Tag Archives: Anxiety

The Strangulation of Anxiety

 

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. 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 4:4-7

In the passage cited above, the Apostle Paul is concluding his letter to the ekklesia at Philippi with an exhortation toward the attitude and actions of believers which should spring forth from a heart of joy (vs. 4).  The focus of this exhortation arises in verse 6 with the familiar statement, “be anxious for nothing” buttressed with the countering statement of “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”  I’ve written elsewhere on the significance of this passage in connection with contentment in the life a believer, but here, I’d like to focus on the theme of anxiety itself.

anxiety-charlie-brownOur English word anxiety comes from the Latin word angere meaning “to choke, squeeze, or strangle” particularly around the neck, a very appropriate definition given the effects of anxiety on the emotions and the physical manifestations it can have on the body.  Anyone who has ever battled with anxiety or has ever experienced a panic attack knows this feeling all too well.  It’s not surprising then that the Apostle Paul takes special mention here to guard the heart of believers against anxiety, expressly commanding that there be no room given for thoughts of anxiety.

This makes it all the more surprising that a recent mega-blogger shared and endorsed a post written by someone who struggles with anxiety who had accepted it as a natural part of his physiology and physical makeup describing it as a mental disorder.  In his article he makes it clear that his anxious disorder(s) are not a Matthew 6 or Philippians 4 issue, though he offers no exegesis to prove this point nor does he interact with any of the dozens of times that Jesus says do not be afraid, nor the 100’s of times that Scripture as a whole makes this exhortation.    However, I agree with his personal assessment and at the same time vehemently disagree with his biblical dismissal.

Please allow me to explain and know too that I am writing as one who has battled anxiety in various shapes and forms for 25+ years myself, though largely failed to recognize this until around 5 years ago.  I too share in the same shock that this particular blog author experienced when I was told that my physical symptoms (panic attack) were the product of anxiety.  I too have been paralyzed by fear and impending doom such that the fetal position seems the only safe spot and hours of prayer the only relief.  So it is not from a detached perspective that I write my criticisms of his position.  As well, it is not with a judgmental or condemning spirit that I write this, but one that offers hope; hope that one can be freed from anxiety by the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit having no need to throw one’s hands in the air,  resigning oneself to a mental or physiological disorder.

First, as written in the previous article linked to above, anxiety is a sin.  There is simply no other way to state this.  Allowing one’s mind to be overcome with paralyzing fear, whether it be fear of impending doom, social encounters, sickness, or death, is a failure to trust in the promises and providence of God.  Try as I may, I simply cannot give biblical latitude here.  Certainly there is healthy fear that restrains one from harm, such as speeding down a hill on a skateboard, handling a poisonous snake, etc., but that’s not what’s being discussed here and not what I’m describing as a sin.  Additionally, anxiety can often act as a “gateway sin”, meaning that when it flares up and takes its hold, it can cause us to trend towards other sins: detachment from family and reality – which can take many forms such as alcohol or drug abuse, pornography, excessive amounts of “wasting time” or vegging out in order to cope, along with other more obvious sins such as anger, impatience, laziness, etc.

By calling anxiety sin, this classifies it as a spiritual issue, though like other sins, this doesn’t detach it from its physical or mental connections. It’s a very gnostic idea that attempts to separate the spiritual from the physical and its “Christian” counterpart, perfectionism, seeks to do the same thing.  Avoiding those errors gives us a proper biblical approach to take.

As an aside, since I’ve taken the stance that anxiety is a spiritual issue, does this mean that I am anti-medication?  Yes and No.  In my particular case, I chose not to pursue medication, however I realize that some cases of anxiety (and let’s include its twin, depression) can be so severe that medication is necessary.  However, I would take the position that this medication should not be a permanent solution, but a temporary one to help a struggling person gain traction until a firm footing on the Word of God can be reestablished.

