Dig Deeper: Anxiety

This is the edited manuscript of a talk I did on anxiety. The evening included looking at it from a medical point-of-view which was done by a psychiatrist who is a member of our church. You can listen to both talks here.

I read this from a Christian writing in a book on anxiety. He says:

Worrying is a very serious thing—it is a state of mind and soul that resists the truth about who God truly is. Don’t minimize or excuse your worry as if it were okay, or inevitable. Jesus says it is sinful and that you ought not to do it

I wonder what you think about this? Do you agree? Disagree?

To a degree it depends on what you mean by worry and this is where we have to be careful with our language because if you have a spectrum with worry on one side and chronic anxiety on the other, then those things are not the same.

Added into this the complexity that anxiety is dynamic and can increase or decrease. It doesn’t just have one volume; it can be very low, humming in the background of our mind – or very high, shouting crippling fear all around us.

And based on the fact that there are possible multiple factors at play that causes anxiety or chronic anxiety – is it helpful to say worrying is sinful? And that we can’t minimize or excuse it?

You might be detecting I don’t find this statement helpful. It hurt actually, when I first read it, and although some of the rest of the book is helpful, I couldn’t help feeling – you’ve not experienced anxiety have you?

But it does present us with a good question – what is the relationship between sin and anxiety?

That is one question I think is worth exploring to try and help understand ourselves in the face of anxiety, before answering a second question – what biblical truths can help with anxiety?

And before I say anything, this isn’t a simple academic exercise for me – anxiety – crippling anxiety is something I have experienced and still have to fight off at times.

If you yourself struggle with anxiety, then you can probably relate to this quote:

Anxiety is the great bully of our emotions. It pummels our soul and leaves us sapped of energy and hope. There’s one truth it doesn’t want us to entertain, let alone see for ourselves: anxiety is a liar.”

Josh Weidmann

Maybe that is one take away for you reading this, if you struggle with anxiety.

Anxiety is a liar.

It distorts reality and magnifies our fears. And leaves you incredibly vulnerable and lonely.

And it can be very painful and hurtful when someone says to you ‘don’t worry – be happy’ as the song goes.

Which moves us to our first question –

We have to take our starting point to any answer to this question as this – we live in a fallen, sinful world where the consequence of sin means we live in a broken world, with broken bodies and broken minds.

Our mental health is not immune to the Fall.

We get a hint of this in Matthew 6:34 when Jesus says: ‘Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’

Each day has enough trouble of its own for us to worry about tomorrow. We’re faced with enough burdens and bruises and anxieties today, that to worry about tomorrow would be suffocating.

The consequences of this broken world are huge. And anxiety is a consequence – one of many – of this fallen world.

However, that verse and the passage of Matthew 6:25-34 is the rationale behind our opening quote.

Worrying is a very serious thing—it is a state of mind and soul that resists the truth about who God truly is. Don’t minimize or excuse your worry as if it were okay, or inevitable. Jesus says it is sinful and that you ought not to do it’

Timothy Lane

Three times in Matthew 6:25-34 Jesus says: ‘do not worry’ or in the ESV ‘do not be anxious.’ If that’s a command – does that mean we’re sinning when we’re anxious?

Or are we missing empathy in Jesus’ voice?

Ed Welch gives us a different emphasis:

Do you ever think that fear and anxiety are wrong? After all, you keep reading “Do not be anxious.” That command, however, has much in common with Jesus’s words to a grieving mother: “Do not weep” (Luke 7:13). They are both words intended to comfort and assure the hearer that Jesus was going to do something

Ed Welch

This is important. When we hear Jesus say: ‘do not worry’ – do we hear him like the headmaster telling the child to stop talking, or do we hear him like our compassionate saviour, seeking to comfort a mourning mother?

When put in the context of the latter experience anxiety isn’t sinful in itself – and that is especially the case when we factor in physiological causes or traumatic causes, potentially perpetrated by other sinful people.

But that does not fully get to the bottom of the question we’re asking.

Because though anxiety is not sinful in itself, sinful habits, and sinful heart postures can lead to or increase our anxiety.

We see this in the passage preceding Matthew 6:25-34 in Matthew 6:19-24. In fact, we see in this earlier passage two sinful habits that are connected to v25-34 with ‘therefore’ in v25 – which then goes on to say ‘do not worry’. You don’t need me to tell you, that that means the passages are linked. The worries or anxieties are a consequence of the sinful habits.

The two sinful heart habits are these:

I: Storing earthly treasures – (like money and possessions) – v19-21

Followed by:

II: Seeing unhealthy things – v22-23

Maybe v24 sums it all up – who is your master? Who are you devoted to? What are you loves?

Do you see how shaky a foundation it is to store up treasures here on earth? To love and desire and devote yourself to wealth and money?

Jesus says ‘where moth and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal’, to show us the uncertainty of having such things because they will not last, they are subject to decay and theft.

When we put our hopes and our dreams into wealth and possession – considering how uncertain these hopes and dreams are – is it any wonder that anxiety might appear or increase? Uncertainty breeds anxiety.

