Overcoming Anxiety, When the Bible Does not “work”
Dave is struggling with anxiety. At first he would never have thought that his feelings would continue to compound, much less define them with a name such as anxiety. Stress was a normal part of life as it is for everyone; deadlines and obligations, social pressures and financial needs were a constant concern but all managed within their bounds. Then a pandemic appears on the horizon and was suddenly upon him. Dave was laid off but the bills kept coming. Listening to the news and social media, words describing sickness and death seemed to be a constant reminder of impending doom. Dave started having trouble sleeping, staring at the ceiling for hours and waking through the night with the same thoughts repeating through his mind. He dwelt on the future and what might happen, working out possible solutions and taking it all to a fictional end over and over again. Dave’s wife noticed that he was increasingly irritable and seemed on edge often. Dave went to church every Sunday and used to read his Bible and pray but now those disciplines seemed difficult and empty. Tim was Dave’s best friend and noticed his struggles with being anxious, they were talking about it one day and Tim suggested that Dave read some Scriptures that dealt with anxiety which Dave did somewhat reluctantly but also with a tinge of hope. At first, they seemed to help, he did what the verses instructed him to do by praying more and working harder at not dwelling on things and worrying but soon these things became harder to do and seemed like empty rituals. Anxiety was compounded by shame at his lack of faith and ability to get over his issues.
If parts of this scenario feel familiar to you, be encouraged and know that Scripture is active and working. Having the right understanding of the purpose of the Bible and a proper expectation of its application is critical though.
First, we will take a look at one very popular passage and see how it has common threads throughout other Scriptures dealing with fear and anxiety, and then finally we will see what it does and does not call us to do or think.
The Lord is at hand; 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 4:5b-7
This is commonly quoted or read starting in verse 6, negating the words “The Lord is at hand” which is a tremendous error. Without those very important words we are given a command without a commander and marching orders without a direction. With that vital truth we simply begin with “do not be anxious” – come on, just stop it already. Get over it. Pray and be thankful more and when you do that all correctly you will have peace. This shopping list of commands is utterly empty without knowing that God is at hand. Of course adding those words back in does not change anything either when the goal is to have God fix our circumstances without having His presence.
Looking at some other passages helps us see that this is not a mechanical solution but a personal one and that it involves relational actions such as talking, submitting, and trusting but even more than that, it is knowing that who is present is able to help.
The Lord is at hand and in control and wants good for those who love Him. Think of a time that you went into a stressful situation, maybe as a child moving to a new home and school or as an adult heading into a big meeting. Having someone with you that is looking out for your best interest is comforting but when that person has the power to protect you and the wisdom to guide you, your fears tend to melt away. They do not magically vanish because you have chosen to overcome them, they are carried along and overshadowed by the presence of one who can provide and protect.
Most people are familiar with the story in Exodus where the Israelite’s have been set free from Egypt only to be trapped against the Red Sea while the Egyptians are barreling down on them with horses and chariots and a great vengeance in mind. Imagine being there with all of your belongings on your back and your family surrounding you, your children, babies, grandparents and spouse all in an incredibly vulnerable moment with certain pain and death about to hit. It is in this moment when Moses reminds them that God is at hand.
And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.” Exodus 14:13-14
This is incredible news for both the Israelite’s and us, if you were able to accept these words and believe them, your fears would melt away but the better news is that even if you lacked the faith to believe this, God is still faithful. There are striking similarities between this and the numerous passages in the New Testament dealing with anxiety. When Jesus teaches about being anxious, He is gentle and loving yet also brings a firm reminder, even a rebuke to those listening. In Matthew 6, Jesus ties being anxious to having two masters and being double minded but also uses loving fatherly language, a father who can provide and has a desire to rescue His children. Then you have Peter calling those who are anxious to humble themselves and cast their anxieties on to God.
Scripture is unified in speaking about our fears and anxieties. We are anxious when we turn to ourselves and trust in our own power to save, but God brings a loving rebuke which is meant to wake us up and draw us near to Him. This is not to say that we are always at fault for falling into anxiety, often we create wrong expectations or develop desires for worldly things that are a cause of anxiety when they fail us but other times we are victims of sin which creates anxiety. Most likely it’s a mixture of both and both have the same cure, an intentional humbling of our souls and movement toward God.
Scripture is not meant to be a quick fix nor is it meant to change your circumstances without changing your heart. I have counseled many people and it is fairly easy to spot a person who simply wants a quick fix without really wanting to change and if there is change it is short lived. The relief of anxiety always involves heart change, which requires humility. This heart change accompanies the relief of anxiety for those who have caused their own anxiety as well as those who are victims of sin. Both have a need to see God as sovereign and good and a turning from themselves and to God.
What can you do then to be less anxious?
Talk about your struggles with mature and trusted Christians. This not only requires humility, but it allows you to borrow their faith in a moment of weakness. Imagine those Israelite’s at the Red Sea again hearing Moses shouting out the promises of God. I am sure that some of them had to be nearly carried as they trembled in fear. Do not be ashamed if you seem to lack enough faith to overcome your fears, simply taking a step of asking for help is a step of faith.
Humbling yourself and seeking God is not just a one time step but part of the daily life of the Christian. We will go through times of fear and doubt but those are opportunities to fall at the feet of Jesus. Anxieties do not simply disappear. Faith does not banish suffering from illness or financial loss or broken relationships, but it does put them into perspective and allows us to carry them to God, over and over again. Having anxious feelings that are slow to change and still being faithful to cry out to God over and over again might feel like failure, but it is quite the opposite, that is the definition of being steadfast, more precisely it is the definition of long suffering. Be steadfast and seek God through prayer, the reading of His word, and other Christians.
Be in awe.
In Matthew chapter 10, Jesus sends out the apostles and warns them that persecution will come but to not be afraid of man, be afraid of God instead because He truly holds the power of eternal life and death as the Creator of all. This is not a statement to be in fear of a capricious God but a loving, righteous, and holy Father who cares for them, knows the number of hairs on their heads and will provide and protect. Simply put, when we are sober minded, we will realize that we have feared things which do not deserve the weight that we give them in our lives. Being in awe of God helps us to see that the things we fear are all subject to His authority.
Following these steps, you may not experience the instant relief you hoped for but you will be able to look back and realize that you have removed yourself from Gods throne and have grown to love being in His presence while the world seems to be in turmoil around you and this is precisely where God is pointing you to in His Word. The problem is not that Scripture is not working, it is that we have the wrong expectation of how it is meant to work.
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.