless of whether the Lord gives us full relief in this life, we strive to be faithful in spite of our anxieties and to repent when we permit anxiety to govern our lives.

To be sure, it’s not easy to parse out which anxieties are sinful. The Puritan John Flavel offers a simple litmus test: “As long as the fear awakens you to pray . . . it is serviceable to your soul. When it only produces distraction and despondency of mind, it is your sin and Satan’s snare.” Additionally, we should examine which thoughts and feelings we sanction as true. Most importantly, where do we take our anxieties? Do we come to the Lord with our anxiousness to take shelter in Him, or do we sit and mull it over, looking for reprieve in ourselves? Left to our own devices, we would seek shelter from the storm of anxiety in food, technology, substances, or other leaky cisterns. If we succumb to our inward tendencies—avoidant behaviors, navel-gazing, constant mental autopsies, or self-help techniques—the alarms of anxiety will only increase in volume. We need an external word.

Persistent anxiety must be met head-on with promise, as John Owen suggests:

A poor soul, that hath been long perplexed in trouble and anxiety of mind, finds a sweet promise—Christ in a promise suited to all his wants, coming with mercy to pardon him, with love to embrace him, with blood to purge him—and is raised up to roll himself in some measure upon this promise.

Do you rest on divine promises or fall into panic when you are incapable of rationality because anxiety has tightened its grip? The psalmist models the better course: “When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul” (Ps. 94:19). In fact, the Psalms should be a frequented garden for the anxiety-riddled soul. The early church father Athanasius argued that the Psalter is a mini-Bible (foreshadowing Luther) and an index of every possible human emotion (foreshadowing Calvin). In a letter to his friend Marcellinus, Athanasius wrote: “In the Psalter you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.” We would do well to visit the Psalms, both before the tumultuous storm of anxiety and during its heaviest downpour, for they are familiar with all our feelings and emotions. We need the Psalter’s empathetic counsel because sin distorts our God-given qualities and Satan loves to exploit those distortions. For instance, the proper desire for excellence can morph into perfectionism, or responsibility into hyperresponsibility. Consider how God created mothers to uniquely care for their children. Yet, the first-time mother who is caring for her newborn might experience overwhelming fear at every cry. This can quickly catapult loving mothers into despondency under the weight of hyperresponsibility and fear. The Psalms are remedial, reminding her anxious and downtrodden heart that the Lord is in control on His throne caring for His people (see Ps. 121:3–4).

God’s providential care for His people is seen on every page of Scripture. Jesus forbids excessive anxiety about life, for it betrays mistrust in the loving care of our Father. Inordinate concern for our worldly affairs uncovers who we really trust. Jesus directs our gaze to our heavenly Father’s care for the well-supplied bird. If He cares for them such that they boast more glory than Solomon, should we not be confident that He will supply our every need (Matt. 6:28–30; see Rom. 8:32)? Jesus further reminds us that excessive worldly anxiety is futile (Matt. 6:27). But Christ’s prohibition is accompanied by a comforting alternative, as Calvin notes: “Though the children of God are not free from work and anxiety, yet we can properly say they do not have to be anxious about life. They may enjoy calm repose because of their reliance on the providence of God.”

In that one word lies the key to living faithfully with nagging anxiety—providence. The Heidelberg Catechism defines providence as “the almighty everywhere present power of God, whereby, as it were by His hand, He still upholds heaven and earth, with all creatures; and so governs them, that . . . all things, come not by chance, but by His fatherly hand” (Q&A 27). Our anxiety, then, is not by chance—it is not an accident. It comes from His fatherly hand. Do you believe that? We must if we are to squelch the grip of paralyzing fear. If properly framed and handled, anxiety affords an opportunity to cultivate dependence on and warm communion with the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3–4). Richard Sibbes tenderly proposes, “If we consider from what fatherly love afflictions come, how they are not only moderated but sweetened and sanctified in the issue to us, how can it but minister matter of comfort in the greatest seeming discomforts?” Paul gives an account of his affliction—a thorn placed in his flesh that God refused to pluck out. Instead, He comforted His servant: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul therefore resolved to boast gladly in his weaknesses, “so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7–10).

The painful snare providentially accomplished the Lord’s redemptive work in and through the Apostle. So also our weaknesses can drive us to greater love for the Savior and distaste for the things of this world. Flavel offered this hope to the incessantly anxious and despondent Christian: “God’s wisdom has ordered this affliction upon His people for gracious ends and uses. He uses it to make them more tender—watchful, attentive, and careful in their ways, so that they may shun and escape as many occasions of trouble as possible. This is a barrier to keep you from straying. In great trials, that which appears to be a snare might be to your advantage.” Advantageous anxiety? How? First, Flavel continues, “illnesses of body and distresses of mind serve to embitter the comforts and pleasures of this world to you. They make life less desirable to you than to others. They make life more burdensome to you than to others who enjoy more of its pleasure and sweetness.” What’s more, they “may facilitate death and make your separation from this world easier for you. Your lives are of little value to you now, because of the burdensome clog that you drag behind you. God knows how to use these things in the way of His providence to your great advantage.” Second, anxiety drives us to closer communion with God: “The greater your dangers, the more frequent your approaches to Him will be. You feel the need for everlasting arms underneath you to bear these smaller troubles, which are nothing for other people.” Third, as Paul teaches, the Lord displays His power through our weaknesses. Therefore, Flavel concludes, “Do not let this discourage you. Nature’s infirmities might make death less terrible. It might drive you nearer to God and provide a fit opportunity for the display of His grace in your time of need.”

Counterintuitively, reframing our outlook on besetting anxiety from a burden to a fit opportunity is a significant breakthrough in living free from anxiety. The more anxieties come, the more occasions we have to cast them onto the One who cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

John Bunyan, having admitted that “to this day” he experienced anxieties of the heart, concludes his autobiographical account with a curious perspective:

These things I continually see and feel, and am afflicted and oppressed with; yet the wisdom of God doth order them for my good. 1. They make me abhor myself. 2. They keep me from trusting my heart. 3. They convince me of the insufficiency of all inherent righteousness. 4. They show me the necessity of flying to Jesus. 5. They press me to pray unto God. 6. They show me the need I have to watch and be sober. 7. And provoke me to look to God, through Christ, to help me, and carry me through this world.

We would expect the mighty English Puritan to end his memoir with a word of triumph and victory. Instead, what do we find? The thorn is still there. But so is the Savior.

Bunyan—like Luther and Spurgeon—believed fervently that the wisdom of God orders our afflictions and weaknesses for our good (Rom. 8:28). Painful anxieties afforded him a fit opportunity to fly to Jesus, who sympathizes with our infirmities (Heb. 4:15), carries us (Ps. 28:9; Isa. 4:11), and shows forth His sufficient grace through our weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9).

Whether anxiety is an occasional guest or a constant companion, we’re not alone in our battle. The Lord will not forsake His heritage (Ps. 94). He’s ever-present with His people, bringing comfort to the weary and brokenhearted (Ps. 34:18). Let us encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11), stirring one another up to love and good works (Heb. 10:24) and bearing one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), reminding one another that the battle with fear, anxiety, and melancholy will cease. Until then, we strive by God’s grace to be faithful, temperate, and hopeful—for the day is coming when the anxiety-induced pit in the stomach will be a distant memory, and so too will be the remnants of sinful distrust. Indeed, tears, pain, mourning, and night itself will be no more (Rev. 21:4; 22:5).

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From the May 2021 Issue
May 2021 Issue