Anxiety around money is a common issue as an article on the website Calm states:

Anxiety about money frequently stems from the fear of not having enough to provide for these needs, the uncertainty of the future, or past experiences of financial instability, such as debt, job loss, or poverty. This anxiety can also be fuelled by societal pressures to achieve a certain standard of living. Money anxiety can be triggered whenever financial decisions need to be made, leading to a cycle of stress and worry.’

Read that and then read the Matthew 6:19-34 and see how Jesus speaks into this situation. He speaks straight into the uncertainty principle of anxiety. Especially when it comes to possessions:

Therefore, I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?’ (v25)

What can cause anxiety or increase it? The things we treasure more than God.

By holding on to these earthly treasures, by prioritising them and not ‘seeking first the Kingdom of God’, anxiety spawns like a parasite taking over the body.

Are you storing up earthly treasures? Money, image, wealth, your house, your career. All things that are not permanent. All things that this side of heaven are uncertain, that might disappoint, crush you, be taken from you.

But you know there are other more difficult things we treasure – like our health or our relationships. Take our health for example. The uncertainty around such painful realities of seeing loved ones suffer and worrying about our own diagnosis can be very hard.

And in one sense it is right to worry about this – because that shows we care.

But if the worry turns to a heightened sense of perpetual anxiety – then we might want to ask ourselves? Do we value our health more than the treasures of heaven?

And this plays into what Jesus says in v34 ‘do not worry about tomorrow’.

How he has put his finger on the heart of the issue.

How our fears and our worries are magnified and distorted when we grow anxious about what tomorrow will bring? The ingredient of uncertainty again takes hold and begins to digest, causing butterflies and panic.

Do you see how storing up treasures on earth could be a cause for anxiety? Is a sinful heart posture that could easily lead to anxiety or increased anxiety.

Treasuring the temporary, treasuring what is uncertain.

But that’s not the only sinful habit that could lead to anxiety. Because so could –  

This is what Jesus says in Matthew 6:22-23:

‘The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!’

When the eye is healthy so is the body, but when its not your body can be full of darkness.

The idea being, what you see, affects who you are.

Now sometimes what you see is outside of your control. You may have experienced a certain trauma through a tragic accident or some horrible abuse that you cannot unsee, and through seeing it again and again, anxiety forms.

But some of the things we do see are in our control…

This could be unhealthy ambitions that we have perhaps about what we should look like or what we should be doing, often shaped by what we see.

When Hollywood is telling you through its actors and stars this is how you should look; when society is telling you, this is how you measure success; when we’re spending time on our screens, what do we expect to feel?

When we spend three hours on average on our phones, and over six hours in total on the internet, what do we expect to feel?

When we’re interacting on social media, liking certain things and hoping to be liked – no wonder we’re anxious.

What the eyes sees affects who we are.

When we compare, when our self-esteem depends on someone liking our post, when we see what actors and models and musicians look like and how successful they are. When we strive after the perfect image or body, when we fear missing out, no wonder we’re anxious.

If you are anxious ask yourself this question, what is it that you are consuming? What are you watching? What you spending the most time seeing?

What we see affects who we are. If we see shades of darkness we’ll experience the effects of darkness. And anxiety, when it takes hold, is a very dark kind of darkness.

Now much more could be said, but hopefully this shows us that while anxiety might not be sinful, our sinful heart habits might be leading to anxiety.

What we treasure and what we see affects who we are.

But before I offer some tools to help combat anxiety, it’s probably worth noting that at the other end there are sinful responses to anxiety.

We might:

  • Become controlling to try and combat the uncertainty of the future.
  • We might turn to food as our comfort. Binge eating on snacks and sugar.
  • We might turn to alcohol & drugs.
  • Or maybe more acceptable, and yet still sinful, we might binge TV, escaping in our latest series as a way to avoid or numb the anxiety we’re feeling.
  • Or we might turn to pornography as some misguided way of self-medicating.

We use these things to escape, to hide the problem. To mask the pain. To try and feel something.

But so often they just make things worse. And create addictions and sinful cycles that go like this: anxiety plus sinful response = momentary escape. Anxiety plus sinful response = momentary escape. Anxiety. On repeat.

So here’s the difficult dilemma for people facing anxiety: on one side there maybe either sinful heart habits that are either creating or increasing anxiety, and then sinful responses that means the anxious person is often caught in a loop – in their own anxious sin-filled groundhog day experience.

Now this may or may not be your experience – but it is something to ponder – and if you are struggling or know someone who is – what’s the answer? How can we possibly combat anxiety?

This leads us to our second main point:

Let me say from the outset that I stress the word help not heal – I don’t want to give false hope, even if these truths can be tremendously healing. We still live in a broken world after all and there’s no one-size fits all silver bullet. And yet there is hope.

There are biblical truths that can be a help.

Let me list some. And as I do, think of each point as a tool you can put in your anxiety toolbox to get out and help you when you (or your friend) is struggling with anxiety:

God has given us this category that we so often forget, but common grace is God’s care and provision in this world outside of his saving grace – which means counselling and medication should not be discouraged. And although we need more biblical counsellors in the UK, we shouldn’t discourage people from getting medical help if they need it, even if it’s not the answer to everything.

