“4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 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.
Our 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 individual. 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:
- Preach to yourself. Preach until it subsides; Preach every passage 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.’”