These notes are based on a talk by Andrew Nichols at Oak Hill Theological College.
Anxiety is on the rise because of covid, because of social media, because of Ukraine war, because of rising energy bills. But there were always plenty of things that people were anxious about. People are anxious about money, children, health, relationships with others, relationship with God, visas, where will I live.
What is anxiety? I am anxious when I think something bad is going to happen to someone or something I care about and knowing that affects me somehow.
Every human experiences some kind of anxiety. Not all anxiety is bad – we should care when a loved one goes to hospital or when a church leader resigns. Paul says ‘don’t be anxious’ but uses the same word about the churches he is ‘anxious’ about.
Anxiety affects the whole of me – my soul and body. I feel anxiety in my body. Where do I feel it?
We can change some of the symptoms of anxiety at the body level. The headache, palpitations, tummy troubles. These come from adrenalin. Beta blocker drugs can block these. But that has not cured anxiety. It may be worth doing. It may help us address the underlying causes without the distraction of physical symptoms. Other drugs are often used – like alcohol – which may numb things. But like all drugs alcohol has side-effects. If your alcohol intake is concerning you or people who know you are concerned, then you’d be wise to explore ways back up that path. The fact that people go to this extent to deal with it, shows how powerfully affecting anxiety is.
Anxiety comes from our thinking. So talking therapy – used to be called counselling – that can help. Are the things we are worrying about worth worrying about? Will worrying make any difference? Can we address those worries? If your worries are about money, sitting down – perhaps with a friend – and looking at the finances, the budget, can help because your understanding of the issue is clear. But these don’t get us to the depths that scripture takes us. The Bible says God will use all things to make us more like Jesus. How will God use things that make me anxious to make me more like Jesus?
Anxiety can affect our social lives. Choosing to conceal anxiety from others, we end up isolated from others.
The Big Bible picture
Do we want to be cured of anxiety? Anxiety might be considered part of the course of life. No-one ever gets to be completely free from anxiety. We want to be free from the crippling anxiety. But normal anxieties: It is a healthy reaction in a dangerous world. Perhaps anxiety is good and healthy? The world says we’re animals who’ve learned to run away from predators. An antelope see a lion, the adrenalin surge enables it to run fast and breath fast. Anxiety is simply understood in terms of fright then flight or fight response. Those things happen in us. But more is going on.
Think about how anxiety is described across the whole Bible story. In the beginning, there was no fear. At the end, there will be no fear. In the present stage of God’s plan, fear and anxiety mark our lives.
In Creation, we were made for relationship with God. In Eden, fear and anxiety and worry are unknown and unneeded. Why need to worry – they are in a beautiful place, they have each other, they have the constant company of their creator. God created us with eyes, ears and all senses to appreciate things around us – including enjoying God.
But early on in the Bible story, we become separated from God and become afraid of God. Adam said, ‘I hide because I was afraid’. We have many threats in life – failure, pain, sickness, broken relationships and death. There seems so much to worry about, so anxiety seems inevitable. Most of all, death. If we are aware that we will die, no one can say to us: cheer up, it won’t happen.
We are surrounded by powers greater than us: human authorities, satan, death, other people who keep conflicting with us. The senses God gave us can see these things going wrong. The senses made to thrill us with him now present us with evidence that we are in a threatening world.
But God comes alongside us and redeems us addressing the problems created by sin and curse. Every one of our external enemies is weaker than our God. We are safe from all external threats and enemies, even from sin and from death. The eyes that he created can be opened again to see him in his majesty and in his humanity coming to save us. And he promises a paradise restored. There will be nothing to worry about in the new creation. The enemies are still there, but they do not have a future. We have in our possession by the grace of God, the best response to any sort of anxiety. The news of Jesus.
How God uses our anxieties
Our anxieties act as a reminder to us that we are still in the corrupted world. The Bible tells us that the solution lies in dealing with the greatest problem – sin, separation from God and death. Everything else is like a sticking plaster over that.
