I spent a good chunk of last year worrying about all the ways I would encounter a snake while exploring the National Park system with my husband. I dreamt about snakes slithering under my tent as I slept. I replayed made-up scenarios about what I would do when a snake bit me. I even bought a snakebite kit, just in case. This cycle of worry was nothing new to me. It was silly, really, but no matter how hard I tried to stop replaying images of snakes in my head, my body seemed to have a mind of its own and refused to give up the fight against snakes that easily.
Nature of anxiety
I consider myself to be in the “anxious camp.” In fact, I meet all the criteria for a formal diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which is categorized primarily by the presence of excessive anxiety and worry, occurring more days than not, as well as difficulty controlling the anxiety and worry. On the surface, I don’t present as an anxious person, but internally it can be a very frustrating experience to have anxiety constantly knocking at the door.
The primary emotion associated with anxiety is fear, which is an automatic response to a real or perceived imminent threat. Anxiety is similar, though it typically is an emotional response to a real or perceived threat in the future. In the United States, research from the National Institute of Mental Health has found that about 19 percent of the adult population has experienced an anxiety disorder sometime in the past year.
Further, people who experience clinical levels of anxiety rarely experience full remission of their anxious symptoms within their lifetime. Anxiety is a prevalent issue for many Americans, and it’s an issue that the church cannot ignore, especially in our current COVID-19 crisis.
The “anxious” scale
Before we get into what Scripture has to say about anxiety and how God responds to anxious people, it is helpful to consider what is happening inside the brain of an anxious person. In neurobiology, researchers have found that the emotions associated with anxiety tend to occur within the emotional centers of the brain, rather than the cognitive centers. This means that clinical anxiety is more of an automatic, emotional response, rather than a premeditated flow of thought. It is the body’s way of trying to protect us from harm.
The anxious brain perceives something in the environment, makes an automatic assessment of whether a certain thing is safe and then sends signals to the body to either ramp up or shut down. All of this tends to happen without consulting the “logical” center of the brain, so the anxious person is in a state of fear before she even knows what happened to her. Her anxious response is as natural to her as breathing.
One last thing to note is the language we tend to use regarding the issue of anxiety. We often hear phrases like “worry,” “anxiety” and “fear,” which are all different levels of the primary emotion of fear. In addressing the broad topic of anxiety, it is helpful to distinguish the intensity of the emotion. If we were to put those three words on a scale of intensity, fear is the umbrella term, and anxiety would likely be of the highest intensity, while worry would be of a lower intensity. So, fear and anxiety tend to be much more complicated and persistent, while worry tends to be a milder form of fear and is more easily controlled.
We call this process of identifying the intensity of an emotion “scaling.” When speaking about fear and anxiety, it can be helpful to determine where one’s experience is on a scale. We are going to address someone who is on the low end of the scale and experiences mild forms of worry differently than we are going to address someone who is on the high end of the scale with intense, automatic biological responses of anxiety.
This idea of scaling can be compared to cars. My husband and I have two cars that we drive — one new car, which has virtually no issues, and one beater car from my college years. Whenever we drive home, we have to go up a hill.
When I’m driving our new car, I can steadily cruise up the hill without putting the car through too much stress. However, when I drive our old beater car, the car makes loud purring noises, indicating that it is struggling to get up to the top. Our new car tends to run at about 500 revolutions per minute, and our old car starts at about 1,000. When we drive up the hill, I can put the same amount of pressure on the gas pedal in both cars, but our old car will feel the pressure far more since it already starts at about 1,000, whereas the new car starts at 500. The same amount of pressure results in different levels of stress on each car.
When we scale anxiety, something similar happens. We recognize that some people start with higher levels of dormant anxiety than others, so when the stress of life is applied to each person, the person who starts at a higher level will feel its effects far more. We need to have grace and patience as we parse through our anxiety and that of our loved ones since the experiences of anxiety and worry can vary greatly.
What the Bible says
The issue of anxiety can be seen as far back as Genesis 3. This narrative picks up after God finishes creating the good world and very good humanity he had envisioned. In this scene, we read of Eve’s encounter with the mysterious serpent, who famously says to her, “Did God really say…?”
Eve was perfectly at peace with God, but the serpent slithers in to plant seeds of doubt. He questions whether God will really provide all that Adam and Eve need, and Eve buys in to the lie. She begins to question whether God will really provide for her needs, so she takes matters into her own hands.
The result? Adam and Eve hide. They refuse to trust God, and as a result, they become afraid and hide from him. In the narrative where sin is introduced into the world, we see a pattern — question God, distrust him, take matters into one’s own hands and experience fear. The act of distrusting God was sinful and resulted in much anxiety for humanity.
Thus, the Bible addresses anxiety. We see the reality of anxiety in Joshua as God commands Joshua several times to not fear what lies ahead, but to be strong and courageous. We see God’s patience for Joshua and his willingness to enter into Joshua’s anxiety by the sheer number of times he reminds Joshua to trust him. Joshua likely wouldn’t have needed the reminder to trust God if he hadn’t been anxious about all that lay ahead of them in conquering the land, so we see God’s patient and gracious character as he deals with Joshua’s persistent fear.
