Words are dangerous things. As with a knife in the hands of a surgeon or the grasp of an assassin, whether they heal or harm depends on the manner in which they are wielded. The words of Scripture are no different in this regard. Divinely inspired and intended to further the purposes of the Loving God, when used incorrectly they can wound the soul.
In my experience, some of the most dangerous words in the Bible can be found in Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi-
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Written to encourage believers to focus their hope on God and his eternal purposes, they are at times transformed into a cudgel of discouragement, ignorantly wielded in a manner that bruises the hearts and minds of emotionally struggling Christians. “Do not be anxious,” wrongly elevated to the status of commandment, becomes a measure of faithfulness such that the presence of anxiety is interpreted as a sign of mistrust in God, spiritual immaturity and sin.
For Christians stricken with anxiety disorder, these words can be devastating. Feelings of guilt and inadequacy, already the daily companions of anxiety sufferers, grow in power and intensity at the implication that one’s feelings of anxiousness are a sinful choice.
I have been on both the giving and receiving end of these misspoken words. In the formative years of my Christian faith I attended a church with a Pentecostal bent, a place where faith was more emotional than intellectual, a place where hurting people were “encouraged” to simply “let go and let God.” Prayers for the struggling often included asking God to help them “trust God more” or to be “set free” from sin. I joined in these prayers, ignorant of the impact of my words.
My perspective changed a little over 10 years ago. I was preparing to enter an exam room one day when I felt a sense of dread come over me. Uneasiness and fear took hold. For no reason at all I felt as if something bad was about to happen. These feelings were soon joined by pressure in my chest, lightheadedness and a sense of detachment. My mind began to race and I felt as if my emotions were about to spin out of control.
“What is happening to me?” I thought. I answered my own question as quickly as I had asked it. “I am having a panic attack!”
The intellectual awareness of what was happening gave me the strength to stall the downward spiral. I was able to calm myself partially, enough to allow myself to call my wife and ask her to bring some medication from home. I had the presence of mind to tell my staff what was going on, and to ask them to reschedule some of my patients. It took a while, but with great effort and the calming presence of my wife I was able to finish my work day.
In the weeks that followed additional attacks came. I found myself in fear of the next attack and what it would do to me. I developed other fears as well, including intense self-doubt in personal and professional interactions. With the fears came increased irritability as I struggled to regain a sense of control over my life and thoughts. I saw a doctor, and with the help of counseling and medications learned to deal with a new reality.
I have not been the same since. While debilitating moments of panic have been rare, fear and anxious feelings now greet me every morning. Their voices are quieter some days than others, at times easily drowned out by the clamor of the day, but they are always present. Countless hours in prayer and Bible study have made one thing certain. Telling myself, or being told by others, “Don’t be anxious”, does not help.
It does not help, because the words of Paul (and Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount), were not meant to be used in this fashion. New Testament teaching about anxiety is never directed at the generalized sense of unease associated with a serotonin imbalance, it is directed at the human tendency to obsess and focus on earthly needs in a way that is contrary to a life of faith.
When Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, he was in prison, awaiting a possible death sentence. The church was being persecuted and many believers were suffering for their faith. It would have been easy for them to out of fear turn away from God. To these people, in these circumstances, Paul said, “Do not be anxious… but make your requests known to God.” Similarly, in the sermon on the mount Jesus reminded people not to focus on material needs, but to instead trust in God’s eternal purposes.
Paul was not saying that all anxiety was sin, or that Christians should never be anxious. He was acknowledging the danger that in focusing on the sufferings of this present life Christians can become discouraged. He therefore reminded them of the alternative, to focus on God and his promises.
I do not believe feelings of anxiety are a measure of anyone’s faith. Faith is displayed not in the absence of doubt or fear, but in the choice to trust God and his purposes in their presence. I do not say to myself, “Stop being anxious and trust God.” I instead say, “Yes, you are anxious, trust God anyway.”
These words do not take my anxious feelings away, but they do put the feelings in context. I am reminded that I will not be anxious forever. Eternity awaits, free from both emotional and physical pain. In that hope I find hope, peace, confidence and strength. I also find, strangely, a sustaining sense of joy.
While the focus of this post has been on Christian perceptions of anxiety it is worth noting that bad counsel is not limited to people of faith. Patients often tell me about family and friends not understanding their struggles, of being told that there is no reason for them to be anxious. I typically smile as I point out that this is why it is called an anxiety disorder. Normal people worry for a reason, people with anxiety disorder are often anxious for no reason at all.
All patients with anxiety, regardless of faith, should be encouraged to get help. Counseling, in particular Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, is extremely beneficial. Medications, especially selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, can also be tremendously helpful tools.