Secondly, in the article the author seems to take a “born this way” approach to anxiety, resigning himself to suffer at its grip.  This is a dangerous precedent and should be avoided at all costs.  It’s the same argument that is raised over homosexuality, alcoholism, and other sins that we classify as tendencies because of environmental or physiological effects.  Was he or any other sufferer of anxiety (me?) born this way?  Yeah, probably, because we are born sinners.  Our bent towards sin, while universal in its rebellion against God, is individual and unique in how it manifests itself, but there is simply no room to use this as an excuse for any sin, whether that be homosexuality or anxiety.  It is akin to saying to the Potter, “why did you make me this way.” Rom. 9:20-21  I, along with the Apostle Paul, would strongly caution against such reasoning.

This brings me to my third critique, that we are all born in sin, but are each given to particular sins and this often leads to confusion in trying to isolate and understand how sin works in an indiveyore_woe-is-meidual.  Because you or I may battle with anxiety, this doesn’t make us less or more sinful.  It doesn’t make us less or more in need of grace.  It’s real easy to have a woe-is-me outlook toward personal sin, as though your the only person who has ever or will ever battle it.

Because we live in a fallen world, there are naturally differing sins we are each exposed to, culturally or socially, and individually our fallen human natures are uniquely wired which may cause one person to have weakness towards a particular sin, while another person does not, but the universal principle of sin still remains.  For examples of this, consider reviewing the Old Testament witness of those saints listed in Hebrews 11 and note their character struggles (though keep in mind, Hebrews does not include these!)

Fourthly, if we take the approach that certain sins, here anxiety/depression, are physiological does this weaken or limit the power of the Holy Spirit working in our lives?  Said another way, is the Holy Spirit powerful enough to overcome a persons anxiety and give them victory over it if we conclude that it is a physical condition?  Or are His hands tied along with those of the anxious?  Does He really want to help, but because its “physiological” He’s somehow become impotent?  This seems contrary to Scripture as well.  In fact, our Lord’s earthly ministry was principally concerned with the proclamation of the gospel and the assertion of Christ’s dominion over all dimensions of creation, including the physical.  “And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction.” Matt. 9:35  The “affliction” of anxiety, whether or not we agree on where it resides, in the physical or spiritual or perhaps both intertwined, relief from its strangulation is not outside the sphere of sovereignty in which our Lord reigns.

Having briefly summarized some critiques with the viewpoint of the author in that post, let’s turn now toward how  one takes up the battle against the python of anxiety, which itself could be a critique though certainly he is to be commended for encouraging others to help him by proclaiming the gospel.

Before outlining some strategic approaches to fight this particular sin, we must first realize that anxiety/depression (and really alot of other sins) are ongoing fights, meaning the fight doesn’t begin when the panic sets in, just like the fight against other sins doesn’t begin at the moment of temptation, rather, it begins way in advance.

First, and probably most obvious is to make a daily, regular, and consistent habit of engaging in the spiritual disciplines.  Here I include prayer, reading the Bible, studying the Bible, and giving the mind over to meditation on the things read and studied.  Meditation is key.  The Puritans referred to Scripture study as the planting of the seed, but meditation on these truths is the watering of that seed.  No water, no growth.  Meditation is the way of filling the mind with thoughts on God’s Word, rather than allowing the mind to dwell on sinful thoughts.  Those who struggle with anxiety (or depression) are particularly given to thoughts of introspection, therefore it is all the more imperative to give your mind intentionally and consistently to meditation. If you’re unsure of how or what true biblical meditation is, let me commend Thomas Watson’s A Christian on the Mount.  It is simply excellent.

Second, read devotionally, especially the Puritans.  By this I don’t simply mean any devotional, especially not a light and fluffy one (the Puritans didn’t write those!), but one with deep theological insights that give the mind a cold as ice resolve for truth, yet warm the heart with affections overflowing for Christ.  This is the specialty of the Puritans, start with them.  Puritan Paperbacks are a good intro, particularly The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs.  Additionally, I would add Spiritual Depression by Martyn Lloyd-Jones, which has been especially used by God in my own fight against anxiety.