Pastors are not specialists in everything, especially in mental health. So, it’s okay to go see your doctor, see a counsellor, take medication if appropriate.

Yet if we just stopped here, we would be stopping short of the full scope of the Bible’s help.

Here’s a few more from our passage. ‘Not the cure for anxiety’ as the CSB section for Matthew 6:25-34 entitles it, as if it’s a slam dunk if you follow this wisdom, but vital truths that we need to remind ourselves of and preach to our hearts. Starting with:

Jesus says: ‘look to the birds in the air…see how the flowers of the field grow’ (v26; v28).

Though not the main point, an implication being – there is something peaceful, something tranquil about nature. About the outdoors. For every hour you spend on social media or your phone or tv seeing with your eyes on the screen, could you replace it with being outside seeing God’s creation?

Jesus makes the point about the birds to contrast with us and then says ‘are you not much more valued than they?’ Don’t you see your worth and value in God’s eyes? You are made in God’s image. You are God’s treasured possession. A child of God! Adopted and co-heir with Christ. Seated with him in the heavenly realms. You are valued.

Treasure what is permanent. What is certain. God’s kingdom. Get perspective in the present about your future. Your future is with Christ. This world is passing away, it is not the world you will spend eternity in.

Treasure God and his kingdom.

And treasure his righteousness – one ultimately found in Christ yes – but don’t respond to anxiety by seeking first sin, seeking first patterns of addiction. Instead, seek first what is healthy and right and good.

What does that look like? Well let me give you some more truths to put in your anxiety toolbox:

1 Peter 5:7 is a wonderful verse: ‘Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.’ It is realistic about anxieties – it presupposes we struggle with anxiety – and says cast them on him – on the Lord! Which means you don’t have to share the burden on your own, take them to God in prayer. He will help you carry them, he will help you through them, he might even help you to get rid of them.

This is what Paul imagines in Philippians 4:6-7. Take your anxieties to God in prayer and the peace of God, which of course, transcends our anxious understanding, can guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Christ can give us peace. Sometimes it is temporary as the anxious wave hits again, but sometimes it is reflective of our spiritual reality in Christ – we can know peace that triumphs over anxiety.

One of the greatest tools we have is praying to our Abba Father.

And if you want a motivation for doing this – the reason we can cast all our anxieties on him is because ‘he cares for you‘. Isn’t that amazing? Isn’t that more comforting than food and Netflix? The God of the universe cares for you – so turn to him, before you choose your next tv series to binge.

Whatever you feel, whatever emotion you’re going through as a result of anxiety, the Psalms have felt it too. It’s good to know we’re not alone in the way we feel isn’t it?

Take Psalm 13:1-2 – ‘How long, Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?’

Sound familiar?

Anxiety is a great liar, as we’ve said. So use the Psalms to speak truths to your heart. To ‘taste and see the Lord is good’ – to know God is our refuge and strength. That, as Psalm 27:1 says: ‘The LORD is my light and my salvation – whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?’

Anxiety cannot break the stronghold that is our God – who has us in his everlasting arms. Who can hide you in his everlasting wings (Psalm 17:8).

So let the Psalms be your friend when you feel like you cannot go anywhere else – and use them to pray to God – ‘Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts’ (Psalm 139:23).

Jesus invites us in Matthew 11:28-30:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

As one writer says:

‘‘Find peace in the midst of anxiety, not through a process but through a Person who cares: Jesus

Catherine Haddow

2 Cor 12:9: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’

Anxiety might never leave you, but God’s grace never will either. And as much as anxiety might seem hopeless, ‘suffering is never for nothing’ and God is working his purposes through you, giving you the grace you need to hold on, making you perfect in your weakness.

We are not in control, he is. Help people to see they don’t need to be in control, because Jesus is. Surrender sovereignty to Him. And remember this from Joss Weidmann:

Even if anxiety tells you it will win, it won’t. While it’s a brutal bully, anxiety is still an emotion under the sovereign hand of God and never outside His control’

Whatever has happened to you in the past no other past experience can define you like the cross of Christ. As Timothy Lane states: ‘if you are a Christian, then whatever else has happened, the most important event “in your past” is the cross’.  Let the cross define your past, present and future.

If you’re a Christian, the Holy Spirit dwells in you! He is our comforter, our counsellor, our helper. So lean on him, pray that he would produce in you His fruit, and give you his wisdom and strength to persevere.

Knowing the Father’s unfailing love helps us, for nothing is more secure or permanent than the Father’s love for you. You can find this in countless verses in the Bible. God’s steadfast love endures forever! It is higher and wider and greater and more powerful than your anxiety. He is compassionate. He is gracious and merciful to us when we do sin. He never stops loving us, even when we’ve given up on ourselves.

I’m going to stop at twelve truths, but you could multiply the list, and put more tools in the toolbox.

Perhaps write them down and have them close by, and add to them. Remember them. And know that as bad as anxiety is, and even if it never goes in this world, one day we will be anxiety free.

So let me end with Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 giving you this future hope:

Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’

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