Is There Room for Anxiety in the Church?
By Rhett Smith
May 15, 2012
It is more than likely that if you have ever taken the risk to share your anxiety within the Christian community, you have heard some counsel in the form of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in Philippians 4:6. Paul says to the “holy people” at Philippi, “Do not be anxious about anything.” It’s a very powerful verse, a favorite of mine, and one that Christians have turned to time and time again when they experience anxiety. But what if it’s just not that simple?
I believe that when we cite this as the cure-all to one’s anxiety, we mean very well. In fact, many find comfort with the recitation of these six simple words. But in our attempts to help others and perhaps deflect our own anxiety and feelings of helplessness, we can inadvertently communicate the wrong message.
Often in my counseling practice, a Christian will come in to tell me they have tried to follow the “biblical counsel” of others to not be anxious, but their anxiety doesn’t quite seem to dissipate.
“Is something wrong with me? Am I a bad Christian?” they desperately ask me.
“No, nothing is wrong with you,” I tell them. “What if God is using your anxiety to speak to you? What might God be saying to you?”
When we discourage others from safely expressing their anxiety, then we are essentially saying to them that anxiety is a bad emotion and that it is something to be done away with. It communicates to them that perhaps something is wrong with their Christian faith, and they begin to internalize the message, “I’m a Christian. I’m not supposed to be anxious.”
Kierkegaard referred to anxiety as our best teacher because of its ability to keep us in a struggle that strives for a solution, rather than opting to forfeit the struggle and slide into a possible depression. It would be nice if our lives and our Christian faith did not involve any struggle. But to believe that—and to perpetuate the belief to others that somehow the struggle with anxiety is un-Christian—is a mistake.
We are not the first people to struggle with anxiety and the emotions that surround it. In fact, as Christians, we come from a long line of people who have struggled with anxiety and have gone into hiding, putting on masks, in the process becoming less of who God created them to be. In the opening pages of Scripture we see that when Adam and Eve ate of the fruit from the tree of knowledge, both of their eyes were opened. In that moment, their instinct was to fight or flee, which is what most of us do when we are faced with anxiety. In their anxiety, Adam and Eve chose to blame each other, flee from the scene, hide and cover themselves up. I can only imagine the anxiety that the two of them must have felt as they hid from the Lord, waiting to be found out. Every sound coming from the Lord as He made His way toward them must have filled them with a growing sense of dread. As Scripture records:
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” (Genesis 3:7-10)
When faced with anxiety, we feel exposed, naked and vulnerable. Hiding and covering up is typically how we respond when we feel those things.
God has not only created us, but He has created us as free beings, and in our freedom we are given possibility and choice. I would like for you, for a moment, to imagine God freely calling you toward His good purposes. And as you journey in that direction, you may find yourself caught between the present and the future. That in-between place of the present and the future can create all kinds of anxiety because of the freedom of choice God has given us in our life. Perhaps we are anxious because the experiences of our past have shaped us in such a way that we dread making a free and deliberate choice. Or perhaps the mere possibility of making a wrong choice has left you feeling anxious.
Anxiety is, therefore, both the cost and gift of our identity as free creatures in relationship to God. We have choices. Without freedom, and the anxiety it entails, we are just slaves—yearning for safety and security and grumbling at God rather than living the anxious journey through the wilderness toward freedom.
It's time to get unstuck
Maybe during your life journey, you feel as if the plans and purposes that God has for your life are not congruent with the life you are leading. And no matter how many times someone quotes to you Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”), you just don’t feel at peace in your heart. What many people forget to tell you is that in verse 10 of that same chapter, the Lord says that Israel will go through 70 years of exile and slavery in Babylon. Talk about anxiety! But God would use their time of trouble to draw Israel closer to Him. It was during that time of exile that God continually reminded His people that He was their God and that when they sought Him with all their heart, He would listen and deliver them out of captivity.
Anxiety beckons us to not allow our lives to get stuck in a rut. If God gives us freedom and allows possibility, then just maybe God has hardwired anxiety into us as part of those choices. Perhaps anxiety is a paradoxical feeling offered up to us as a gift that propels us to seek after Him and to continually grow in the process.
Perhaps anxiety is an act of grace because it encourages us to face our fears so that we can then choose to freely follow God where He is calling us.
Excerpted with permission from Moody Publishers from chapter 1 of TheAnxious Christian (Moody Publishers, March 2012) by Rhett Smith. RhettSmith is a licensed marriage and family therapist who lives in Frisco,Texas, with his wife, Heather, and two children.