Coping with anxiety
According to a government survey, more than 10% of the population suffer from neurotic anxiety disorders. More than eighty million prescriptions for tranquillisers and antidepressants were dispensed a decade ago – and the number has been rising since then. Some 60% of employees apparently suffer from feelings of insecurity and anxiety. What is the cause? And how can the Bible help us?
Firstly, many have genuine fears. We, and those we love, may be facing chronic illness, ageing, death. There are grief, family difficulties and financial problems. We may fear being betrayed or treated unjustly.
Secondly, there may be a genuine sense of guilt. We all sometimes feel pangs of guilt – regret or remorse because we have hurt others or made mistakes and blunders.
Thirdly, there are unreal fears. Thinking about the ‘what ifs’ of life can lead to depression, panic attacks, phobias and sleeplessness. Someone has said that people ‘stab themselves with imaginary daggers, starve themselves in imaginary famines, and bury themselves in imaginary graves’. Those of us with vivid imaginations can construct ‘worst case scenarios’ out of the most innocent circumstances.
Fourthly, we may fear what people think of us. We all desire the approval of others, but this can be a never-ending quest. ‘The fear of man is a snare’, says the Bible (Proverbs 29:25). We fear that if we don’t keep up materially with those around us, we will be labelled ‘losers’. But ‘keeping up’ is like a treadmill. Someone else will always have something nicer, or newer, or better, or more fashionable.
Fifthly, many of us fear failure. Perfectionists fret ceaselessly because nothing they do is ever good enough. They can never relax, they are always anxious about the next thing on the list.
The Bible’s answer
The Bible was written by many different people over many hundreds of years, but it bears a united testimony. The psalmist wrote: ‘I sought the Lord and he heard me and delivered me from all my fears’ (Psalm 34:4). This is the experience of all who truly believe in Jesus Christ. Let’s look more closely.
Firstly, consider security. God’s people trust in his control of all things. Nothing is outside his power, because nothing and nobody is stronger than he is. Also, God controls all things for a reason. We don’t always understand that reason now, but one day we shall.
The back of a tapestry may look chaotic – a mass of messy threads. Life often looks that way. But turn the fabric over and the front looks beautiful. Psalm 112:7 says of the believer: ‘He will have no fear of bad news, his heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord’. We are part of a bigger picture, and God is the artist.
Secondly, there is forgiveness. God’s people enjoy the certainty of forgiveness, for they know that Christ died for their sins – that ‘by one offering he has perfected [them] for ever’ (Hebrews 10:14). Instead of the torment of a guilty conscience, we enjoy the freedom of knowing that we are forgiven ‘for ever’.
Thirdly, think about God’s care. God provides for the flowers and the birds, said Jesus. ‘Will he not much more [care for] you?’ (Matthew 6:30-34). Accordingly, Paul counsels us: ‘cast all your anxiety upon him, for he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7). My instinct as a mother is to lift away all the worries of my children. How much more is our heavenly Father concerned to take away our fears.
Fourthly, Christ’s followers have contentment. Always wanting more causes constant anxiety. But Paul wrote that he had learned the secret of being content in every situation (Philippians 4:10-13). Every Christian can learn that same secret. It is all to do with gratitude to God for what we have, and trust in God for what we don’t have.
Put another way, God’s people know the liberation of living life before an audience of one. We can never hope to please everyone all the time. But it doesn’t matter what other people possess, or what they think of us – it only matters what God thinks.
Fifthly, we know the peace of submission. A perfectionist is always striving to be in complete control of his life and circumstances. But the Bible tells us to submit our life and circumstances to God’s will. If we do, we will no longer get raised blood pressure when our plans are frustrated, for we will treat the situation as from God. This too is enormously liberating.
Finally, God’s people have security not only in this life (as we saw earlier) but eternally. They do not fear death, because they know it is the door into Christ’s presence. Ultimately, God will provide us with new and perfect bodies – in which we will enjoy the new and perfect creation. ‘Neither death nor life … can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38).
Alain de Botton, author of Status anxiety, points out that in the past most people believed in an afterlife, and this relieved the pressure to ‘succeed’ in this life. Now, when many think that this life is all we have, ‘earthly achievements are the sum total of all one will ever be’ (p.56). Without trust in Christ, we only have a single and frighteningly brief opportunity to succeed and fulfil ourselves.
What about the anxiety caused by genuine injustice or betrayal in this life? There will be a final judgement, when all injustices will be remedied. Christians learn to leave judgement with God. That means that we don’t have to nurse bitterness, vengeance or anger against others. And that is enormously liberating.
The Bible is full of promises that when we put our trust in Jesus Christ, God will take care of the rest. As we come to know him better – as we study the Bible, pray, obey his commands, and learn from other Christians in a church community – we shall find God’s peace overcoming our fears and anxieties.
Jesus told us to ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’ (Matthew 6:33). Peace and security are offered freely to everyone who comes to God through Christ. The prophet Isaiah said, ‘You will keep in perfect peace he whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you’ (Isaiah 26:3).
I have found that to be true, and so can you.