So don’t stop in thinking anxiety can be good as a motivator or that beta blockers and CBT can reduce it. We are grateful to God for the help from drugs and talking therapies. But the gospel tells us that the real issue is sin, separation from God and death. The gospel reminds us of help for today and bright hope for tomorrow. God gives anxious situations not just to develop fight and flight responses – so we survive – but that we learn to call on him and so really live.
- Anxiety can be an alarm that wakes us up to turn to him and trust in him.
- Sometimes God reduces our anxiety – teaching us a better sense of how great and powerful he is.
- Sometimes he gives us better things to worry about.
- Sometimes he shows us anxious people alongside us – so we can learn to be less self-preoccupied and learn to help them.
- Sometimes God makes no difference to our anxieties, except that we are talking about it.
- Sometimes the anxiety reminds us that we are in a broken world.
Some Bible passages
‘Do not be afraid’ is the commonest command in the Bible – not ‘love me’ nor ‘have faith’. God knows we live in a scary world. He comes close and without losing patience, says again and again and again – do not be afraid.
- Psalm 46
V1 is not ‘he is a help FROM trouble’ but ‘help IN trouble’. If the whole world collapses, if the relationships on which we rely seem scarily fragile. If our health feels like it is fading. God’s people need not fear – he is an ever-present help IN trouble. If he can keep us safe whilst the mountains fall around us, then it is ok for the mountains to fall around us, because we will be safe.
- Psalm 131
Like a weaned child – full and content, not anxious about where the next meal comes from. In a world where so much is unknown, we can be less concerned. There are things we can’t understand, let alone control. We are always being invited to worry about things that we can’t understand and about which we have no control. We need to allow the Lord to worry about those things he is in charge of – know the difference between his responsibility and my responsibility. We often try to take on things that only he can do. I can’t save you. I can’t make you like me. I can try to love you and I can seek forgiveness when I get it wrong. Knowing what are my concerns and what are for God to be concerned about is a helpful way to deal with my anxieties. What are the underlying concerns that reflect this misapprehension?
- Matthew 6
There are two possible places to put our trust – serving God or serving money. But serving money continues to grow our anxiety – what happens if we don’t have enough or it gets taken away. Money is not personal – it makes no promises. But God makes promises to care for us. God the creator is better one to trust than money – and he calls himself our Father. And he is a Father who knows how to give his children what they need.
- Philippians 4
Paul is full of joy about the difference that knowing Jesus makes. So he doesn’t just say ‘do not be anxious’ nor ‘you’re clearly not praying enough’. He says ‘the Lord is near’ then tells them to pray. Present your requests to the Lord who is near. We can look at any fear in my life and say ‘Jesus look at that, I’m scared, it feels scary. What will we do about it?’ Jesus has feared facing death.
How do we love God in our anxieties? And care for others in their anxieties?
What am I aware of? What am I aware of that indicates anxiety? The symptoms?
What are the things that make me afraid? Rejection by others?
Why is that a fear – what am I afraid of?
What about God addresses this fear?
Think about his sovereignty – in everything – not just in the generalities. We need to make the connection to the specifics in our lives. He is not afraid to open an envelope – he was there when the note was written. He is sovereign over the surgeon and the knife tomorrow. He is sovereign, knowing about the person I’ve lost touch with. He know about the future.
We are frightened when there is too much information and we don’t know how to decide. He can give us wisdom.
What can we ask for from God? Please help me to remember that I am safe in your care when I speak to the person I’m afraid of.
Who might help me? Others may be able to point to parts of the Bible I haven’t read recently. Be in the habit of sharing your anxieties with others. It makes it easier for others to share their own fears.
Remember God’s intention may not be to remove my anxiety but to use my anxiety to draw me to himself.
Take others’ anxieties seriously – they are humans in a scary world. Seek to understand why they are afraid. Don’t brush people off who have expressed the vulnerability of admitting fears. What do they fear and why is it scary to them? Continue to show interest and ask them about things – pick up on the details.