Third, pray often, particularly against the sin of anxiety.  This is probably most obvious, but also highly neglected.  I don’t necessarily mean here the short quick prayers throughout the day, neither do I intend the prayer that accompany feelings of anxiety.  I have in mind a set, regular, and extended time of prayer which one should give themselves over to in regular communion with God.

Finally, allow me to offer some helps for those times in which we feel the serpent of anxiety squeezing around our neck:

  1. Preach to yourself. Preach until it subsides; Preach every passagepreach_lloyd_jones of Scripture you know; Preach the Gospel – every aspect of it that comes to mind and don’t stop until the thoughts of anxiety and fear have subsided- then pray and go back to the Word – it’s the Sword of the Lord, but it’s useless if left in its sheath.
  2. Get away to meditate.  Particularly helpful is the observation of nature while we are meditating on the Word of God.  Interestingly, this is precisely the exhortation that our Lord gives in His own address against anxiety – Matthew 6:25-34.
  3. Talk aloud to someone about it.  Sometimes the ear and voice of a mature Christian friend, or spouse, during times of anxiety can bring relief.  Either by praying with us, or being a voice of reason against the irrationality of anxiety.  In this way, consider the application of James 5:16.
  4. Journal.  Journaling is not merely an exercise for pre-teen girls in their Hello Kitty journal, but can actually be a form of meditation. I used this blog as such a medium years ago when I first began and it served as a tremendous way to combat anxiety, while simultaneously providing clarity of my theological thoughts and beliefs.  By the way, much of what I’ve written above is actually a sermon to myself on the sinfulness of anxiety.
  5. Chop wood. I read once that one of the strategies against anxieties employed by the reformer Martin Luther was chopping wood.  Generally applied, this can be any physical activity as all will serve the same function to refocus the thoughts of introspection onto the task at hand.

In closing, let’s conclude with a word by the aforementioned Dr. Lloyd-Jones from Spiritual Depression:

“Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problems of yesterday, etc.

Somebody is talking. Who is talking? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself. ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been depressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you.’…

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’– what business have you to be disquieted?

You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’– instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do.

Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.’”

 

How to Study through a Passage of Scripture

 

Have you ever wondered how to work through a passage of Scripture for personal study and for more than just a cursory reading? Perhaps you would like to start studying your Bible or a particular passage but are unsure of how to start or what it might even look like. Below, I’ve included my thoughts from Matthew 6:25-34 as a simple example of how to get started. It goes without saying, the more you read and re-read the Bible, the more insight and understanding you will gain.

I’ve found it is sometimes helpful to break the verses/passage into smaller parts and ask yourself what you see (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How).  For example, Who is the intended audience? What does the author intend to convey here? What does this reveal about God?  The parts of the passage I’ve broken down are in bold below. Next, it may be helpful to observe what contribution that part may have to the whole, both the immediate context, the chapter/book as a whole, and other relevant passages of Scripture (cross-references). Finally, I’ve not included it in the example below, but after working through the passage as best you can, then consult a commentary or study Bible to see if you are on the right track, can supplement your thoughts with additional notes, or answer any lingering questions (as noted below). Those with an interest in more advanced study of a passage would’ve started with the Greek and either translated the passage on their own, or would have at least kept an eye on the individual words for potential meaning and usage.  For the purpose of this example, I used a more “literal translation” (ESV), since most people will be more comfortable using a translation in their own language.

Pray for understanding and the Spirit’s illumination of your particular passage.

Read the passage (Matthew 6:25-34 is the example I used below)

25 “Therefore

  • Always key
    • This provides a link to what was previously spoken of and a transition to what will now be addressed
    • “Therefore” would seem to indicate that this entire discussion on anxiety is in some way related to “laying up treasures in heaven” and the immediate preceding verse “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve God and money”

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.

