Lessons on Anxiety from Scripture

Author

Mitch Rhodes

Intro

In recent years, there has been a growing number of people reporting experiencing anxiety or developing anxiety disorders. This is affecting secular culture as well as Christian community. It is essential that we prepare ourselves with the tools to help others as they struggle with anxiety. In my early twenties I spent a significant time struggling anxiety and developed an appreciation for just how painful and debilitating it can be. I wanted to share some insights from scripture that were encouraging and life giving in my experience.

One note: This is not meant to be an exhaustive dealing with the topic of anxiety. This is meant to explore some of the truths about anxiety expressed in scripture. Those who experience anxiety may at times need clinical help in addition to pastoral care. We should be familiar with other resources about mental health, as well as other pastoral helps so that we can come alongside friends or family in their battle.

What is the nature of anxiety?

If we hope to achieve victory over anxiety, we need to understand what it is. Anxiety carries with it a sense of preoccupation combined with fear. While it's natural to experience fear in certain situations, anxiety extends beyond temporary fear to become an obsessive preoccupation. For that reason, many people who are anxious struggle to think about anything besides the object of their fear.

The Bible uses the word “Merimnao” for anxiety. It carries with it a sense of being preoccupied, or intensely focused on something. It should be concluded, that anxiety has a lot to do with our focus.

Jesus spoke on anxiety and specifically how where we place our focus effects it.

Matthew 6:25-34

Jesus addressed anxiety in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus spent much of Chapter 6 discussing how we can live differently when we know that God will provide. There are valuable insights into anxiety in his words.

First, he commands “Do not worry about your life.” This means that we have a choice about what we dwell on. Anxiety, at least in some part or some way is an act of the will. What we choose to fill our minds with often drives our mood. Dwelling on our worries often produces anxiety. While this is not a popular claim in our current culture, this is an important truth that any anxious person must accept. We are not victims of their own mental state; but are morally culpable actors when it comes to where we place our focus. To continually choose to dwell on our fears is sinful.

Jesus then tries to help his listeners think through their anxiety. “Isn’t life much more than food and clothing?” He is trying to encourage them to see they miss out on life, on God’s blessings, his plan for them and his grace when they preoccupy themselves with their anxieties. Isn’t this the truth! I often think about how much of my life I miss out on when I am preoccupied with anxiety. I lose touch with my friendships, I isolate myself, my performance at work suffers. I think Jesus wants his people to see that anxiety is enslaving, and we can be free from it.

Interestingly, he calls their attention beyond themselves into nature. Remember that anxiety has a lot to do with where we place our focus. People who are anxious often feel a sharp disconnect from what is going on around them. People will often describe it as being in their own head. Here we see a helpful tool in moving past that. Jesus draws their attention outward, to what is observable with their senses. “Look at the birds of the air”.

I worked as an aide in a classroom with students who experienced extreme emotional disturbances. One of my students suffered from severe anxiety and would frequently have panic attacks. I learned a helpful exercise for calming someone down was to help them get out of their head and into their surroundings by choosing to focus on what they sensed. The student sit down in a quiet room. He would slow his breathing and I would ask him to try and notice two things he smelled. He would tell me. Then I would ask him to describe what the air felt like, was it hot? Was there a breeze? Then I would ask him to try and point out five noises he heard. Then he would open his eyes and tell me seven colors he saw. As we went through this exercise, he began to calm down and breathe easier. This exercise pulled his focus off an abstract fear and ground it in reality. He saw that he was safe and that naturally calmed him down. God understands that anxiety is caused by focusing on fears and helps us shift our focus away from fear. “Look at the birds of the air, and the flowers of the field.”

As he draws their attention away from their fear, he helps them to drive their thinking deeper into the spiritual reality that they find themselves in. Here he points to the God who is behind nature and whose character, specifically his love and power, is reflected in nature. What is discernible about God from the birds and the flowers? God’s provision for them. God provides all the needs for these creatures every day. Here is another major key for helping the anxious; we need to get our sights focused on God who is in control and provides for us.

Keep in mind, Jesus took the anxious through a process before they could hone in on God’s character. Ultimately, God is where we need to focus, but it is difficult to steer our mind from an abstract fear to the spiritual reality of God’s character. There is wisdom in getting our focus onto things that are easy to think about and comprehend, like nature. Then, use that new focus to drive deeper into the spiritual reality. It can often backfire when we are trying to help an anxious person and we tell them they should simply dwell on God’s character to help free them from anxiety. They may try but find their thoughts keep winding back onto their fear.

With God’s character in mind, Jesus then reminds his listeners of who they are. “Are you not much more valuable than these?” We know God cares for his creation. Yet He cares much more for people He created to reflect his image. God values each human being because He has made us to be tremendously valuable. And because each of us is tremendously valuable, God will treat us in a fitting way. God will take care of us and work for our good. We can find rest in that reality. But we must take time to dwell on it first.

Jesus then calls his hearers to action. “Seek first His kingdom and righteousness and these things will be added to you.” The anxious person needs to move beyond just trying to be free from anxiety for selfish reasons. In fact, selfishness often leads to more anxiety in the future! Instead, we should align our priorities with God’s kingdom. God’s mission in history has been to bless all people by restoring them back into a relationship with him. When we get the focus off our fears, we are freed up to participate in God’s plan to bring about his kingdom!

