Editors Note: This is the first article in a series on addressing fear, worry, and anxiety over the next few weeks. It is more general in nature because future articles will be giving more specific strategies on how to deal effectively with fear, worry, and anxiety. Our BCC Staff writers have spent a great deal of time working through these issues, and we pray that series will be a blessing to you. See other posts here.
Everyone worries. Everyone has a problem with anxiety—including me. Despite the fact that we generally think God is against our fear, worry, and anxiety, we don’t ever seem to completely overcome its harsh grip.
God created us as emotional people. Our emotions are given by God to put us “into motion.” For instance, anger is driven by a sense of injustice and a desire to oppose something that we feel isn’t fair or right. In the same way, fear is a God-given emotion when our mind alerts us to danger, real or perceived. Anxiety is what we feel when our body is responding to the emotion of fear. Worry is the thought process that mulls over and gives power to the object of our fear.
Fear, worry, and anxiety show up together and feed into each other in the various situations where danger lurks. Even at times when we don’t know why we feel anxious, our brains have previously learned to fear in a similar situation that we simply can’t recall at that moment. Our anxiety is tied to our life experiences and thought patterns, not some random biological defect. To be fair, we don’t all experience fear, worry, and anxiety the same way. Different bodies feel differently despite similar thought processes and experiences, but God did not tell us to fight a battle that is impossible to win.
With God’s help, each one of us can progressively improve in the way we fight fear, worry, and anxiety.
All throughout the gospels, Jesus addressed the fear, worry, and anxiety that those around Him were experiencing. However, he didn’t just do this to bring physical comfort to those experiencing ill effects of anxiety. He challenged those he encountered to understand the spiritual significance of their anxiety. Fear, worry, and anxiety affect our physical health, but they also reflect our spiritual health. Our brain’s responses are most influenced by our hearts and our values. Our thinking and actions reflect the spiritual condition of our hearts.
Jesus taught us to examine our fear, worry, and anxiety as clues into who we worship or what we worship in any given moment. In conversations with Jesus, His questions often exposed the values and thinking that were causing fear, anxiety, and worry. His goal was never to shame those who honestly sought Him, but rather His questions were an invitation to trust in Him as the creator and provider of all that they truly needed.
When Jesus was teaching His disciples about fear, worry, and anxiety, He taught four key principles. These principles reveal how a wrong response to fear, worry, and anxiety can hinder our spiritual walk, and why we must take our fear, worry, and anxiety seriously as a follower of Christ.
Even though Jesus was full of compassion, His primary goal was not simply to eliminate the physical discomfort that fear, worry, and anxiety bring into our life. He taught us that our emotions reflect what is going on in our hearts, values, and thinking. If we are going to take our faith seriously, we need to listen to the clues that anxiety brings our way.
Jesus talked about fear, worry, and anxiety often, because He didn’t want us to lose sight of what was most important in life. In each principle that Jesus taught about anxiety, He also gives us an action step. Use the four principles below to evaluate your heart and see how you should take action.
Principle #1: My Anxiety Reveals What I Value (Matthew 6:19–24)
Matthew 6:25 is perhaps the most quoted verse about anxiety in the Bible because it challenges us to trust God rather than falling into worry and anxiety. What we often miss when quoting verse 25 is that the teaching on anxiety is an application of verses 19–24. In verse 19–24, Jesus reminded us all that life on earth is short and we can’t take anything with us. He taught us that what we value will become what we prioritize. If we value the world’s priorities more than we value God’s priorities, we will naturally be anxious about the things of this world like food, clothing, and “stuff.”
Because our money, health, reputation, and relationships are valuable to us, we become anxious when what we love becomes threatened. Anxiety provides us a window into what our hearts find truly valuable. When our hearts align with God’s values, we will view the dangers around us differently. Death, discomfort, and dire circumstances don’t have the same sting when we have God’s eternal perspective. When God’s values and our values align, we will understand what is most important and live out the purpose we were created for.
Action step: God calls me to overcome anxiety by keeping my focus on what will last eternally.
Principle #2: My Anxiety Reflects My View of God (Matthew 6:25–34)
Tim Keller writes, “Worry is not believing God will get it right, and bitterness is believing God got it wrong.” How we respond to life’s trouble reflects how we view God and whether we trust how He has acted towards us. Jesus makes the case that our worry really stems from a heart of unbelief that God is acting in a good way towards us. To those who doubt the provision and power of God to do what’s best, Jesus gives a gentle rebuke, “O you of little faith.”
How often we become distracted when we fear the future and take matters into our own hands. We seek to control our destiny and focus our attention on what we want most. We don’t trust God to provide or to keep us safe. We start to think 10 steps down the road and bring tomorrow’s problems into today. Jesus reminded us that worry accomplishes very little and distracts us from being present in our lives today.
