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Sometimes, even if we know that something is wrong, it can take a bit to see the ugly side. Starting the generator right outside the door on the porch might seem like a good idea in a thunderstorm, but the headaches caused by carbon monoxide poisoning will soon enough tell us otherwise. Like anything else that Scripture warns us about, anxiety also has some very damaging effects. The New Testament word for anxiety, merimna, is also translated “care” or “worry.” Because anxiety is real and prevalent in our world, so is the impact. And while anxiety may come from imagined scenarios, real and present issues, or a sense of impending doom, a life of perpetual anxiety makes it impossible to love God and neighbor as we should. Regardless of the cause or source, anxiety disrupts life on multiple levels.
There is a reason that Jesus asked, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matt. 6:27). We all know that anxiety is not the key to healthy longevity. Feeling scared, feeling down, and losing sleep are just the beginning. While conditions such as chronic pain, disability, or long-term illness can spawn anxiety, things can go the other way as well. Chronic anxiety can create pain, illness, and other physical issues due to an abnormal physical state. Adrenaline and cortisol perform many essential functions in our bodies—God gave them to us for good reason. A rise in these hormones enables us to face stressful situations through altered physiology: our pulse quickens, our breathing speeds up, and blood vessels expand, giving more oxygen to our brains and muscles, focusing our concentration. But when these hormones flow through our systems too often or too long, a host of ailments can result.
Increasingly, scientists are finding links between anxiety and negative physical effects. Studies have shown that anxiety can lead to heart disease in otherwise healthy adults and that chronic emotional stress and anxiety are linked to predispositions to a range of digestive system issues, from acid reflux to irritable bowel syndrome to cancer. And the situation is more concerning with age, as older adults are likely to have comorbidities that accelerate the physical conditions and deteriorations connected with anxiety. The body of research is growing. Worrying yourself to death may be a truer danger than we thought.
Anxiety has demonstrable, measurable effects on our bodies. But the root is often in our mental and spiritual lives. Because of this, we cannot expect our relationships to be unaffected. The relational effects of anxiety are also damagingly strong. Clinically, anxiety is linked to difficulty with short-term memory, concentration, verbal and spatial performance, reading attention span, and more. No wonder that it makes socialization difficult.
But the difficulties go beyond functional aspects. We know anecdotally that visiting a truly anxious person is difficult. If conversation gets going, it tends either to focus on the superficial or to drag us into the world of dark cares in which the other person lives. One elderly woman I knew not only recited litanies of terrible accidents and diagnoses during visits but also listed potential hard providences, elaborating on fears of the future. It seemed as though she had opened the door wide to dark thoughts, oblivious to the effects. She had faced real grief in her life, but it was her anxiety about the future that prevented real relational closeness with other people.
Anxiety turns us in on ourselves and our problems. We shrink inward, weighed down by burdens that we were not meant to carry, dragging them around and bumping into others as we go. Jeannie Marie Guyon told a friend, “Melancholy contracts and withers the heart. . . . It magnifies and gives a false coloring to objects, and thus renders your burdens too heavy to bear.” Anxiety colors our view of the world with a sinfully negative lens. Clearly, these sorts of effects will hamper socialization and healthy relationships with others.
But the effects go beyond socialization. In her prayer-hymn “Father, I Know That All My Life,” Anna Waring asks for “a heart at leisure from itself, to soothe and sympathize.” Anxiety robs us of this. Twisted in, we are not at leisure from self. Instead, we are consumed by our own thoughts and preoccupations and so are cut off from real opportunities around us. Anxiety robs us of social relationships, yes, but also of the ability and opportunity to serve. It robs us of the spiritual connections that flow from fellowship and usefulness. The relational isolation that comes from anxiety is no fluke. It’s one of Satan’s tactics. A believer without close relationships and community engagement is an easy target for doubt and despair. The relational and spiritual effects of anxiety are closely linked.
The impact of anxiety really begins and ends in the soul. If anxiety affects our human relationships, how could it not affect our relationship with God? Anxiety often happens when we doubt or lose sight of God’s wisdom and goodness. Instead of being like a weaned child with its mother, our souls are agitated and grasping, concerned with things that are beyond us (Ps. 131:2). We cannot rest in providence. This is particularly true when we are anxious about things that have not even happened. Elisabeth Elliot reminds us that God promises grace not for our imaginations but only for reality. He promises us new mercies for every morning, not for every worry. Again, Waring states, “There are briers besetting every path that call for patient care; there is a cross in every lot, and an earnest need for prayer; but a lowly heart that leans on Thee is happy anywhere.” Recognizing the spiritual dangers of anxiety is not a denial that there are hard and frightening things in this world. But, Guyon warns us: “A sad exterior is more sure to repel than attract to piety. It is necessary to serve God, with a certain joyousness of spirit, with a freedom and openness, which renders it manifest that his yoke is easy.”
This is the heart of it, isn’t it? We are most often anxious because we either do not believe or do not feel as though our Shepherd is good. Sometimes the darkness does press in, and it is a spiritual battle to believe that God is good all the time. Sometimes feeling that truth is a distant hope. That is why anxiety has such a dangerous effect on our souls. It makes us doubt the Father, even the One who has not withheld His only Son. Anxiety listens to lies—lies that may be loud and intrusive, but lies nonetheless. But being anxious also passes on those lies, as we bear Christ’s name in the church and the world while behaving as though He is not omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and good. Anxiety tries to squeeze out truth—and where that happens, lies line up to come in. Lies about God’s character and promises are the most devastating, as they seek to create doubt toward the only One who is our Helper. Anxiety and the lies that come with it separate us from God. Perhaps this is why Elaine Townsend wrote, “Lord, teach me never to be anxious, but to share with you my heart; and thank you so much for your peace as I share with you.”
Together, all these effects are sobering. But don’t let them give you anxiety. They clearly show the foolishness of justifying our worry. We all do it, don’t we? Sometimes we do it by choosing something important and valuable to fret over. In our own minds, our anxiety about our children is justified by our love for them. We justify our worry about society by our concern for safety and morality. We justify fretting about health with claims of stewardship. Other times, we try to justify our worry by choosing crises to feed it, mulling over the impact that car wrecks or terminal diseases would have. We justify our anxiety in our own minds and perhaps even to friends.
But something so destructive to our bodies, minds, and souls must be fought. Something that has the potential to distance us from God, from our communities, and from good health can’t really be justified, can it? We have no excuse for giving quarter, calling a truce, or negotiating on the side. No rationale is enough. We sometimes equate worry with discernment, concern, or even love and prayerfulness. But the fruit of those things is godly action and trust. They give life. The fruit of anxiety kills on multiple levels. Let’s not justify it. The stakes are too high. Let’s battle it. That battle may not be brief or clear-cut, and it may involve help from doctors, pastors, and others, but giving up this good fight cannot be an option for God’s children.