In the New Testament, we see Paul talking about anxiety when he tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Philippians 4:6). Even Jesus addresses the issue of anxiety, saying things like, “Do not worry about your life” (Matthew 6:31) and “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Yet we run into a problem when we forget the larger context of these verses. God is not saying, “Just stop being anxious. If you have any anxiety present, you are a bad Christian.” Rather, God is acknowledging one of the painful realities of the fall — anxiety.
In the accounts where Jesus acknowledges anxiety, He always provides a remedy. In Matthew 6, Jesus is telling His people that God meets them in their anxiety. They do not need to wonder whether their needs will be provided for, like the rest of the world often worries, because they know the Creator! When they experience anxiety, Jesus points them to the Father, who loves to care for the needs of his people. In John 14, Jesus is encouraging his disciples to not fear what’s about to happen. They are about to watch Jesus die a gruesome death on a cross, and he is telling them to not let fear dominate their experience but to trust that God is providing something wonderful through Jesus’ death.
When Jesus addresses fear, anxiety and worry, he includes an encouraging reminder that he will be with them. He is the God who steps into anxiety and who reminds his people to trust him in the midst of their fear. He is reversing the anxious curse we see in Genesis 3 by inviting us to trust him.
When we trust God to care for our needs, we don’t need to wonder, as Adam and Eve did, whether God will follow through on His promises. The remedy for anxiety is recognizing that God is with us. He steps into our anxiety and fights for us, just like he does with Joshua. He does not promise to put an end to all feelings of anxiousness but chooses to enter into it with us as we learn to trust him day by day.
Even when Paul addresses anxiety in Philippians 4, he makes earlier mention of experiencing anxiety over his co-laborer Epaphroditus (Philippians 2:28). Paul experienced anxiety, so he must not mean that we can never be anxious. So, we need to take into account all of what Paul says in Philippians 4:6. He says, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Paul’s remedy for anxiety is the same as Jesus — trust God with your anxiety. God loves to care for the needs of his flock, and he wants us to trust Him with our anxiety as we experience it.
So, with anxiety, it is not a matter of whether it is present or not, but whether we trust God to be who he says he is and do what he says he will do in the midst of that experience. It is a matter of what we submit to. Do we struggle with anxiety but still submit to God? Or do we struggle with anxiety and submit to it as our ruler?
The anxious person does not necessarily have the power to “choose” to not be anxious, but they do have the ability to choose what they do with that anxiety. They can choose to trust God even while anxiety is present, and they can choose to make use of gifts of common grace God has given to help minimize the effects their anxiety has on their trust in God (i.e. sleep, diet and exercise, medication, psychotherapy, growing in God’s truth and engaging in community and prayer).
As Christians, we are in a constant process of growing into godliness (1 Peter 2:2). This means that we are also growing in trust. Take the example of the man who cried out to Jesus in Mark 9, “I believe, help my unbelief!” He had present trust in Jesus and asked Jesus to help him grow in this trust, to which Jesus responded willingly and graciously. Given that anxiety is complicated and can have multiple factors at play (biological, chemical, circumstantial, spiritual), the process of healing from uncontrollable anxiety is lifelong.
There are admittedly forms of anxiety that are within our control, but there are also forms of anxiety that are biological, automatic responses. Regardless of its form, knowing that God invites us to grow in trust, we can be patient with ourselves and others as we daily choose to trust God, even when it’s a struggle. He equips us to grow into sanctification by the power of his Spirit, the power of his promises and the power of community. We may not be rid of our sins and weaknesses overnight, but we can learn to make it an automatic response to entrust our anxieties to him.
Trust looks like believing God is who he says he is in spite of our present anxiety. It’s not really true trust until we’re faced with pressure. Faith in God demonstrates itself most clearly when we are bombarded with pressures, anxieties, lies and temptations. We can experience all of those things and by the power God supplies, still choose to trust Him and thus demonstrate that we believe Him to be better than anything else.
How God responds to anxiety
We can find deep, lasting encouragement and peace as we look to the God who enters into the human experience. He is Immanuel, “God With Us” (Matthew 1:23). He is the God who stepped into human flesh, who was not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters (Hebrews 2:11). He is the God who cares for us and asks us to place our anxieties on Him (1 Peter 5:9). He is the God who calls us his “little flock,” who cares for our needs as a Good Shepherd cares for helpless sheep (Luke 12:32). And he is the God who fights for us, promising to always be with us wherever we go (Joshua 1:8, Matthew 28:20).
We can take God at his word that in Jesus, he will continue to provide all we really need. We do not need to question or fear whether God will follow through. He always has, and he always will. We can take him at his word that there is nothing in heaven or on earth that can separate us from the love of God that is found in Christ Jesus — “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (Romans 8:38-39).
There is nothing in creation that we face, including anxiety, that can separate us from this profound love of God that is in Christ. Even as we experience stability slipping from our grasp, we can be certain that we have not slipped from God’s mind.
The Lord has been kind to me in both small fears and complicated cycles of anxiety, and not even something as seemingly trivial as a fear of snakes can thwart God’s care for his sheep. In fears both big and small, in seasons of economic turmoil, job losses, untimely deaths and a virus that seems to loom over every facet of life, we can be sure that we have a strong advocate: Immanuel, God with us.