  • Thesis statement
  • “I tell you”
    • The words of Christ
      • Offers encouragement and conviction
  • Do Not
    • The language of command
  • Anxious – thoughts or feelings of the mind that indicate worry or distress
    • About What?
  1. Life
  2. Eat
  3. Drink
  4. Body
  5. Clothing

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?

  • Rhetorical question asked as a transition into an example to prove Jesus’ thesis statement from above
  • Life does not find its worth in food or clothing, but in the glory of God

26 Look at the birds of the air:

  • Observance of God’s creation for the purpose of seeing the outworking of His providence
  • Note two things here:
    • A remedy for anxiety can be found in the observance of nature
    • This observation is meant to bring thoughts of God to our minds, namely His providence, but other attributes could flow out from this, i.e. goodness, sovereignty, love, etc.

they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.

  • Again, working through the observation of nature, namely birds.
  • Think through their life; note that they don’t “do” anything for food; they don’t plant, reap, or gather/store.
  • Despite this, the Father feeds them

Are you not of more value than they?

  • This should bring to mind Genesis 1&2
    • Man is created in the image of God
    • Man has more intrinsic worth than other creation, i.e. animals
    • Christ died for man
    • Therefore man’s worth is intrinsically tied to God, Who gives them their worth over and above birds
      • A multitude of passages could be examined here
        • Co-heirs with Christ
        • Children of God
        • Union with Christ
        • Romans 8, etc.

27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?

  • Utilizing another rhetorical device, which by implication must be answered in the negative, “no one can”.

28 And why are you anxious about clothing?

  • This is a transitional question to shift from life (food) to clothing.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin,

  • Again Jesus appeals to the observation of nature
  • There must be, at least implicit, an encouragement to observe nature for the purpose of 1)meditations on the glory and majesty of God in caring for His creation 2) a device for combating anxiety

29 yet I tell you,

  • The words of Christ; the Intercessor and High Priest of believers; The Great Mediator between God and Man, the God-Man.
  • This simple statement should give us encouragement in the face of anxiety that He who has “in every way been tempted like we are, yet is without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) is concerned with our anxious thoughts and has provided so simple of an alternative, namely the observation of His care and providence over creation.

even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

  • Argument from lesser (flowers) to the greater (Solomon)
  • One should be encouraged to review the providence of God in the life of Solomon and note specifically the promises/fulfillment of God in His life. see: 1 Kings 1 and following; Proverbs

30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field,

  • The “if” here will connect with the later phrase “will He…”
  • This is the 3rd argument from observation of nature (birds, flowers, grass)

which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven,

  • A parenthetical statement that serves as a reminder of the temporary nature of grass to further illustrate the point
    • As believers, we should be keenly aware of the love and care that God has for us in 1) Sending His Son to die for us 2) Preserving us in this life for His purposes and glory 3) Bringing us into glory with Him in a renewed body for life everlasting; far superior than the temporary clothing that He gives to grass
    • Despite the “alive today, burned tomorrow” temporary nature of grass, God still takes the time and effort to “clothe” it

will he not much more clothe you,

  • Argument from the lesser (grass) to the greater (believers) utilized again.

O you of little faith?

  • A mild rebuke in the midst of the exhortation
  • This should be a reminder that anxiety is a lack of faith
    • This is sin

31 Therefore

  • Always key
    • Here serves as a transition to bring to conclusion the exhortation against anxiety

do not be anxious,

  • This has the language of command
    • This puts anxious feelings on the level of disobedience, i.e. sin, again

saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’

  • Grumbling and mumbling; reminiscent of Numbers 11 and the Israelites murmuring about manna and quail
  • Perhaps a subtle contrast here is the prior encouragement to observe nature with the anxious person’s observation of a perceived lack of goods, food, drink, clothes.
    • The anxious mind focuses on self, instead of on God
      • Anxiety is at its heart selfish, self-reliant, and concerned with self-preservation

32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.