In our counseling office, we see this all the time. When dealing with death, divorce, dysfunction, and distance in relationships, we can extrapolate all kinds of negative outcomes. Focusing on the possible outcome stems from a heart that ultimately desires to be in control. Rather than trusting a good God, it really is a heart of pride. Tim Keller reminds us, however, “it takes pride to be anxious. . . . I am not wise enough to know how my life should go.” Do we trust God with our future so we can stay present in our today?
Action step: God calls me to overcome anxiety by keeping my focus on His faithfulness.
Principle #3: My Anxiety Is Related to My Trust Level with God (Matthew 8)
After Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, the disciples and Jesus embarked on a ministry trip so that Jesus could teach His disciples and model for them the way of life that He was describing in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew records these stories one after another to make the case that Jesus alone has the power to intervene. He was unlike the other religious leaders of His day. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7, Matthew adds that “the crowds were astonished at His teaching, for He was teaching them as one who had authority, not as their scribes.” He has real power to intervene in our troubles and Matthew wanted to make sure you understood the reason why Jesus could stand up and say don’t be anxious. It wasn’t just a slogan to make us feel better or distract us from our troubles. Jesus really was different. People’s lives were really changed when they encountered Him.
The chart below from Matthew 8–9 represents the various conversations and encounters that Jesus faced on this trip. As you look at the conversations, you see His response to ordinary people with deep troubles and sorrows. As a counselor, if I were to make a list of the most common worries that walk into my office on any given week, this list could have been written yesterday.
|Circumstance of Anxiety & Worry||Conversation Partner||Reference|
|Terminal Illness||Ostracized Leper||Matthew 8:1–3|
|Death of a Loved One||Centurion Ruler||Matthew 8:5–13|
|Physical Discomfort & Sickness||Peter’s Mother in Law||Matthew 8:14–15|
|Spiritual Oppression||Many inflicted with illness||Matthew 8:16–17|
|Financial Security||Scribe lacking commitment||Matthew 8:18–22|
|Physical Safety||Those in the boat w/ Jesus||Matthew 8:23–27|
|Spiritual Warfare||Two Men with demons||Matthew 8:28–34|
|Loss of Reputation||Those with Jesus & Sinners||Matthew 9:9–13|
|Suffering of a Child||Ruler with dying daughter||Matthew 9:18–26|
|Permanent Disability||Two Blind Men||Matthew 9:27–31|
Do you get the point of all these stories given back to back to back? Jesus cares about you and your specific circumstances. He cares about the things that keep you up at night. In each of the situations, Jesus wanted His disciples to understand a key truth about life: they lacked the power to control the outcome, but God was powerful. In our anxiety, we tend to focus on the problem, and we find ourselves under the illusion that we must find a way to control what ails us. On this ministry trip, Jesus made it crystal clear to His disciples, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” However, if they were sent with God’s power and were empowered by His Spirit, they did not need to fear. His power was available to them just like it is available to us.
Action step: God calls me to overcome anxiety by keeping my focus on trusting Him with my trials.
Principle #4: My Anxiety Is Redirected Best by Compassionately Serving Others (Matthew 9:35-10:15)
In our anxiety, we are incessantly inward-focused. At times, we do worry about others, but even these worries are typically how the actions of another might affect themselves and our ability to relate in a healthy way with them. In our worry, we may fear losing a parent or fear the self-destructive actions of a young adult spiraling out of control. Jesus taught us that this worry accomplishes little. However, one of the consistent themes throughout the gospels is the call to care for those in need and share the good news of what Jesus has done for us. At the end of the ministry trip that Jesus took His disciples on, He gathered them around and let them in on a secret. It was their turn to go and heal the sick and share the good news of forgiveness of sins. He didn’t just want them to trust Him. He wanted them to help others to trust Him too. He was sending them on a ministry trip.
Because our thought patterns of fear, worry, and anxiety tend to focus on the danger we face, refocusing our mind and energy towards serving others can make a major impact on how you deal with anxiety. Anxiety tends to paralyze, isolate, and cause self-doubt. However, when we can learn to focus on others with a heart of compassion, life has renewed meaning and we experience a renewed purpose and vision for our lives. If you are a follower of Christ, Jesus calls you to pray for the harvest, to serve in planting seeds, and to make as much of a difference as you can, even if you are struggling with anxiety. Just because you can’t do everything you once were able to do, doesn’t mean that God has put you on the shelf. Seek to find the difference that God has called you to make. You have a purpose given by God for your life, and you will experience less anxiety by pursuing a life of purpose.
Action step: God calls me to overcome anxiety by keeping my focus on serving others.
Anxiety takes our eyes off pursuing what God values most and takes our eyes off pursuing the point of life. Anxiety also takes my eyes off pursuing the one who has the power to act and can stop us from pursuing the ultimate purpose we have been given by God. It is a battle to overcome the grip of fear, worry, and anxiety, but it is a battle worth fighting. Don’t give up. In this series, we have written about how God is giving increasing victory to many who struggle with anxiety. Reach out if we can help you personally.