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Movember Myth #2: Anxiety is Just a Lack of Faith

In our second Movember Myth, I am going to be tackling a similar issue to last time, but instead of focusing on depression, it will be her close cousin anxiety which will be the focus.
 
Be Anxious for nothing
On the surface, it is simple to see and say that anxiety and faith are on opposite ends of the faith spectrum. If God is completely in control, (Prob 16:33), then he won’t allow anything to happen to me beyond what is for my ultimate good (Rom 8:28), because He is good and has demonstrated His love in the sending of Jesus (Rom 8:32.) Not only is worrying about a given issue proof that you don’t trust God’s sovereignty or goodness, it goes against the clear command of the New Testament. On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus makes clear: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” (Matt 6:25) He goes on to explain illustrate God’s providential care for birds and flowers, and their lack of anxiety about the basic needs of life. If this is the way God cares for the most fleeting elements of His creation, surely we as the crown of his creation can trust Him to look after us? Paul doubles down on this in Philippians 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Here we see the command to not be anxious, followed by an alternative of thankful prayer to God. What these verse tell us is that there is absolutely a type of anxiety that is sinful, disobedient to scripture, and a failure to trust in the providential care of God.
 
Jesus’s dark night
I say some, and not all, because of what I see when I read of Jesus’s dark night in Gethsemane. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:42-44). Last week I mentioned how Jesus experienced the depths of human sorry in this moment, but Luke’s mention of anguish and sweat like blood is more indicative of a great anxiety. It is not that Jesus didn’t trust His Father, and there is absolutely no way we can interpret this anxiety as sinful. Jesus was rightfully anxious because he knew in the coming hours that he would go through physical torment, but worse than that, face the full wrath of God against sin. He would find Himself, for the first time in all eternity, separated from His Father. In this moment, Jesus was rightfully anxious.
 
Defining anxiety
This apparent discrepancy comes from the many varied ways we use the word anxiety. Jesus here is facing two kinds of anxiety. We may use the same word to describe these, as well as the different, sinful anxiety talked about above, but we are describing different phenomena. The first is the God-given gift of fear that we have of danger. It is this type of anxiety that keeps us from wandering up dark alleys in dodgy areas of town, and keeps us safe from predators, both animal and human. If you don’t have anxiety when you are about to skydive, that’s a problem! God has given us this fear to protect us, and as Jesus was fully man (while remaining fully God), of course this type of fear would beset Him. Jesus also faced a second type of anxiety, a fear of the consequences of sin. This is the anxiety or fear we experience when we know our misdeeds are coming back to bite us. An affair is uncovered by a spouse, a lie is shown to be false, we are caught stealing or we have hurt someone we care about in our anger. Perhaps we are anxious about meeting our financial obligations because we have been wasteful or even sunk it into gambling. Jesus felt this same anxiety, but not for His own sin (obviously), but for the consequences of ours.
 
Neither of these two types of anxiety should be thought of in the same way as a wilful ignoring of God’s care and sovereignty. The final type of anxiety that is worth us bearing in mind, is the one that could be classed under the issue of mental health. Joe Carter describe this type of anxiety this way: “For some people, anxiety manifest as a physiological malfunction that has become both disordered and debilitating. Some symptoms include persistent anxious thoughts on most days of the week for six months, when the anxiety interferes with daily functioning, or when you have anxiety-related symptoms (such as trouble sleeping). These are often symptoms of a medical condition such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or social anxiety. In such cases a person should seek help from a counselor or physician.” It is important to note that what is going on with this type of anxiety, which should be considered a disordered physiological response rather than sin, can be as much a biological and hormonal sickness as depression, asthma or cancer.
 
Holding the Tension
If you accept my reasoning above, hopefully you will see there are times where anxiety is simply a natural response designed to protect us, at other times a malfunction of that natural response outside our immediate control, sometimes a consequence of our sin, and sometimes a sin in its own right. Therefore, we must be able to hold the interplay between faith and worry with a bit of tension. The way I do this as I talk to others will thus have to differ on a case-by-case basis. When talking with those who are anxious, I must be slow to judge their fears, as there may be complications or layers to their anxiety that I don’t understand. In the midst of this however, it is quite ok to gently remind them of the trust they can have in their all-good, all-powerful God. This isn’t designed as a rebuke but an encouragement! They really don’t have to be worried about the outcome in any situation given the certainty the have in the gospel. However, when their anxiety is beyond the realm of normal response to threat or danger, it is not enough to simply say “have more faith!”. I encourage them to prayerfully seek the medical help they need to help overcome this sickness, while concurrently work on building their trust in God’s sovereignty and benevolence. After all, It just may be that this clinical anxiety is the tool God is using to draw them to Himself in greater levels of faith and reliance.
 
 

If you think you might struggle with clinical anxiety, I encourage you to speak to your GP or a counsellor. Some resources that might be helpful as you battle with anxiety can be found below:

https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/topics/fear-and-anxiety/

https://www.desiringgod.org/topics/fear-and-anxiety#