  • For
    • Builds upon the previous statement and brings it forward
  • If Gentiles here is to include believers today, i.e. Christian Non-Jews, then this entire pericope is non-sensical.
    • Yes the audience is likely a majority of ethnic Jews (His disciples in the immediate audience) however, there must be another meaning implied here, namely that the Gentiles are a non-Godfearing, unbelieving people, i.e. pagans. See Matthew 18:17
      • Further support for this may be found in the Old Testament
        • See also the Apostle Paul: Ephesians 2:11, 4:17; 1 Thess. 4:5 and the Apostle Peter: 1 Peter 4:3
    • “Seeking after” serves as a reminder that anxiety is an exercise in selfish gain, whether this be for material possessions or bodily preservation
    • An appeal to the omniscience of God
      • There is at least a note of compassion here in that God the Father, in His omniscience, is aware of the believers everyday needs

33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,

  • Surely there is a contrast between “seeking” in verse 32 and “seeking” here in this passage
    • The former seeks for things of this world, the latter seeks the things of God.
  • Seeking is 1) Of God’s Kingdom 2) God’s Righteousness
    • What is this?
      • Kingdom is referenced more in Matthew than any other NT book
        • Examine Matthew’s usage prior to this passage
    • How does one do this?
      • It is a setting of the mind
        • The background for this must at least partially be found in the earlier verses of the Sermon on the Mount, namely Matthew 5
        • See also the model prayer from earlier in this same chapter Matthew 6:9-13
          • Your kingdom come
          • Give us this day our daily bread
        • If you seek these things, in opposition to those things, your mind will not have time to focus on self, nor be anxious about your own kingdom and self

and all these things will be added to you.

  • “These things” – note the previous use in verse 32, which seems to be defined in verse 31
    • Food
    • Drink
    • Clothing

34 Therefore

  • Again key, as our Lord transitions into His concluding exhortation

do not be anxious about tomorrow,

  • The language of command again
  • Tomorrow is an all-inclusive term to catch everything that He has just included (likely back to the thesis in verse 25)
    • Life
    • Eat
    • Drink
    • Body
    • Clothing

for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.

  • This seems to imply, not that tomorrow has the ability to be anxious, nor that when tomorrow comes it’s ok to be anxious, but that in conjunction with the following statement, tomorrow’s challenges will be sufficient in their own right

Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

  • One day at a time

Summarizing how to combat anxiety:

  1. Christ commands against it
  2. Anxiety reveals a lack of faith and a failure to trust in the promises and provision of God
  3. Life’s value is not found in either food or drink, nor in the body itself, but in the glory of God; therefore our bodies are not our own, we were bought with a price and should take great comfort in knowing that; because of this, we have value to God
  4. Creation observation #1 – Birds
  5. Creation observation #2 – Flowers
  6. Creation observation #3 – Grass
  7. God’s providential dealings in each of these examples should cause us to marvel, yet as we are superior to these examples by relation so too is God’s care for us as His children.
  8. Pagans seek after their own self-interests, personal kingdom, etc. and self is at the heart of anxiety; Contrast with seeking after the things of God, namely His kingdom and His righteousness
  9. One day at a time resting in the promises of God and embracing the provision that He grants His children daily; His mercies are new every morning, great is His faithfulness!

Where do you go from here?  Read & Study (both of which you’ve done here!) Now Meditate.  Think about what you have read; what God has revealed about Himself; What about His character; What about the nature of sin.  Meditation is not absent minded, it is thinking deeply on the Word of God.

Next, Application.  This may be simply coming to an understanding about something you did not previously know of God, His character, promises, provision, etc.  Or about yourself, i.e. it may require repentance, prayer, faith, change in your attitude toward sin, etc.

Read. Study. Meditate. Apply. Repeat.