Finally he says, “Do not worry about tomorrow, today has enough trouble of its own.” Here, Jesus reminds us that the best way to maintain a focus on God is to see how He is working and providing for us in the present. We feel anxious about things that lie off in the future because they are unsure. Yet, we should not focus on the unsure things in the future, because we are not living in the future. I remember two quotes striking me about why living in and focusing on God’s provision in the present is so important. CS Lewis comments:

“Never… commit your virtue or your happiness to the future. Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment ‘as to the Lord.’ It is only our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty can be done or any grace received.”[1] 

We do not know what the future holds. It is outside of our control. Further, we cannot receive future grace from God because we do not live in the future. Nor can we serve God in the future, because we do not live in the future. We only live in the present and that is where we should focus. When we learn to shift our focus onto today’s blessings we will notice God’s provision each day. This grows our trust that God will provide again tomorrow and the day after. So, we do not need to worry about tomorrow. But we can be grateful for God’s provision today.

Another quote I found helpful was from John Lennox in his book on the prophet Daniel.

In my visits to Russia, I came across people who have suffered detention in the Soviet Gulag. The first such man I met had spent several years detained in a Siberian labor camp for the crime of teaching children from the Bible. He described to me that he had seen things that no man should ever have to see. I listened to him, thinking how little I really knew about life, and wondering how I would have fared under his circumstances. As if he had read my thoughts, he suddenly said: “You couldn't cope with that, could you?” Embarrassed, I stumbled out something like “No I am sure you are right”. He then grinned and said “Nor could I. I was a man who fainted at the sight of his own blood, let alone that of others. But what I discovered in the camp was this: God does not help us to face theoretical situations but real ones. Like you, I couldn't imagine how one could cope in the gulag. But once there I found that God met me, exactly as Jesus promised.”[2] 

I believe there is great value in that truth for the anxious person. Anxiety is a theoretical situation that we think up and dwell on. Then we wonder why God doesn’t help us in our anxiety! We feel that God should trump our feelings and thoughts. And when we still struggle, we start to doubt if God can help us in our anxiety. Perhaps the issue is that God will not appear in our fantasy world of anxiety. He does not work in a theoretical mental world. He works in the real one, and that is where we can become freed from anxiety. God is here, and is providing for us right here and now.

Philippians 4:4-9

One thing to notice is that Paul is speaking to a group of Christians. Anxiety cannot be dealt with when the individual is disconnected from the church. God meant for our spiritual health to thrive within a supportive and nurturing community of people who love Him. We need to keep this in mind because anxiety is the individual’s responsibility to work through, alongside Christian brothers and sisters who can help bear the burden.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” Paul tells the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord throughout his letter to them. Rejoicing is not a feeling state but it is a decision to wrestle your mind into finding good things in your life. Anxious people are often negative because they are so focused on their fears that their outlook on life becomes gloomy. The anxious person needs to choose to find God in the middle of their negativity, focus on Him and begin to delight in the His character. If I had to define what it means to rejoice in the Lord, I would say it is when we learn about who God is and appreciate and delight in the fact that we get to enjoy a friendship with such an amazing personal God.

There is much to rejoice in about the Lord. He is a kind and gracious God who loves us and works for our good in all aspects of life. He is a forgiving God who pays the penalty for our wrong doings himself through Christ. He is a creative God who formed nature, and formed the earth and formed each individual person on earth. The list goes on.

Yet the anxious person may say that they don’t feel joy in the Lord. I think this is a troubling state for them to be in, because often they may truly want to find joy in the Lord but they think that because they don’t feel it, they don’t have it. We should remind them that if they are taking time to dwell on God and his character and then thanking him for it then they are rejoicing in the Lord. The feelings will follow.

Paul next turns to a truth that can set the anxious at ease. “The Lord is at hand.” God is close to all, and as believers we have the active presence of God living in us through Gods Holy Spirit. There is great comfort knowing God is with us. The importance of this can hardly be put into word. We should take time to turn to God and thank him that he is always with us! Allow that process to calm us down as God’s presence comes into focus, and our anxieties fall to the background.

Paul instructs “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything with prayer and supplication and thanksgiving make your requests known to God.” As we begin to focus on God’s presence with us, we can then transition into thanking God for his provision in our circumstances. We can also spend time in prayer for those who are also in need. This expands our focus onto other people. This is the path to freedom from anxiety.

Then we are given the promise that God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds. I think it’s an important caveat to say that God’s peace may take some time as we practice thanking Him, rejoicing in Him and praying for people. God wants us to learn to do those things independent of how we feel and so He allows us to wait for his peace to come at some points in life. Encourage the anxious friend who is still waiting for God’s peace, so that they do not lose heart. Encourage them of God’s goodness, His immanence and His love for them.

Final Thoughts

There is much more that could be said regarding the Biblical perspective on anxiety. Suffice it to say that God cares for each person and wants to provide rest. He is compassionate and knows what it means to experience fear. Christ experienced such intense fear the night before His death that he felt like He could not complete God’s plan for Him. We can know that we are not alone when we know Christ experienced the same fears.

Despite our fear, through God’s strength and power we can show courage in the face of anxiety. I leave off with the verse my mom shared with me when I was anxious. Deuteronomy 31:6 says “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.”

[1] C.S Lewis, “Learning in War-Time”, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (HarperSanFrancisco, 1980), pp. 61.

[2] John Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism, (Monarch Books, 2015), pp. 151.